What if back to school shopping didn’t require selling one’s feminist soul?

My daughter started school this week. I don’t know why I enjoy buying school supplies so much, but something about sharp new crayons, glue sticks, and composition books gets me all excited. I dare not look into the politics of crayola or the corporate practices of gel pens. I know that in the corporatist world we live in, the production of school supplies is undoubtedly not socially just. But what is a woman to do? Not allow her daughter crayons or erasers? We do insist on girlcottingWalMart, and we feel better about crayon purchases now that Crayola no longer has a “flesh” crayon. It gets trickier though when one moves on from school supplies to school attire.

While it’s well nigh impossible to buy clothes manufactured under just, non-sweatshop conditions (and no, American Apparel isn’t a solution due to the racism AND sexism of their ads), it’s also very difficult to find stores that don’t sexualize girls via clothing lines heavy on accentuating the chest area and showing as much skin as possible. As the post about bras for girls over at Feministing reveals, clothes for girls are becoming downright pornified. At Target, they sell not only bras in the girls department, but PADDED BRAS, thong underwear, and high heels. Like I discussed in an earlier post, girls are supposed to look like women. Or, as the big bad wolf would say to Red Riding Hood in her push up bra and red heels, “All the better to sexualize you with, my dear.”

Corporations and the ads they saturate our psyches with also work to teach kids that their number one priority should be to consume. According to the ads, if they buy the right clothes, shoes, pencils, backpacks, MP3 players, cell phones, etc they will truly be cool and have the best friends in the world. As noted over at Diary of an Anxious Black Woman, ads use anti-establishment narratives to pimp their consumerist message. As her analysis shows, the JC Penney back to school ad that rips off The Breakfast Club to peddle the message “buy, buy, buy” plays on the “we are all equal as long as we can shop” message attempting to turn consumerism into something that is rebellious, cool, and, not only that, but as something that erases racial disparity!

In addition to teaching kids that consumerism is like candy and that girls should be as sexy as possible, advertisements (like the one above) work to keep the gender binary firmly in place. The Children’s Place, a popular chain store, launched its back to school ads touting clothes for the “pink princess” or the “superhero.” Now, if the ads (and the clothing lines they promote) suggested those liking pink could be girls or boys, and that superheroes don’t only come in male bodies, that would be one thing. But of course this is not the case. The photos enforce the gender binary of ultra-fem girls and hypermasculine boys (as the pearl clad princess above indicates). Not only that, but the girls choices are heavy on the dresses and skirts. For those of you with daughters in elementary school you have probably found that dresses/skirts are not conducive to recess play, jungle gym antics, or PE (if your daughter is lucky enough to live in a district that has not cut all physical education due to budget constraints that is).

And, as if the back to school shopping were not enough to make one thoroughly exasperated at the gendering of everything from pencil cases to binders, once the kids actually get to school it often gets worse. Most teachers still say “boys and girls” in all cases rather than ever putting girls first. Many use boys against girl tactics in the classroom as well as on the field. Others, if the study by Myra and David Sadker* is any indication, constantly gender police children in the classroom, expecting boys to be rowdy and confident, girls to be pretty and well behaved.

Plus, every teacher I have ever come across still says “you guys.” Yes, I know many feminists even use this phrase but I don’t get why. How is using a phrase that acts as if everyone in the world is male ok? No, people, guys is not neutral – even though some more recent dictionaries try to claim it is. Guys=male, gals=female. Would “you gals” ever be considered neutral? Of course not! Males get to be the neutral, the norm, the unmarked category. Not so for you pink princesses out there.

So, I can understand why Rachel Allen who posted at CANOW.ORG decided that homeschooling was a good way to avoid the gender policing of institutionalized education.

