My wife and I take vitamin supplements that are calculated to provide us with more energy; we are the parents of a precocious four-year-old, so we need all the help we can get in terms of energy to keep up with her. There are differences in the supplements we take, of course, some of which inhere in their compositions. In theory, at least, our bodies have different needs in generating the energy we both need, so supplements to help us in that regard will necessarily respond to those differences. But those are not the only ones evident; the differences extend to the packaging, not so much in coloring (although the colors do differ) or in printed imagery as in the lids on the bottles themselves. And those differences bespeak ongoing reinforcement of gender stereotyping.
The cap on my supplement bottle–a product marketed explicitly towards men–has a flip-open lid; that on my wife’s–a product explicitly marketed toward women–is a child-resistant one. That is, our daughter could easily get at my supplements, all else being equal, and not my wife’s, despite my wife’s physiology being more similar to hers and supplements targeted toward that physiology being more likely to be appropriate for her than mine. And despite several issues that make me more able to open child-resistant bottles than my wife is, not least of which is the conceit that men are physically stronger, she is expected to open such a bottle more than I am.
Of course, this is not targeted at us, as such. We are buyers who could not have been predicted individually; we are members of groups whose purchases can be forecast in the aggregate, however. And it seems that members of the relevant group to which my wife belongs are expected to need energy because of their children, as members of the relevant group to which I belong are not. Or it is expected that her group will need to care for and protect children, while mine will not. Or it is expected that my group’s tasks away from children are what tax its members, rather than those that are done with and for the kids. And any of these have unpleasant implications for how matters are likely to continue.
I do not say in this that vitamin bottle lids are forcing people into patterns of behavior, into gender roles that 1) may well not reflect individuals’ lived reality and 2) are problematic even if they do thus reflect. That would be inaccurate in scope and in thrust. What they do, however, is reflect, in ways that are not often examined (How many will pay so close attention to their supplement bottles? And how many might read what I write here and think I do poorly to attend so closely to them?), environmental influences on people. I do not think the vitamin bottles are deliberately constructed to reinforce particular norms–although they are deliberately made as they are made, as any design choice is a choice–but things can happen without or despite intent. But they do seem to make some things easier than others, and when things are easy, they invite people, however subtly, to act in particular ways that may not be the best ways to act.