Every parent I know – particularly those with daughters – laments the near-impossibility of finding gender-neutral toys, clothing, and even toiletries for their young children. From bibs to booties, children’s items from birth onward are awash in a sea of pink and blue. Lucky the baby shower attendee, uncertain of the gender of an impending infant, who can find a green or yellow set of onesies as a present!
At the same time, I can’t count the number of times someone has told me, quite earnestly, how they discovered that boys “naturally” prefer blue and girls pink. Everyone knows this is true. No matter how hard parents try to keep their children clothed and entertained with carefully-selected gender-neutral colors and toys, girls just gravitate to princesslike frills, while boys invent the idea of guns ex nihilo and make them with their fingers or with sticks if they’re not provided with toy firearms by their long-suffering progenitors. There must be some genetic component to gunpowder/frill preferences1.
This is nonsense, of course, and obviously so; but there’s a pernicious strain of thought that insists that all of human behavior must have some underlying evolutionary explanation, and it’s trotted out with particular regularity to explain supposed gender (and other) differences or stereotypes as biologically “hard-wired”. These just-so stories about gender and human evolution pop up with depressing regularity, ignoring cultural and temporal counterexamples in their rush to explain matters as minor as current fashion trends as evolutionarily deterministic.
For example, a 2007 study purported to offer proof of, and an evolutionary explanation for, gender-based preferences in color – to wit, that boys prefer blue and girls prefer pink. Despite the fact that the major finding of the study was that both genders tend to prefer blue, the researchers explained that women evolved to prefer reds and pinks because they needed to find ripe berries and fruits, or maybe because they needed to be able to tell when their children had fevers2.
One problem with this idea is that currently-existing subsistence, foraging, or hunter-gatherer societies don’t all seem to operate on this sort of division of labor. The Aka in central Africa and the Agta in the Philippines are just two examples of such societies: men and women both participate in hunting, foraging, and caring for children. If these sorts of divisions of labor were so common and long-standing as to have become literally established in our genes, one would expect those differences to be universal, particularly among people living at subsistence levels, who can’t afford to allow egalitarian preferences to get in the way of their survival.
Of course, a much more glaring objection to the idea that “pink for boys, blue for girls” is the biological way of things is the fact that, less than a hundred years ago, right here in the United States from which I am writing, it was the other way around. In 1918, Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department, a trade publication, says that “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” Pink was considered a shade of red at the time, fashion-wise, making it an appropriately manly color for male babies. Were parents in the interwar period traumatizing their children by dressing them in clothes that contradicted their evolved genetic preferences? Or do fashions simply change, and with them our ideas of what’s appropriate for boys and girls?
More recently, researchers at the University of Portmouth published a paper reporting that wearing high heels makes women appear more feminine and increases their attractiveness – a result they established by asking participants to view and rate videos of women walking in either high heels or flat shoes. The researchers don’t appear to have considered it necessary to test their hypothesis using videos of men in a variety of shoes3.
Naturally, articles about the study include plenty of quotes about the evolutionary and biological mechanisms behind this result4. But as with pink-and-blue, these ideas just aren’t borne out by history. In the West, heels were originally a fashion for men. (In many non-Western societies heels have gone in and out of fashion for at least a few thousand years as an accoutrement of the upper classes of both genders.) They were a sign of status – a way to show that you were wealthy enough that you didn’t have to work for your living – and a way of projecting power by making the wearer taller. In fact, women in Europe began wearing heels in the 17th century as a way of masculinizing their outfits, not feminizing them.
Studies like these, and the way that they reinforce stereotypes and cultural beliefs about the groups of people studied, have broader implications for society and its attitudes, but it’s also useful to think about them from a fictional and worldbuilding standpoint: the things we choose to study, and the assumptions we bring with us, often say more about us than about the reality of what we’re studying — particularly when the topic we’re studying is ourselves. Our self-knowledge is neither perfect nor complete. What are your hypothetical future-or-alien society’s blind spots? What assumptions do they bring with them when approaching a problem, and who inside or outside of that society is challenging them? What would they say about themselves that “everybody knows” that might not be true?
1. Our ancestors, hunting and gathering on the savannah, evolved that way because the men were always off on big game safaris while the women stayed closer to home, searching out Disney princesses in the bushes and shrubs to complete their tribe’s collection. Frilly dresses helped them to disguise themselves as dangerous-yet-lacy wild beasts to scare off predators while the men weren’t there to protect them.
2. Primitive humans either lacked hands or had not yet developed advanced hand-on-forehead fever detection technology.
3. Presumably because everyone knows that heels are for girls and that our reactions to people wearing them are never influenced by our expectations about what a person with a “high-heel-wearing” gait might be like.
4. On the savannah, women often wore stiletto heels to help them avoid or stab poisonous snakes while the men were out Morris dancing.