Are gender-specific toys necessarily immoral?

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Pictured: Screenshots from twitter highlighting gendered items

Buzzfeed recently published its list of “25 Ridiculously Gendered Products,” picking up on a trend that you’ve no doubt observed on social media- sharing photos of advertisements which reference traditional gender norms or of unnecessarily gender specific everyday objects (like stationary in different coloured wrappers), with the implication that calling these out is somehow a feminist act. I am deeply mystified.

There is little doubt that the moral equality of the sexes/genders needs no argument, but does this necessitate no differences at all among social expectations?

The claim here isn’t something like “this is such a small problem, why bother?” but rather “is this a problem at all, and if so, why?” If this question seems strange to you, odds are you subscribe (at least implicitly) to comprehensive liberalism.

Comprehensive liberalism insists that no one and no group can operate under any moral doctrine that violates any liberal principle. For example, a church can’t refuse priesthood to women anymore because gender equality is a key liberal principle. There can be no moral worth in any system that violates gender equality; liberal principles exhaust (or at least sharply circumscribe) the moral realm.

The more moderate version of this, political liberalism, demands only that people with different comprehensive moral doctrines agree to give everyone certain equal political and civil rights. Under this, it becomes an open question whether churches should be forced to open up the clergy to women, depending on whether it’s seen as a compelling interest or not.

All this might seem abstract until we think about what gender roles are. Contra certain strands of feminist thought, gender isn’t just a system of oppression. Charitably, it’s meant to be a system of societal ordering and valuing, which would make traditional gender roles something like a comprehensive moral doctrine (in that it has moral value to those who subscribe to it, and we should respect their choices even if we don’t subscribe to it ourselves. For an interesting perspective on this, see this, which might indicate that gender-specific objects might assist in self-actualization by reinforcing differences). If we subscribe to political liberalism (which I think is the more reasonable stance) we can call out a great deal of unfairness that goes on today, but only if they’re unacceptably in violation of some political principle. Relevant here: The presence of different gender expectations has to be shown to harm people enough to count as a compelling-enough interest for us to get rid of traditional norms.

Two strategies are usually further employed:

The first is to claim that freedom is somehow violated by sex stereotyping because these stereotypes are enforced by threats of violence (true), but more dubiously that external expectations can shape you in artificial ways. One problem with the latter is how to make a distinction between authentic and inauthentic choices/selves. The other problem is a bizarre notion of what freedom requires- not just freedom from threats of violence (for example), but a complete removal of external expectations. Obviously, brainwashing is a possibility (“adaptive preferences”), but we come back to what counts as the minimum amount of exposure to alternatives to count as sufficient information.

The second strategy is the argument that gender as it currently works does a lot of harm, hence it needs to go. This is usually argued for using “systemic” analyses involving “the patriarchy.” Now, the patriarchy is incredibly useful as a tool of analysis, as a feminist lens, etc., but to use it in arguments like the one we need, you need to posit it as a unitary all-sexism-encompassing system that stands or falls as a totality. A much more natural way to think of gender is as being composite, as made up of different interlocking parts. With this in mind, you’ll have to show how specific gender role expectations are directly linked to actual harm (while maintaining a difference between expectations and enforcement through violence).

Are these much, much harder to do? Well, yes. When people say the personal is political, it doesn’t mean the personal is identical to the political. Political thought is meant to describe incredibly complicated society, there is no reason to think this is an easy task. I love memes and jokes, but these are no substitutes for actual, serious thought.

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