I don’t know many people well enough that I could ask permission to publish photos of their daughters’ underpants. Ailbhe is one of the few. It helps that she approves of my aims (revolution, sedition, subversion, etc.), and that we’ve known one another’s children since before they were born.
It probably also helps that I’m publishing the Oyster’s underpants too.
[N.B. I’m using “pants” here in the UK sense throughout, not the US sense. As you can see from the photo, this is underwear, not outerwear.]
The Revolutionary Horde: But Léan, which is which?
Léan: Well, the Oyster’s are the ones on the…
No, sorry. You know which are the girl pants above, don’t you, and which are the boy pants? Even though the girl pants aren’t actually pink with hearts and butterflies?
You know the same way I’d know if I were seeing these for the first time – because we’ve all been steeped in the gender binary since birth or before. Boys get aliens. Girls get lace. Boys get vehicles. Girls get flowers (ugh – that one still makes me queasy). Boys get violence. Girls get domesticity. It’s obvious.
I’ve written about gender normativity and kids’ clothes before, and I’m sure I will again, because it does not cease to get my goat. (O halp! The kyriarchy has taken my goat hostage! What shall I dooooo?)
A hard word
Now then, boys, girls, and points in between, today I want to talk about metonymy.
Unless you’re a literature geek – and possibly even then – you may be a little hazy on precisely what metonymy is. Bear with me, for I am about to explain.
(If it helps to imagine the little Muppet chorus popping up to sing “doo-dooooo-doo-doo-doo” every time you say it, feel free.)
Metonymy (doo-dooooo-doo-doo-doo) is when you call something not by its name, but by a concept associated with it. So, saying “the briny deep” instead of “the sea” is metonymy, and so is “London calling” or “Wall Street reacted”. It’s kind of everywhere.
But enough dilly-dallying! Back to the underpants!
In grown-up world, there’s a particular class of underwear called…
That’s a metonym: it refers to the items in question (lacy, silky lingerie, for the most part) by an attribute they possess (delicateness).
Look at the waistbands of these underpants:
Notice how the boy pants have wide elastic, encased by cloth, while the girl pants have narrow, decorative elastic, right at the edge of the fabric. This goes for the leg openings too. (There’s no logical reason why boy pants should have wider elastic than girl pants. It’s just the way things are done.)
So. Boy pants use more material than girl pants, and their edges are more comfortable. They also offer better buttock coverage (you’ll have to take my word for this – I have limits). They are in general sturdier, less likely to tear.
Boy pants are not delicate. Girl pants are.
Kyriarchy in action
So you’re hanging your young daughter’s underpants on the line, or folding her sweet little slim-cut embroidered jeans before putting them away in her drawer, or pairing her white socks with the ladybirds, and you are unconsciously noticing all these “girl” qualities – smallness, delicateness, grace, neatness, skimpiness, prettiness, and so on – and associating them metonymically with the girl herself.
Meanwhile, your friend with the two sons is doing the same with the “boy” qualities – sturdiness, exploration, mess, strength, power, abundance, dirt, violence, etc. – and reflecting, possibly with some regret, that boys will be boys.
(Your friend with the children of both sexes is just irritated at how few clothes can realistically be passed down.)
You might be saying, “Wait a minute, I don’t do that. I’m not influenced by this shit.”
I think you are.
We all are. Everyone who lives in a given society participates to some extent in its thinking. The messages are everywhere – we’d have to be cultural hermits to avoid absorbing them.
And our children – all children, everywhere – look to their adults for guidance, for permission and restriction, for instructions both implicit and explicit about how to be in the world. How we think and feel about gender informs how they will think and feel, about gender and about themselves – how they will perform the gender or genders they assume throughout their lives.
(Yes, gender is a performance, like so much about how we present ourselves to the world.)
This stuff matters, is what I’m trying to say.
So, what’s to be done?
Unconscious noticing is how this kyriarchal mechanism works. From birth, we are presented with information about gender. Most of it is implicit, not explicit. We know more about our society’s beliefs and norms than we ever articulate.
Conscious noticing can counter this effect – to some extent. I don’t believe it’s possible to erase it entirely. By looking squarely at how gender is codified, we can bring our implicit beliefs about boys and girls, men and women, out into the open and see if we really wish to stand over them.
I’d never thought about the politics of knicker elastic until Ailbhe brought it to my attention. (Had you ever thought of it, before reading this post? Genuine question!) The more we speak about what we see, the more people will start to notice for themselves.
Tell your friends when you notice one of these patterns. Play that game where you get a point for every young girl you see who is not wearing anything pink. Blog. Have conversations with your children about gender normativity, and how restricted their colour and design choices would be if they stuck rigidly to their own “side”.
Dress kids in the “wrong” colours. Look for truly gender-neutral clothes. Make glittery fairy wings for your son, and a skeleton pirate costume for your daughter. Buy my T-shirts (hem-hem).
There’s a limit here, of course, because children have preferences too – and particularly as they get older, they’ll be under increasing pressure to conform. In our household, sartorial revolution is mostly confined to the sock drawer at this stage, although we do look in the girl section whenever we go shopping.
We won’t see the end of the kyriarchy in our lifetimes. (Boo! I wish I could say I believed otherwise, but there it is.) That’s not a reason to give up, though. Solidarity is important, and every action counts.