Last week I attended an Inequality Seminar here at Harvard. An attractive bonus to attending these lectures beyond exposure to work from scholars across the country is, to be honest, the free food. And due to the old habit of practicing good hygiene and the fear of Swine Flu, I went to the restroom to wash my hands before fixing me a plate. When I was leaving the bathroom I noticed that there was a baby changing station (pictured above) in the men's room. I smiled. For someone who was a Women's and Gender Studies major undergrad, I was happy to see that there was a baby changing station in the men's room as I have noticed the lack of them in many of the sporting, movie, and entertainment venues I frequented in the last year. And I think it is safe to say that I have only seen a few of the baby stations in men's bathrooms over the course of my life (of course more on this side of year 2000). This was, to me, was a step in the right direction. Go Social Progress!
The smile, however, faded quickly after I looked pass the family of elephants and saw the stereotypical, gendered depiction. Before I continue, I want to point out that the elephant family is a normative one—father, mother, and child—which is, to some degree, problematic in and of itself. Now I am not trying to make a mountain out of an anthill but one cannot (or at least should not) ignore the more subtle undertones of the seemingly "innocent" and "innocuous" depiction of the parent changing the child. This was a men's room yet still it was "Mommy" changing the child. Even in the quintessential, gender segregated location to which we all must abide lest we are called perverts or some kind of outcast by others in society, gendered norms and expectations are still as present, alive, and strong as ever. If one takes gender as a masternarrative, an ever-present entity in the background influences interactions between individuals in a myriad of ways, one sees the ways in which our actions and the behavioral expectations others have of us are scripted. Furthermore, we are looked upon to abide by those scripts. Where is Daddy elephant while Mommy changes Jr.? At the watering hole with the other bulls?
I think this cartoon on the baby changing station is an example that gives even more credence to the argument that we all do and are expected to "do gender." To paraphrase their 1987 article where Sociologists West and Zimmerman developed their revolutionary hypothesis that one can "do gender," gender is something one performs. This idea is important because it states that gender is not natural, not an innate characteristic of men and women. Rather, they assert that gender is
A routine, methodical, and recurring accomplishment. We contend that the 'doing' of gender is undertaken by women and men whose competence as members of society is hostage to its production. Doing gender involves a complex of socially guided perceptual, interactional, and micropolitical activities that cast particular pursuits of masculine and feminine 'natures.'
In essence, gender is determined not by one's biology, but by society's reaction to and perception of one's biology. Gender is one's conduct that affirms one's sex category. In other words, if one is male then one must act like a male, and if female, one must act female. A person's sex is a "biological fact;" sex categories reserve certain activities and characteristics for particular sexes, but gender consists of the "routine, methodical, and recurring accomplishments" of everyday life. West and Zimmerman argue that accountability plays a key role in producing gender, because not only are we responsible for "doing gender" on a daily basis, we are held socially accountable for all our actions—all decisions must be made as if being watched because each action either affirms or disproves our gender. But what do examples like this say about the expectations we have for women and men to perform in 2009?
I bring up West and Zimmerman here specifically because I think this picture shows the inertial force behind deeply held gendered expectations. Rubbermaid could have easily drawn one cartoon depicting a male caregiver changing his child and one showing a female caregiver doing the same. To my knowledge, very few places have only one single sex bathroom in their establishment. Even all girls all boys school have both men's and women's bathrooms. I would assume you have to buy the pair anyway. Or why not leave off the "human side" of things all together and remove oneself from the question of who to put changing the baby? If this post is seen as a one where the author is being nitpicky then so be it. But as the slogan from years ago simply and emphatically states, men are caregivers too. The last thing I will say is this: I believe it is time for us all to move beyond these false binaries which based on unfounded constructions of reality that are themselves the result of sociomental processes aimed at alleviating cognitive dissonance for living in a blurred instead of a dichotomous world.