Feminist Conversations is a regular feature here at Feminists for Choice. Today we are talking to Emily Kane, Professor in Sociology and author of The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls.
1. You have written extensively about gender and childhood. How did this interest come about?
My research had previously focused on how adults think about gender inequalities, and their interconnections with inequalities of race, class and sexuality, mostly in the contemporary United States but with a bit of international comparative work as well. My focus there was on inequalities in the adult world- in workplaces, the division of labor in households, etc. I’d been interested in what kinds of people are more likely to recognize gender inequalities as existing, how they evaluated those inequalities (i.e., whether they thought they were problematic or not), and what- if anything- they thought should be done about them. Then I had children, and that experience brought more of my attention into children’s worlds. As I spent time at day care centers and preschools, on playgrounds, in play groups, and as I visited children’s clothing and toy stores, as I read children’s books and watched children’s movies, I became more and more interested in how deeply gendered young children’s worlds were. And I become increasingly interested in how that early gendering helped build the foundation for gendered patterns in the adult world.
2. In The Gender Trap you mention your own twin boys. What are some ways you implement your knowledge of gender when it comes to child-rearing?
I tried hard to keep things open for my kids, to offer them a range of toys and activities, to emphasize a range of emotions and attributes they should develop. But as I note in my book, it’s not enough just to keep things open in your own parenting, because children are surrounded by a vast array of social forces that tend to push them toward what I call the “gender trap.” So it really requires what one of my interviewees for the book referred to as “applauding all the other stuff”- not just being open, but actively encouraging and attempting to validate non-typical choices. And as my kids got old enough to understand this in a more complex way, I always tried to explain those gendered forces to them, to confront them directly and analyze the ways in which social power is reproduced through gendered forces and through their interconnections with other forms of social inequality.
3. In the book you state that parents often police boys more in terms of behavior (that toy is for girls, only girls wear pink), can you mention some consequences of gender policing for boys?
Scholars and activists interested in the social construction of masculinity and its consequences often talk about “hegemonic masculinity”, or a particular form of masculinity that’s culturally dominant. Most boys and men don’t actually fulfill all of its very strict expectations, but the power of this norm becomes a yardstick against which all boys and men are measured, and those who get closer receive more social validation. Many of the parents I interviewed for my book worried about their sons being picked on, bullied or ostracized if they failed to live up to social expectations around masculinity, and that fear drove them to police gender boundaries carefully, in hopes of saving their sons from that negative treatment. Though understandable as a response to the gendered world around them, I argue that this policing reinforces the constraints that gender imposes on children and adults in all sorts of problematic ways.
4. From reading The Gender Trap it is quite clear that appearance becomes an important, or even defining factor in the lives of many young girls. What do you think young girls learn or take away from others focusing on their appearance?
There’s a long tradition of feminist analysis that suggests appearance focus encourages girls and women to see themselves as objects of the gaze of others, rather than as active subjects in the world. And there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that focus can also be associated with low self-esteem, eating disorders, and other negative outcomes for girls and women. While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the aesthetic pleasures of colors, textures, patterns, etc., through fashion, the question I’d ask is why we encourage that so strongly for girls and so little for boys. If those pleasures were considered human pleasures, rather than gendered ones, it would be much easier for people to decide as individuals whether they enjoy that kind of thing. It would be a “real” choice that expressed individuality, rather than a social constraint that taught girls to think of themselves as objects for someone else to look at, rather than as active subjects doing things in their worlds.
Picture courtesy of Emily Kane