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?
That comment was just plain gross. As are any comments that you used as examples of sexualizing children. That would really bother me if someone said that to my girls. I just don’t like putting kids into that context. It makes me really uncomfortable. When I was a kid, I had a next door neighbor who I’m 99% sure was a pedophile. He was definitely grooming me from the moment we moved into our house. He ended up doing one really odd thing that confirmed my suspicions. Long story, but the point is that he would say a lot of things in a joking manner to me about dating and boys, etc. So when people do this I instantly think of my creepy neighbor and I waiver between anger and nausea. I don’t think all people who make similar comments are pedophiles, but I do think they are ignorant and if they can gently be corrected, the better off everyone will be.
Okay, the paying-for-a-boy comment could have been completely innocent on the cashier’s behalf, even though I wouldn’t have really liked the comment either, but the, “It’s not like I told her to be a lesbian,” would have pissed me off. I commend you for not snapping at her and for handling it so well. What if you were a lesbian? What would she have done then? It’s clear that she’s one of those people who speaks before she thinks, and eventually that’s going to bite her in the ass.
So, yes. The follow-up comment was sexualization of a child. Working at Target and seeing the toddler and kid-sized shirts with “All the ladies want me” and “Flirty Girl” fly off the racks made me realize that kids seem to never get to be kids anymore. From the first moment, it seems like so many kids are being preened and prepped for their sexual futures, and that’s sad. I had a ton of childhood hours involving coloring books and Disney movies and blanket forts and bicycle-riding. Boys were the LAST thing on my mind.
Meh. I always speak up, even when I probably shouldn’t. You stood your ground and that’s important. That little girl (hopefully) stuck around to see you stand your ground. That, alone, would be a valuable lesson. After all, women are still frequently more worried about being liked than being correct.
She was buying candy for HER BROTHER!!!!! A FAMILY MEMBER!! That is a nice thing to do. Buying candy for someone is a nice thing to do. I buy meals for my boyfriend on the rare occasion we go out. He bought dinner one night, I bought breakfast the next day. We are both professionals..we make our own money and support ourselves..I don’t expect him to pay my way every time nor do I expect frivolous gifts. That’s not who we are. I doubt one comment from a cashier at Home Depot will dent her (it might bubble up at some point, and hopefully she’ll discuss it with someone) but it IS part of the ever louder background noise that screams the same scary message. Thanks for speaking up.
That’s EXACTLY it. The background noise. YES.
The cashier’s first comment doesn’t even make sense to me, because is this not the 21st century? Do women not comprise a large percentage of the workforce and own their own homes (hey!) and pay their own bills and buy their own candy all the time these days? I think if you’re the kind of woman who wants a man who will always pay your way, you can probably find that man and you may live to regret your choice. But it makes ZERO SENSE to me that in 2013 in the United States a grown woman (who presumably was young enough to have benefited greatly from women’s lib and feminisim) would tell a young child that she should never pay for a boy again. Like you said, who cares what other people do, but that is up to each person (and couple) to work out for themselves.
I’m with Bex, the lesbian comment would have angered me more. The first one was more about gender roles; the second one was definitely sexualizing a child. And just a dumb, thoughtless thing to say. Does she think lesbians never shop at Home Depot!? She could actually get into trouble if someone reported her to the manager for saying that kind of stuff.
I think the lesbian comment was her trying to say that she wasn’t anti-gay. She was saying that it was cool with her if the girl grew up to be gay, but that she wouldn’t be paying for men anyway in that case. So it was the kind of comment that’s totally homophobic even though she probably doesn’t realize she’s homophobic.
I scored a 32 on that test, if you’re curious. Much higher on avoidance than fear. I don’t even qualify as mildly socially anxious, which isn’t surprising. It’s not that I’m anxious about social situations, it’s just that they wear me out so quickly.