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!