On “Boxing In”–Pictures, Children, and Identity

HNA7078r1+ToyStories_Jacket_edit1203.inddPhotographer Gabriele Galimberti’s project on children around the world depicted with their most prized possessions was recently published. It’s an adorable set of photos of children with odd collections of items they feel define them. The photos are collected in a volume—Toy Stories: Photos of Children From Around the World and Their Favorite Things.

Initially, I was reminded of JeungMee Yoon’s “The Pink and Blue Project” (here), where she took pictures of girls surrounded by all of the pink things they owned and boys surrounded by their blue clothes, toys, and décor. Some of what struck me was the global uniformity in the objects surrounding children. It’s a powerful statement of globalization to see that children are growing up all around the world with some of the same cultural influences: from characters, to colors, to cars and weapons, and more.

Enea, 3, Boulder, Colorado.But, at a larger level, I think this project reflects one way we like to think about identity: that each of us has one of them and that it is established early on and that it (or elements of “it”) stick, such that we can recognize vestiges of our childhood identities in our adult selves. Indeed, when I’m explaining Freud to students, I often start by summarizing what I take as Freud’s central insight—“Life history matters.” It matters for who we are, who we might become, and more.  But, “life history” is rarely captured in snap-shots.  We think of it this way–but out identities are projects that unfold in time.  Some things make larger marks than others, but identifying exactly what is important and why is often more difficult than we like to think.

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Gendering Children and Children’s Spaces

Jiyeon and Her Pink Things_mJeungMee Yoon’s “The Pink and Blue Project” has garnered quite a bit of attention.  The photographs are visually jarring.  Cole and His Blue Things_mPositioning girls and boys in the midst of the sea of their own pink or blue objects is a powerful statement about gender, consumption, and globalization.  Yoon got interested in the project through her own struggles as a parent.

The Pink and Blue Projects were initiated by my five-year-old daughter, who loves the color pink so much that she wanted to wear only pink clothes and play with only pink toys and objects. I discovered that my daughter’s case was not unusual. In the United States, South Korea and elsewhere, most young girls love pink clothing, accessories and toys. This phenomenon is widespread among children of various ethnic groups regardless of their cultural backgrounds. Perhaps it is the influence of pervasive commercial advertisements aimed at little girls and their parents, such as the universally popular Barbie and Hello Kitty merchandise that has developed into a modern trend. (here)

CAMD-paperbackIndeed, these struggles are the same that led Peggy Orenstein to write Cinderella At My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.  As both Yoon and Orenstein show, pink and blue are about so much more than colors.  These colors structure children’s lives in intricate ways.  D’Lane Compton and I posted on similar issues with respect to children’s clothing and the gendering of parenting products (here).

The objects we fill our children’s rooms with tell us a great deal about our culture and they structure the ways children experience the world around them.  While “princess culture” gets a lot of attention, it’s probably fair to say that the ways boy’s objects and identities are similarly gendered with all variety of “blue” is less discussed.

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Are “Gender-Neutral” Spaces for Children Doing Anything?

Harrods–an internationally renowned department store in London–has changed the ways in which children encounter toys in the store. Rather than creating gender-specific areas and aisles, they have elected to group toys thematically. Harrods is calling it their “first gender-neutral toy department.” It’s interesting and wonderful to think that feminist critiques of toy store segregation might possibly be behind this move. I think it probably has much more to do with creating a children’s “fun zone” where you don’t realize that you’re actually shopping–though everything’s for sale. It did cause me to pause though and think about what the heck “gender-neutral” actually means.

My son–Ciaran–was born on April 4, 2011. Preparing for a child was an interesting process. Even before you start trying, you start reading (and there is NO shortage of material), and–if you live in the U.S.–you develop your “parenting philosophy.” This encompasses things like what research you support, agree with, or choose to acknowledge; whether you’ll be breastfeeding and for how long; whether you’ll allow your child to “cry it out” at night; and much much more. Lots of new parents think about gender. It’s something about which we thought a great deal. It’s not that we don’t want Ciaran to have a gender, or to be gendered, or even that we think that’s possible. But, we wanted to control some of the ways in which gender (as an organizing principle in the world around him) was introduced to him on a daily basis.

This issue becomes particularly important if you will need or want to rely on family and friends to help you buy some of the things you acquire when having a baby. Certainly clothing is gendered, but so are pacifiers, baby carriers, bottles, strollers, car seats, teething rings, crib sheets, mobiles, children’s books, most of children’s media (if you use it), toys, sleeping sacks, diaper bags, and more.

We responded in a way that I’m guessing is typical of many couples like us when asked, “So, what can we get for you?” We ended up sprinkling the phrase “gender neutral” into lots of those early conversations.

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Barrie Thorne, “Borderwork,” and the Social Space of Schools

If someone had told me that the way to pick a research project was to scan my bookshelf, find my absolute favorite studies, and figure out what they have in common, I’d have done a school ethnography. It was Barrie Thorne’s Gender Play (1993) that made me want to go to graduate school. I just learned that she retired and thought it might be a fitting time to talk about how much her work inspires me.

When sex role theory was the way to talk about gender, scholars and activists interested in discussing gender inequality focused on key socializing institutions (where “sex roles” and their associated expectations were thought to be primarily produced) like the family, education, religion, etc. I have always thought that school ethnographies emerged out of this period – though Parsonsstructural functionalism seems a distant memory to much of this research. Incidentally, Barrie Thorne was among the group of feminist scholars who collectively explained why sex role theory was and is inadequate as a theory.

[SIDE NOTE: Terms like “class roles” and “race roles” were never as popular as “sex roles.” Yet scholars dealing with race and class were certainly navigating similar concerns. Paul WillisLeaning to Labor (1977) is a prime example, illustrating how working-class youth are making a choice to enter working-class jobs. But it’s a choice that is structured by much more than their individual desires.]

Lately, I’ve gone back through a number of my favorite school ethnographies to read more about how scholars discuss the role of space in the structuring of children’s experiences of school, the perpetuation of inequality within schools, and the fostering of performances of self at school.

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