Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Giraffes are for everyone, and remembering Suzy the Brick

"Giraffes are for boys," a complete stranger told me when I was about seven months pregnant with the Grape and browsing at a chichi baby boutique in my hometown. "I'd get that stuffed giraffe if we had a boy."

Some women claim pregnancy hormones make them weepy, sentimental and all earth-mothery. Mine had different effect: they transformed me into the kind of shrill lunatic who gives a complete stranger an earful about everything that's wrong with him.

In public.

Over a stuffed animal.

Granted, my chosen tactic of (loudly and bluntly) telling this father-to-be that he was a moron and an affront to women everywhere if he thought girls couldn't be interested in animals, may have veered towards insanity.

But even now, almost two years later, I stand by the gist of my reaction.

I hate our society's penchant for hyper-sexualizing everything baby. I've written before about the dearth of cheerful unisex baby clothes (I refuse to dress the Grape as a mini jock, a little construction worker or a billboard for the Gap line of clothing stores). And the lack of palette beyond pink in the majority of girls' boutiques leaves me queasy.

But it's worse than just the clothes. Yesterday, a participant on Boston's perennially popular GardenMoms complained about one of my huge pet peeves: the displays at Pottery Barn Kids. She noted that the "boy room" display at our local store featured a telescope, a map and a dictionary. The adjacent "girl room" included a pink vacuum cleaner, ironing board and dustpan.

The first comment on the thread said, "The boy room is great!"

No argument there, except it shouldn't be a boy room.

Little girls can be interested in space, too. I think it's a giant leap backwards when corporate America suggests otherwise. When I was five years old (well before the days of Sally Ride), I spent hours playing astronaut. My lunar landing module was the box which previously housed my family's new refrigerator.

And while we're considering appliances, why are the toy homemaking supplies pink? I get that toddlers want to play at doing the everyday chores they see adults tackling, but seriously: Have any of us ever purchased actual pink appliances? Or whipped up dinner in a cotton candy colored kitchen?

The stores and manufacturers deliver their message with all the subtlety of a (boyish) freight train. Don't even think of buying this stuff for your son, lest you turn him soft.

But what about boys with "softer" tendencies? Some of the most talented artists and best chefs I know happen to be men. You wouldn't know by perusing the boys' section that these would qualify as acceptable inclinations.

I also know plenty of men who resent their parents to this day for espousing an all-boys-love-football mentality, a message the baby decor industry is happy to help new moms and dads convey.

Full disclosure: I haven't set foot in one of Pottery Barn's stores since before the Grape was born, and I know they aren't the sole offender. Indeed the items I have purchased from them have been of good quality. Also, I happen to like flowers and the color pink.

Yet every time their catalog arrives in our mailbox my blood boils.

Maybe it's because I was a little girl who loved animals, climbed trees and asked for books about dinosaurs and a microscope for my birthday. Not that I didn't play with dolls. I had lots of baby dolls and indeed found them far more interesting than actual infants - perhaps because they never fussed, squirmed or drooled. Also they made good fellow astronauts.

The girl down the street had Suzy the Brick.

No, that's not a popular toy of the seventies you missed.

C.'s mom would have needed a sedative if she'd lived to see the PBK nurseries. She bought into the feminist philosophy that girls shouldn't play with homemaker type toys, which in her view included baby dolls.

But some impulses can't be squelched. When my friend C. (who grew up to be a surgeon) was three or four she desperately wanted a baby doll. Her mom refused, so eventually C. hauled home a brick she found, cradled it, fed it a pretend bottle and dressed it in cast off infant clothes.

One of the Grape's favorite toys is a doll stroller. He hasn't had to resort to wheeling construction materials around in it, because I learned something from watching C. play with Suzy the Brick.

And no, I'm not worried about making him girlie, as one relative suggested over the holidays. The Grape is who he is - a little kid who doesn't fit neatly into a nursery scene crafted on Madison Avenue. He plays with strollers and stuffed animals and trucks and blocks. His other favorite toy is a fire engine.

His room is his little sanctuary, filled with his various treasures. If he grows up a bit and wants more gender specific furnishings, I imagine we'll accommodate his wishes.

But for now, sexual identity hasn't crossed his radar. So why on earth would I create a room that enforces 1950's stereotypes - even if the Grape as a boy would land on the "winning end" of those stereotypes?

I wouldn't, obviously, but one disturbing thing is clear: Pottery Barn and other companies make money by selling consumers what the things they want to buy. Do we as a society truly desire such rigid gender differentiation, starting in infancy? Is there some benefit to this thinking that I'm missing?

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