One of the stereotypes about feminists is that we’d have everyone raise their children completely gender-blind, ignoring and eliminating any sex-based variables that pop up, seeking to create a generation of complete androgynes, indistinguishable from each other, with equality achieved through absolute sameness.
Which is complete poppycock, of course.
Except, well, it kind of isn’t. Because I do think there is value in raising our children in a gender-neutral manner. Not in the stereotypical way, perhaps, in that my end goal is as far from creating a generation of androgynes as one can get, but yes, in that I wish we would dress all our infants and toddlers the same regardless of sex, give them the same toys, talk to them the same — even perhaps give them the same names, because so much of gendering is unconscious, and we are unlikely to treat a “Suzette” the same as a “Steve”, no matter how enlightened we think we might be.
There are several reasons I believe this, but first let me say: I’m not interested in judging individuals, or determining whether anyone is “gender-neutral enough” to get whatever gold star or mental checkmark anyone might be imagining goes on in my head. Honestly? I don’t care that much, and “my best friends” (no, really!) raise their children highly gendered, The Man and I (obviously) do some gendering of the Boychick so we’re not “perfect”, I think you can raise girls in pink dresses and boys in blue suits and still be feminist, etc, etc, and so on.
What I do care about is how we think about these things — and that we think about these things. I care about the pervasiveness and the degree of gendering in society, so that these things aren’t a matter of individual choice, but of cultural prescription. I care that I can hardly find clothing for my child free of sexist characters or stereotyped colors. I care that I cannot take the Boychick out in public without him hearing some variation of “What a big strong boy you are!” or “What a pretty girl you have!” depending on how he’s been gendered in the eyes of strangers that day. I care about the culture my child is growing up in, and more and more entering into and being influenced by as he ventures out of the environment we his parents create for him.
But individuals? As long as you’re doing your good enough (screw “best”), that’s good enough for me — and really, it shouldn’t matter to you what I think anyway. Even if I were judging you. Which I’m not. Honest.
OK, got that out of the way? Good. Let’s talk gender.
I do not think gender is entirely patriarchally created — exaggerated, adulterated, interpreted, interpolated, yes: but not created. Just like sexuality, I think there’s some part of our brain that is filled in with some concept of Who We Are (or for sexuality, Who We Like). Sometimes this matches our bodies — and thus the slot society ascribes to us, whether we appreciate the roles and dictates that go along with that slot or not –, and sometimes it doesn’t. When it does, we hardly think about it, and assume that “gender” is nothing more than culturally ascribed ideals based on our phenotypic sex (that is, our genitals and secondary sex characteristics) — or, that those roles are Inherent Immutable Characteristics, which arise from our sex-gender (since they’re obviously the same thing, right?).
This type of thinking is what is known as cis privilege. Just like heterosexuality used to be (and still too often is) considered the default/only state of being, so obvious it was/is unnamed and invisible, so too is the state of being cissexual and cisgender. But our cis person inability to recognize the sex/gender difference (that is, that assigned gender based on phenotypic sex and inherent gender based on whatever it is in our brains/selves that determines this sort of thing are two different categories which may or may not accord) does not make it any less real.
So, what does this have to do with my annoyance at gendered infant and toddler clothing, and toys, and stereotypes? Only that while I know my child has a penis and testicles, and apparently lacks a vulva and vagina, I do not know that he is a boy. I may think that he is a boy, it is likely that he is a boy, but just like I do not — and cannot until he informs me — know his sexuality, I do not — and cannot until he informs me — know his gender. He might be a boy. He might be a girl. He might be some variation of genderqueer or otherwise fall midway in the gender spectrum, or outside of it altogether. (And for that matter, he might be a high femme boy or a very butch girl, but that’s getting too complicated even for me to contemplate in depth in this blog.)
But let’s say he’s a boy. Let’s say I know — or am willing to take the 90% or so odds — that his gender matches his phenotypic sex, and that his phenotypic sex reflects his genotypic sex (that is, that he is not some variation of intersex, any of the numerous types of being that do not fall into “neat” XX female-bodied women and XY male-bodied men, not all of which present obviously at infancy). Why not then dress him all in blues and browns and trucks and puppies? Why not avoid pink like the plague (and dream of a daughter if I desire demure little dresses and dear little bows)?
The answer to that comes down to a more traditionally feminist (and thus all too often transphobic, but let’s see if I can avoid that) objection to the codification of arbitrary gender roles. This part you’ve likely heard before: why must girls wear clothing that is decorative, delicate? Why must they present as precious, pretty, petite? Why must boys wear clothing that is rugged, dark (or on occasion bold)? Why must they be strong, boisterous (“boy-sterous”?)? What the hell do kittens and butterflies have to do with being female, trucks and dinosaurs to do with being male? (And when we raise children in a culture that colors everything “girl” pink, and slaps truck on everything “boy”, even if we their parents do not, why are we so damned surprised that our highly intelligent and observant children notice this and fall in line with what they feel they’re supposed to like?)
Our children are intelligent and observant, and they will and do pick up on the messages coded in the genderization of practically every product they encounter (and the more explicit messages they hear and see). These messages — still, today, in 2009 — say that girls are for looking at, boys are for doing; they say girls are relational and boys are aggressive; they say that girls do fantasy (unicorns, fairies), and boys do science (bugs, dinosaurs).
These messages are, in short, misogynistic patriarchal bullshit. And I want no part of them, for myself, or for my child.
Do I want him (if he he be) to be androgynous, indistinguishable in all ways from his presumably-female best friend? No. But I would far rather let him learn that he is fundamentally the same as her than that he and she are as wildly different as patriarchy would have him believe.
Are there inherent gender differences? Indubitably — in the nature of highly overlapping bell curves on a population scale. There are differences based on our physical bodies, differences that arise from our hormones once we enter puberty, differences in preferences based on our inborn gender. But these are not absolute differences: they are tendencies noticeable only on the large scale, tendencies the patriarchal arm of the kyriarchy pushes as far apart as it can in an effort to divide and conquer us.
But far more profound are our similarities as members of the same species; far more profound are the individual differences based on inherent personality. I want to honor my child for who he is, who he may be even before I know exactly who that is; I want to minimize the misogynistic messages he absorbs; I want him to recognize everyone’s common humanity even as people differ; I want him to pursue his interests whatever they are, regardless of the gendered coding his society has ascribed to them; and I want to create a culture in which this is true for all children, because if it is not true for all, it cannot truly happen even for one.
He will know his gender one day (he may know it now and be unable to tell me). He will want to create his presentation based on the combination of what he knows his gender to be, what his culture tells him belongs to that gender, and what he as a person simply likes. He may be one of the many, many XY male-bodied boys who simply likes things that go (and why not? trucks are nifty). But unless I give him room — psychic and psychological space, if you will — to discover and create these things on his own, I will never know how much of what he does is what he really wants, and how much is what he’s adopted because it’s what he thinks he’s supposed to do and like.
I’m not opposed to gender (which would be about as sensical as being opposed to gravity); I’m just opposed to its imposition on children too young to know better, but not too young to be warped by all the baggage it brings with it. I cannot say it better than this: “Turn down the volume on the gender coding. Respond to the child’s personality. Let your child be who he or she is.” Not gender-free. Just free to be whatever gender they are — whatever that means to them.