The Gender Pendulum

How the free market economy creates gender polarization. 

This piece is part of a special series on the End of Gender. This series includes bloggers from Role/RebootGood Men ProjectThe Huffington PostSalonHyperVocalMs. MagazineYourTangoPsychology TodayPrincess Free ZoneThe Next Great Generation, and Man-Making.

The day I met Jean Kilbourne I was in Dallas attending the International Boys’ School Coalition’s annual conference. Ms. Kilbourne showed the large international audience of mostly men and a few women her groundbreaking video, “Killing Us Softly,” about advertising’s representation of femininity in mass media, and how damaging it is to the self-esteem of girls and women and to the ways boys and men view them.

I remember sitting in the dark auditorium, feeling awkward amidst my male colleagues, watching the images of dismembered and scantily clad female body parts advertising liquor and cars and possibly orange juice flash across the screen in dizzying succession. Ms. Kilbourne’s voice never rose, remaining coolly descriptive as it explained the relationship between these images and the objectification and ultimate dehumanization of women. There was no need for theatrical rhetoric when pictures spoke so many words.

Is it any wonder that the billboards and magazines that sexualize girls and women—photoshopping them ironically to the brink of anorexic death and the illusion of eternal youth—turn up living, breathing, and walking down school hallways in their cheek-bearing cutoff shorts and t-shirts spray-painted over push-up bras? Or that 90% of thirteen- and fourteen-year-old boys in a Canadian survey admitted to having watched hard core Internet porn, with one-third of those young boys reporting they watched it “too many times to count?” Executive summary: Score one for free speech and deregulation, zero for the human race.

On Halloween, these young unwitting female consumers of craptastic media messages will take to the stage as slutty devils, slutty witches, or slutty nurses, competing via self-objectification for the superficial attention of male schoolmates who eagerly anticipate and cheer on the spectacle. And be advised: October 31, National Dress Up As A Hooker Day, is now moving into the elementary schools. It joins fellow new arrivals there that include sexting; the latest growing demographic for lingerie and cosmetic purchases; porn viewing by the under-10 set; and the replacement of dating (which never belonged in elementary school in the first place) by the hook-up culture. I will not try too hard to think of what I’ve left out.

What we are witnessing is the triumph of the free market economy over any iota of concern for the emotional and physical wellbeing of the most vulnerable members of society—our children. Parents are increasingly giving up, resigned that their kids live in a fallen world. Battered and beleaguered educators continue reeling from the inverse relationship between in loco parentis demands placed upon them by bureaucratic legislation, and reduced funding to pay for the execution of said demands.

It is unclear to me who will be the new children whisperers if we can ever wrestle our kids from the clutches of all the purveyors of pop culture who stand to make a buck from exploiting them and pitting them against each other. To everyone who assigns this daunting task to parents, that is analogous to asking them to make sure their children don’t breathe any pollution or get washed away in a flash flood somewhere on this warming planet, because the oil industry and all its pimps and minions are not responsible for these circumstances.

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If there is any hope of rescuing the pendulum as it swings into orbit around Mars, caring adults must join together when children are very young to create a new foundation for the future of male-female relationships. As a human society, we need to raise and educate girls and boys with fewer gender-specific limitations and stereotypes, and a greater awareness that life is better for both genders when they can support, rather than exploit, each other’s vulnerabilities.

From the moment a baby’s genitalia is categorized, everything else in his or her life is also categorized. Suddenly boys are swimming in an ocean of blue, while girls are transported into the Pepto Bismol world of princessified clothes, sparkly toys that don’t do anything, make-up for preschoolers, and extra-special girl Happy Meals.

What would this kind of brave new world look like? For one thing it would look a lot less gender-polarized than it does right now, as can be seen in the flaming comment threads on just about any article in the blogosphere related to gender equality or the problems being encountered by either males or females in society today. When does this polarization start? I think it starts from birth, or perhaps as much as four months before, when a baby’s sex can be determined by ultrasound.

