Does this Mug Come with Boobs, or Balls? Things That Corporate America Insists Have a Gender

The demographic of “Ph.D.-holding, football fiend women who listen to their local call-in sports shows” is probably small. So I wasn’t the intended audience for the Dr. Pepper 10 commercial that I heard today on my local sports station.

The commercial starts promisingly. This is a soda for those who have “dreamt of being a Viking” (that’s me!), who have “blogged about bacon” (the sort of thing I would do) and who have hemmed garments using duct tape (yes again).

Then we’re told jocularly that this soda isn’t for “the ladies.” It’s not one of those sissy diet sodas that “the Susies” drink.

This is a soda for MEN. The commercial ends by telling me not to buy the soda, advice that I’ll happily follow: “This isn’t a soda FOR WOMEN.”

Women, you’re explicitly un-invited to buy the famous un-soda, the No Girlz Allowed libation.

I’m beginning to suspect that Mr. Pepper isn’t even a real doctor.

The more gender roles and stereotypes weaken and fade in real life, the more corporate America genders the hell out of everything.  

In their own version of purdah, we have separate men’s and women’s merchandise realms. My son’s beloved LEGOs even introduced a “girls” line recently, much to the dismay of parents and kids, including girls, who have happily played with regular old unisex LEGOs for years.

I don’t need my mugs to come with balls or boobs. I prefer that they not reek of anachronistic clichés of masculinity and femininity.

If ever there was a game that required no gender elaboration, it’s BINGO. How do you even “genderize” BINGO? You use girl things on the playing card and call it “BINGO for Girls.”

Conceivably, in fact, you could easily gender-ize every single item in your child’s environment. You could take every human, unisex object and activity, and man it out or pink it out.

Think of the most random household object you can. Then go to Google. Type in that object and add the phrase, “…For Girls.” 

I tried “fork.” Ta-da: A stainless steel set for a “lady girl.”

K-Mart gives you 613 options for wall pegs for girls.

There are baseballs gloves for girls.

You can even buy “pink personalized pencils for girls.” Light switchplates are a teeming vector of superfluous gendering.

Anything related to clothing or furniture, unsurprisingly, is heavily gendered.

Last year I even came across books titled, Stories for Girls and Stories for Boys. Stories are for every person with an imagination. That’s why they call them stories, and one of their main purposes is to put us imaginatively in the shoes of other kinds of people, and the other sex, to thereby better understand them.

It’s true that with the exception of Dr. Pepper 10, which women are humorously enjoined from purchasing, you can find non-gendered versions of all of these products. I don’t have to buy girl pencils, and I don’t.

But when you offer gender-specific versions of things, the terrain of our shared humanity, and our capacity to imagine it, recedes, just a wee bit. This may not be the intention, but it’s the effect: to sort, over-specify, and pre-determine a male and female identity according to old clichés at the expense of our human identity.

You can argue that corporations genderize products because they sell. Children like them.

I don’t doubt that for a minute. Princess stuff sells. So does heroin. Without stumbling into a deeply-rutted debate over the status of “free choice” in a corporate, consumer economy, I’ll say only that we all have insecurities about identity. Americans were convinced en masse that they weren’t getting promoted due to halitosis in the 1900s, when Listerine began a campaign to sell mouthwash.

While it’s naïve to think that we all slavishly follow Disney’s cues, as if we have no free will, it’s equally naïve to think that corporate America’s gargantuan footprint in our popular culture and consciousness has no impact on our lives. Barricading your boy or girl from these influences is theoretically possible and pragmatically impossible.

I’ve heard some assert that it’s just “the way girls are,” as if a preference for tiaras and pink tutus mass-produced in China is some essential, inalienable state of female nature—akin to estrogen, or the survival instinct.

I do agree that preferences aren’t entirely subject to idealistic manipulations of nurture. I’ve seen that as a parent. My son revered Thomas trains, even though absolutely nothing in his upbringing accounted for the Svengali-like grip of public transportation on his toddler brain. Girls he knew didn’t share this interest in model buses. I can’t deny that.

But he’s also played happily with girls throughout his life, a range of activities that draw on their shared imagination. They’ll build their LEGO village, draw a map, or create a lemonade stand business together.

If anything, it’s those entrepreneurial activities that seemed the most hard-wired to their human psyches. That’s good news for libertarians, I guess.

When a major purpose, and joy, of childhood is to explore that big question, “who am I?” I just don’t trust Dr. Pepper and Disney to be the ones chanting, “You Are This. You Are This. You Are This” back in their faces.

But, if we must give everything a gender, then I’m going to start a campaign for Eunuch Switchplates, Yo-Yos for Neuters, and Pens for Humans.

Take that, so-called “Dr.” Pepper.

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