Monday, June 06, 2011

Gender Bender

While I was in Arizona, I found myself drawn into a discussion about the baby whose parents aren't revealing his/her gender. It was one of those weird situations where I find myself arguing with more strength than I really feel- similar to getting into a discussion about gun control with a non-American. (As an aside, if you are not American and want to determine whether or not an American you've just met has spent much time outside the US, try to draw him or her into a discussion about gun control. Anyone who's traveled much will probably find a way to dodge it. We've learned that it is more angst than it is worth. I actually can't believe I'm mentioning it on this blog. To my international readers: I can't explain America's weirdness about guns and if you make me try I'll probably end up waving my hands around and talking about how important the Bill of Rights is to us, despite obvious evidence to the contrary where other amendments are concerned. Really, its better if we just don't go there.)

Anyway... back to the baby with the secret gender. Or more accurately, my weird reaction to it- because, as is often the case when I find myself in arguments that seem counter to my beliefs, my reaction says more about me than the subject being discussed.

I really don't care what that family in Canada does with regards to the baby's gender, or even whether or not their older son wants to wear dresses and braid his hair. Their decisions are not ones I would make, but that is probably because I took an endocrinology class in college, and as part of that read some of the literature about what happens when the gender a child is raised in doesn't match the gender that the child's biology dictates (and notice that I did not say sex, here- I'm specifically NOT talking about transgendered people. I'm talking about people whose biology would lead them to identify with one gender but are raised as the other gender, either because the external sexual characteristics are ambiguous or because there has been a surgical accident during circumcision). Let's just say that there is a lot of misery hidden in those dry scientific papers, and I came away with a healthy respect for the role of biology in gender identity. Society might define what it means to be "female" or "male", but the need to identify as one or the other seems (to me, anyway) to have a strong biological component.

But that's not at really all that relevant to what the Canadian family is doing. So why did I react strongly enough to that story to end up discussing it while on vacation? I think it is because I'm a bit ambiguous about their goals, and the things that some of their defenders were arguing were "right". Don't get me wrong- I am a firm believer in gender equality. But the extreme gender neutrality that some people were advocating on behalf of this family makes me uncomfortable.

My discomfort comes from the assumption that seems implicit on both sides of the "gender neutrality" debate- that these traits society has decided belong to one gender or the other all come as a parcel. I still remember how I struggled to find my identity as a female scientist in college. Science, particularly physical science (I was essentially a chemistry major) was seen as a male thing to do, and while I had a lot of male friends, I didn't get asked on many dates. Most of the men I knew didn't really see me as a woman anymore, and that bothered me more than I cared to admit. Conversely, when I'd be out away from people who knew me, any man who was hitting on me would either stop abruptly when he learned my major or give me some lame line about how I couldn't possibly be majoring in that, since I was too pretty.

I remember thinking that I was too pretty to be smart and too smart to be pretty. I didn't find my way out of that conundrum until I went to graduate school. The men there were less screwed up, I guess.

I am still more overtly "female" than many of the women in my field. I wear my hair long and I favor skirts if my office isn't kept too cold for them. I love Jane Austen, who may be the thinking woman's answer to the Disney princesses.

On the flip side, my preferred way to stay in shape is martial arts, in particular Muay Thai. I haven't been able to fit classes into my schedule since having kids, but I hope to fix that as the kids get older. I love watching rugby. And I drink beer, not white zinfandel.

I don't think there is a conflict in those two sets of characteristics, but a lot of people do- even, apparently some of the people arguing for gender neutrality- since they roll their eyes when I confess to letting Pumpkin dress in overtly girl clothes and letting her watch Cinderella. One commenter even implied that I was raising my girls in a "pink ghetto" and they wouldn't learn to take risks and tackle challenging problems.

Frankly, I think that is crap. You can be feminine and ambitious. Pink is just a color, and say what you want about Disney, but they know how to tell a story. Why are purple dresses and overtly feminine hairstyles OK for Jazz but not my daughter?

I fought the princess crap until I realized that I was trying to control what my daughter was interested in, and that is really no better than the people who say that a girl can't be interested in math. So I gave in, and bought her Cinderella. But I also made a point of reading her The Paper Bag Princess a little more frequently.
But you know, as hard as it is to navigate this crap as the mother of two girls, I think I have it easy compared to mothers of boys. If Jazz were a girl who wanted to cut her hair short and wear nothing but jeans and Cars t-shirts, the international media would probably not have been interested. We still struggle as a society to allow our boys to find their own combinations of interests. There were some boys in my high school who wore eye liner, and it made a stir. Apparently, we haven't progressed that much in the last 20+ years.