From the moment a baby’s genitalia is categorized, everything else in his or her life is also categorized. Suddenly boys are swimming in an ocean of blue, while girls are transported into the Pepto Bismol world of princessified clothes, sparkly toys that don’t do anything, make-up for preschoolers, and extra-special girl Happy Meals. Girls fall down a rabbit hole of beauty propaganda from which they may never emerge, while boys are shepherded down their own toy aisles where the adventure games, science kits, and all the colors of the rainbow, except pink, have gone to live.  Adults who are naïve to these issues reinforce the cycle that the marketers have set in motion, making sure that they buy “boy” or “girl” clothes and toys. Just so there is no confusion, these are all labeled and occupy separate sections of stores and catalogs. Company profit doubles, while girls’ possibilities shrink.

Once kids go to school, girls quickly gain advantage. Their learning styles and activity levels are better suited to the design of American public schools and the preferences of predominantly female teachers, and they mature more quickly than boys. Boys start falling behind in multiple ways…for example, their grades are lower, they are less often the leaders of clubs, and they are almost entirely disappearing among high school valedictorians. In college admissions, many schools are seeing an applicant pool that is 40% male and 60% female.

Meanwhile, something else interesting starts to happen. Right around the onset of puberty, the pretty pink princesses morph into pretty-obsessed Lolitas. Competing for the attention of boys pits girls against each other, leading to the “mean girl” phenomenon that, perhaps ultimately, results in some of the difficulties women have supporting each other. It is not hard to see why we have so few female elected officials or CEO’s when women tend to view other successful women as too aggressive and less competent than men, and undermine them rather than help them gain power.

I wonder…is there possibly a relationship between boys being dominated by girls academically, and in turn objectifying them to degrade and take them down a peg? In the adult world, do men who feel insecure about their roles vis-à-vis women in 2011 have a greater need to pornify them?

If girls have been fed a passive role by adults—the role of being gazed upon and focusing heavily on their looks—while boys have been guided to interact more actively with their environment for their whole childhoods, are they all set up for the polarized, exploitative adult-gender behaviors revealed in Jean Kilbourne’s video, and the anger and scorn ­­­spewed out in comment threads on the internet every day?

♦◊♦

Men are still the power brokers. Has the exploitation of women grown this exponentially because men are angry with women, and have been messaged to view them as sexual objects? And do women enable their own treatment by men because they are so brainwashed by sexualizing media while young that they objectify themselves as teens and adults, believing their bodies to be their most important assets, trading on the fleeting nonsense of “erotic capital,” and therefore setting themselves up for adult lives of dissatisfaction?

It all comes down to the timeless value of respect…self-respect and respect for others. Lack of respect can be found all the way from the neighborhood playground to Capitol Hill, and the degradation of norms we all hear about is not slowing down. We have to teach young girls and boys media literacy and how to deconstruct the messages the profiteers are sending them. We have to teach them to have authentic agency in their own lives. We absolutely must teach them respect.

Women must learn greater respect for their own talents and abilities, neither of which are best spent chasing youth, thinness, and sexual desirability 24/7. They must become more supportive of each other’s aspirations, and begin to help each other manage the aging process with greater serenity and dignity. Mutual respect among girls and women should be encouraged by adults, beginning when girls first snatch the silver tiaras off each other’s heads.

Men must recognize and oppose the damage that is done to women, to themselves, and to their relationships by refusing to participate in the social construct that women are there to be looked at and sexually acquired. Women actually need to hear from men that their faces and bodies are not all that they are, and that they are loved, appreciated and valued for their insides.

We must all band together if we are to rise above the debasement we all suffer by the divisive market-driven world we’ve created.

Photo daveynin/Flickr

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About Lori Day

Lori Day is an educational psychologist and consultant with Lori Day Consulting in Concord, MA, having worked previously in the field of education for over 25 years in public schools, private schools, and at the college level. She writes and blogs about parenting, education, children, gender, media, and pop culture. You can connect with Lori on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

Comments

  1. And they say The Good Men Project isn’t a feminist site.

    • Beste, I appreciate your perspective. I was thinking about how to respond, when I saw Lisa Hickey’s article here: http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/is-it-the-end-of-gender-or-the-beginning-of-men/ I think she does a better job than I could of articulating what the site is about and some of the pitfalls of how one goes about TGMP’s mission without alienating people and how the mission ties in with “feminism,” whatever that means for different people. As I say in my article, I wish the whole topic were not so automatically polarizing. It’s like, how can we talk about something if we can’t talk about it? Anyway, as I said, I understand your concern and hope Lisa’s article is helpful.

