When I was a young girl, I scoffed at dresses, proudly donning T-shirts and corduroy pants and my Wonder Woman costume. I played with My Little Ponys as well as Matchbox cars. When I was 3 years old, I changed my first name to “Girl” and wouldn’t respond to anything else. While I didn’t want to play with only girl-associated toys, I also wanted to proudly declare my female identity.
Little girls and boys have every right to be curious and explore their identities. Yet when it comes to gender norms, many people don’t want anyone straying from what society deems proper and appropriate. And that includes not sharing one’s gender.
By now, I’m sure you all know about “Baby Gender-Gate” as I’m calling it…aka the “genderless baby.” Long story short, Toronto parents Kathy Witterick and David Stocker have three children. When they gave birth to their most recent baby Storm, they decided not to reveal Storm’s gender. In an email to friends and family, they wrote:
“We’ve decided not to share Storm’s sex for now — a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm’s lifetime (a more progressive place?…).”
It may seem like a strange choice, particularly since that’s the first question people perpetually ask when they find out someone’s pregnant or just had a baby: did you have a girl or a boy? I mean, does it really matter?? As the dad Stocker said,
“If you really want to get to know someone, you don’t ask what’s between their legs.”
Yet that seems to be people’s starting point in identification of others. Everything in our society, from pink booties and blue rattles to his/her restrooms, preps us and gears us towards a gender binary. We can’t escape gender, it swirls around us.
When I heard the story, I found it incredibly refreshing. But for other people, not knowing someone’s gender, as in Baby Gender-Gate, causes a bigger commotion. While others condemn the parents’ decision. Dr. Eugene Beresin, director of training in child and adolescent psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, told ABC News:
“To raise a child not as a boy or a girl is creating, in some sense, a freak. It sets them up for not knowing who they are…To have a sense of self and personal identity is a critical part of normal healthy development. This blocks that and sets the child up for bullying, scapegoating and marginalization…Identity formation is really critical for every human being and part of that is gender. There are many cultural and social forces at play.”
Witterick responded to the swarm of media attention surrounding her family and their decision to not reveal Storm’s gender:
“Ironically, the idea to keep the baby’s sex private was a tribute to authentically getting to know a person by responding to meaningful cues given by the person themselves…“the idea that the whole world must know our baby’s sex strikes me as unhealthy and voyeuristic.”
Witterick and Stocker’s other 2 children, Jazz and Kio, are boys who wear boys’ and girls’ clothing, grow their hair long (Jazz) and have penchants for pink (Jazz) and purple (Kio). They let them express their identity, disregarding gender constraints. Witterick went on to say:
“In my heart of hearts, I squirm when my son picks a dress from the rack (won’t people tease him?), even though I know from experience and research that the argument that children need a binary gender orthodoxy taught to them in order to feel safe is simply incorrect. My children know who they are, through facilitated experience with their world, and I avoid hypocrisy, inaccuracy and exhaustion by saving my energy for non-negotiable limit-setting related to safety, kindness, self-respect, health, fulfilment and fairness.
“None of my family members are gender-free or genderless.”
I think that’s a truly vital point. No one is “genderless.” Society inculcates us since birth to think of the world around us in gendered terms. From a young age, we socialize children to perform gender roles. If you’ve ever watched Saturday morning cartoons for kids and pay attention to the commercials, you’ll witness a disturbing trend. Dolls, Easy Bake Ovens, these toys essentially foster homemaking and building relationships…and only show girls in their ads. Toy guns, sports and superhero costumes, essentially for competition and aggression, only display boys. Rarely does the twain meet.
Vanessa Valenti, kick-ass Managing Editor at Feministing, reported on a blogger who created gender toy word clouds. For boys, some of the prominent words are “battle,” “heroes,” and”power.” For girls, the words consist of “love,” “babies,” “mommy,” “magic,” and “fun.” Yep, cause only boys and men can be powerful heroes and (not that I have anything against love or babies) all girls and women can aspire to is fall in love and have babies. These kinds of stereotypes can be damaging for girls and boys.
Beyond advertisements, consumed media also contributes to gender socialization. Family films exhibit a gender disparity as only 29% of speaking roles belonged to female characters in the top grossing films within the past few years. A gender bias also exists in children’s books as only 31% of books (out of 6,000 published from 1900-2000) have human or animal female protagonists. And of the ones that do feature females, many of them only seem interested in featuring princesses. Books and films reinforce gender roles and with a lack of female characters, imply that girls and women don’t count.
