From the moment we are born we are interpellated into roles that society assigns for us. The most obvious of these is gender role interpellation. Specifically, the gendering of clothing is an ideology that we accept before we are able to realize it is there and it continues into our adulthood. Consequently, these ideas are so ingrained into our lives that even after acknowledging their existence and arbitrariness they cannot be completely erased.
In order to understand how we are interpellated into this specific ideology, we must first understand what interpellation is and how it takes place.
The idea of interpellation was introduced by French philosopher Louis Althusser to explain the process in which we encounter our culture’s values and then internalize them. Interpellation explains how our ideas are not self-formulated but are actually given to us by society and then we willingly accept them. These ideas are not forced upon us with the threat of violence, through a Repressive State Apparatus (RSA). They are instead very subtly handed to us through the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA). That is to say that these ideas are presented in such a way that we think they are our own and that they represent the most logical way to live our lives.
This process of gender role interpellation starts as soon as we are born, sometimes even before. So many parents want to know the sex of their child before it is born so that they know what kind of products to buy for it. A month ago, my mother was talking about her frustration with her pregnant sister for wanting to keep her child’s sex a secret. She was upset that she didn’t know if she should buy blue or pink clothing items for the baby shower. This is the very first way that we are interpellated into gender roles.
Nowadays, boys are made to wear blue clothes and girls are made to wear pink clothes. This is based on the idea that the color blue is masculine and that pink is feminine. In Jeanne Maglaty’s Smithsonian article titled “When Did Girls Start Wearing Wearing Pink?”, she discusses how this was not always the case. According to the article, up until the late 19th century clothes were mostly genderless and even in the early 20th century the popular opinion was that pink was masculine and that blue was feminine. This is a testament to how arbitrary the assignment of these colors to a gender is.
Color is not the only way that clothing is gendered but it is one of the most obvious. Another way that clothing is gendered that is not so apparent is in the design of clothing, specifically with the idea of function. I’ve heard so many of my female friends complain about how the pockets of women’s clothing are either way too small or completely non-existent. I found out that this design “flaw” isn’t really an oversight but it is actually purposeful. The idea behind this design is that if women had enough (or any) space in their pockets for their things, then they would have no need for purses. It is not by coincidence that the same places that sell women’s clothing also sell purses. Since purses are considered feminine and marketed towards women, if they stopped using them, then the designers who sell them would surely lose a lot of potential profit.
During this auto-ethnography, the things that surprised me the most were how early people accept these roles and how long they follow us into our lives. Last weekend, I was video chatting with my younger sister who is only four years old. I was showing her my recently pink-dyed hair. I was expecting her to be delighted with my choice of color, since it happens to be her “self-proclaimed” favorite color. Instead, she responded with confusion.
“Why is your hair pink?”, she asked.
I told her that it was because I liked the color.
“You can’t like pink!” she exclaimed. “Pink is a girl color.”
I tried to explain to her that pink isn’t just for girls and that boys can also don pink if they so choose to. I found little success in trying to reach an understanding with her.
The fact that someone so young could already have these ideas so deeply ingrained that they view anything in the contrary as a lie shocked me. It made me think about when I learned to look past traditional gender ideologies in clothing. Surely, I thought, I was completely past assigning gender to clothing based on color or style. After some serious self-reflection, I realized that I haven’t completely outgrown these ideas of gendering clothing. I may wear clothing and style my appearance in a way that could be considered feminine, but the fact that I also consider it to be a bit feminine goes to show how these ideologies follow you through life.