The other day I was at Home Depot in line behind two kids buying candy bars (which was… weird. I mean. In my day we bought our candy bars at 7-11). A little girl, about eight, paid for the candy for herself and her older brother. I don’t really know what was going on because, I mean, lots of reasons. Because I was thinking about my own purchases (sadly candy-free), because I am notoriously oblivious, and because it’s really none of my business. I guess I assumed a parent had given her some money for her to share with her brother and planned to meet the kids just beyond the entrance.
It was the cashier’s comment that caught my attention.
“When you’re older, promise to never pay for a boy again, ok?”
It’s this weird sexualization of children, I think, that bothered me more than the sexism itself – although I hadn’t dug that deep quite that quickly. I just knew the whole thing felt inappropriate to me.
It’s not appropriate to make every thing a child does about their future sexuality. It’s not appropriate to make blanket demands of a little girl about what kind of woman she should be once she’s grown. I know the cashier didn’t mean it that way and I know that so many people every day make comments like that with completely innocent intent. And that’s the problem, really. That we are conditioned by society to think that something dark is innocent, and then we, in turn, condition the next generation. It’s the building blocks of the patriarchy.
And to be clear here I am not saying that it is sexist for a woman to allow a man to pay. I’m not saying she should always or even sometimes pay. I don’t know. I don’t give a shit what people do. I can’t make rules like that because every person and situation is so different. A wise friend once, in giving me step-by-step dating instructions (because sometimes 30-somethings need that sort of thing), told me that it’s generally best, in the beginning of the relationship at the very least to just follow social tradition and expect that the man will pay. That makes total sense. So, you see, I am not, in any way, against women allowing men to pay for dates or candy at the Home Depot.
But to tell a child who you don’t even know that there is just one way that things are done – to make her promise to follow that particular social norm – feels wrong to me. To assume that the things she is doing today are ultimately leading up to a romantic encounter at some point years from now is gross on every possible level. We are so used to doing this sort of thing that we don’t even see what it is that we are doing. Because the sexualization of children isn’t limited to the obvious. It’s not just t-shirts for kindergarteners that say “FLIRT” across them. Every time we align a child with an adult’s sexual role, we are sexualizing the child. Every time you make a comment about a toddler having a boyfriend, or how a baby boy is going to break girls’ hearts someday, you are making adult comments about a not-yet-sexually-mature person. This girl at Home Depot wasn’t on a date. This girl didn’t even have boobs yet. She was wearing a bright yellow summer shift dress with her hair up in a ponytail – she could not have looked more eight-years-old if she’d tried. As she and her brother left he asked her what the cashier said and the girl grinned and told him, “I’m not allowed to pay for boys ever again.”
I was going to just let the whole thing go because, honestly, I can’t police the entire world. Even though I’d be really, really good at it, I just can’t tell everyone how to live and then make sure that they follow my rules. But the cashier dragged me into it.
“Don’t you think so, though? That she should never pay for a man?”
“Uh. Well. I guess I just don’t think we should reinforce gender roles in kids.”
You guys. I have social anxiety. I scored a 92 on this test. It’s really hard for me to talk to people I don’t know, let alone have opinions at them. But I was being asked a direct question and I couldn’t just pretend to agree because I am just as physically incapable of being inauthentic in that way as I am physically incapable of making small talk. This is me. I can’t talk about the damn weather if you paid me, but I will get directly into a deep discussion on sexism and gender expectations for children within five minutes of seeing you for the first time ever. I might be shaking and unable to make eye contact, but we will have this conversation.
Thank god I’m cute.
Then the lady told me – I swear I am not making this up – “It’s not like I told her to not be a lesbian or anything.”
I blinked. I tried to connect the dots. I blinked some more. What?
“I didn’t think you were,” I said. “It just reminds me a little bit of when my daughter broke her tooth last summer and the dentist told her that girls can’t skateboard.”
That pushed a button. “It’s nothing like that!”
“It kinda is, though. I just don’t think we should make blanket statements based only on her gender for her entire life right now.”
And at that point the cashier totally switched gears. I don’t know if she actually meant it when she told me that I was right and she just hadn’t looked at it that way or if she’d made a decision to let the crazy feminazi think she’d converted a sexist-heathen to the flock so she could get on with her day of selling lumber and Snickers. I’d love to believe I’d had some impact on how she sees things, but I just really don’t know that people are that willing to change viewpoints that quickly for someone they’ve never even met.
What are your thoughts on this? How would you feel if someone told your daughter something like that? Would it bother you or would you feel comfortable with it? Do you feel like it’s part of sexualizing children, or is it strictly a gender role comment?