Online shopping is convenient, and since I became a parent, I have all but given up shopping in actual stores. It’s not just the hassle of the lines and noise and having to wear outside clothes that prevents me from visiting the nearby shopping center; it’s the bombardment of cringe-worthy things my son encounters very time he goes to the mall. Putting aside the very idea of capitalist greed — and that our community even needs three city blocks’ worth of retailers when we’re starved for green space and our public schools are overcrowded — it’s the culture of consumerism that irritates me most as a parent. It’s a sometimes a necessary evil, though, because there are those rainy Sundays in March where you realize everyone’s pants are too short and you also need a toaster and a baby shower gift and there’s a food court where I can get sushi and they can get pizza. So away we go.
My kids know my stance on feminism: it’s the basic operating principle of our family. They learned, as tiny toddlers, to keep their hands to themselves. They watch their father do just as much domestic labor as their mom. I know I can’t protect my children from our culture’s prevailing patriarchy, but I am teaching them to call it out. “That’s sexist,” my 8-year-old son remarked when we got to the part in one of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books that included a detail about how girls ought to behave. Instead of explaining that the book was written over 50 years ago, I beamed and agreed with him.
But just when I think I’m winning, I realize his shoes are too small and we’re off to the mall. And it’s everything I can do to shield his eyes from the entire ecosystem that threatens to undo all the good work I have put in to raising him to be respectful and a champion of all women.
Here are just a few things my son has encountered at the mall that grate against our gender parity goals.
1. Only Women’s Underwear Is Meant To Be Seen
I remember ordering my first pairs of Victoria’s Secret underwear from the catalogue: I was 16 and thinking about who else might be looking at me without my pants on (aside from my doctor). Almost overnight, the lingerie store set up brick-and-mortar outposts all over the city. Bras and panties were proudly on display. The message was clear: woman’s bodies were meant to be seen. But their heads were not to be considered; while lingerie mannequins sport full bosoms and perky butts, there is no consideration for where their brains might go.
2. Clothes Arranged By Gender
My daughter had to buy her beloved Star Wars shirts in the “boys” section. I can’t find Wonder Woman or Black Widow apparel in the boys section. While some retailers are moving away from categorizing clothes by gender, the majority stores still arrange apparel that way. For young children, whose bodies have not yet fully developed, there is no reason to separate clothes in this way, just like there is no good reason why men’s shirts have buttons on one side and women’s the other. It’s as if the garment industry had to make up a reason to keep men and women away from one another.
3. Shirts That Do The Talking For Them
Mommy’s Little Angel. Daddy’s Little Helper. And don’t forget the Boys Will Be Respectful t-shirt. I have nothing against these slogans. I have everything against my child being a walking poster for caregiving values. The words on their chest can never replace the impact of how they move through the world, embodying their meaning. Actions speak louder than words and no t-shirt is going to instill respectful behavior in my son than those around him modeling it (the behavior... not the t-shirt).
4. Boys Live In The Real World. Girls Live In A Fantasy
I really hate unicorns. I hate how unicorns are marketed (to girls only). I hate what unicorns represent (that which can never be real). But I also hate that boys don’t get clothes designed for their bodies that display glitter and rainbows and the idea of happily ever after.
5. Guys Shopping For Themselves. Women Shopping For Everyone Else (And Maybe Themselves)
It’s common for me to see a mom pushing a stroller with one or more kids accompanying her through the hallowed linoleum-tiled halls of our Queens Center mall. Less common is to see a man navigating the halls as such.
6. Sports Are For Boys; Bath Rituals Are For Girls
The athletic footwear shops at our mall carry shoes for men, women, and children. But the men’s merchandise is what’s featured, at the front of the store. And while the Body Shop’s products can be used, technically, by any gender, my son only sees women in the posters and ads decorating the store. Women, apparently, don’t feel the need to participate in sports as much as they do in elaborate skincare routines.
7. Men Lazing In Massage Chairs
To be fair, there are men and women burrowing into these giant leather mouths clustered in the atrium of our mall. But there are a lot more men, doing a terrible job of guarding piles of shopping bags with their eyes closed.
8. The Princess-ification Of Our Daughters
As a career choice, I can’t exactly knock being a princess. You receive a sizable living stipend and never have to worry about drinking and driving. But we are awash in princess messaging, to the exclusion of any promotion for other ambitions. What’s a young boy to think, other than that girls are obsessed with tiaras and jewels and they not entitled to the same sparkly desires. And, that someone must provide for this life of luxury and, due to the absence of royal male symbolism, it must be the guy who’s off somewhere, bankrolling all this.
Or, if we are marketing royalty to our boys, it’s in the form of superheroes: Thor, a prince of Asgard, T’Challa, aka Black Panther, King of Wakanda. Those fairytale princes exist to play in female-driven fantasies only, apparently, if you’re a girl who subscribes to the theory that a rich guy can save you from a death with his kiss, which he only plants on you because he finds you hot.
9. Women Are So Hideous Because Why Else Would They Need Multiple Beauty Merchants Peddling Face Masks
Face masks. I can’t with these face masks. “Cover yourself woman!” Look, I have dry skin and never skimp on my moisturizing routine. But now I have to spend so much more time deciding which product will provide the desired result.
And why isn’t the desired result also desired for men’s faces? The striking imbalance in the amount of beauty products marketed to women compared to those marketed to men send a clear message: “Hey ladies, feel bad about how you look. Hey guys, don’t worry… you’re fine. You get to think about other things. Like video games.”
10. Video Game Stores Are Not Inclusive Spaces
I have been the sole female in video game stores, shopping for my husband. Our kids’ middle names are those of video game characters (he picked them out but I liked them, despite having no clue who they were in the games). My son is 8 and aware of video games through his friends (and his father), though he only likes playing one particular soccer game. Bringing him into a video game store, though, the messaging is clear: point, shoot, kill. Whether you’re a soldier in a first-person shooter, or an athlete in a sports game, the position you must assume is one of extreme aggression. Often there are no other female characters in the game, or just one or two token ones amidst a majority of guys.
I know many girls play video games. But not as many code video games as there are boys building these worlds. And if there was more gender parity in the making of these games, perhaps they wouldn’t feel like they were just meant to be played by guys.