Gender identification begins…

By: Mary L. Rothschild

“The consumer embryo begins to develop in the first year of existence…Children begin their consumer journey in infancy…and they certainly deserve consideration as consumers at that time.”  – James U. McNeal, Pioneering Youth Marketer (From “Consuming Kids”)

My new role as grandparent gave me a bird’s eye view of how the seeds of consumerism, especially gender-specific marketing, are sown early in the lives of expectant and new parents and their baby.

My daughter and her husband decided not to know their child’s gender until birth. They felt it was more natural not to know and didn’t want to receive exclusively color-coded gifts, starting the gender/color identification from the beginning. I found that it was almost impossible to find 100% cotton clothing for newborns in local stores that was not either pink or blue.

There may be reasons, in some cases, for getting the information about the gender of a child before birth. However, what happens next? Do gender-coded toys, clothes, and furnishings surround the baby from the beginning? If so, is it troubling that girls will then associate pink – and boys blue-with nurturing and care? Isn’t it just cute? Or is it the beginning of the great divide of girls into passive toys and boys into active (and war-themed) ones?

We know that marketers exploit those connections with pink and blue aisles in toy stores, “Princess” toys for girls, and construction equipment, cars and adventure for boys. That commercial aspect matters. Two books by Dr. Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown, Packaging Girlhood and Packaging Boyhood (the latter with Mark Tappan) illuminate the commercialization of gender, including the progression from pink to hot pink, then to red.

Buying into the pink/blue distinction is not just cute and inevitable, but rather cooperation in marketing that could affect the child in subtle and obvious ways.

The spectrum of articles on the gender-neutral pre-school in Sweden and about a girl who is questioning Hasbro about gender-stereotyped games might indicate that the connection between gender identification and marketing is emerging in various ways to the forefront of the public consciousness. I sense that the people who are having “gender reveal” parties just feel it is fun and cute to celebrate the knowledge of the baby’s gender, but I also sensed fear. Recently, when I admired a baby boy and said he was beautiful, the mother corrected me firmly: “No, handsome!” Marketers rely on that “cute factor” and they engender those fears for their profit: to mask the larger implications of narrowly defined gender roles and to build on the many ways parents reinforce gender identification. As for my daughter and her husband, all they want is a chance to encourage their child’s full humanity and have resources available that support, rather than undermine that effort.

Mary Rothschild is the director of Healthy Media Choices.

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