The Infantilisation of Women
Updated: Jun 13
Darling, sweetheart, babe – nicknames nearly every woman hears on the daily and not just from loved ones. These seemingly innocent nicknames can make many people feel as though they’re not being taken seriously, or that they’re being treated like children.
The act of infantilising women is most often done by men. This is not surprising given the influence of the patriarchy on our society, which tends to put white, cisgender and straight men at the top of the power pyramid. However, to understand this properly, we need to look at what women’s infantilisation is, its history, and its effect.
So, let’s start exploring this varied and incredibly important topic.
What is the infantilisation of women and when did it all start?
As the word infantilisation implies – signalled by the word infant – the term describes treating ‘an adult as if they were a child, primarily through the use of demeaning practices.’ Therefore, the infantilisation of women is when people treat women like children, either through actions, or words. This could entail using demeaning nicknames, oversimplifying explanations, or suggesting that women cannot do certain things or grasp particular concepts.
Infantilisation describes treating ‘an adult as if they were a child, primarily through the use of demeaning practices.’
In order to get the full picture and understand what infantilising language or actions are, let’s look at some examples. For instance, the seemingly innocent sentence: “Oh darling, do you want me to open that bottle for you? I don’t think you are strong enough” is one many women will have heard. Or, we might have heard that “women just can’t drive as well as men can” before. Whilst we have become desensitised to such behaviour and have accepted it to an extent; it’s important to question how common these infantilising behaviours are.
Erving Goffman was one of the first people to study how women are infantilised in the media. In his book Gender Advertisements, released in 1979, he critically analysed advertisements and pointed out the industry’s infantilisation of women. Although this behaviour probably started long before his observations, it was the first work that directly dealt with the phenomenon.
He argues that women are infantilised to convey the idea that women are not able to function as adults as well as men can, reducing them to a childlike state. The United Nations defines this stage as "a period of transition from the dependence of childhood to adulthood’s independence". From this perspective, portraying women as childlike pushes the idea that they still need guidance and cannot function in society without the support of men.
Goffman also gives specific examples of this infantilisation in advertisements. For instance, he states that women are usually put into playful poses with cute, smiley expressions. When shown with men, they are positioned in a way that highlights their inferiority, most often done by making them look incredibly small compared to their male counterparts.
Goffman’s work also shows that our patriarchy-driven media industry heavily supports the infantilisation of women. As British sociologist and cultural theorist Stuart Hall has accurately pointed out, what we see represented in media shapes how we see and understand the world. The constant media portrayal of women as less capable than men – be it in film, on social media or in magazines - manipulates our subconscious into believing such inferiority. It also desensitises us to misogyny and sexism and normalises these issues.
How does the infantilisation of women affect our lives?
As already hinted at, the infantilisation of women has a profound effect on our lives and our societal conceptions. It desensitises us to misogynist and sexist behaviours while concurrently normalising them. No one is surprised when seeing a pop superstar like Britney Spears in a sexy schoolgirl outfit. However, if the roles were reversed and we saw Justin Timberlake rocking a promiscuous-looking school uniform, the world would flip out.
Another example of the normalisation of sexist attitudes is Instagram’s policy around images containing ‘nipple-nudity’. Instagram very famously only takes off photos that contain nipples on bodies of females. The ‘nipple-nudity-phenomenon’, as we will call it from now on, basically describes the practice of censoring and erasing notions of motherhood. Through censoring female qualities heavily tied to motherhood - such as nipples - we, as a society, take away women’s biological determinator of adulthood, and thus, autonomy. Doing this helps push the narrative of the vulnerable and child-like woman, and consequently aids the process of infantilisation.
This perception of women being childlike significantly impacts women’s lives in many different aspects. The infantilisation of women further circulates gendered perceptions and leads to our society equating femininity with vulnerability, submission, uncertainty, and immaturity. For example, women might have a harder time getting into positions of power which severely impacting their professional careers.
There are even more obstacles for women from minority ethnic backgrounds. For example, Black women have long been heavily oppressed and given unequal access to opportunities. Due to colonialism, oppression and slavery, the word Black itself has come to have connotations of subordination. In fact, White people have historically infantilised Black people through, for example, calling Black men ‘boys’ to show that they viewed them as socially inferior. Therefore, a Black woman arguably is doubly infantilised. Firstly for the colour of her skin and secondly for her gender.
How do we de-infantilise our world?
The main problem with infantilisation is that it is a deeply systemic issue that has managed to infiltrate our minds on an individual level. Through the depiction of women as childlike and consequently inferior to men, we have been persuaded that infantilisation is normal. Therefore, to initiate real and long-lasting change, we need to undergo a transformation at the systemic level.
To accomplish this, governments need to introduce educational campaigns that highlight the dangerous effects of this behaviour. Moreover, they should provide companies and institutions with extensive anti-sexism training, which highlights our society's need for de-infantilisation.The infantilisation of women also needs to be on the curriculum of schools. Our understanding of the world and behaviour towards other is shaped by our education - discriminatory and sexist behaviours especially are formed during this point in our lives. Therefore, we have to tackle the problem at the root and look at what we teach children, and particularly how our education system portrays girls and women in society.
Efforts like this would create change at both a systemic but also at an individual level. People who are educated about the effects of infantilisation and have an awareness of how it influences our daily lives will be able to share their newfound knowledge with the wider world through their actions and words. By being self-aware and educated individuals, we can help make our world a more equal place step-by-step.
Edited by Olena Strzelbicka