Thankfully, I can use all these frustrations to motivate me to help my college students to keep working to change K-12 education as future teachers and parents. Plus, so far, my kids’ teachers have allowed me to come in and lead class during women’s history month. In the hour or two I am given, I do my darndest to make young kids understand the aims of feminism and the limitations of our sexist, racist, heterosexist, body image, corporatist world. And damn if 3rd graders, 5th graders, etc don’t eat up the feminist message – yes, and the boys too. We don’t give kids enough credit in our culture – they are more than able to learn feminism and social justice in addition to math facts and how to fill in scantron bubbles.

To all you feminist parents out there, good luck surviving the back to school season. If it all gets too much for you, ask your kids to share their pointy new crayons and color some socially aware images of kids whose flesh comes in all colors and whose gender identity breaks the binary mold while having a discussion about conscientious consumption…

*See “Missing in Interaction” in Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls.

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15 thoughts on “What if back to school shopping didn’t require selling one’s feminist soul?”

  1. Hear, hear! Finally, someone who gets it. I am so tired of seeing little girls dressed in skirts and flimsy sandals, trying vainly to play next to boys dressed appropriately in sneakers and pants.

  2. I am so stuck on saying “you guys” to everyone and have never thought of how “you gals” would never be seen as neutral. So true. Great point!
    This goes to show you that, although the vast mojority of us were so thoroughly indoctrinated and conditioned, we can still wake up and break the mold.

  3. it’s enough to make you holler! i left my own musings at a yahoo! article about the very same issue….i’m so glad i’m not a teen/child these days…..i wore rock band tees, jeans and various types of boots thru high school and was considered a “social misfit”….just fine with me, i say….and, as a child, i was way too large to wear anything but clothing tailored for a grown woman….damn.

  4. Smirking Cat,
    Thanks for commenting. Yup, each day when I pick up my kids, I shudder at all the non-play friendly outfits warn by girls! Some of the get ups sadly look more conducive to swinging on the stripper pole than swinging on the monkey bars!

    ThoughtCriminal,
    So, are you gonna stop saying “you guys” ? Just curious… Thanks for reading.

    DiosaNegra,
    Thanks for hollering! I love hearing from social misfits!

  5. I already have to check myself constantly because it is something I’ve said for as long as I can remember.
    To answer your question, yes, I am going to stop using “you guys” and will correct myself if it slips out out of habit. Now that I’ve read this post I’d feel like a fool to do otherwise.
    Thanks for posting.

  6. Trying to raise children with a feminist mind set is extremely difficult. I find that almost everything I teach in the home is soundly counteracted in the education system. It may take me weeks to drive home a point only to hear, “but the teacher says.” There have been days when I wanted to park myself in the class room with different signs reading sexist, racist, abelist etc to counteract the messages that they seem to feel is appropriate to force feed my child.

  7. Thought Criminal,
    Yeah! I am so glad you are trying to kick the you guys habit!

    Renee,
    I would love to see you in a classroom with those signs. That would be so classic. Would make a great video clip…
    My kids now use the “my teacher says” line to question things. As in “my teacher still says you guys mom. Can you believe it?” or “My teacher thinks Bush is a good president. Isn’t that crazy?” I bet yours will do this soon with a great parent like yourself teaching them to question and analyze the world around them…

  8. sexism homophobism, ableism, lookism, racism and thongs!!! I must have missed all those things in school and from what I read here I’m glad I did!

  9. Henry,
    Did you learn Columbus “discovered” America?
    Did you learn mainly about male figures/achievements?
    Did you read Howard Zinn type history or mainstreams “America is the bestest” type of history books?
    Did you learn about the enforced sterilization of Native Americans, African Americans, poor whites, and the disabled?
    Did you have teachers who complimented female students on how cute their outfits were?
    Is so, you experienced all of these things. Well, you may not have encountered thongs, I give you that.

  10. My partner and I absolutely love your blog and find a lot of your post’s to be precisely what I’m looking for.
    Would you offer guest writers to write content to suit your needs?
    I wouldn’t mind producing a post or elaborating on a number of the subjects you write related to here. Again, awesome blog!

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