(Some of these descriptions are excerpted from the paper I gave at the American Folklore Society conference in Nashville last week.)
In the toddler boys’ section of department stores and big box stores such as Target, where most boys ages 2-4 find their clothes, the colors are (as my friend Blythe puts it) “incredibly dull.” In solid color shirts, you can have your choice of navy blue, as well as brown, and perhaps red. Almost without exception, brightly colored shirts are literally stamped with messages about masculinity. The one exception is striped shirts, which for some reason are seen as sufficiently masculine on their own.
Mothers I have interviewed decribe the dominant theme of young boys’ clothes as “violent” and “aggressive.” Animals are mean-looking, not cute (with vicious dinosaurs being a favorite), and vehicles generally stop being the cute, cartoonish dump trucks or police cars found on infant boys’ clothes. Instead “they’ve got fire coming out of them or a lot of dirt coming off of them; they look aggressive. They make vehicles look aggressive for little boys somehow” (interview quote).
Another mother agrees: “As I’m shopping for larger sizes, the options almost get more violent. Things that are almost scary looking . . . skeletons, and flames, and there’s nothing soothing about it.” Other examples of aggressive themes and sub-themes include athletic wear, camouflage, and superheroes.
The themes of valiant aggression encoded in images and messages of competition, exploding vehicles, superheroes, and the military begin not only promoting a warrior identity to toddler and preschool boys, but prescribing it. (And the prescription is not always subtle.)
Clothing options that express more diverse aspects of masculinity are hard to come by.
Am I saying little boys shouldn’t wear football jerseys or be interested in Superman? No — but I am saying that I find it troublesome, even disturbing, that competition and aggression are the ONLY positive messages allowed to small boys. What about being out in nature? What about digging in the dirt, not to tear a building down, but to make a vegetable garden? How about the sensory enjoyment of different textures and fabrics? How about creativity and whimsy?
Tell me how you’re addressing this — creative shopping? Clothes altering? I love hearing from other parents!