‘Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?’ was what Henry II of England reputedly said of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket back in the 12th century. It could be said with equal conviction in the 21st, but this time referring to a different problem, an unusual priest: gender.
Okay, perhaps I’m stretching the analogy a little too far, and yet the concept of gender has been an increasingly uncomfortable thorn in modern societies for a while now -both in its attribution, and in its consequences. Suffice it to say, it has also fostered a common essayistic theme for me over the years.
Sometimes, it’s easier to spot those anomalous things that assume innate differences more dependent on size than sex -pants spring to mind. Maybe shirts (sorry, blouses) as well. But even color has been gendered, although the silliness of the assumption is fortunately being recognized as more of a sales pitch nowadays.
Some things slip by unnoticed, though -things that are clearly gender-assigned- but since they seem always to have been the way they are, remain unremarked. We habituate to differences if we see them often enough -they normalize through constant repetition, and become invisible. Until they don’t, that is… In fact, I suspect that’s what fashion is all about: it’s the novelty of change that makes us notice. It’s also what makes us buy new things -what makes us think we need them, especially if they seem to fulfil a niche role. A gendered role. Still, it makes me think of that wonderful story by Hans Christian Andersen: the Emperor’s New Clothes.
An essay in the Conversation, by Samantha Brennan, Professor and Dean of the College of Arts at the University of Guelph, helped me to see what only the child in the story could admit: https://theconversation.com/lady-backpacks-and-manly-beeSamanthar-the-folly-of-gendered-products-125373
‘As women started counting steps and walking to work wearing running shoes and fitness trackers, there was one work-related item that had to change: the briefcase. It’s not suited to walking fast and gets in the way of drinking coffee en route to the office. Enter the working women’s backpack. It’s a trend… The sale of women’s backpacks is up by more than 20 per cent in the past year, but the sale of men’s backpacks has flat-lined… The Atlantic headlined their story “The Rise of the Lady Backpack.” Of course they did, because women can’t just use backpacks. We have to use “lady backpacks.”’
Good for Brennan! I also felt the need to rail against the princessy-stuff in an essay a few years ago: ( https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/2013/12/06/nature-versus-princess-nurture/ ) but clearly there was more. As Brennan says, ‘There are lists of needlessly gendered products ranging from girly pink pens to manly blue Q-tips. Such products reinforce the idea that gender is significant in areas where it’s not, they reinforce the gender binary, and they leave out people who don’t fit in either the male or the female category.’ Oh, and forget about the size-thing, too: women have different requirements than men- they’re often smaller than men for a start. ‘Wouldn’t it be easier if backpacks came in sizes to match differently sized people?’
And then there is the issue of bicycles. I had similar experiences to Brennan when I was a child that I took for granted. As she explains, ‘When I was a kid the difference between a boy’s bike and a girl’s bike was the top tube. The one on a girl’s bike slanted down to allow modest access to the bike and ease of riding in skirts.’ I suppose it made sense -all the girls wore skirts or dresses to school then. Mind you, they never seemed to ride their bikes to school like the boys did -but maybe that was just Winnipeg in the 1950ies. Hip dysplasia hadn’t been invented yet -well, at least not for 12 year olds- so there was obviously no need to market that kind of bike to men.
Age, and Time change things, however: neither our perspectives nor the Zeitgeist are immutable. Men are no longer the default -or shouldn’t be, at any rate. And, with the probable exception of sundry health and sanitary items, as Brennan writes, ‘a women-specific anything is likely just a bad idea. Humans come in lots of different shapes and sizes. A second, better approach includes a range of shapes and sizes and lets individuals choose.’ Amen.
I seldom stand in lines in stores -at least not when there are self-checkout machines available. I suppose I like to pretend I’m on the progressive side of digitality despite the years that have managed to plaque themselves onto my neurons. Sometimes, however, a message gets through to a clear channel, and allows me to bypass habit and embrace the lineup as the quicker route to the door.
I had made a quick and needful trip to one of those all-purpose stores that purport to serve any and all needs that their seductive signs might engender, when I found myself in line behind a father and his young son. I’m not very astute at guessing ages, but he couldn’t have been much more than five or six years of age. He was old enough to have very firm ideas about what he wanted, though. And what he wanted, it seemed, was a pink tee shirt which, when he held it up to show his father- had a series of bright, sparkling blue hearts on it.
“Are you sure you like those colours, Jeffey?” the father whispered to him, embarrassed for some reason.
Jeffey nodded proudly. “You said I could choose, daddy.”
An uneasy smile appeared on his father’s lips. “But, don’t you think pink is a bit….?” He didn’t finish the sentence, but he was clearly uncomfortable with the choice.
Jeffey looked up at his dad, with a genuine smile. “I like the hearts, though, don’t you? They’re blue…” he added, sensing the ambivalence in his father’s face.
His father nodded in obvious agreement, but chanced a sheepish glance at me, so close behind them in the line. “But the hearts have sparkles on them…”
Jeffey’s smile grew even more bigger, and he nodded his head excitedly. “That’s why it’s such a good shirt!”
“You like the pink?”
Jeffey nodded again. “It makes the hearts even brighter, daddy,” he added loudly, as if he was boasting.
His father looked distinctly uncomfortable at the choice, and risked a longer look at me. “What do you think your friends will say?”
Jeffey looked up at his father with all the innocence of youth. “They’ll love it!”
The line seemed to be moving slowly forward -too slowly, I thought, and when I noticed a just-vacated self-checkout machine, I headed over to it. But, as I proceeded to scan my purchase, I glanced quickly at the father, and our eyes met briefly. It was difficult to tell at a distance, but I could swear he was blushing.
We all move through the world at our own speed, though; we can’t all embrace the same Weltanschauung, I suppose.