But you definitely can be masculine and wear eye liner- reference Ma'a Nonu, who, since he is of Samoan descent may even occasionally wear something that looks a lot like a skirt. But he is pretty strongly masculine, if you ask me:

(Ma'a Nonu is a New Zealand rugby player known for his hard hits and occasionally brilliant line breaks. He also wears eye liner. I have heard some people comment on that, but I doubt anyone would question his masculinity to his face. Apologies for the poor resolution of some of that video- it was the best I could find.)

So I guess what I really want is for people to start standing up for the right of people to be a little bit "male" and a little bit "female"- mixing things however their interests take them. Let the boys wear pink and purple if they want, and don't assume that a girl who loves princesses is not going to kick the world's butt some day. That may or may not be what that family in Canada is trying to do, but it wasn't what I was reading in the comments on those threads. And that, apparently, bothers me enough to not only make me comment prolifically from my vacation, but also to write an entire post of my own when I really should be in bed!


  1. I also feel not entirely comfortable with the concept of gender neutrality, and I think you hit the nail on the head. As long as the parents don't "enforce" gender neutrality beyond the child's own desire to identify as one or the other, I don't see the harm in it. But if they push too hard, it could be just as harmful as e.g. forcing a child identifying as a girl to dress like a boy. I wish someone would do a follow-up on the Swedish couple who did the same thing a few years ago... I suspect it would be enlightening.

  2. Definitely, we should let people be a little "male" and a little "female", mix it up. The way I see this playing out in practical terms, in raising kids, is to strive for gender 'neutrality'. For me neutrality doesn't mean completely avoiding the question, or only being 'neutral', it just means actively providing a bit of both. So in terms of something simple like colour, you provide a girl with some pink and some blue, not just green. Neutral in my mind means precisely letting children mix it up to whatever extent they want. The approach of Storm's parents is just one tool to help foster this kind of balance. Because as you say, there is a strong tendency, probably more for boys than girls, to not let kids experience both binaries, and to push gender-based roles and experiences from a young age.

  3. I'd agree it is more difficult to let a boy express a desire for more traditionally "girl" things than vice versa. Tate was talking to me from his car seat about two sheets of stickers that came in his final soccer game gift bag. There were girls and boys on the team. One had sports stickers and one had hearts and butterflies (in pink and purple of course.) And he's saying "These are for girls only and these are for boys only." I launch into they are stickers for everybody, blah, blah, blah and he's adamant that one sheet is just girls and one is just boys and I drop it because the conversation isn't going anywhere and the front to back seat set-up isn't helping foster understanding. When we get to the park he finally shows me that the hearts and butterflies are the stickers he says are for boys only "because I like hearts and butterflies". He has clearly gotten the message that there is gendered separation but he's applying it to his own likes and dislikes as they come up. For now.

  4. Anonymous5:46 AM

    Just so long as they don't get a reality show, I'm all good.

    Btw, my son's tea-set is a lovely dark blue china.

    He has mostly "boy" toys, but so will any potential daughters. Boy toys are just cooler and a person only needs so many dolls. We also give gender neutral or boy toys at birthday parties no matter the gender. It breaks up the constant stream of barbies.

    I think it's adorable the things DS thinks boys should do (he started navigating gender identity pretty late-- got he and she down around age 3 and a half, though the wondering why mommy doesn't have a penis was early 2)... sweep floors, childcare etc. It's nice having a good role model at home.

  5. I agree: give everyone a bit of both. Like you, I'm "girlie" in that I like to wear skirts, high heels, and make-up...but I was in physics (totally male dominated), like to watch football & hockey, and do other "male" things. I plan on getting Evan a kitchen set for one of his birthdays.

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  7. Yeah, this story made me really think about why I feel an odd mix of judgy towards them, but at the same time very sympathetic to how vulnerable they are, and in awe of how they appear to be trying so hard on parenting issues that frankly, most of us just don't perseverate about. And I realized my reaction had little to do with any concerns about gender-based harm to the child. However, I do think it was douchey and hypocritical for these parents who now proclaim they care deeply about privacy ("we're not keeping this a *secret*, we're keeping this *private*." Um, okaaaay?) to have so willingly, and so naively provided their kids' real names to the mainstream media, along with some very personal anecdotes about 5-year-old Jazz's vaunted "gender issues." I don't think turning the kids into public figures was at all necessary. Amen to what @nicoleandmaggie said about them ever getting a reality show.

