“Doing” Gender is Child’s Play

The following photo essay will illustrate how children perform gender in their imaginative play. Examples of the way play is gendered are the difference in dress-up clothes and costumes, the availability of cosmetics to children, and the stereotyped toys that lead to binary gendered thinking. By dividing elements of imaginative play using the gender binary, society reinforces the gender binary and heteronormative gender norms. When children violate these norms, adults punish the deviance rather than allowing children to play with the toys they want and have a variety of experiences with gender expression.

Girls are Princesses

The above image of a five-year-old girl in a dress from the popular kids’ movie Frozen illustrates that girls are socialized to be express femininity from a young age. Girls are socialized to wear dresses and be the princess or, in the case of Elsa from Frozen, the queen in their story. The movie focuses on women and the importance of love and marriage in a woman’s life, going so far as to lead two female characters to place their kingdom in the hands of a male virtual stranger. The fact that this child chooses to wear a dress from this movie proves that the movie has had an impact on her identity. The dress may be blue, but the “boy” color is counteracted by the glitter and sparkle of the dress, which instantly feminizes the outfit. The stance of the girl in the image also shows the femininity the young girl has been socialized to have. She is holding her skirt out smiling but keeping her arms close to her body to keep herself small, even though the dress is taking up space. The dress, as the focus of her appearance, is the star, so it is entitled to take up space while she is not.

Boys are Heroes

The above image shows a three-year-old boy dressed as a superhero. He is being socialized to “save the day” through fighting bad guys. He’s smiling but leaning forward. He’s ready for a fight at any moment. The element of physical violence to help socializes the boy to be competitive and dominant in situations. He keeps his arms a part to take up space despite his small size for a young boy, furthering emphasizing his right to dominance. There are outlines of a utility belt on the abdomen to reinforce his socialization that he needs to be “handy” and useful in society. The mask also reinforces that the boy’s looks aren’t as important as his “hero” nature. He will be judged based on his performance and competence rather than his appearance, so his socialization in childhood needs to prepare him for his measurement of success to be his achievements and actions.

Girls do Make-Up

The above image shows a young girl in a pink dress, smiling while she uses a pale pink brush to apply her make-up. Everything about this image screams femininity. From the color of the dress to the look in the mirror, and the excitement about “improving” one’s appearance. The availability of children’s cosmetics for young girls indicates that this group is socialized from a young age to care about their appearance. In society, women are often judged based on appearance before competence. Soceity views women as objects to be admired, thus appearance is the most valuable asset for a woman to have. Providing children with make-up teaches them the social implications of altering one’s appearance as well as the skills to apply make-up.

Boys Violating Gender

The same boy who moments ago was a superhero is now having his nails painted a pale pink color. The boy is smiling, indicating he is excited about this traditionally feminine practice. Though this access to cosmetic products is usually forbidden to young boys, this boy’s mother willingly paints his nails. The “undoing” of gender allows the boy to experience gender expression in a way that is not stigmatized. The choice of a pale pink color does indicate that painting the boy’s nails isn’t noticeable. The pink matches the tone of his fingers and would only be observed if the boy pointed out his polish. The “undoing” of gender in this instance is subtle and meant to be a private experience rather than a public statement.

Duplicity of Child’s Play

The above image presents the duality of gender expression, supporting that gender is a spectrum rather than a binary. Here we see a four-year-old girl with a crown, a bow, and a flower in her hair holding a purple wand, in a pale pink winter coat, and sitting in a toy truck designed and marketed to boys. The truck is designed to emphasis traditional masculine traits such as ruggedness, toughness, and durability. The truck is brown and blue which are colors associated with masculine marketing. The young girl routinely drives this truck around her yard while wearing dress-up clothes that are marketed for girls. Her “doing” of femininity by wearing feminine accessories contrasts her “undoing” of gender by driving a masculine toy vehicle. The dual experience of gender expression allows this child to experience the spectrum of gender and not form her gender identity around the societal expectations of her biological sex.

4 thoughts on ““Doing” Gender is Child’s Play”

  • Raising our children to be themselves and not just prescribe to the stereotypes of their classmates is a challenging task. Your post does a great job integrating those gender roles and then breaking them down. Children, when given the reigns to run will surprise you in the things that they choose to do, challenging the binary or just embracing that inner queen.

  • I see that there are already two comments by I just had to add too that this post is great, and the little ones are extremely cute! I like that you involved them in this posting. Doing gender is a learned behavior, as kids they learn what they should and should not do as a boy or girl. The boy sees no wrong in getting his nails painted pink just as the girl has no problem with riding a boy truck. Society tells us to do gender and as society changes gender will change. ( Nice Photos)!

  • The children are adorable. How they express themselves tells you a lot about their gender. There is no confusion nor is there anything wrong if a little boy likes the color pink and has his nails painted or a little girl who rides in a Mossy Oak remote car instead of a Disney princess one. That’s the beauty of childhood; they can discover who they want to be if they don’t have society, media, peers, and family members putting them into a box of femininity or masculinity.

  • This is a great post! Your photos do a fabulous job of capturing the doing and undoing of gender. I like that you focused on the early socialization of stereotypes and how easy it is to just let it happen but also without boundaries or rules, kids are going to do what they like, such as drive trucks and paint their nails.

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