In “Creative” Kids Activities Collections, Heterosexuality is the Only Option
In “Creative” Kids Activities Collections, Heterosexuality is the Only Option
Guest Blog by Emily Brooks, Journalist, Brooklyn, NY, www.emilybrooks.com
Activity and doodle books claim to offer “creative” opportunities for school-aged kids to draw and color. It’s no surprise that their artistic prompts in these separate pink-and-blue books are chock full of gender stereotypes. But harmful stereotypes about sexual orientation and relationships are also hidden within their pages.
Drawn Apart: Illustrating Differences
What do girls and boys look like according to activity and doodle books? According to The Big Book of Just for Girls (2012), girls are probably blonde. About eighty percent of the nearly 150 girls illustrating the book were white. One was Native American (and yes, she was wearing a feather headdress). Most strikingly, girls are… women. Fully one-third of the images featured unrealistic skinny and curvy young adults representing “girls”.
And boys? According to The Big Book of Just for Boys(2012), boys are ninety percent white. Boys are goofy and stupid-looking slackers: two-thirds of illustrations presented boys as caricatures, with crossed eyes, huge noses, head size taking up half or more of the body, tongues sticking out, and fifty teeth. It’s a denigrating image.
Why categorize girls as Barbies and boys as brainless blobs? I think it makes it easier to show the difference between boys and girls when most females have breasts, hips, and tight, stylish get-ups. After all, little girls and little boys don’t look all that different… but the gender-split market wouldn’t exist without accentuated differences.
The Big Book of Just for (Straight) Girls
What makes the ideal female reader of Just for Girls a real girl, you ask? In the end, it’s not about liking pink or puppies or parties or being pretty and popular, but instead about liking boys. Heterosexuality is the only option. “Your best friend has a crush—on the same guy you do!” is a common situation that Just for Girls thinks elementary school students must handle right to avoid being labeled “rough around the edges.” The “How Do You Act Around Your Secret Crush?” quiz has a promising start, using “they” and “their” to refer to the crush-in-question. After the language slipped back into male pronouns, I realized the word choice was sloppy grammar, not gender-nonconformity friendliness. If your secret crush doesn’t notice that you like him, it’s definitely your fault, first grade girl! “Try opening up a little around him,” advises Just for Girls. “Throw a compliment to him now and again, and with time, he’ll know you’re into him.” Or maybe the girl got it right: “You’re direct with your flirting—there’s no way he couldn’t know. You should just come clean and see if he feels the same” (101). There’s nothing cooler than heterosexual dating at the end of kindergarten, after all.
One writing prompt asks girls “Which celebrity crush makes you swoon—be it on the movie screen, on stage, or somewhere in between? It’s time to spill the beans on which hottie makes you blush.” A little queer kid who had a crush on Pippi Longstocking or thought Shane was the shit after stealing the remote and discovering re-runs of “The L Word” could comfortably participate. But the authors quickly assert heteronormativity by referring to “leading men” and “stud muffins.” The little girl who likes other girls may be uninterested in writing about which television actors she’d rather “cast as your boyfriend”, and she may not agree with the generalization, “Guys who play in a band are always so good looking!” (44).
The Just for Girls horoscope profiles further drive home the message that heterosexual relationships are inevitable. The authors make female relationships revolve around attraction to males. “Miss Libra” is informed, “You love surrounding yourself with beautiful things (including boys!)” (160), while Scorpios “like to be alone” yet “almost always have a boyfriend.” The key advice? “Just don’t let him see your moody side!” (162).
Girls have the special privilege of being socialized toward a fairytale wedding since toddlerhood. Just for Girls provides activities about “Wedding Bliss”; even though same-sex marriage is increasingly becoming visible (and legal) in the U.S., the idea of “one man and one woman” is often ingrained in childhood representations of marriage, devaluing queer and alternative relationship structures. The “Wedding Dress Styles” word search exemplifies marriage as a little girl’s prime ambition by asserting, “The most important dress you put on is your wedding dress” (123). But these traditional wedding activities devalue and disregard alternative relationship structures, from queerness to polyamory.
Real Boys Aren’t Girly
The Big Book of Just for Boys includes no weddings, no advice about getting girlfriends, no activities centering about crushes on girls. At this stage, boys don’t have to “like-like” girls… as long as they don’t like girly stuff. There is an absence of girls in the book as a whole (in drawings) and only one mention of the word “pink.” For girls, heterosexuality is enforced by what the book includes; for boys, heterosexuality is about what’s not a part of the book. During elementary school, girls tend to be looked at suspiciously for their lack of interest in boys, while boys are looked at suspiciously based on gender expression that bucks the strictly stereotypical norm.
Gender identity and sexuality are totally intertwined in the public imagination, so things like valuing sports over studies still protects boys against taunts of “sissy” or “gay”. In Just for Boys, there are no fun cooking activities, no information on how to volunteer in the community or paint your nails for a reason! None of the boys’ book activities are allowed to suggest any sort of so-called “feminine” activities or attributes. Part of staying safely “boy” is by affirming that boys are separate from and better than girls.
