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The Subtle Backlash: It's My Kid in a Box

I fear that my daughters will be limited by the culture they ingest, that I will be powerless to stop it. That they will, in the end, be eaten by Cinderella.
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The backlash against women's rights, equality of the sexes and challenges to gender norms is everywhere. We see it most clearly in the intensifying attack on reproductive freedom throughout this country, but, it is seen in many areas: pay inequity and the harm that motherhood has on women's careers, the lack of progress on high-level jobs for women in business and in government, the continuing and horrifying frequency of domestic violence and rape (including in the military), the way women's bodies are portrayed and displayed in pop culture, and the way women -- including women in powerful positions -- are still judged by their appearance.

But I deal with a more subtle backlash every day as the father of two young daughters. It is the normalcy placed on rigid gender roles in children's clothes, toys, cartoons and popular culture, with the message: "this is just the way things are." Boys are blue. Girls are pink. Boys like trucks and balls. Girls like dolls and strollers. Boys are physical. Girls are verbal. Boys are messy. Girls must look beautiful. As Morgan Davie put it: "The world is giving my child, and yours, a script. Here are your lines; here is your costume; here is where to stand."

Before my first daughter was born in 2010, I had no idea of the extent to which children are still placed in gender boxes. But I learned quickly enough after her birth as we received gifts. First came pink onesies. Then pink dolls and strollers. Then pink dogs in pink purses. Then things to put in her hair. And later, princesses.

Whatever differences there may be between boys and girls, this script our children are given limits possibilities, discourages imagination and individuality, and diminishes them.

In the May and June 2013 issues of Parenting magazine, the idea of "girl toys" and "boy toys" was recognized as nothing more than a marketing concept. Even more fascinating was the discussion on biology, which noted that while there are innate differences between the sexes -- mostly related to a difference in testosterone levels and the lengthy development of the frontal lobe in boys -- "boy-girl differences are not as hard-wired as many parents believe." The conclusion: Much of what we learn and who we become comes from our parents, and parents should try to think of their task as just raising human beings. Culture plays a role, yes, but parenting is critical.

Sadly, children's toys are now more gendered than ever. It was not always this way. Elizabeth Sweet, who researches gender and children's toys at UC Davis, says toy advertisements actually appeared to be the least gendered around 1975. As has been documented by Let Toys Be Toys, a recently formed UK-based campaign, toy catalogs from the 1970s did not demand that all of the items for girls be pink. Today, this is the way of things. And, unlike the past, most toys are now explicitly labeled for girls or boys, thereby limiting children's choices from the moment they enter the store. Not only are individual toys marketed by gender cues -- color or showing a girl or boy on the box -- but whole aisles in stores are limited by gender. Toy websites are similarly divided this way.

As discussed by Peggy Orenstein and others, even Candyland, a classic board game from 1949 which teaches children simple game play, counting and colors has been Disneyfied, pinkified and sexualized In its 2010 version. Lego, with its bold primary colors, has also capitulated to these new gendered toy rules, recently introducing a pinker Lego Friends line for girls.

Shannon Brugh worries about how to raise feminist sons who are "just as happy--just as comfortable -- taking care of a baby as they are throwing a ball around a field. I worry that my daughters will be on the other side of the equation -- that they will learn that their role is simply to push around a pink stroller and to judge themselves solely by their appearance or their ability to procreate.

I fear that my daughters will be limited by the culture they ingest, that I will be powerless to stop it. That they will, in the end, be eaten by Cinderella.

Thankfully, there are other thoughtful feminist parents out there who are concerned with these same things, and who are mad as hell and are not going to take it anymore. On CNN's Girl Rising, David Perry expressed concern about his daughter receiving the "best dressed" award at preschool while boys received awards for physical attributes or abilities, such as building, climbing or running. I agree with Perry that the prospect of raising a girl in this culture can be "terrifying." It is a constant struggle against the grain because the images of girls and women we are resisting are everywhere.

Perhaps what is most infuriating is that the real world has moved on from these restrictions based on one's sex. My daughters are growing up in a time where they truly can be and do anything. They will learn this not only from the strong women among our family and friends who are lawyers, business owners, and other professionals (not to mention feminist leaders), but also by the fact that, for example, their doctor and dentist are women. And they will see that in most families both parents work outside the home. Variations in gender identity and sexual orientation are more accepted. We have already met women police officers, judges, elected officials and even that rarest of things, a woman taxi driver. And fathers, including myself, are more involved in childcare and raising children than ever before. The gender norms have changed.

Unfortunately, through pervasive marketing over these past 30-plus years, gendered toys are now back in tradition, as is screening the classic Disney princess movies. I have heard some say that there is no harm in these things, that it is just fantasy, that girls like it. Yet, if the fantasy is always the same for girls, it is a direct message about the roles they should play, and not merely harmless imagination.

How can we continue to stand by as corporations and the culture overall tell our children what they can and cannot play with or enjoy? It is infuriating that toy versions of beauty products, cleaning products, and cooking products are marketed to girls, while toolkits and sports equipment are marketed to boys. All the children I have observed - boys and girls - love to play with toy kitchens and strollers, as well as balls and building blocks.

By limiting children's choices, we allow them to miss out on a full and varied life, and perhaps even limit their development in certain areas. I cannot accept this situation and am disheartened at how "normal" it has become. I don't like my daughters being placed in a box.

Yet, I am hopeful that the combination of my efforts, the efforts of campaigns like Let Toys Be Toys, and the example of the women who surround my daughters will be enough to imbue them with the right values - emphasizing the internal over their looks and removing all limitations others might place on them. I am hopeful that they will grow up to be good human beings and will create their own unique boxes and write their own scripts.

This piece originally appeared at On The Issues Magazine