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Infantilization of Women: Definition & Significance

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  • 0:02 What Is Infantilization?
  • 1:49 American Women in the 1950s
  • 3:16 Consequences of…
  • 4:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
Through this lesson, you will learn what defines infantalization and gain insight into the ways in which it has been used to limit opportunities for women by upholding male power structures. When you are through with the lesson, you can test your new knowledge with a quiz.

What Is Infantalization?

You've likely heard of classic television shows like I Love Lucy or Father Knows Best. They're simple stories that portray idealized families in a safe and comfortable world. These shows produce a sense of nostalgia and a certain level of enjoyment, but you might be stunned by the ways in which the female characters are treated like children by the men around them.

The practice of treating someone like a child is what is known as infantalization, and it has caused considerable problems in many social and cultural spheres for a very long time. Broadly speaking, infantalization can be applied in several different ways, and often for different reasons. For example, in the case of I Love Lucy, the series' main character was often treated like a child by her husband, which included demeaning language and, in some cases, spanking. For Lucy, and many other women during this era, infantalization was a means of controlling women and perpetuating the myth that without men (a father figure), they were incapable of caring for themselves or exercising autonomy.

In other cases, infantalization is considered to be a type of paraphilia, which is a term used to describe the triggering of sexual arousal by things that the majority of the population does not find sexually stimulating. For example, as a paraphilia, infantilism might involve role-playing in which one partner acts like a child for the gratification of the other. It is important to keep in mind that infantalization as a sexual fetish is not the same as pedophilia, and there is no connection between the two. Though these two applications of infantalization are in many ways different, there are significant overlaps between the two, and both have had a considerable effect on the lives of women for many generations.

American Women in the 1950s

Throughout the United States' involvement in World War II (1941-1945), large numbers of men were sent to Europe to fight alongside the Allied Forces. During their absence, it became increasingly common for women to take over what were considered to be male jobs so that the economy would remain stable and production would continue. Although this was framed as a patriotic duty, many women enjoyed the autonomy and independence that employment afforded them and were disappointed when they had to give them up after the war ended.

With an unprecedented number of young Americans starting families in the post-war years, men went back to work and women took on the role of the homemaker, which made them responsible for the operation of the home and caring for the children. Despite the considerably important responsibilities of the homemaker, during this time women were commonly treated like children by their husbands and by the larger male-dominated culture, such as the one portrayed on television throughout the 1950s.

The gender roles and infantalization of women during the 1950s is incredibly complex, but it was in large part a means by which men could control women. Having proven that they were fully capable of independence during the war years, women presented a threat to male authority and were potential competition for employment. As such, treating women like children strengthened and perpetuated the notion that women could not care for themselves without a man and contributed to the belief that women were a generally inferior gender.

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