    Most of what I found so eyeroll-worthy about the discussion of the story on the internets is this strange, hero-worshippy insistence that what the family is doing cannot possibly be a "social experiment" (as if that's a dirty word) instead of just plain old parenting, without any attempt to actually make the argument for why it's not. "It's not a social experiment because I say it's not and even calling it that is derogatory" = unpersuasive argument that I read iterations of all over the place. When Canada's leading public expert on gender calls it a "social experiment," you're going to have to do better than that to prove otherwise. Anyway, thank you @Cloud for an interesting post and discussion.

  8. SarcastiCarrie says:

    The physical sciences must be pretty far removed from engineering because I couldn't keep the guys away from me. An attractive female in safety glasses and steel toed boots is irresistable to a great many men.

    I'd have to say on the grand scheme of gender identity, I am a tad to the female of center, but I am not overtly girly. I wear polos and jeans and loafers, I cut the grass, do auto maintenance, and weed whack. I work in a factory, don't shop for shoes recreationally, and know how many horsepower my car (and everyone else's) has. I also nurse babies, cook, dislike sports, do laundry, wear my hair long (usually).

    It is far easier for a woman to do the more traditionally manly things than for a man to do more traditionally womanly things. Imagine a man who wanted to teach preschool, wear ruffled clothing, knit, and shop for man-bags (purses). He would not be taken seriously as a man, whereas a woman with more traditoinally male interests is seen in the dating/marriage pool as a super-plus candidate.

    I just wish the Canadian family had done their thing quietly without bringing any attention to themselves. Why open yourself up to such scrutiny? Have they not heard of the curse of the child stars?

  9. The way I read the news story, they are not planning on raising the kid neutrally forever. It's just until the kid wants to assert his/her own gender identity, in the way s/he wants to.

    If a boy wants to wear pink, he should. If a girl wants to be a rocket scientist, she should. It's about letting the kid decide what is appropriate, instead of having giant stacks of pink or blue baby gifts piled up in their room.

    I don't feel strongly enough to do what this family is doing. But I am interested in their experimental results.

    BTW, I am older than Cloud and majored in pure math and physical chemistry. I have never had a guy back away from me at a party when I revealed my major. If anything, they'd lean in closer. Of course, they might have been interested in free math tutoring.

    Seriously, a girl wearing a short and tight miniskirt who can do you calculus homework for you in 10 minutes doesn't sit alone at home at Berkeley unless she wants to.

    Perhaps Cloud's experience had more to do with the campus climate than the overall culture? Or she wears longer skirts?

  10. @BMGM, well, I WAS in Chicago, so half of the year I was bundled up under 80 layers of clothing. I think that you are right that the campus culture had a lot to do with the screwed up dating experience.

    But even later, I had experiences where a random guy in a bar would be hitting on me until he asked me what I did for a living...

  11. Anonymous5:08 PM

    In college, my engineering (and cheerleader) sister had a slew of boyfriends, all of whom she eventually dumped. (All of whom were jerks, though she didn't know that until after she'd dumped them.) Since going out into the real world, she has dated and been dumped by two guys in the 5 years she's been out. It's definitely difficult for her.

    My mom and I were talking last night about how she'd probably have better luck if she moved to Northern CA where the educated gender ratio her age is slanted male. All the single women I know are on the east coast or in red states and all the single guys on the west coast.

    In my male-dominated field, the theory is that if you come into graduate school with a significant other, you end up getting married. If you don't, then either you never get married or worse, you marry a male in the same field. So far I can't think of any counter-examples. Luckily I got my guy young.

  12. To be fair... I had two boyfriends in college. They were both in the same or similar majors, and in both cases that caused problems. Particularly when I was able to explain my (older) boyfriend's O-chem homework to him, even though I had not yet taken O-chem.

  13. First - ooh ahh Ma'a! Yes, I'm a fan. To link him even more strongly into the topic, one of my friends sat next Nonu on a flight (quite a few years ago) when he was a very new All Black. They had a chat & he was apparently very impressed with her geotechnical engineering qualifications.(He was also so softly spoken she had to ask him his name about 3 times)

    And as for the Canadian family - well, it seems fruity to me. But I don't really care enough to develop a reasoned opinion. I'm too busy buying my daughter toy airplanes, duplo and gorgeous little outfits in lots of different colours (but mostly blue, because it's the colour that suits her best)

    Having said that, her favourite toy is a pink & green 'Baby' doll. And I'm fine with that too.