    • What do you expect? This whole show is financed by the feminist “Holy Book”, Ms. Magazine

  2. Yet another ‘demonize the free market for anything and everything’ without having a good understanding of how the free market or other economic matters work. Or individual free will, for that matter.

    It is our freedom of expression and the free market that give us the freedom to buck the gender norms that have stifled us for most of civilization – women have the freedom to own and acquire property, people can wear the clothes they want regardless of what department they came from, parents can buy toys regardless of what other people think of their child’s genitals, even the growing demand for FTM binders is making them more readily available in stores. Give me this era’s ‘deregulation’ and subsequent freedoms and prosperity even and especially for those of us who don’t fit the norms over any from the past.

    • I think maybe you missed the point of this article. She is saying that the free market is harmful because people aren’t using it well, not because it horrible, bad, and awful in general. She’s encouraging people to make changes that would go against the current trends.

  3. This is a brilliant article with important insights into how society forms it’s values. I agree with you Lori that “caring adults must join together when children are very young to create a new foundation for the future of male-female relationships.”

    As someone who works with teens and young adults, I have too often seen the results of allowing our children to grow up being brainwashed by the media and pop culture. I hope this article starts as movement to create that new foundation.

    Thank you for writing this article.

  4. Thanks so much Julia. I agree with Jack, above, regarding benefits of a free market economy, but that is not mutually exclusive with what you and I are talking about. Thanks for your thoughtful note.

  5. “We have to teach young girls and boys media literacy and how to deconstruct the messages the profiteers are sending them.”

    This, I think is one of the most important things that schools and parents can do for kids. If I could only add one class to a high school curriculum, Media Literacy 101 would be it. There’s more media and more advertising than ever before and all people (not even just kids, really) need to learn how to identify when they’re being manipulated. The articles on here about the Miller campaigns is a great example of how people can criticize and reject harmful messages in the media. The more media literate the population is, the less effective advertising will be. This could lead to a reduction in advertising, which would be great.

    • Lindsey, I could not agree more. My day job has me working in academia, and I’m actually starting to hear about more courses on media literacy, so I hope your idea really catches on, because boy would that be helpful!

  6. Being a guy myself, I think one major part of the problem is that men are only paying attention to one side of their instinct because of how our society expects them to behave. Like it or not men are “visual” beings in this respect but now this has been made into a problem because this is all that is called into attention, this is what “the big deal” is.

    • Demohidu, you make a great point. It could be because that’s what society expects and also that this is the message marketed to men. If women are messaged that their value is in their bodies and faces, then in those same messages–explicit or implicit–the male gaze is also being sold to men as their role. I do agree men tend to be very visual, and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s that this problem has become so 24/7, all-consuming, and exploitative. So if we teach girls and women to deconstruct these messages, it makes sense to do the same for men and boys. Many thanks for bringing this up.

  7. “What we are witnessing is the triumph of the free market economy over any iota of concern for the emotional and physical wellbeing of the most vulnerable members of society—our children.”

    it’s interesting that the feminist hostility toward males always comes through so loud and clear. No matter how bad things get for African American boys, feminists will insist that they “are still the power brokers”, the exploiters of women, and objectify them. Translation: whatever problems exist are caused by those powerful impoverished, uneducated black male “power brokers.”

  8. I’m confused. Do you think my Grandson should wear the tiara and my grandaughter should wear fatigues to even things out? Then you complain about a 60/40 ratio in college admissions but offer no solutions. Unles you think 60/40 is too low and it should be 70/30 or 80/20? Seriously, This whole Feminist thinking confuses me. I always thought Feminist were againist Pornogrophy because it “objectifies and degrades women” (I agree). Yet on this very site are several articles by self proclaimed “Feminist” who think Porn is wonderful. One, Emiliy Moss, speaks glowingly about her “Good Man”, some porn actor who specializes in videos torturing women. What gives?

