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Gender neutrality needs some skirts

Ellen Degeneres has a new line of girls’ clothes at Gap Kids, and it looks pretty great, but “gender neutral” it’s not.

The Gap Kids website says that they are “dedicated to supporting girls just as they are, whether they skateboard or dance, wear dresses or jeans.” The clothes feature slogans like “Be your own hero” — and Gap even donates to Girls Inc. for every purchase from Ellen’s line!

It features sweatshirts, t-shirts, shorts, pants, sneakers — despite their tagline, it all seems pretty decidedly tomboyish. Ellen is doing a great thing by creating more options for girls who don’t want to dress in a traditionally girly way, no doubt about that.

It’s when the news media refers to Ellen’s Gap Kids line as “gender neutral” that I start to have problems.

The Advocate says that the clothes feature “gender neutral colors,” like gray, brown, and green, and Business Insider calls Ellen’s clothes for girls and women alike “gender neutral.” Fortune says that the clothes mirror Ellen’s own “non-gender-specific” style.

What grates on me is the idea that “non-girly” is the same thing as “gender neutral” — it means that “neutral” isn’t neutral at all; it’s much more like “male.” I’m all for gender neutrality in theory: people should be able to express or define their gender however they want, including in non-binary ways. But there needs to be room for femininity in there, or we’re just using progressive ideas about gender to reinforce the old belief that boys are better than girls.

We all know what that looks like. Marketing wisdom says that girls will read books about boys, but not the other way around. Girls should want to play with trucks, but boys shouldn’t want to play with dolls. It’s cute when girls like baseball, but boys in nail polish are an outrage.

All of this not only says that “girl things” are inferior, but also reinforces the idea that standard, ideal human beings are male, and that girls and women are deviations from that ideal. Boys are real people, and girls are just girls.

It’s great to give girls more options, but saying that “boyish” things are “neutral” sure doesn’t help us combat sexism. I don’t see Gap Kids creating a line of dresses for boys anytime soon, complete with news media celebrating them for smashing gender stereotypes.

Girls can and should be and do whatever they want — and if they want sparkles and fairies, that should be just as valid as soccer and superheroes. To be really powerful, the message shouldn’t be that all kids should be able to be like boys, but that all kids should be able to be whatever kind of kids they want to be.
Sasha Albert holds a Master’s degree in Gender and Sexuality from the University of Amsterdam, and works in public health research in the Boston area.

One thought on “Gender neutrality needs some skirts

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  1. So you wonder, why there isn’t a way for boys to dress more feminine, right? Well, might it be that they (boys and men) have not been crying and raging about it incessantly for the last decade?

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