Hi, welcome to String Revolution. I'm Léan, I live in Dublin with my husband and two little boys, and I am a dangerous stringy subversive.
My job is to radiate my creative truth, and to help you radiate yours. I create, without exception, every day. I write here when I have something to say.

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Further Dispatches from the Gender Ghetto

The Feaster in his I'll be a post-feminist in the post-patriarchy T-shirt

Observe! Here is the Feaster in his beautiful T-shirt from my Zazzle shop. It’s unfortunately already pretty tight – I should have got it much bigger. But isn’t it great? I give you this picture by way of loin-girding, because I’m going to talk about gender normativity and kids’ clothes again, and we need a little something to get us through.

I was in Mothercare a couple of weeks ago, and as usual, I was on the lookout for egregious slogans. (In case you’re mystified, this post from last November explains why I do this.)

There weren’t as many clothes with slogans that day as there often are. (I wonder if that was coincidence, or if there’s some kind of shift happening?) But I did see two contrasting pairs of T-shirts, in the toddler sections, that pushed all the buttons you could wish for.

I suffer from low blood pressure, you see. It’s a kind of therapy.

Let’s dive right in, shall we?

Girl Slogans

Daddy’s little heartbreaker

Mummy’s little flower

Boy Slogans

Strongest in the world

Mummy’s little man

So?

Where do I even start?

I mean, OK, in one way, you might be thinking, “What’s the fuss?” Why am I on the warpath over four such completely banal and typical phrases? Aren’t there more important things I could be getting my delicates in a twist about?

(Ha. Actually. Delicates. Hold that thought, because I intend to post about them, too, some time soon.)

And yes, in one way, you’d be right. In the ignoble panoply of kyriarchal oppressions, there are indeed many more urgent issues than the symbols that privileged Western children are expected to display on their clothing.

But that’s not to say that this is trivial. Far from it.

I’m grateful to the fierce and fabulous Kate (of Rebel Raising and I Blame the Mother), who provided a beautifully concise summation, in the comments to my earlier post, of why this matters:

… because it’s a way of putting children in their place *before* they seek to access their legal rights. We condition them not to ask to get out of their gender box, so that we don’t have to forbid them to.

Shooting Fish in a Barrel

Let’s start with the really obvious one, shall we? Daddy’s little heartbreaker.

Ick. Ew. Ugh.

How screamingly inappropriate can you get? It’s like gender-oppression bingo!

  • The girl is sexualised, up to a decade before she even reaches puberty.
  • Her sexuality belongs to her father. (Did you just shudder violently? I did.)
  • Her sexuality manifests itself in chastity (she breaks hearts – she’s unavailable).
  • She is described only as she relates to the boys (or men, but let’s not even go there) whose hearts she breaks.

Bingo!

Moving on, let’s look at the slightly subtler Mummy’s little flower.

Obviously, girls are associated with flowers all the time. It’s so common as to be barely remarkable. And the floral characteristic we’re supposed to think of is, of course, prettiness. Flowers are pretty. Girls are pretty. Isn’t that nice?

Yeah … no. Not when prettiness is an expectation placed on a person who is only beginning to learn about the world. Not when ownership of a girl’s prettiness is explicitly assigned to her mother. (But it’s not really ownership, is it? We know it isn’t. It’s responsibility.)

And really not when you consider some of the other characteristics of flowers. Such as, oh, not being people. Or being rooted to the spot and unable to speak. Not exactly brimful of agency, your average flower.

Also, aren’t flowers basically a plant’s sex organs? Isn’t their evolutionary purpose to attract pollinators, after which goal has been attained, their petals fade and fall, and they swell into a seed-pod? (You know, like Mummy did.)

Flowers aren’t fussy about who drinks their nectar and tramples on their stamina, either. Any bee will do (even a paintbrush, if they’re being bred by humans). Their entire purpose, after all, is to get fertilised. They are, to use a technical term, asking for it.

Which makes Mummy the Madam, unless I’m much mistaken.

Put that next to the chaste “heartbreaker” above, and we’re looking – somewhat aghast – at Virgin/Whore, junior division. See Daddy jealously guarding his daughter’s purity, while Mummy dolls her up and puts her on the market.

I honestly don’t know how one could, in cold blood, pull these garments over one’s daughter’s head and send her off to play.

(I’m harbouring a little fantasy, now, of sneaking into the shop in the dead of night and replacing them with T-shirts that say Daddy’s little pricktease / Mummy’s little sexpot. I think that would be the mature thing to do.)

Meanwhile, over on the other side of the shop, the Future Lords of Creation are also reading these messages. Girls! They’ll break your heart. But they’re also available for pollination (particularly if you’re the strongest in the world).

