Gender Bias Toward Baby Girls

The devaluation of girls starts before birth.

I can’t tell you how many times my husband and I have been asked which gender we want more. I really don’t mind either – honestly. I really want to have the experience of raising both a girl and a boy. However, most of our guy friends always tell Michael, “Dude- if you have a girl, think about the guy that will come to your doorstep when she’s 16!”  So, their first thought about a girl is her loss of “innocence” through the dating years by a hormone induced boy.

This message is found everywhere. Here is an example of a man from the morning show Today entitled “Dad’s View: I Wanted a Boy but Got a Girl.” He lists what’s great about having a girl:

Things look good for me, too:

•The sex talk, and discussions about the body changes as it matures? My wife’s responsibility! Right?

•I’m already looking forward to intimidating NJ’s suitors with my trademark scowl and angry stare. I’ve already played the “That boy looks a little shady, does he have a job?” card at day care, for practice.

•NJ knows her baseball and football, even clapping gleefully the other night when her dad’s favorite team did something right.

•The sight of my awesome, beautiful daughter in a nice dress, beaming a smile at me or laughing at one of my dumb jokes, will warm my heart for years to come.

Sexuality, protection of this sexuality, and unconscious enforcement of the weak male myth – remembering how rowdy they were as boys, the double standard that is it harder for the boy to control his body and girls are naive so Dad must step in- all seem the initial thoughts for some when thinking about having a daughter.

Like the above example illustrates, this is a completely “natural” response that is highly accepted in our society.

But when expecting a boy, people’s reactions are more like,  “I can see you coaching soccer for your son’s team!” or “He’s going to be a rad triathlete!”  Thus, their first thought is how fun it is for fathers to bond with their sons through sports and how amazing the son will be at sports.

And it’s not just men who say this about girls. It’s women too! Yes, there are mothers that automatically think about all the fun stuff to do with their daughters, but I am specifically talking about all the men and women I have met who have this fear or devaluation of girls based on their reaction to us possibly having a girl. And because this seems almost every one’s response around me lately, it has worried me.

Granted these reactions simply may be men’s inability to relate to young girls because they have never had to. Women have long overcompensated in the parenting arena (girls especially being the mother’s primary responsibility) because it has been one place where we hold a sense of ultimate power. Men are further disconnected from their mothers and sisters or relating to women in general due to this gendered family dynamic.

Maybe a reason it’s easier for some men to picture all the fun stuff fathers do with a son because they lived it themselves. Their own personal experience, of course, mandates their perceptions.

And for mothers, not wanting a daughter may be because the mother has experienced firsthand how limiting the world can be for a woman.

Maybe another reason boys are more desired for some is they don’t have to deal with the make-up, tears, princess crap, the short skirts, the girl-on-girl relational aggression that is sensationalized by the media as the feminine life-blood.

Think about all the Housewives shows- girl fighting or Dance Moms and Tiaras and Toddlers – mothers using children to compete and the competition between those mothers, etc.

Also, think about the clear cut gender bias even in toys. The artist JeongMee Yoon explores color and gender in “Pink And Blue Project.” The image below is a sample of her work. Notice the overwhelming gendered dichotomy.

She reminds us:

As toddlers, girls are already surrounded by primping and domestic products while boys are more interested in science, weapons and violence. The ready-made molds of femininity and masculinity are strongly present in the girls’ tutus and Easy Bake ovens and the boys’ Superman outfits and swords.

We are, fortunately, starting to recognize the limitations our toys are having on our child’s personality thanks to the work of Spark a Movement- Toy Aisle Action Project:

Toy stores play a large role in continuing to support the way children of different genders play and think. From an early age girls are given little options of what they can think and become. It is no coincidence that there is a serious lack of women working in the science and math fields.

Maybe we don’t think tv shows, clothes, toys or choices we are surrounded by even at a young age matter. Maybe men who don’t want girls simply think being the same gender as your child makes it easier to bond. Like equals like in their mind.

But what if it is individual personalities of both the parent and the child – not gender- that make it easier to bond?

For me, it’s about the larger culture normalizing the devaluation of women by highlighting difference.

And part of these larger customary belief systems begins the moment couples announce their pregnancy.

According to Steiner-Adair, “As soon as a baby is dressed in pink or blue, the world responds differently to that baby, as there are gender-based expectations on how girls should behave and what should interest them. Adults respond so much to what a girl looks like that by age five or six, young girls are getting the notion that their body is their selling point. When body image, clothes, marketing for girls is so sexual, it is that much harder for girls to develop a healthy, non-sexualized relationship with their bodies.”

Women are even more guilty of noticing a young girl’s hair or accessory over her intelligence. I think back to how many times I commented on my nieces outfit over her bike riding skills, remarking on her beautiful shirt versus the fact that she was fast on the bike that day.

What one notices first determines what the young girl sees as the most important personality trait. Do people comment on her appearance first or her skills?Imagine how many times someone has come up and noticed her hair instead of the book she holding. What message are we emphasizing?

Even the above example from the dad *happy* he now has a daughter shows that he first thinks of her as alien: the difference in body changes – now his wife’s responsibility because girls relate better to girl.  Then he talks about the dating situation, intimidating boys, his excitement because she’s responding to him sculpting her into a cheerleader (his praise comes from her clapping at dad’s favorite team instead of helping her find her own or at her own sport game where she is actually playing). Next, he discusses her looks – her dress, her smiles at dad, her dutifully playing the role of supporter again, this time not about football but instead insisting he is funny.  It’s interesting to see his definition of how a woman should relate to a man. What is he emphasizing? Isn’t this a common reaction?

