Posted by: emjb | April 15, 2007

The binary trap


Over at ParentDish (which used to be Blogging Baby) I saw a mention of this book, and how much the writer’s husband liked it for their son.

Here’s the book’s description from Amazon:

If ever there was a book to make you switch off your television set, “The Dangerous Book for Boys” is it. How many other books will help you thrash someone at conkers, race your own go-cart, and identify the best quotations from Shakespeare? “The Dangerous Book for Boys” gives you facts and figures at your fingertips – swot up on the solar system, learn about famous battles and read inspiring stories of incredible courage and bravery. Teach your old dog new tricks. Make a pinhole camera. Understand the laws of cricket. There’s a whole world out there: …Chapters in “The Dangerous Book for Boys” include: The Seven Ancient Wonders of the World…Dinosaurs…Girls

(Emphases added.)

Aside from the Brit-centricity (conkers and cricket), notice anything a little….strange about this?

Like maybe, the idea that only boys would be interested in things like insects, or the solar system, or piracy, or dog tricks?

And yes, clearly, you can buy this for your daughter and she can enjoy it. I’m sure the author, if asked, would say exactly that.

But then….why is it “for Boys” at all? And if there is a “for Girls” version…what will be in it? Not science, history, games, or sports; those have already been clearly marked here: For Boys.

But there are science books for girls, and sports and history books that don’t discriminate by gender out there; why make a big deal about this somewhat obscure title?

Because it’s a symptom, a symptom of a way of thinking that erases women from view. When a book or toy is marketed to kids that carries this assumption, that girls are not people but merely one of many “topics” in a book for boys, the ones who have real interests, who want to know how to do things and create and learn–then it’s one of a million little erasures that a girl faces as she grows up. One of a million ways in which girls and women are left out of the picture of the world and reality that we build for our children. A picture built from books, games, and TV as well as from what we teach them directly.

It’s not just that toys follow–to a ridiculous degree–laws of gender segregation that seem to imply that boys and girls are different species entirely. That they can never play together, or have the same games. It’s not just segregation–it’s inequality.

Because as this book illustrates, the toys and interests given to boys span the whole world; science, history, art, games, sports. Monsters. Space. Superpowers. Boys are taught and encouraged to play games of power, control, heroism, accomplishment. Which, under the assumption that boys and girls have no similar interests, means that those things are not for girls. That girl toys are: fashion, beauty, motherhood, and decorative arts (like clothes) that are basically just more fashion and beauty. Boys do; girls beautify and beg to be noticed, wait to be rescued, scheme and plot for romance, because that is the only field in which they are encouraged from birth to excel.

It is instructive to consider, while insisting that boys and girls follow inborn mechanisms to play as they do, that the toys we give them shape that play in extremely direct ways. Kids imitate other kids; if a girl never sees a girl playing with a chemistry set, will she want to? If she notices that in any group of heroic warriors featured in books, movies and TV, female characters are always the exception, never even half of the team (and NEVER the leader), will she aspire to hero play? Princess Leia was OK, but why was she all girls had? There were umptilion Star Wars action figures; how many of them were female? And besides Leia, were any females of any plot importance whatsoever? No. is an organization that has actually commissioned some research into this particular problem: their 2005 report, Where the Girls Aren’t reveals that in the top grossing G-rated movies from 1990 to 2004, male characters outnumber females 3 to 1.

Of characters shown in groups, the ratio was generally 83% male to 17% female.

In addition, less than 1 in 5 crowd scene characters were female, and 4 out of 5 narrators were male.

Few toymakers and children’s show writers and parents will come out and say, blatantly, “boys are better than girls.” But what books and toys and movies do say, constantly and insidiously, is that girls are invisible, that they don’t matter to the plot much, that they are not leaders, not achievers. That they are a topic to be discussed, not a person on an equal plane with oneself that could be considered a fellow-creature.

Girls’ toys, even more now than when I was a kid, seem to be a pink-painted plastic wasteland of beauty rituals and fashion play, presumably because that’s what girls want. But is that true? Or is it that parents are so paranoid about getting their kids to act out their gender roles from day one that they’re pile on the stereotypes as a kind of insurance? It may be that retailers are just greedy and can see extra profit if they can sell a Boy’s XtremeSports JumpRope and a Girl’s SparklePrincess JumpRope, but would kids rebel if it was just a plain old jump rope they could both use? Probably not. As it is now, if there’s only a pink princess toy available, the boy is left out of playing altogether, unless he wants to be teased. Girls are teased for playing with boy toys, but less so, because that’s considered an understandable wish to be more like boys. Because boys are better.

Kids…both genders…like adventure and feeling powerful. They also like magic and costumes. They like colors (all of them, not just pink) and music, making up stories with their dolls/action figures and also running around like crazy things. But our weird gender hysteria about our kids has skewed it so that everything has to be A or B; Boy or Girl. Segregated, color-coded, all boundaries clearly marked.

And like most attempts at segregation, no matter how much the perpetrators claim “separate but equal”…it isn’t. It is not equal, it is not right, and it is certainly not necessary.



  1. I agree with you on this one completely. I know one of my favorite toys growing up was a John Deere tractor and trailer which was decidely not a “girl” toy. I played with Barbies too but my sister and I always had our Barbies going to jobs (trying out different professions) and not having romance – we probably had 20 Barbies and only one Ken between us! Once I grew up, I found out that I liked some “boy” things like video games very much. We need more gender neutral toys and less books for boys or girls.

  2. NO!!! What’s ours is ours! And by ours I mean men. Women are infer… Inf… Infer… Women are not as good as men are.

  3. Hee, Smokey.

  4. Wow, great post. I never thought about it before, but you are totally right. Girls who are not into beauty and fashion are called tomboys, as if they are not fulfilling the female role. Some of my fave cartoons right now are Kim Possible and Avatar, which both feature women who can kick some ass.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s