Bias Binding: The Effect of Gendered Clothing On The World

Here’s a riddle for you:

One day a father and son are driving down a country road when they are involved in a dramatic and horrific car crash. The father is killed immediately and the boy is rushed to hospital unconscious. His injures are severe and so he is taken swiftly to the emergency room where he is prepped before everyone waits for the on call surgeon to arrive.

When the surgeon runs into the room they see the boys face and, turning white, declares they cannot perform the operation.

“He’s my son…” says the surgeon.

If you’re wondering how this is a riddle you may already know the answer to my question; who is the surgeon?

This question commonly shows an innate bias many of us hold, but one that as a young girl I was already well-versed in answering correctly (although my brother was recently caught out during a discussion on this topic). It’s probably not that you are malicious, or intentionally insulting anyone, but this bias is shown by the fact most people won’t know the answer to this relatively basic riddle.

The surgeon is the boy’s mother.

In the 21st century we seem to have a problem with admitting that we still seem to require the defining adjective “female” before most professions in order to understand that women can actually do something, female doctor, female pilot, female chef, female mechanic, etc. Similarly we need “male” before jobs considered more suited to women male nurse, male teacher, male nanny/manny.

It’s been 8 years since the equality act was passed in the U.K. There are still many countries in which being born female is considered a disability, weakness, or disadvantage. You might even die just for not owning a penis.

This gender bias is insulting and infuriating but it affects our environment too. John Lewis made a public statement defending their choice to combine the boys and girls clothing areas and simply have clothes. This, despite some remarkably suspicious public voices, was not an attempt to force little boys into dresses. It is an attempt to allow any child to wear whatever they want without being constrained into stereotypes of colour and content.

It’s relatively simple:
I might be wandering around a shop with my child and ask them what they want to wear. “You want a dress? Find a dress.
Want a dinosaur t-shirt? Find a t-shirt with a dinosaur on it. Want a bright red pair of trousers with stripes? Go explore and see what you’d like to wear.”
Notice how I didn’t say whether my child is male or female. It’s that simple. If your little boy is the most rough-and-tumble mud-and-mess football-loving dinosaur-roaring little child you’ve ever known, nothing is stopping them finding clothing completely suited to them. If they actually quite like the colour pink (*shock horror*) or goes riding and so finds a t-shirt with a horse on it that they like, isn’t it better that they aren’t told by signs and people around them that they are wrong? It is a bias that binds them with public opinion and for no practical reason at all.

By breaking up clothing for children into genders, when their bodies and activities can be pretty much identical up to the start of puberty, we not only take options away from them with subversive “lesser than” language, we also pollute our world. In a family with a boy and a girl, buying two types of ever piece of clothing is simply wasteful. A pair of jeans is a pair of jeans and should be available (and probably is) for girls and boys, why not everything else? Likewise a t-shirt that can be worn by multiple children as they grow will lessen the amount of clothing donated to never-ending piles at charity shops, left in storage boxes, or more likely ending up in landfill to rot.

The fast fashion attitude of our high streets is damaging, but so is how we provide for our kids when we make needless barriers to their lifestyle. Next time you walk into a shop and head for a specific gendered area, ask yourself if anyone would question you wearing a male friend’s hoody as a woman, or if anyone would notice the tank top under your shirt you might have borrowed from your girlfriend as a man. Honestly, it’s probably not an issue in real life, just on the comment sections of the right-wing press.

What is important is the effect is having on our children, and on our planet, and something needs to change.

Such bias is systematic, and internalised, and will take a lot of work to really get out of the habit of using. My brother and I are only a little over a year apart in age, and grew up in the same house, and have remarkably similar political viewpoints. And yet, my brother jumped to hilariously superstitious and fictional ideas to answer my riddle:
Was the dad a zombie, a ghost, something else that would allow the boy’s father to be at the surgeon’s table.*

I don’t believe my brother is intentionally sexist, or even mostly sexist. He respects my mother and father for their different roles, he has never suggested I can’t do something he can, he has regularly encouraged me into my projects and work, he also supported me greatly through difficulties in my life, and has been honest about his own. I am incredibly proud of my brother for who he is, and yet he managed to miss a simple answer to a riddle despite having life experience that should have educated him to it’s normalcy.

What I think his answers, and those of others, and the variety of everyday sexist attitudes held by our society, is that the binding of gender bias is so ingrained, so normal, so close to us that we barely see it. A translucent shadow over the page we are reading.

We must start turning a light on to limit their effect.

*We could also question what a lack of answers says about LGBTQ+ communities, where the answer of another father might have also been correct, although people rarely suggest this if they haven’t already suggested the boy’s mother. One kind of liberation thought tends to lead to others rather than bouncing over.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Lindsay B says:

    I told that same riddle to a group of mostly men, smart men at that, and the answers were so bizarre before the thought even existed that the doctor could be a woman. “Is it a gay couple?” “Is the doctor the transvestite partner of the father?” (!!) If it wasn’t so funny, I probably would have cried!

  2. sanlh says:

    I consider it extraordinarily demeaning to label as “sexist” a belief that there is value to a woman focusing on raising children, especially young children, at home. Nothing wrong with believing this. But it”s sexist to shame or discriminate against women who don”t place value there.

    1. EKMCronin says:

      I’m not sure I did claim it was sexist to see value in raising children in the home, but I would say it’s sexist to suggest there is only value in it if it is a woman raising them, and not valued if it is a man. My father was a stay-at-home-father, and I have been a stay-at-home-mother for the majority of my kids lives so far. The value is the same; it’s a hugely important job but the gender of the primary carer shouldn’t affect that value.

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