If we want young girls to be taught a healthy non-sexualized relationship with their bodies and with men, why is it the first thing many people talk about is fear about her becoming a sexual being and the anxiety men face when that time comes?

It’s partly because we don’t notice it. We don’t make the connection between the immediate response to having a girl and our notions about the myth of male weakness. It is so heavily entrenched in our culture, we are practically blind to it.

Or if we do think about protecting a girl from carnivorous males, our solutions only exacerbate the problem.

Do things like Purity Balls (are there any for moms and sons?) and creating “Daddy’s Little Princess” syndrome help or hurt our beliefs about women? I see it as men weirdly “dating” daughters. The intention is protection, but it worries me because it sends a message girls that she can’t take care of herself, she can’t handle the real world, and she needs to move from one man to another- dad to husband- in order to succeed. She needs a man in order to be safe in this world. Thus, we inadvertently teach them dependency.

Hugo Schwyzer talks about how this paradigm specifically sets women up for future disappointment when they become wives and mothers:

The bit about a daughter having her daddy “wrapped around her finger” repeats the old myth of male weakness. The myth of male weakness suggests that men are inherently vulnerable to temptation and manipulation. Men, the myth insists, have a much harder time practicing fidelity than do women, as men are biologically less capable of resisting sexual temptation. Heterosexual men are easily seduced by women, or so the trope goes, and thus women can use this weakness to flirt their way out of, say, traffic tickets or into jobs and marriages. The parental corollary, I’ve been realizing, is that daddies are far easier for daughters to manipulate than mommies. Fathers, the myth suggests, are powerless to say no to the pleas of their infant (or adolescent, or grown) female children.

I’m also troubled by the message this version of the myth of male weakness sends to girls. It encourages the noxious idea that men are loveable but easily led, and that “pretending to be weak” or “dressing real cute” are better strategies for young women to use to get what they want than simple forthright candor. In a very real way, it teaches little girls that manipulation is preferable to directness, and that good looks and feminine wiles are the most valuable tools a woman can possess. Above all, there’s a sinister reality that undergirds this whole discourse: if men are easily manipulated, than they can never fully be trusted. If a Dad can’t say no to his daughter, he sends her a message (however subliminal) that men are fundamentally unreliable. Whether in families or in boardrooms or in bed, one basic rule of life is that you can never, ever trust anyone who doesn’t have the strength and the agency with which to tell you “No”.

And of course, one other infuriating dimension of the “wrapped around her finger” discourse is that it outsources all of the tough stuff to the mothers of daughters. If I can’t say “no” to my little girl, then it follows that her mother will be forced to take on the role of disciplinarian. I get to become the all-too-familiar “fun Dad” who is really little more than an overgrown son to his exhausted scold of a wife/mother. We’ve all seen the noxious dynamic in which Dad allies with the kids against Mom. Though plenty of men don’t outsource all the boundary-setting to the mothers of their children, far too many fathers do just that, adding not only to women’s burden but unnecessarily complicating — perhaps even poisoning — the mother-daughter relationship. The high drama that we associate with the mother-daughter dynamic in our culture is, at least in some instances, exacerbated by the absence or abdication of far too many fathers.

We when become wives, will we always have to worry about maintaining our good looks and supportive personality to keep our husbands? And when we do have children, how will having a husband who can’t say no to a little girl in order to show her how important she is affect my relationship with my daughter as a mother?

Furthermore, beyond remedying this situation with the whole let’s date our father nonsense and messing us up even further, are we unintentionally (or absolutely intentionally) becoming less concerned to real world events that disproportinately affect women?

Erin KLG blogs about the typical excuses women give about not wanting to have a daughter: girls are harder to raise then boys and the world is harder on girls. She ends her discussion with a powerful reminder – the devaluation of girls from the get go harms not only our future daughters but also the women who live here now:

But not wanting a specific sex is even more problematic. Why? Because in a bona fide patriarchy — where rape and assault statistics are too high; where sexism runs rampant across all institutions and in media; where sex trafficking and genital mutilation still exist; where we struggle with the wage gap and lackluster maternity leave; where body autonomy and sexual reproduction rights are constantly under fire; and where women fight for basic education and literacy across the world — when you hope you don’t have a daughter, you are one more voice joining millions of others in silencing women.

It is scary to explore how one little comment can open to a world of hidden beliefs and how those beliefs are interconnected with much, much more.

Are we unconsciously creating the “female problem” we are anxiously seeking to eliminate? And in turn, are we reinforcing the “weak male syndrome” that encourages men to be sexual animals around our daughters? Are we teaching our daughters to be lambs and our sons to be wolves?

Being convinced gender determines our fate doesn’t solve this problem.

We create and emphasize female drama, we create and emphasize female sexuality, we create and emphasize female dependency, yet the moment someone says, “It’s a girl,” we shut our eyes and squirm, hoping our daughters aren’t like the ones we see on tv.

Believing “girls will be girls” – thinking it’s only girls who cry over their looks, who are stressed that a member of the opposite (or same) sex doesn’t like them, who don’t want to play a sport, or who fight over doing math homework – and all these negative things being this our first concern with girls -devalues them instantly. We set them up for failure from what we assign as female from the start.

This might still be a man’s world, and hoping for a boy because it’s easier on him – his sexuality, his needs, it’s easier for him to achieve success – won’t solve this problem.

We need to pay attention to inequities in the larger world and the choices our dollars and time support. How do these things play a role in the personalities of our children that we mistakenly label gender differences?

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