Monday, June 21, 2010

Social Construction

Dance begins her post with the crux of the issue:
A long while back, I asked FLG for a real counter-argument to the social constructionist approach that even little things matter and are worth addressing and protesting, such as the notion that pink is for girls.

I don't know if I ever presented a real counter-argument. Also, Dance was also nice enough to dig up the history of posts over here that pertain. So be sure to click over there for the full background.

But to get back to the post:
But FLG also gave me several responses, and I am overdue in responding to them.

"If the tiniest human interaction is part and parcel of a social construction and is consequently tremendously important then nothing is important.“

First of all, there’s no reason you can’t have priorities within “important”, different angles of attack for one large problem, or specialize in what’s doable rather than what’s ideal. Indeed, those are techniques useful in any problem—rejecting them doesn’t scale.

But more importantly, this is hardly better than “sometimes it’s just a toothbrush.” It’s a rather more sophisticated version of “we can’t worry about everything,” that conflates “matters” with “everything is tremendously important.”

Part of this is a question of judgment. Concern about the color of little girls' toothbrushes in the context of their career choices year or decades seems ill-placed.

Dance responds to this at the end of the post:
Creating the notion that certain colors, toys, and activities are for girls while others are for boys helps “girls don’t do science” land on fallow ground—”girls don’t take computer science” becomes an extension of a pattern that already exists. Different form, but same function. Girls hear “girls aren’t good at math” and accept that it makes sense, because it fits with other things—”girls don’t play trucks, girls don’t like blue”—they’ve been told all their life. That’s direct enough for me.

This makes sense, but goes back to what I wrote in one of the series of posts on this topic -- doesn't this implicate the entire idea of gender roles? If one can't say girls do this and boys do that, then there isn't really a distinction between them. Any policy or person that treats girls different than boys contributes to "a pattern that already exists" and of which "girls don't take computer science" is an extension.

My take on this is more, for lack of a better word, practical. And perhaps it might be illustrative to explain about Miss FLG. Her room is pink and there are Barbie pictures on the walls. She loves Bell, so bought her a Belle doll. (Although, she's mildly afraid of it because, as Mrs. FLG says, it's funny lookin'.) On the other hand, she also has a toy bus. Loves transportation stuff, which is usually boyish. In case anybody is wondering, her toothbrush is yellow, and I think also blue, and has a lion on it.

I guess my point in all this is that, yes, she has a pink room with Barbies on the wall. But no way am I going to discourage her from playing with stuff that's traditionally boyish. Nor am I going to tolerate anybody telling that little girl she cannot study computer science because she's a girl. If I ever hear her say something like that, then we are going to have a long talk. If she wants to be a Disney princess when she's five, then no big deal. She's five. If she's fifteen, then there's a problem.

The step from pink toothbrush to limited career choices makes sense if you include every way in which girls and boys are treated differently in what limits girls' later career choices. This is too broad a scope and ultimately includes things that have little to nothing to do with the other.

Dance also writes:
First of all, there’s no reason you can’t have priorities within “important”, different angles of attack for one large problem, or specialize in what’s doable rather than what’s ideal. Indeed, those are techniques useful in any problem—rejecting them doesn’t scale.

I guess I don't follow here. Or more to the point I think it becomes a linguistic difference without real difference when you say lots of things are important, but then some are merely important while others are very important and perhaps others are super-duper important. And the colors of childhood toothbrushes does not seem an important determinant of adult career goals.

But Dance address tries to address this as well:
I have known men to run circles around me or elbow me out of the way because they apparently believe women are not allowed to expend simple human courtesy in the act of opening a door for a man. Do I have to wait until I actually trip over them and fall before such behavior escapes the label “the tiniest human interaction”?
If one endorses FLG’s statement as a general principle, then the list of things not worth doing includes:

* holding a door open for anyone at all
* the military practice of saluting officers and calling them sir
* starting emails to a stranger with Dear So-and-So

Either small things matter, or they don’t. You can’t say “the ones I believe in matter but the ones I don’t believe in are too unimportant for anyone to worry about.”

My only explanation here is that it depends what you are referring to as matter. Holding the door for people matters for cordiality in society. It's nice if people are nicer to each other. It makes life a bit easier if somebody holds the door for somebody with their hands full or starts an email Dear So-and-so. On the other hand, I don't think it matters to the existence of a patriarchy or some broader political consequences. A similar thing for the saluting and sir. It helps foster and environment where officers are respected, and this helps the military run more smoothly overall. But does saluting win wars? Probably not.

Don't get me wrong. I acknowledge the social construction argument makes sense and has validity. Where I object is that everything is part of this and is important. To resurrect a section from a previous post:
Pink toothbrushes are in the class of things that construct gender roles.
Gender roles are at least partially responsible for a whole host of choices made regarding careers.
Therefore, pink toothbrushes are partially responsible for women's later career choices.

This makes sense in theory, but there's a flaw that fails to attribute a reasonable scale to things. The idea that girls aren't good at math has MUCH WORSE and MORE DIRECT consequences than the color of their toothbrushes. Therefore, worrying about the color of their toothbrushes raises a question of judgment and priorities.

The issue isn't the color of toothbrushes or even that girls and boys are treated differently. The problem is when girls are deemed less capable or valuable either in a specific endeavor or in the aggregate. That is what needs to be addressed and conquered. To the extent that ideas and images perpetuate this, then they need to be addressed. The girls don't do computer science thing is such an idea. Pink toothbrushes? Not so much. Ditto for pink toys generally.

And also, from a practical matter, people who worry about the color of toothbrushes appear, even to me as one can easily surmise from my statements, to have questionable judgment and perspective. It's a "If they're worried about the color of toothbrushes, then why should I even listen to what else they have to say?" kind of thing. The world has real problems that we need to deal with.

