A lot of Internet angst is brewing over National Geographic’s Gender Revolution feature this month.
The comments are divided into two major reactions: The First Group says, “Thank you, National Geographic, for an eye-opening and progressive piece.” The Second Group says, “Are you kidding me? We now want to get rid of boys and girls? What liberal freaks, stick to reporting on gazelles and glaciers.” As someone who is outspoken about gender equality, I have been subject to a lot of similar commentary, so this is familiar territory.
I see a pattern in these comments when it comes to the topics of gender equality or neutrality. When the topic is raised of making something, such as a toy, “gender neutral,” a seismic Internet freak-out happens. “Just let boys be boys and girls be girls,” they say. “You’re trying to take away gender,” I hear.
Everyone is overreacting. Let’s all take a deep breath and calm down. This is not, I repeat not, about getting rid of boys and girls. It’s about letting people be themselves.
Here’s the problem that National Geographic is raising: For far too long, boys have been told exactly how they must act and exactly what they must like in order to properly reflect their gender. Same for girls. Blue and pink labeling is the common example. When someone brushes against the grain of their gender label, they are often shunned or brushed aside as abnormal. We’ve seen a lot of sadness and depression from people who feel they can’t be themselves. We’ve seen a lot of women pushed down in the workplace. We’ve seen a lot of men shamed for being stay at home dads.
But yet we have this Internet protest that pink and blue must remain staunchly in place, lest our world become boring and uniform.
This worry is entirely misplaced. None of the articles in the magazine, and really no article that I have read on the topic, advocates eliminating boys and girls or completely ignoring a person’s sex. We all know about biology. We often love and celebrate gender differences. But these articles are saying that maybe there’s a revolt against the boy and girl “buckets” that tell boys and girls how to play, how to dress, how to look, and how to act based on old stereotypes. Old stereotypes that reinforce gender inequality and hold back progress.
That’s what really happening. We’re progressing. And the angst we’re seeing is rooted in fear of change. We’re seeing a collective reaction to the little boy who likes to play with dolls, the little girl who is an engineering genius, the dad who wants to work part time to stay at home with his kids, and the mom who is a partner at a big law firm. Yup. These are not the norm. They are different. They are change.
Letting people be themselves, revolting against old stereotypes, is a Gender Revolution. Being yourself doesn’t make the world homogeneously boring. It brings excitement, color, and variety. A Gender Revolution tells each and every kid, “It’s okay to be you.” It gets rid of the stark and pointless labels and lets us embrace colors, objects, sports, arts, and life with truth and diversity.
Equal pay and gender equality in the workplace is a perfect example of why a Gender Revolution is powerful and positive. Efforts to promote equal pay don’t create a backlash that equal pay will eviscerate masculinity. The push for equal pay is about equality – equality in opportunity, equality in benefits, equality in humanity. Equal pay and gender equality in the workplace is about giving women and men the ability to choose how they want to live their lives and what sorts of jobs and hobbies they have.
Toys are similar, but for some reason they tend to garner a harsher reaction. Our gender stereotypes about children are deeply engrained. Ask any new parent, and they will be able to relay dozens of stories about people asking whether they are having a boy or a girl and then everything, and I mean everything, about that baby conforming to its biological sex. The baby clothes, the accessories, the toys, the books, the car seat, the balloons, the baby shower, the diaper patterns, the nursery décor, the bottles, the pacifiers. Everything.
Boys can play with dolls. There, I said it. This doesn’t mean they aren’t boys. This doesn’t mean we’ve ruined the male gender for all eternity by giving them a doll. It means they have full opportunity to learn all the wonderful things that come along with pretend play with dolls.
We want good men. We want good parents. Let’s let our kids, including our boys, play with dolls and build emotional intelligence, nurturing, imagination, creativity, and relational skills. We’re not ruining them; we’re building them up. We’re ruining harmful stereotypes.
Let’s have a Gender Revolution to give our kids more choice and happiness in their lives. My hope is that increased equality will translate into increased equality and respect among adults. Maybe even happier, more satisfied adults who have been free to pursue their interests without judgment about whether that interest conforms with pointless gender stereotypes.
Please, world, don’t freak out over a Gender Revolution. National Geographic is not suggesting that we eviscerate biology. What they’re doing is challenging our stereotypes. Perhaps, they question, these stereotypes are more divisive than helpful. Harsh gender labeling removes variety, choice, and opportunity. It is a limiting demon of the past being chased away by progress.
Photo: Getty Images