    Oh and when I worked in Auckland, I was walking along K Road on my way to dinner with the "Young Lasses" (An engineering, geologists & scientists social group) when I went past a sex shop with a seriously skimpy high-viz, work shorts & high heeled work boots outfit in the window. It was certainly a bit different to the normal black mesh outfits!!

  14. Sonia5:48 PM

    I have 2 boys -- one is rough and tumble, physically daring, and built like a tank. The other is relatively small for his age, bookish, and extremely cautious. Guess which one says pink is his favorite color and carries a doll with him wherever he goes? It's the one who seems more typically "boyish" at first glance.

    It's my job as a parent to offer my children toys and experiences that expand their horizons, not limit them. So my sons have trains and dolls, legos and dress up clothes, and books about outer space and butterflies. They love cooking with me as much as they like digging in the dirt. I provide the options; they make the choices based on their evolving interests.

    I think that's what bothers me most about "gender neutrality" -- often times it's not so much neutrality as forcing a child into opposite gender norms. I am all for allowing boys to explore their feminine side and girls their masculine side (it does all kids a disservice otherwise), but *forcing* it rubs me the wrong way.

  15. The milliner7:31 PM

    Oh, where to start...

    Thank you for writing this very complete post @cloud. For the most part it sums up my overall feeling about the situation. Oddly, a few days before this post, I had a conversation about it with my mom and she essentially felt the same way.

    My brother and I grew up in a house that offered activities, toys, etc that were stereotypically masculine or feminine, and lots of 'neutral' stuff. When I was 9 and saw (and loved!) the remote control sports car my patents got my brother for Xmas, they got me one too. I played with girly stuff (though never really got in to Barbie) too, and lots and lots of art supplies, which I loved.

    Fast forward 30 years and I'm basically offering the same choices to my son. I have noticed though that I have gone out of my way to offer him more neutral things and less traditional boy things. I think it's partly that I don't like the aesthetic of traditional boy toys (or girl toys for that matter). I tend to like more arty/design-y looking toys and clothes, which often seem to have a good mix of the masculine & feminine.

    I haven't typically gotten DS a lot of trucks or cars or footballs, etc. I guess I just wanted him to see other things that are out there. But recently, I've tried to add a bit more of the traditional boy stuff back in to the mix, just to keep a balance.

    I agree that it is probably harder for a parent with a son who has overly traditional feminine interests. But, for better or for worse, I think it's less common than the onslaught that parents of girls face regarding expectations because of their gender.

    Of course, I'm highly biased as I know what it's like to be a girl and how people pigeon hole you into a mold based on a stereotype. For years I fought the girly nature of my work, until I realized that it was a part of me and it was my natural way of being. But also that just because I have a very soft and girly side did not mean that I did not have typically masculine personality traits and interests.

    My DH always calls me his prince. I do most of the work ( repairs, etc) around the house. One of his favorite pictures is me wearing a tool belt. I'm the primary breadwinner. He knits and is responsible for all things 'fire'. We both cook equally often and well. We each have masculine & feminine interests and parts of our personality. I'm glad that we mix it up so much as I think it will be good for DS as well.

    Interestingly, we are in the city in Canada that is described as having a very European feel. I think this does have an effect as I think there is a bit more liberty for especially boys and men to pursue more traditionally feminine activities and careers. But the difference is slight.

    And amen to the suggestion that the family NOT have a reality show. What a train wreck that would be.

  16. Sonia, you wrote "I think that's what bothers me most about "gender neutrality" -- often times it's not so much neutrality as forcing a child into opposite gender norms"

    I would hope this kind of forcing is really rare. You could also view it as gender 'neutralizing'. So for example, I tend to not buy my boys a lot of typical boy toys, and will tend to get them more neutral or 'girl' stuff (dress-up, art supplies, beads etc). I don't view this as forcing them to be girls, it's just neutralizing the overwhelming amount of boy stuff and boy messages they get from everyone else. Likewise I know so many parents of girls who are shocked that their girls are way into pink and princesses when they swear they avoided the stuff at all costs and encouraged 'boy' interests- the gender stereotypes are so strong out there that as parents achieving some kind of balance or neutrality is really hard and sometimes it might look like going to far the other way but I hope that in reality the goal is just to achieve a balance.


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