7 comments:

dance said...

Argh! FFS. You are still not paying attention and are arguing with strawmen. The problem is not that the toothbrush is pink. It's that the dental hygenist SAYS to a little girl "oh, here honey, you want the pink one." Or SAYS to a little boy "Oh, no, you don't want the *pink* one. Boys take blue!". Start with JUST that scenario, and now explain to me why that doesn't matter, WITHOUT saying "because it's just a toothbrush." Doesn't matter even when it happens every year, doesn't matter even when your kid says blue is her favorite color and someone says "oh, no, honey, blue is for boys", doesn't matter when she can't find her favorite toys in blue. Why doesn't that matter?

And seriously---part of your argument boils down to the fact that since women give birth to children and men don't, it's not worth worrying about constructed and constricting gender roles at all. Come on, you know that's BS.

My take on this is also practical. I cannot eliminate the national belief that only females wear dresses, for example, but I can damn sure control what is said and marketed to my (hypothetical) kid. I can keep gender roles as confined as possible, because the smaller they are, the less damage they can do.

dance said...

PS. Explain to me--and as I recall, you are quite fond of the slippery slope argument when it comes to gay marriage, and it's a hell of a lot easier to define marriage as between 2 and only 2 people than to draw a strict line between various gender stereotypes--so explain why "pink is for girls" isn't just a step on the slippery slope to things like Club Libby Lu. Then, you know, explain why the used-to-be-existence of Club Libby Lu doesn't matter.

See also:
http://writingasjoe.blogspot.com/2008/12/hate-mail-club-libby-lu-and-me.html

http://writingasjoe.blogspot.com/2006/06/report-from-club-libby-lu.html

Don't miss the comments.

FLG said...

Dance:

I can't believe you FFS'd me.

Seriously though, I can't see how boys wear blue, girls wear pink matters to career paths or other life choices later on. I mean, I understand it's all part of gender roles, but I don't see the consequences beyond they are both part of gender roles.

"And seriously---part of your argument boils down to the fact that since women give birth to children and men don't, it's not worth worrying about constructed and constricting gender roles at all. Come on, you know that's BS."

I do think that maternity is indisputable and paternity is not does have societal consequences, but I'm not sure where that fits in here. Did I mention that here? Or maybe I'm not following my logic to its ultimate conclusion? I'm confused.

"My take on this is also practical. I cannot eliminate the national belief that only females wear dresses, for example, but I can damn sure control what is said and marketed to my (hypothetical) kid. I can keep gender roles as confined as possible, because the smaller they are, the less damage they can do."

What are the adverse consequences of only females wearing dresses?

Wait a second...

You are objecting to gender roles themselves. Are you saying that men and women should be treated the same in all circumstances? Or is it that children should all be treated the same, but when they have become adults and have freely chosen their gender role or gender or whathaveyou, then they ought to be treated differently? Or do you think boys and girls should be treated differently in some ways?

PS. I typed this up before you posted your follow-up.

FLG said...

Dance:

To follow up to your second comment.

I am in favor of gay marriage despite the slippery slope because I don't think that allowing gay marriage will have huge negative consequences. My issue is largely that people never admit there is risk in slippery sloping.

My stance on pink isn't all that different. I don't worry about pink because I don't see real consequences to it.

On the Club issue, it's a matter of how it's presented. I don't really like the sexualization aspect because, well, I think that does have direct consequences that pink by itself doesn't.

Speaking of which, Disney has something similar called the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique. Price aside, I wouldn't have any issue with Miss FLG going there. Largely because the sexualization isn't present.

Likewise, and obviously given that I'm FLG, I wouldn't have any issue with her going to the Pirates League either, which is I'd say the male equivalent.

I don't have an issue with girls playing at princess. I don't think every business that lets them MUST have doctor's coats too.

But, I must admit, I would, if the princess dress up place did make me uncomfortable, tell her that she doesn't have to be a princess. That she could be an astronaut, if she wanted.

So, to be honest, I'm not entirely, completely, 100% sanguine. But I'm also not freaked out by pink either.

arethusa said...

To be perfectly honest, I think girls have a lot more options than boys do as children. No boy is going to go to a princess boutique, wear dresses, or play with dolls. Little girls, however, can go to pirate camp, play with trucks, and wear dresses if they like. If I were a kid, I'd much rather be a girl than a boy today.

I also have to say I don't understand why folks get all bent out of shape about girls wanting to be princesses. It's a fantasy, just like a boy wanting to be a superhero is a fantasy. On some level, kids realize this, even more so as they age. The "choice" between doctor and princess isn't a gendered one, it's between a real goal and a dream.

dance said...

Well, pink is not "just all part of gender roles". It's actually part of "women are frilly and feminine and therefore irrational and hysterical and therefore can't be trusted to own property or vote or run businesses." I'm pretty sure THAT's a pernicious gender role. Remember, pink didn't used to mean what it means today--in fact, because it's now associated with women, pink has taken on that new meaning of frivolous, inappropriate.

I agree with Arethusa that the way these things manifest is often tougher on boys than girls. "Boys don't wear pink" is part of "glee club is sissy! beat him up!"

And my way of debating is *always* to take logic to the ultimate conclusion--the biology of sex roles around childbirth cannot be changed. Right, fine. But we've layered all sorts of gender on top of that biology---to argue that the biological sex factor makes the gender we have *created* not worth worrying about is just silly.

And for the 18th time---no one cares when a little girl wants to be a princess. People care when the little girl is told, directly or indirectly, that she is *supposed* to be a princess.

dance said...

PS. Dressed head to toe in pink today. I like pink.

 
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