Yet gender socialization begins even sooner, starting from birth. People talk softer to female babies, telling them they’re so cute. But with male babies, people move their legs more. David Stein, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, Virginia State University, states:
“There are differences in how we handle boys and girls right from birth. We tend to talk more softly to girls and throw boys in the air.”
Neuroscientist and author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps – and What We Can Do About It, Lise Eliot, also believes that “gender differences arise from the way babies and children are nurtured.” Refuting the theory of nature over nurture, she asserts that if parents believe boys are tougher and less emotional and girls are more nurturing, then they will treat them that way, making it a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”
“We all assume that children are hard-wired to be either boys or girls. People think that if boys’ and girls’ brains are different it’s because they’re born that way. They don’t appreciate that your brain is really just a reflection of your life…
“Our philosophy about these things actually shapes our parenting and our culture: if you believe that boys and girls are fundamentally different, it can’t help but alter the way we act and the expectations we have. Of course, genes and hormones play a role in creating boy/girl differences, but they are only the beginning. Social factors are proving to be far more powerful than we previously realised.”
While gender differences can exist, whether through biology or culture, the problem with these defined gender roles arises when people don’t fit the prescribed mold of a gender binary; subverting expectations of behavior.
The media often gender polices celebs’ children. The tabloids were apparently up in arms because…GASP…horror of horrors!!!…Shiloh (Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s daughter) cut her hair short and dresses like a boy. OMG call the fucking police and have Brangelina’s parental rights taken away! Unsurprisingly, rag mags blamed Jolie, accusing her of forcing her daughter to dress “boyish.” Of course it can’t be that Jolie might actually allow her daughter to express herself. And heaven forbid that Shiloh might actually want to dress in a stereotypically masculine way. My only concern in this situation? Does Shiloh (or any little girl for that matter) want to dress like a “boy” because she wants to or because boys are valued over girls? As long it’s not the latter, let her wear whatever she wants.
What about when little boys dress in tutus or wear nail polish? Melanie Klein at Feminist Fatale wrote about her son’s fascination with her jewelry and make-up routine after seeing the J. Crew ad featuring a little boy wearing pink nail polish (adorbs!!). She argues:
“…I think it’s more than obvious that social expectations regarding femininity and masculinity continue to be incredibly rigid, stifling, and too often dangerous. And, advertising happens to be a major player in the active construction of culture and the socialization of it’s members (us!), a socialization process that shapes our expectations of ourselves and others, our desires and our relationships…J. Crew’s ad presents the idea that pink isn’t just for girls, just as blue isn’t just for boys. It expands the range of possibility for what girls and boys can do and be.”
Does anyone really care what little boys wear?? Yep, to some people (including that bastion of logic Fox News), you’d think it signaled the fricking apocalypse. Last Halloween, a blogger wrote about her son who dressed up like Daphne from Scooby Doo. His friends/classmates didn’t care at all. But their mothers freaked out and were up in arms. Luckily, his mother defended his costume choice. She wrote:
“And all I hope for my kids, and yours, and those of Moms ABC, are that they are happy. If a set of purple sparkly tights and a velvety dress is what makes my baby happy one night, then so be it. If he wants to carry a purse, or marry a man, or paint fingernails with his best girlfriend, then ok. My job as his mother is not to stifle that man that he will be, but to help him along his way. Mine is not to dictate what is ‘normal’ and what is not, but to help him become a good person.”
But what the hell is wrong with this picture?? Does it really matter what little girls and boys dress like?? Nope, what matters is when we make them feel bad about their choices of self-expression. I’m not a parent but I can imagine it must be hard to see your child make a choice that might get them teased or mocked. But isn’t that a part of parenthood? Teaching and guiding your child to make the best choices for themselves? To let them explore their identity and express themselves?
While people often feel discomfort when women aren’t feminine enough, they seem to lose their shit when men behave too feminine. Seriously, calm down people. Due to the hierarchical structure of patriarchy, there’s a power dynamic at play. Many subconsciously associate stereotypically feminine items or traits (and essentially women and girls) with being weaker or lesser than men or boys. And so men receive ridicule and punishment for transgressing gender norms.
Gender delineated roles can be harmful when we demand people behave according to their sex, shaming gender nonconformity rather than letting both women/girls and men/boys, incorporate fluid gender roles as they see fit. Gender is an integral component to identity. While it doesn’t define who I am, I still take pride in being a woman as it helps shape the way I see the world around me. Gender should be like a fabric, woven into your personality, not shackles or a constricting cage. People should be free to express themselves however they choose, whatever gender they may be.