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Boys vs. Girls, Tornadoes vs. Vanilla Beans

Ever wish you could shelter your kids from everything you disagree with in the world? We all have something we would rather not deal with as parents. In this post, Sarah Nell shows how the “battle of the sexes” begins in childhood at a seemingly neutral place: summer camp. 

This past summer, my six-year old daughter attended a large summer day camp. They had a different theme each week: sports weeks where the kids wore their favorite team gear, Christmas in July week, and pirate week, to name a few. To accompany the various themes, each group was given a clever, theme-related name. As I scanned the summer schedule, I became troubled, dreading late July. The theme was “Boys vs. Girls.” I don’t know what bothered me more, the binary distinction deemed significant or the competition implied by the “vs.” The mother in me tried to squash the feminist-sociologist in me, despite my commitment to feminist parenting.

In the newsletter that goes out the week prior, they attempted to relieve my concerns with this disclaimer: “Come to camp dressed in pink/purple or green/blue. Don’t worry – the whole week will not be stereotypical – but this is a great way to show our gender pride!” Okay, I won’t worry now (huge eye roll). But still, I figured if the stereotypical colors were the worst of it, it wouldn’t be too bad. Plus, I didn’t know how to tackle this at the time. The staff obviously didn’t have any feminist sensibilities so it would be an uphill battle from the start. In my need to choose my battles (or else be in a constant state of war), I surrendered.  Some healthy competition is okay, I thought, and maybe the girls will win – that would be a girl-power pseudo-feminist victory, right? The battle between the sexes is nothing new – this is just a pint-sized version of it. “It’s harmless,” I tried to convince myself.

But as the week got under way, I could no longer ignore the sociological interpretation of my observations. Typically, the children were grouped by age and had mixed-gender groups. But this week they divided the kids up by gender, creating gender segregated groups. And then their were the theme-inspired group names. Oy vey! The complete and utter lack of attention to stereotypical gendering of children baffled me.  The girl groups were named after “sugar, spice and everything nice” with group names like “vanilla beans,” “cinnamons,” and “paprika.” The boys, much to my dismay, were told they were “flirting with disaster” – they were named after natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and tornados.  Recalling the competition implied by the “vs.” I became furious. How can a “vanilla bean” compete fairly with a “tornado?” I mean, really?! It’s not even close to a fair fight. It’s like bringing a pocket knife to a nuclear war. I thought back to the newsletter’s empty promise and reeled with aggravation. All that this implied took me from zero to feminist outrage in about five seconds.

How can a “vanilla bean” compete fairly with a “tornado?” I mean, really?!

Gender is not who we are or what we’ve got in our pants, but rather, gender is what we do. Children “do gender” as early as preschool, although parents of babies are often encouraged to do gender for their children.  In sociologist Michael Messner’s[1] study of a large children’s soccer organization, he found, for example, that the boys were more likely to name their soccer teams with “powerful” names such as “Sea Monsters” or “Killer Whales” while the girls were more likely to choose “sweet” team names such as “Barbie Girls” and “Blue Butterflies.” It seems the camp planners were not alone in this construction of gender. These expectations for how they should do (and ultimately do) gender are rooted in the structure of the organization, but also the cultural products available to children. Like the girl in the  Tide commercial – whose mother tries to reinforce stereotypical gender expectations and meets violations with disappointment – girls are encouraged to do femininity and discouraged from doing masculinity. The same goes for boys, but this is perhaps a more serious violation of gender norms – “tomboy girls” are generally more accepted than are “sissy boys” (because non-masculine boys and men are thought to be gay). Messner found that the parents saw their children’s different gender performances as evidence of how truly different boys and girls are. Left unexamined, parents fail to see the ways gender is socially constructed, prescribed, and performed in ways that uphold the cultural expectations and gender norms.

With all of this sociological perspective, I could see that the camp coordinators who thought this would be fun were no different than the coaches or parents in Messner’s study.  I felt like the Boys vs. Girls week at camp was making my feminist parenting even harder than it already was. I surrendered the fight as a feminist-sociologist who wanted to educate the camp workers and instead complained about it on Facebook to my sympathetic feminist peers. With the help of the discussion that ensued, I realized that maybe it wasn’t making it harder after all. My friend and fellow feminist-sociologist-mother, Mindy, reassured me: “Look at it as an opportunity. I actually like it when my kids come across things that run counter to my values because without them, I wouldn’t have the chance to teach my kids why I think they’re wrong. Extreme examples like these only make what you are objecting to that much more obvious. Think of it as making your feminist parenting EASIER!” She was absolutely right.

“Think of it as making your feminist parenting EASIER!” She was absolutely right.

My daughter and I have a pretty good critical dialogue about the social world considering she is just a first-grader.  So I talked to her about it. She thought it was a little ridiculous. She said: “Tomorrow the girls are supposed to dress ‘like a boy.’ What does that even mean? I don’t want to do that. I just want to wear my regular clothes.” I was proud of her tiny resistance. I wondered aloud if the boys were supposed to dress like girls; she and I both knew that was probably not going to happen. Our doubts were confirmed the next morning when I saw twice as many “boys” at camp and almost no girls. Later she told me, with frustration, “It’s like they want the whole camp to be boys!”

This pervasive double standard allows girls and women to be like boys and men, but disallows boys and men to be like girls and women.  Although we all do gender – performing masculinity and/or femininity – it is clear that masculinity is more highly valued. By setting up the unfair fight between “vanilla beans” and “ tornadoes” in childhood, we teach children to expect boys and men to be more powerful and strong, and girls to be weak and sweet. This is a troubling starting point if we hope to achieve gender equality in the labor market, governance, and intimate relationships. Children are sponges. If we let them, they can and will absorb new ideas, new ways of being, and new ways of doing gender instead of imposing age-old traditions of gender that perpetuate the battle of the sexes – a battle women have been losing.

Dig Deeper:

  1. What are the unintended consequences of childhood battles of the sexes?
  2. Observe people in your social world (e.g., peers, parents, teachers, siblings, yourself) for 24 hours paying close attention to how they do gender. Consider their clothing, accessories, entertainment preferences (music, movies, etc.), how they walk and talk, what they talk (or don’t talk) about, and who their “audience” is to get started. Identify patterns in your observations to explain how people perform gender.
  3. The author argues that masculinity is more highly valued. In what other contexts is this true? Give examples. Are there situations in which femininity is more highly valued? Do these situations resist or reinforce gender inequalities and sexism?

[1] Messner, Michael. 2000. “Barbie Girls versus Sea Monsters: Children Constructing Gender.” Gender and Society, 14:6:765-784.