The war over sexist onesies

Gymboree's "Pretty Like Mommy" line reinforces harmful stereotypes. It might seem minor, but here's why it matters

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 21, 2011 5:00PM (EST)

It's just baby clothes, for God's sake. What's the big deal? Or, as Sasha Brown-Worsham declared on the Stir, those "Moms Freaked Over 'Sexist' Onesie Need to Chill."

Indeed, in a world in which little girls are peddled crotchless thongs, push-up bras and Playboy bunny-themed accessories, Gymboree's controversial onesies declaring that baby boys are "Smart Like Dad" while girls are "Pretty Like Mommy" seem like pretty small potatoes. Yet when images of the outfits hit the Web, the outraged Moms Rising advocacy group created a petition noting "there's no option to purchase a Smart Like Mommy onesie for boys or girls." They urged Gymboree to "stop selling children’s clothing that promotes harmful gender stereotypes immediately."

So this weekend, Brown-Worsham lamented on the Stir that "if we get hysterical over every perceived slight, we won't get anywhere," and warned, "Choose your battle, ladies." Commenters agreed, declaring, "These moms obviously have nothing better to do."

It is, however, possible to be pissed at sartorial sexism and still have umbrage left to take aim at sex abuse, how Congress is nutritionally short-changing our children or any number of compelling issues. To care about one thing doesn't mean you have to relinquish your stake in everything else, or that you live in a world in which all issues merit the exact amount of care and attention. And calling BS on a crappy marketing plan doesn't mean you're "hysterical" over a "perceived slight."

Our children are sold gender expectations from before they're born – as a friend learned when her sonogram technician announced the sex of her fetus by declaring "it's a princess!" Though both the "smart" and "pretty" onesies appear to have been yanked from  Gymboree's website, if you want to know what our cultural aspirations for our kids are, right now, in this ostensibly enlightened age, just take a gander at the rest of the company's collection. And remember, this is just one generally uncontroversial and highly trusted brand.

If you're a little boy, you can be "Daddy's Little Buddy." A "Perfect Little Man." You can be a "rascal" or "cool," an "Adventure Seeker" or "Mr. Personality." You can wear a football and the moniker "Daddy's MVP." If you're a girl, you can be a MVP, too. But for the little ladies, those letters stand for "Most Valuable Princess." You can also be "cutie sweet" or a "fairy." You can be "Daddy's Little Cupcake" or "A Little Bon Bon." Dream big, baby girls! Boys may be on a course for greatness, but you can be a dessert! Gymboree also has an entire "Smart Little Guy" line  that allows parents to dress their sons in math formulas and "Genius" bodysuits. Girls, meanwhile, are consigned to the "Cozy Cutie" shop. Can you see why some of us are pissed off?

I am far from anti-girly-girl. I am a lady who wears ruffled skirts to doctor's appointments, whose emergency kit contains mascara. When told I needed "sturdy hiking shoes" for a trip, I not only had to buy my first pair, but found one with sequins. My daughters are similarly, unmistakably femme, as their impressive collection of wigs makes evident. And I understand that certain evolutionary theories would tell us we are wired to value beauty in females and other qualities, like brains and success, in males.

Yet our XX chromosomes do not instill any natural aspirations to be Tinkerbell or to wear tiaras. That is learned; it's imposed from the onesies we dress our babies in all the way to the "Too Pretty to Do Homework" crap aimed at our tweens. The clear implication is that attractiveness -- not daring, not intelligence -- is enough for them.

I want my daughters – and yours – to grow up in a world in which they can brag of their math prowess or their rascally natures on their own shirts. Not shirts pinched from the boy's collection, but their own. They can rock them with their tutus and their glitter headbands if they so desire; they can still be pretty. But they need to know that just because you're a girl, you're not limited to being anybody's fairy, princess or fluffy little cupcake.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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