It’s easy (and popular) to claim the media has no effect on who we are. To claim we’re sophisticated enough to rise above influence and separate the truth from the hype. But the truth is, whether we’re born trans or cis; gay, straight or bi; the world has a lot to say about gender and most of those messages either start with or are reflected by the media.
Before we’re even born, parents-to-be are asked, “Is it a boy or a girl?” This seems like an innocent enough question, although the accurate answer would be, “Neither, it hasn’t told us yet. But it’s physically male/female.” But of course, that would not be a socially acceptable answer. You must answer “boy” or “girl” or “we don’t know” and shut up about the difference between gender and sex. Nurseries, toys, clothes and the babies themselves are already divided down the gender binary before they can even open their eyes properly. And the media encourages this by dividing catalogs and nursery planning books along stereotypical gender lines. The most popular “themes” on the Babies R Us website includes sports, racing, Winnie the Pooh, jungle and space for boys and pink, Disney, pink, princesses, and, what do you know, more pink for girls. What a surprise!
Of course infants won’t be influenced by things they have no way of remembering later in life. Case in point, I have no idea what my nursery looked like or if I even had one (being the first child to poor college students). But what is important is the parents treating the child differently based on sex. Studies have shown female babies are comforted more and are handled more gently and with a softer voice than with male babies. While male babies are allowed to cry longer in order to “toughen them up”. These differences are both accidental and actually encouraged by some parenting books that play on parents’ fears of raising a queer. Perhaps this is the foundation for so many girls and later women being unable to make themselves heard or allow themselves to occupy space. It could also be seen as the first instance of a boy being told to “suck it up and walk it off” and deny his emotions.
Let’s move on to childhood. Kids can walk, talk and even think for themselves to some degree. This is perhaps their most vulnerable time to internalize harmful messages and stereotypes. Therefore, marketers target them with a vengeance in order to seal “cradle to grave” loyalty. Until the age of about 8 or 9, children are unable to distinguish commercials from the actual program and marketers play on this shortcoming, having cartoon characters sell fast food, candy and toys to children who can’t tell they’re being emotionally manipulated. Because television is such a popular babysitter, many parents are not there to help their child see marketing for what it is and to point out gender stereotypes.
Children also have a lot of uncertainty in their private lives. For this reason, they can be seen clinging to gender stereotypes presented to them. For their early school years, children are unsure why the gender binary exists, but fear crossing over to the other side. This fear is reinforced and preyed upon by creating exaggeratedly gender-specific toys, advertising and programming. At the same time children naturally divide themselves by gender during this “Cootie Phase”. Marketers tell children they need to play with trucks if they’re a boy or dolls if they’re a girl. The urge to strongly identify with their gender is played against them and they buy it hook, line and sinker. Now they’ve been primed to respond to gender-specific marketing on through adulthood. Cleaning and cooking commercials will feature women and car and beer commercials will feature men, even though men and women both use these products throughout their lives. The transition is so subtle most don’t even realize it. Now that I’ve pointed it out, try to find a gender-neutral advertisement next time you read a magazine or watch television. It’s harder than you’d think.
So how do all these messages about gender affect queer children and later queer adults? Whether you were confused about your gender or sexuality or both as a child, nearly every queer adult can remember feeling “different”. That’s all most queer kids know at such an early stage. They might not be able to articulate that they’re gay or trans, but they easily know they’re “different” from what they believe the rest of the world is like. There is no advertisement or show that reflects their personal reality, so they internalize the message that they are “weird”, “different”, or a “freak”. They play with the toys presented to them normally when adult eyes are watching, but as soon they’re alone Barbie becomes a lesbian. Batman and Superman have a tea party and discuss their busy lives. A stuffed toy becomes a baby doll. But queer kids aren’t the only ones who “queer” their toys. All three of the examples I just gave were shared with me by straight, cis friends.
If the idea that all boys play with trucks and all girls play with dolls is a lie, why does it keep being portrayed in the media? Because everyone has insecurities about gender and sexuality. And where there is insecurity there is a profit to be made. From “cradle to grave”, women are shown images of young, skinny, white, straight, feminine and (usually) blond role models. From the Disney princess to the supermodel in magazines, this same image over and over becomes seen as “normal” because it’s all that’s presented to us. Despite the fact that this role model reflects a very small portion of the general population, if anyone, women are told we should all aspire to be her, which is an impossible goal, otherwise we’ll never get married. This ensures we will buy into diets, makeup, beauty treatments, clothing and cosmetic surgery until we die.
From “cradle to grave”, men are shown images of tall, muscular, white, swarthy, heroic, masculine, misogynistic, violent, tough role models who don’t show their emotions. From GI Joe to Rambo, men are sold a very narrow image of manhood that doesn’t include any real person. (Except maybe Hemingway, but even he did “un-manly” things like write for a living.) Men are told if they don’t fit this stereotype then they’ll never have sex and their lives will be meaningless. This ensures they will buy into cars, cologne, alcohol, guns and sports paraphernalia until they die.
Boys do cry. Girls are aggressive. Everybody ages. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We should embrace the truths of our world and base our reality on the people in our lives rather than the ones on the screen or page. There’s no Photoshop in the real world and there’s much more variety than skinny, big-breasted women and tall, muscular men. And when we interact with children we should encourage them to enjoy aspects of themselves that go against the norm. Take your daughter to the science museum. Teach your son how to cook. The world will be a lot better for it.