Designing Differences through Doodles
Doodling books look all fun-and-games on the covers, but there’s serious gender messaging going on inside. Gender-specific doodle books not only assume what girls or boys are interested in, but they position the so-called “opposite sex” in strategic ways.
The companion books Pocket Doodles for Girls by Anita Wood and Pocket Doodles for Boys by Chris Sabatino (2010) illustrate cultural assumptions that the “same” sex is for platonic friendship, and the “opposite” sex is for love. Pocket Doodles for Girls offers drawing prompts like “BFF! Draw her.” Later, a crush-themed flower doodle activity starts out saying, “He loves me, he loves me not.” A writing activity in the doodle book called “Born to Rule!” asks girls to fill in sentences like, “My prince’s name would be …” and “My prince would have to do this to win my love forever.” Girls don’t have an option to marry a princess and live happily ever after with her, or fall in love with someone who is gender-nonconforming, in this stereotyped heterosexualized doodle-world. Another doodle page asks girls to “Create the perfect guy from boys at your school. He has ____ hair, _____ eyes, _____ lips, and _____ skin.”
Boys can’t be friends; they are simply objects to look at and date and eventually marry. More activities include drawing your boyfriend as a zoo animal and describing him in one word. Not only does this presume that a young child will be dating, but it also assumes that every girl is straight. Pocket Doodles for Girls takes the heterosexual narrative farther than just weddings: “When I grow up, how many kids do I want? Doodle their names here.” The question, in the context of the crush, love, boyfriend, and wedding activities, takes on greater weight. What stakes does a doodling book have in little girls growing up, marrying a man, and having children?
While the nonstop romance of Pocket Doodles for Girls gets on my nerves, I’m sad that Pocket Doodles for Boys includes zero drawing prompts about affection. The girls get to doodle hearts for those they love, but at least according to the doodle book, boys don’t experience love for others. There are no relationships, no crushes, no future children, and notably, very few girls in the boys’ doodle books. Little boys’ friends apparently all use male pronouns, as do superheroes and aliens.
Like femininity and signifiers of gay identity, females have no place in the manly world of boy doodles. The few female characters that appear in Pocket Doodles for Boys are odd and distorted. There’s a lunch lady, a “friendly mermaid” with prominent boobs, the tooth fairy captured in a jar, audience members, and a scared girl watching the boy artist “doing a crazy dive into the pool!” There’s also Billy Booger’s sister “Snotty Sally”, a librarian that the boy must turn into a clown, Medusa the “monster with snakes for hair”, and “Dummy Dot” who “ate clay” so her limbs are “like putty.” The most frightening female doodle in the boys’ drawing book is under “Wicked Makeover”, a bombshell with the instructions “Turn this beauty queen into a scary witch!”
The books don’t accommodate alternative families. Pocket Doodles for Girls offers two activities in which girls can describe or draw animal representations of “Mom” and “Dad”. Each book offers mom a cameo: Pocket Doodles for Girls offers a friendly picture of a girl kissing her mother on the cheek with the captioning, “Thanks, Mom! Write her a letter.” Pocket Doodles for Boys offers, instead, “You’ve made your mom a hat out of toilet paper. Draw it!”
Finally, the doodle books position males and females as enemies. Girls get to “Draw a sign to hang on your bedroom door” that says “Girls Rule, Boys _____.” Another page, covered in leaves, says, “No Boys Allowed! Draw some plans for the ultimate treehouse here.” Pocket Doodles for Boys incites their young male intended audience to “Draw the cooties on this girl!”, showing a picture of a smiling longer-haired child wearing a ruffled shirt. The page is emblazoned with “CAUTION” in caps-lock block lettering.
Coloring Outside the Lines
Not only do conventional drawing activity books form unhealthy relationships between girls and boys as a whole. They also have no space for gender-nonconforming children, for children who will grow up to be queer, for children with alternative families, or simply for those kids who don’t accept stereotypes as reality.
It’s clear that within the pages of the activity books are layers of stereotypes. Not only are these words sexist, but also they are implicitly homophobic and transphobic. I suspect that so much of children’s literature and activities uphold gender, sexual, and relationship stereotypes because the adults making the books still believe the ludicrous idea that exposing children to differences might turn them different.
If your kids insist on the ultra-gendered doodle books, open the dialogue with them about what they notice, agree, and disagree with in the pages. For our gender and sexuality-diverse young people, I recommend Jacinta Bunnell’s coloring books Girls Will Be Boys Will Be Girls Will Be…(2004) and Sometimes the Spoon Runs Away with Another Spoon (2010). They celebrate gender-nonconformity and queerness, empowering children with messages like “Sugar and spice/ And all things nice,/ That’s what little boys are made of” and “Sometimes the princess is saved by the girl next door.” These books encourage coloring outside the lines, because Jacinta created them just to help kids learn to be themselves. Now that’s some creative conditioning that I can live with.
Please check out more content by Emily Brooks at her blog Changing Perspectives About Gender, Sexuality, and Disability Through Writing.