First it was Baby Storm, the Canadian infant whose parents refuse to reveal his or her gender to the world outside the immediate family, who took the world by, eh, storm. Now it’s news of Egalia preschool in Sweden, where children are referred to as “friends” rather than girls or boys that has the media raging.
Read the comments on these articles. People have really got their panties in a twist over the notion that kids may be less hard-wired to wear pink or blue, play with Barbies or trucks, chat over pretend tea or skin knees on the playground than common sense seems to have dictated from cave times onward.
Really? Really? In 2011 we’re going to make a fuss over long-haired boys in pink shirts (like Storm’s big brother) and a preschool that calls children -- gasp -- “friends?”
Since becoming a mother over six years ago, I have found myself disappointed over and over again when otherwise enlightened people will get to that point in the playground chit-chat at which they say something like, “he’s so hard on his toys -- he’s a real boy!”
It’s stunning to me that people still buy into these ideas that boys are a certain way -- even when they are infants -- and girls are another, and somehow, these two parallel gender tracks will never meet in nature, let alone cross, or heaven forbid, cross back.
Because, much as Egalia preschool has been accused of trying to “engineer gender equality” -- language that smacks of well-intentioned, but probably dystopic unnaturalness -- the fact is that we are engineering children to be one of two very distinct, very distant and very binary genders nonstop, twenty-four-seven in western culture. (No doubt this is happening in other cultures too, where gender ironically enough, has different expressions and meanings, so I can’t comment on it.)
I hardly think that placing blocks near the play kitchen to keep children from “drawing mental barriers between cooking and construction,” is worthy of Brave New World-esque hand-wringing. There are plenty of Disney Princess movies to remind girls that winning the heart of a playboy is much more important than cooking -- or owning your own business -- as “The Princess and the Frog” has told my daughters.
But for heaven’s sake, pink and blue have only been coded girl and boy respectively for the last 75 years or so. In Victorian times, after a unisex toddlerhood of long curls and lacy white dresses, a four or five-year old boy might step out in a pink shirt and a girl of the same age, in a blue dress. Pink is the child’s version of red after all, a color of power and action (you know, male). Blue has been associated for nearly two thousand years with the docile, faithful and virginal Mary, mother of Jesus. Nobody is quite sure why these colors got swapped in the early- to mid-20th century, but they did and marketers have entrenched them ever since.
There are a few things you can try to say about gender that are absolute, but guess what? Every one of those things has an exception and even the “scientific” definition of male and female have shifted over time. My partner, who studies and teaches about gender, has written about how, beginning in the mid-20th century, the Olympics required “sex testing” for women competitors. (Right there, you should see a red flag, why no sex testing for men? Men were and still usually are assumed to have a “natural” athletic advantage over women. Who would pretend to be a man and compete at a disadvantage? The assumption that men would pretend to be women in order to get a gold medal though, that makes lots of sense. Or you could just call it discrimination -- or even persecution -- of female athletes.) The test to determine sex changed over time from a physical examination to various other types of tests to where it is today -- when it is used, and it still is sometimes -- a chromosomal test.
(At this point, when I’m teaching this, I ask my students to raise their hands if they have XX chromosomes, then again for XY. They all raise their hands for one or the other. Then I ask those who’ve had this tested to raise their hands. Nobody. Plenty of people have something other than these two chromosomal patterns and don’t learn about it for years into adulthood.)
So if we can’t even say for sure, at any given moment in time what sex is, how can we say what gender -- the socio-cultural package that projects, imparts, reveals, conceals, performs, transforms, informs our sense of sex -- is?
Gender is, at the very least, an incredibly shallow concept composed of many essentially meaningless items like the little buttons on shopping websites that force you to choose between “toddler boy shorts” and “toddler girl shorts” when you are buying summer clothes for your 18-month old. When you hit “boy” because the child you are shopping for is a boy, after all, you reinforced some marketer’s idea of what a boy should look like, act like, move like, feel like -- both in his own skin and to those holding him next to theirs. Think about it. Clothes affect all of those things.
The other day, I saw a little girl wearing super-cute, strappy, toeless sandals, standing precariously on the railroad tie that fenced in the woodchips at the playground where my tennis-shoed children were playing chase. Suddenly it hit me like a lightening bolt: those sandals are telling that child that how she looks is more important than what she can do.
“Oh,” you say, “but she begged her mother for those sandals, what do you want to bet?” And if she did -- and she very well might have -- the sandals and their message won a long time ago. And if her mother bought them, her mother decided to agree with the sandals, instead of telling her child that the sandals were wrong and that she needed something in which to play chase -- at least for the days she was going to be spending on the playground.
Mind you, I love me some cute shoes as much as the next red-blooded American femme lesbian. (My partner is either rolling her eyes, nodding sagely, laughing, or all three right now.) But I am more than willing to agree with anyone who suggests it that I never “chose” to love shoes. (Can’t remember that moment, but it might have been sometime after the fiftieth, or sixtieth time someone praised me for how I looked, or how I moved, or how I felt in certain clothes.) And I don’t believe that how I look is more important that what I can do, but I definitely have a few pairs of shoes that say otherwise. And if walking to the lower dress circle at the opera in stilettos is among my accomplishments, well, the world is a complex place, gender is a complex thing and we all make the best use we can of the skills we have. But the notion that those stilettos were destined to be the glass slipper that revealed my true Cinderella nature from the moment the baby doctor yelled “it’s a girl!” is nonsense.
After all, the baby doctor yelled "it's a girl" when my butch lesbian partner was born too and she couldn't walk in stilettos to save her life.
So if some folks want to try and send their children a different message, let ‘em. (I’ll be one of those folks.) In fact, give them a shot at your kids too. They are spitting into a hurricane of conservatively gendered messages. If a squeak of theirs makes it through the storm, it will be a miracle anyway.
Photo Credit: london.
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