Does pink really stink? The gender-neutral parenting debate

Sunday 18 October, 16.00 until 17.15, Frobisher Auditorium 1, Barbican Feminism and Its Discontents

The way children are raised to be distinctly boys or girls is now questioned in mainstream culture. Campaigns like Pink Stinks and Let Toys be Toys rail against girls being assigned princessy or even sexualised clothes, and toys that mimic pampering or homemaking, while boys are encouraged to be active, nascent men of the world with construction sets and superheroes. Some parents commit to ‘gender-neutral’ or ‘anti-sexist’ parenting, encouraging girls to get muddy and boys to play with dolls, in a bid to liberate boys and girls from their respective stereotypes. Why shouldn’t she dress up as an astronaut rather than a nurse?

But reasonable parental worries about not wanting to limit aspirations have become more of a political minefield of late. If you let Jodie plays with Barbie, are you implicitly endorsing the objectification of women?  If Johnny is allowed to dress up as a soldier, might he end up a macho misogynist? The headline-grabbing mum who let her son go to school dressed as 50 Shades of Grey’s creepy hero Christian was accused of endorsing her offspring’s inculcation into rape culture. Meanwhile, some parents have taken gender-neutral child-rearing to the extreme of not revealing their child’s biological sex to anyone, allowing the child to determine their own identity as ‘boy’, ‘girl’ or something else through their own tastes and preferences. Increasing media attention given to ‘transgender kids’ adds another confusing dimension to the issue of gender identity in childhood.

There seems to be a little agreement about what gender identity means, whether it is an inherent feature of the individual child’s development, something that is shaped from without by social pressures or whether it is necessary at all. Similarly, there is little agreement but much anxiety about whether there is anything positive about masculinity or femininity and about whether social problems such as gender inequality or attitudes to sexual violence have their roots in childhood. So, is it fair or helpful to focus on childhood when it comes to our adult concerns about gender? Is this feminist influence on parenting a victory for women’s equality or a distraction from the real issues facing young women? Is it just another opportunity to blame parents? Or does it make sense to start as early as possible to solve social problems?

Watch the debate

Bea Appleby
editor, The Female Lead

Ros Ball
journalist; author, The Gender Police: a diary

Julie Bindel
journalist, author, broadcaster and feminist activist; research fellow, Lincoln University

Chrissie Daz
schoolteacher; cabaret performer; author on transgender and gender variant identity

Nancy McDermott
writer; advisor to Park Slope Parents, NYC's most notorious parents' organization

Dr Jan Macvarish
associate lecturer and researcher, Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, University of Kent; author, Neuroparenting: The Expert Invasion of Family Life

Produced by
Dr Ellie Lee reader in social policy, University of Kent, Canterbury; director, Centre for Parenting Culture Studies
Dr Jan Macvarish associate lecturer and researcher, Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, University of Kent; author, Neuroparenting: The Expert Invasion of Family Life
Recommended readings
The Gender Police: A Diary

When Ros Ball and James Millar’s son was born in 2010 they instantly felt people treated him differently to his big sister. Inspired by the 1980's best-selling diary 'There's a Good Girl', they started to tweet about the differences they experienced. What began as an attempt to retain their sanity in a gender obsessed world became a life changing experiment about gender identity.

Ros Ball & James Millar, , 10 July 2015

The newspeak of gender neutral pronouns

Rather than reducing the English language to pale neutrality, let’s enrich it.

Michael Cook, spiked, 18 March 2015

Boys aren't born wanting to wear blue

Girls are socialised into loving pink and Barbie. It isn't biologically determined

Julie Bindel, Independent, 24 January 2012

Should the World of Toys Be Gender-Free?

Today’s boys and girls will eventually be one another’s professional peers, employers, employees, romantic partners, co-parents. How can they develop skills for such collaborations from toys that increasingly emphasize, reinforce, or even create, gender differences?

Peggy Orenstein, New York Times, 29 December 2011

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