There was no “Daddy’s little…” on the boy side. (And yes, these did seem to be paired T-shirts, so I’m going to assume that it wasn’t simply that all the “Daddy’s little…” had sold out.)

What’s that about? Daddy’s secondary role in childcare? Daddy and little Oedipus locked in archetypal struggle – this T-shirt ain’t big enough for the two of us?

My impression is that the slogans on boys’ clothes are often focused on the mother/son psychodrama, so although I haven’t done what you might call research, I’m going to suggest that downplaying the father/son relationship serves the kyriarchy in some way.

And yeah. Strongest in the world. That boys must aspire to strength is obvious – but specifically, strength in a context of competition. Strength in a context of domination. Strength in a context of wild exaggeration. (Strongest in the world? Age three? Really? You mean, stronger than Daddy? Yeah.)

There’s some kind of fake-it-till-you-make-it message here, something that translates, later on, perhaps, into the ability to ace one’s salary review.

Next to all that, Mummy’s little man is pretty neutral. This is hardly surprising, as “man” is about as neutral a term as you can get in the patriarchal order. Men get to do the describing and the attaching of baggage and nuance to other people, not the other way around.

The one thing I’d note about this slogan is that it reminds Mummy (and everybody else) that she has a MAN on her hands – not a mere boy. It’s kind of the opposite of the infantilisation to which women are subjected far into adulthood.

WTF?

Why do we keep laying these scripts on our children?

Back to what Kate said in the comment I quoted above: we do it so that our children will learn the gender roles that benefit the kyriarchal order, and so that they’ll find it harder to question their assigned places in the system.

It’s about power and control – as these things so often are. It’s about reinforcing the power dynamics between males and females, between adults and children. It’s about controlling female sexuality in order to maintain the status quo (yeah, that old thing).

To be maximally effective, it has to start early, before our children have any concept of what gender means (they generally start to grasp it around age three).

And as far as I’m concerned, it can stop right now. Coup, anyone?

6 comments to Further Dispatches from the Gender Ghetto

  • I remember when I was 6 at school and I told the teacher I wanted to be a vet.

    Some other kids chimed in with, “You can’t do that, that’s a MAN’s job”. Obviously, at 6, they had already learned this at home.

    When I went home that evening my mum taught me the phrase “sexual discrimination” and explained that I could do any job I wanted to and those other kids were wrong.

    I nearly gave the teacher a heart attack the next day with my new vocabulary.

    Did I mention I love my mum? (The first time I said anything about my weight she gave me Fat is a Feminist Issue to read).

  • It’s enough to make me join some sort of enclosed order of feminists and raise my children in isolation from society. Well, almost.

  • My sister and I both totally loved this post. Well done. Totally got us thinking. 🙂

  • Alan

    I’ll be post-patriarchal when the damn kids grow up!

  • While I agree with the vast majority of this post, I don’t really see the association between “heartbreaker” and chastity. Whenever I’ve heard that phrase applied to women (or men), it hasn’t seemed to have that connotation. In fact, it’s seemed to possess as certain connotation of sexual/romantic agency, in that it’s implied that the individual in question will be able to choose between a number of partners, thus breaking the hearts of the partners they don’t choose. Maybe that’s just a hopeful gloss on my part, but I definitely don’t think that chastity is a major component of the concept.

    Of course, that doesn’t make it all that much better, since the T-shirt is still establishing an identity based on being an object of desire.

  • leannich

    @DeeDee:Your mum sounds totally cool. I remember the first time I ran into the Blue/Pink thing, at a children’s party, when I chose a blue going-home bag (it being my favourite colour) and got Looks. Children are terrifyingly efficient at enforcing gender norms!

    @Ailbhe: Separatists unite! Um … that doesn’t sound quite right.

    @Laura: Yay! Glad you both liked it – always happy to spread the rage 🙂

    @Alan: Ahahaha. Yeah. How nice to have that option!

    @Tadhg: Your comment really made me think (surprise surprise). I concede that “heartbreaker” in itself may not necessarily imply chastity – and I think I’d react differently to the word if I saw it on a T-shirt for a teenage girl. Here, though, it’s a label applied to a toddler – for whom any claim of sexual empowerment is as nauseatingly inappropriate as it is ludicrous.

    Also, she’s not just “a heartbreaker”, she’s “Daddy’s little heartbreaker”, implying that she is breaking hearts under her father’s aegis – which traditionally would carry an assumption that she’ll stay chaste (however assiduously chased) until he gives her the nod.

    *goes to find the brain bleach*

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