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Saturday, 17 September 2016

The Lunch Box Dilemma

I'm not really one for getting publicly vocal about my feminist principles. Give me a bit of wine and I might hold an earnest debate with you about the patriarchy. But I am not going to lecture you if (as happened today) you force me to chose between a pink princess or a jungle explorer kids meal box. You're a nineteen year old cashier in a café at a tram museum. Life's too short.
None the less, The Lunch Box Dilemma irked me because it highlighted an aspect of modern childhood with which I have a real issue - just how stupidly gendered it has become. Gendering sells. But in the process, it also reinforces stereotypes that lead girls and boys to make assumptions about what they should and shouldn't like and what is and isn't appropriate behaviour for them (or the opposite sex). Equally brainwashed, many parents then line up to reinforce these assumptions in an effort to keep their child happy and conform to the norm.

So what lunch box to choose? Duckling was on the far side of the cafe so not around for me to ask. I had to make the call. Princess box = girl. Aspiration = youth, wealth, beauty and marrying a handsome prince. Explorer box = boy. Aspiration = bravery, adventure, autonomy and an all terrain vehicle. Why two boxes? I thought. Why couldn't they just have a jungle explorer box? Or a neutral castle box featuring both a prince and a princess, if they really had to? Why does LUNCH have to be gendered?!

Eventually, after the cashier had started rapping her nails on the till, I opted for the jungle explorer. Ashamed as I am to admit it, I am not immune to the strong social stigma attached to boys playing with "girl" things. Encouraging boys to actively 'go pink' takes guts, probably more so than suggesting a girl might want to 'go blue'. I'm sure nobody would have said anything had I selected the princess castle and Duckling wouldn't have cared a jot as long as it contained the requested chips (BAD Mummy). It might even have made me feel proud to be so markedly 'gender blind'. But I'm actually not - I would have been deliberately contriving to push a particular counter-identity on my son, for the sake of MY ideology - one that he's not remotely going to understand. Besides which, I don't think the fairytale princess narrative is a particularly positive one for either sex...

Why is it that your sex at birth - the type of human body you have - now maps out virtually every choice you make, down to the colour of the straw you're expected to have in your milkshake?  Intersex individuals aside (and there is a whole other set of issues to be considered there), males and females do have different reproductive organs and different chromosomes. The male / female label really shouldn't do much more than describe our physical attributes however. Our brains for example are not intrinsically blue or pink, whatever the Science Museum may tell you (incidentally, I, straight, eternally scatty woman with one child and a bun in the oven, have a 'male brain' according to that test. Err, yay?!). Our identities are about so much more than our sex. Certainly some personality traits, skills, likes and dislikes may be more commonly found in women than men and vice versa. But it is very hard to unpick nature from nurture, and in most cases, we cannot categorically state that, for example, a woman is caring or a man is aggressive simply because her or his brain is naturally wired that way.  Evolution may be responsible for contributing to a general trend that sees women and men fulfill these stereotypes.  But it is also true that these traits are prominent because society tells us we should be kind as a girl and tough as a boy. Social norms reinforce and amplify any possible 'natural' tendencies (note tendencies, not inevitable traits), to a point where they are seen as fact, and deviation as abnormality. And that is dangerous. When our sex (physical attributes) doesn't seem to fully match our gender (social ideas of what we should be like) it leads people to commit unspeakable acts of violence against each other. For women to be eternally subjugated and exploited. For men to be excused for inexcusable behaviour. For young girls and boys to decide that, because they don't fit with society's identity expectations, there must be something wrong with them. They must have been born the wrong sex, and have the wrong body parts.

So yes, I know it was just a lunch box, but it represented a division that does nobody (except manufacturers and advertisers) any good whatsoever. Give me the neutral elephant, giraffe and monkey boxes at our local swimming pool any day.

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