    • bobbt, I’m not in favor of porn, and can’t speak for others. I am, however, in favor of advocating for both boys and girls, in the ways uniquely needed by each in today’s society. I write a lot about boys. I love boys and actually have more expertise in their development than in girls’ development. I am a tireless advocate for boys, especially educationally. You might enjoy these two articles:

      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lori-day/why-boys-are-failing-in-a_b_884262.html in The Huffington Post about how boys are falling behind educationally and how we need to help them.

      http://goodmenproject.com/education-2/boys-breast-cancer-and-the-magic-of-boys%E2%80%99-schools/ Just out today on what is wonderful about boys and boys’ schools.

      I really feel that it has to be ok for me as a woman to write about how girls are being exploited. Or for men to do that. Similarly, just as men advocate for boys, so do I as a woman. When you read a post by a blogger on one topic or another, you cannot conclude anything about what ELSE they might believe or not believe, or might write about or might devote themselves to. Your conclusion that all I care about is girls is completely false, as can be seen in these articles and as you would surely see if you saw my resume!! Yes I am a feminist, and that is nothing deserving of criticism. Above all else, I am a child advocate for BOTH genders.

      I hope these two articles are helpful to you in all kinds of ways. Thank you for commenting. I absolutely share your concerns about boys/education. And no, I do not need your grandson to wear a tiara. Why on earth would that be your conclusion after reading my post? What I do need is for girls to have fewer limitations. When I grew up there no gender-segmented toy aisles. Now, everything creative I played with lives on the boys’ aisle. I simply want girls to break free of all the pink princess stuff–IF they want to–and be able to dress and play in ways that are not so limiting and hyper-feminized. Your grandson may play with whatever he likes!

  9. “Women must learn greater respect for their own talents and abilities, neither of which are best spent chasing youth, thinness, and sexual desirability 24/7. They must become more supportive of each other’s aspirations, and begin to help each other manage the aging process with greater serenity and dignity. Mutual respect among girls and women should be encouraged by adults, beginning when girls first snatch the silver tiaras off each other’s heads.”

    This is the part I agreed with most. But since when was it the media’s job to teach these ideals to our children??????????? What happened to the parents’ job? That paragraph is so simple & easy to understand that if every parent actually tried teaching that to their children, then the media wouldn’t have the power to brainwash anybody.

    So you could possibly see it from my perspective let me tell you about myself. I’m a 26 year old female from Florida. I grew up with two older brothers & a little brother, my mom & dad. My parents always taught me to think for myself, which sometimes backfired on them when I wouldn’t accept “because I said so” as a reason to do anything, but still they pounded it into my head. I was raised by my family WITHOUT gender bias – no one imposed anything on me except some dresses when I was too young to dress myself – & I was given the choice of my clothing once I could do such things. I chose to become a tomboy; since my mother was one as well, we got along even better & I’ve always been able to connect best with men because of this. I buy what I want, not what someone wants to sell me, but I enjoy wearing make-up & looking attractive as my nature-given right of being a female. I use my brains to interest others, but that doesn’t mean I can’t wear short dresses & thigh-highs. I don’t watch tv or listen to the radio, but I watch tons of movies, anime & play video games where women are oversexualized on a daily basis – but I don’t feel compelled to change anything about myself due to their supposed “influence.” I know this is MY brain, not someone else’s to make decisions with.

    It all starts with the parents. Do they want to take responsibility for molding their children’s minds or will they allow the media to do it? The media can’t do anything unless the parents give up their true duties to become nothing more than care-takers who will impart their poor habits onto their children rather than teaching them to think for themselves.

    The media absolutely has the potential to brainwash everyone, but there are smart people on the other side of that line who have chosen to see through the media’s veil of misdirection. You have to learn that you’re allowed to make your own decisions first to do that – & that starts with the parents.

  10. Voglio ringraziare per aver condiviso questo e continuer

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