Children’s clothes that fight gender norms– from a Philosophy PhD!


Jenn Neilson writes:

My name is Jenn, and I’m a former academic with a PhD in philosophy from UT Austin (2011). I’ve moved on from academia to my next project, but I thought that you might be interested in a post about it for the Feminist Philosophers blog.

I’m starting a kids’ clothing company called Jill and Jack Kids to challenge gender stereotypes and inspire the next generation of leaders to think beyond pink and blue. We’re launching our new line of kids’ clothes that go beyond pink and blue on Kickstarter from May 19th – June 6th, 2014. We’re starting with t-shirts in sizes 2-8, with 4 designs that change the messages we’re sending to kids, and our products are eco-friendly, socially responsible (no sweatshops!) and made in Canada with US-sourced materials.

As she explains:

Of course it’s great that we’re starting to see skill-building toys being marketed to girls, as well as boys (Goldieblox being the prime example). But this is really only a tiny part of the change that we need to make in kids’ environments to stop reinforcing the outdated gender stereotypes that limit their opportunities in life. If we want kids to want to engage in play that develops new skills, they have to see that kind of play as acceptable for kids like them. This will be easier with some kids than others, but how easily it comes depends both on the examples and influences that they see around them, and on their sense of self–their sense of how they’re supposed to behave, what sort of interests are seen as acceptable for them to have, and what options are open to them. A child’s sense of self is shaped by a combination of his or her own personality, along with a wide range of social factors. To change the environment that kids grow up in enough to stop reinforcing outdated gender stereotypes, we’re going to have to do a lot more than market skill-building toys to kids who are already independent enough, who already have a strong enough sense of self, to be interested in them. If we want to see the level of real, widespread change that stands a chance of eradicating gender inequality as we know it, then we have to start earlier. We have surround kids with influences that will help them to develop a strong and resilient sense of self, so that they will be secure enough to choose toys and clothes and books and movies based on their true interests, instead of choosing according to what society expects of them.

So how do we do that? We start by changing the messages that kids receive from role models in books, on TV and in movies–ending the era of the traditional Disney princess, where adventure, curiosity and personal strength are reserved for boys. But that’s not enough. If we want to change the messages we’re sending to kids, we need to recognize the communicative power of the things that are closest to them–the very clothes we dress them in. Gender conventions in children’s clothing reinforce the idea that building, discovery and active play are for boys, and that girls should be concerned with home life and aesthetic appeal. The bows and ruffles and hearts and frills teach girls about the importance of looking pretty, and the dark colors, truck and sports motifs show boys that they’re destined for competition and adventure. We should strive to make our children’s worlds reflect our hopes for a future where men and women are treated with equal respect, and have equal access to and responsibility for all aspects of life. Only our own choices as consumers and business-owners can make that change happen.

Check out her website here!

13 thoughts on “Children’s clothes that fight gender norms– from a Philosophy PhD!

  1. ‘Jill and Jack’ – not very coherent name for products that aim to ‘challenge gender stereotypes’.

  2. Actually it is– ‘Jack and Jill’ is so much the norm that I didn’t notice the reversal till I read your comment.

  3. If you did not notice, then I wonder if the ‘subtlety’ of the name is ‘strong’ enough.

  4. I like the idea… but *were* half of T-Rexes girls? I don’t think anyone knows. It would be nice to get the science right. Many reptiles and birds (both relevant!) have significant sex bias, and it’s well-established that their sex ratios are temperature-dependent — some zoologists think that’s partly responsible for the extinction of dinosaurs.

  5. Well, in answer to Jamie, maybe no one knows for sure, but we do have some relevant evidence: birds are more closely related to dinos than crocodiles are, and you don’t find temperature dependent sex in birds, although you do (as you point out) find temperature dependent sex determination in many reptiles, including crocs.

    Also, if you look at Silber et. al (2010) Biology Letters, you’ll find further indirect evidence: they looked at a bunch of species of tetrapods in the Cretaceous period, many of which had genotypic sex determination, and many of which had temperature dependent sex determination, and they found, somewhat surprisingly, that a greater percentage of the species with genotypic sex determination went extinct (61%) whereas only 2 out of 16 (12.5%) of the species with temperature dependent sex determination went extinct. So rising temperature doesn’t seem like a great explanation for why the dinos went extinct.

    Congrats on the new business, Jenn! Stop by the department and say “hello” the next time you’re in town.

  6. Thanks, Chris!

    Some birds do indeed vary sex ratios with temperature:

    The effect of developmental temperature on offspring sex ratios has been widely documented across a diverse range of taxa but has rarely been investigated in birds and mammals. However, recent field observations and artificial incubation experiments have demonstrated that the hatching sex ratio of a megapode, the Australian brush-turkey (Alectura lathami), varied with incubation temperature; more females hatched at high incubation temperatures and more males hatched at low temperatures. Here, we investigated the causes of this temperature-dependent sex-biasing system.

    Eiby, Wilmer, Booth, 2008.

    I’m not qualified to say whether temperature-determined sex ratios did in the dinosaurs, but I know some zoologists think it’s plausible:

    Miller, D., Summers, J. & Silber, S. Fertility & Sterility, 81, 954 – 964.

    Anyway, I’m pretty certain that nobody knows about T-Rex sex ratios!

    (Man, I hope I got those html tags right, and I hope wordpress actually allows the anchor and blockquote. Otherwise this comment is going to be a real mess.)

  7. This is a t shirt that makes an anti-sexist statement; it points out sexist assumptions in our culture. That’s one way to combat gender norms. Another way would be to simply make an orange t shirt for girls with the typical cut of a t shirt for girls rather than the typical cut of a t shirt for boys. That would simply be a T. Rex shirt for girls.

    I’m reminded of my frustrating search for non-sexist children’s stories. So many of them are not non-sexist but rather anti- sexist: the stories reinforce that there are sexist attitudes and then their characters challenge them. But I’d like to present my daughter with more stories that simply presuppose that my daughter can be interested in anything and do anything — and in which the characters presuppose that as well.

  8. Thanks for the links, Jamie – But if I’m reading the right paper, the second one you site is older than the 2010 paper I cite in Biological Letters. (That’s why that one I cite is so interesting – because people did think the sex ratio variation might explain dino extinction). But if you know of a more recent reply to the one I cited I’d be interested.

    Also: on the point about birds (your first paper); If its rare in birds, that’s not good evidence. If we expect that the relevant common ancestor would have sex ratio variation with temperature, we’d expect it to be much more common in bird species, which it isn’t.

    So: if it turns out to be quite common in birds, that’s another story. But I don’t see any evidence that it is.

    So I think we still have pretty good evidence about the T-Rex sex ratios not being a result of temperature variation! Unless you have some objection to the logic of the comparative method.

  9. I don’t read all the literature, Chris, but I didn’t see evidence that temperature-dependent sex ratios are rare in birds. I thought the article I cited said it hadn’t been *studied* much in birds.

    Does any paleontologist say it’s likely that Tyrannosaurus populations had 1:1 sex ratios?

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