21 September 2017

Five academics take part in a conversation on gender-neutral clothing

“Pink was a male colour, blue a delicate girls' colour.”

Store chain HEMA has announced to discontinue sex indications in children's clothing: no more “boys” or “girls” departments, but simply “kids”. In De Volkskrant, the company also stated that besides ending gender differences, it will also add more “tough girls’ clothing” to the selection.

The decision of HEMA resulted in many reactions. The negative reactions took centre stage in the debate. A good time to look deeper into gender neutrality. Prof Dr Rosemarie Buikema, Dr. Christine Quinan(Gender Studies), Dr Chris Meijns (Philosophy and Religious Studies), Dr Linda Duits (Media and Culture Studies) and Dr Joyce Endendijk (Education & Pedagogy) join in on unisex clothing, gender neutrality, rage and social change.

Prof Dr Rosemarie Buikema

The decision by HEMA raised a lot of dust. How can this best be explained?

Buikema: “From the university's perspective, it's always important to put facts towards opinions. The reaction that the modern multiform society is going crazy is a feeling, but it isn't based on factual knowledge. In order to counterbalance this kind of rage, it's important to put changes like this in a historical perspective. Dresses being for girls and trousers for boys is not a set convention. For instance, take a look at the period from the 16th to 19th century: back then, it was common for boys and girls to wear dresses during their first years of life. Pink and blue were gendered exactly opposite before the war. “Pink was seen as a male colour, blue as a delicate girls' colour.” In other words, connecting certain items of clothing or certain colours to gender is a convention that changes all the time."

Dr Christine Quinan

Quinan: “Indeed: the only thing about gender that is set is that the division within it continues to change. What I still don't understand is what this rage consists of: is it fear that children will be placed in the wrong gender category by bystanders? Is there fear that there will be social chaos? Or are people afraid that a gender-neutral layout of stores is going to be the next thing? How deeply rooted the idea is that there are only two different genders? I think this controversy primarily shows how deeply rooted the idea of two different genders is and how early this gendering already starts."

Meijns: “I think this is mostly due to being unaccustomed to it. There is often a misconception about what gender-neutral approaches aim to do. People often think that it means that they can no longer call themselves or feel 'female' or 'male' anymore. However, that is completely not the case. The point is to not assign binary (with only two options, in which you have to pick one or the other) gender categories to people in such daily interactions."

Dr Linda Duits

Duits: “Gender is THE basic classification of our society. It's the first thing that's said about you, even when you're not born yet: 'it's a girl', and all kinds of expectations come with that. Like how we tie gender directly to sex. All kinds of behaviour, but also products are gendered - classified as male or female. We quickly learn to recognize that classification and then also to quickly recognize when someone deviates from it. These deviations can cause uncertainty in people, because that most primary ordering of society is then no longer stable. That sometimes leads to rage."

Dr Joyce Endendijk

Endendijk: “A third process that is possibly occurring here is that initiatives to improve gender neutrality, childrens' clothing in this case, is seen as patronizing by parents. The initiative of HEMA can be seen by parents as critisism on the clothing choices they make for their children."

There is often a misconception about what gender-neutral approaches aim to do.
Dr Chris Meijns

It has been called a marketing stunt by HEMA. However, it was a 10-year old girl who started this change when she asked HEMA on Facebook to sell tougher girls' clothes.

Buikema: “Gendering clothing isn't an innocent frivolity; it also serves as preparation for functioning in the public sphere and the private sphere. Bright minds on boys' shirts and Big smiles op girls' shirts was the gendered printing of an English childrens' fashion brand. In gendering childrens' clothing, professionalism, boyishness and masculinity are often connected, which makes it harder for girls to imagine themselves in the public sphere from an early age. The angry reactions often showcase that people want to maintain the categories and columns as we created them in the 1950s. What HEMA does is removing labels. Not only did children ask for it themselves, the changing society asks for it as well. HEMA still makes skirts with pink hearts and dark-blue shirts with a tough appearance, but people broaden the categories for whom the clothes are meant. It's a step towards getting used to the fact that girls are moving in the public sphere too."

This girl has started something that started as a wish for her.

Quinan: “Children are not often listened to like that. This girl has started something that started as a wish for her. This is what children want and the children are happy with it, they are the target demographic."

Endendijk: “I suspect there are different processes at work here. First, we live in a society in which gender equality is held in high regard. It's also often thought that we in the Netherlands are already doing much and have achieved much in the field of gender equality. That makes it confrontational to hear that there is still much to gain in the equal treatment of men, women, boys and girls. Second, many people are unaware of the negative consequences seemingly innocent labelling and categorisation of boys' and girls' clothing can have. Research shows that the labelling and categorisation of, for instance, toys, activities and hobbies as 'boyish' and 'girly' promotes gender inequality. This means children don't have the freedom to really choose what they like."

Duits: “In the fuss over gender-neutral clothing, there is something else. Earlier, we saw that gender-neutral restrooms and gender-neutral language resulted in outrage among exactly the same groups. They disregard these kind of changes as a leftist hobby, feminism gone wild and/or senseless LGBT activism. The problem they have does not appear to be about the matter itself, but about the people who devote themselves to these changes. So it is then said that HEMA 'bows' to 'a small group of whiners'. That means it's not about existential uncertainty about gender, but about something that is called the 'culture war', a clash between conservatives and progressives on cultural subjects."

Anger can be a motive to bring about social changes.

Meijns: “I also think we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that anger not only plays a part for people who protest against a gender-neutral approach, but also often does that for people who try to bring about such an approach. For instance, the child that gets a tantrum in the toy department because she has to choose between strollers and cooking sets in 'girls' toys', while she wants to play with action figures. Or the doctor who is tired of being addressed as 'miss', even though she studied hard to get her medical qualification and title. That way, anger can be a motive to bring about social changes."

Earlier this year in De Volkskrant, Rosemarie Buikema and Christine Quinan called on the municipality of Amsterdam to use gender-neutral forms of address. In 2014, Linda Duits spoke about the (philosophy behind) being male and female during the Science Café of Studium Generale.