Monthly Archives: March 2012

Late notice for WAM!It Yourself: Is It a Boy or a Girl? Improving Media Coverage Beyond the Binary

Join us tomorrow for a radio-style program on non-binary and non-conforming gender and the media, as part of Women, Action and the Media’s WAM! It Yourself decentralized conference. Hosted by Avory Faucette and featuring an exciting array of guests — including1 yours truly — you can tune in via Blog Host Radio, or call in to join the conversation.

It starts at 10am EDT (I’ll be talking with Avory for the first half hour of the program) — which, for those keeping track, is indeed 7am here in cloudy Portland. Never say I don’t do anything for you people.

Sorry for the late notice, but I do hope you can join us. Unless you’re sleeping. In which case, enjoy it. For me.

Also check out the rest of WAM! It Yourself’s schedule. It runs through the end of March, featuring sessions in cities across the USA2 and online.

  1. Inexplicably.
  2. And Canada, eh.

You will never be him; please don’t be them

Dear Boychick,

Last week was your fifth birthday. We made carrot cake and sang you happy birthday just the once like you wanted and opened so many presents from family who love you fiercely despite being so far away. We bought you a bike and a raincoat and I cooked breakfast and lunch and dinner (and did I mention the cake?) just like you asked for and I marvelled at how very fast you are growing up.

There’s someone I’d like you to meet. I don’t know if you’d like him, or vice versa. He was born twelve years before you, which is too much of an age gap to be peers, but maybe he was the type to like kids. I don’t know, and we will never find out. I would like you to meet him, but you won’t, because eighteen days before your birthday, he was shot and killed by a man who looked at a black kid in a sweat shirt and saw a threat. He was killed by a man who is walking free still, nearly a month later — after your presents are losing their luster, after your bike is no longer quite so new — because of racist gun laws and racist police departments. He was killed by a man who mistook vigilantism for protection, violence for justice, and a kid walking with candy in his pocket for a no-good criminal.

Millions of parents across our country are holding their sons closer now, with this one thought echoing in their heads: that could have been my son.

You’ll forgive me I hope if I hold you tighter tonight, if I snuggle you just a little longer, kiss your hair just that bit stronger. But the thought in my head is: that will never be you.

You will never be seen as suspicious because of your skin color. You will never be coded as a violent criminal because of your race and your gender. You may one day know persecution, may one day be subject to epithets and violence simply walking down the street — you may be a fag or a tranny or a crip — but this, this will never be your fate.

But I am aware, I am so very, painfully aware that you might be on the other side of this. You might be the one wielding the gun1. You might be the one looking at the dead kid and seeing a corpse, a criminal, a cause for gunfire and “self-defense”. You might be the one letting the killer go without testing him for drugs or alcohol. You might be the one lobbying to pass laws that are disproportionately harmful to black and brown communities. You might be the one opining that it’s all so tragic but the kid did look like a thug after all and he shouldn’t have been out walking where he didn’t look like belonged.

When I hold you tight, I am thinking, praying, begging: don’t be them. Don’t be them, please, child, my beautiful boy: don’t be them. Don’t be the one that black mothers are afraid of tonight more than usual. Don’t be the one that lets this happen without trying to make it better. Don’t be the one that cracks a joke, that thinks of it as their problem, that doesn’t bother to care. Don’t. Be. Them.

You are, no matter how much I wish it otherwise or how much I work to prevent it, going to be infected by racism. It will — is, has already — pervert you, damage your ability to see others’ wholeness and humanity and (says your theist parent) holiness. You live in this society, in kyriarchy; it cannot not touch you and make you rougher.

But you don’t have to let it make you them. You don’t have to let it turn you into Trayvon’s murderer and his family’s misery. You have to not. You have to resist. You have to find a new way.

I’ll help you child, as much as I am able — how can I do else when there is a family without a son and without justice for their loss? — but as much as I want, I cannot shape you as I will, cannot fill your tabula with my anti-racist scripts (nor would I know the right things to write there, even if I could). I can only whisper in your hair, pray to whatever gods are there, write to a you I hope will be ready to listen: don’t be them. Don’t inflict this pain. Remember a boy you will never meet, and for him, for his family, for every family knowing it could be them: please, be better.

For Trayvon Martin. For so many others. Please.

Yours always,
Arwyn

  1. George Zimmerman — per Mother Jones — is Latino, but the point stands: white men might kill a black boy, but they will never be killed for being black.

Review of Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America

Disclosure: I solicited a copy of Pink and Blue from the author, Jo B Paoletti, for review and for my own research purposes, and was sent one complimentary by the publisher.

Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America

Over two years ago, a new Twitter-friend of mine told me of her mother’s research, into the history of American children’s clothing generally and of pink and blue as gendered signifiers specifically, and of a forthcoming book on the topic. I have been bouncing in my seat — my capacity for patience, never very high, at its lowest — ever since, nagging my friend (or Twitter-stalking her mom) every few months: “Any word on the book? When’s it coming out? What can I do to help??” (My eagerness matched only by my hubris.) Finally — finally! — I have it sitting next to me, notes scribbled on nearly every page, showing wear from two children, two pets, a pencil wedged beneath its cover, and a week of being carted around stuffed in a diaper bag, and I can say: read this book.

A Costume History (it Doesn’t Mean What You Think)

Paoletti, an Associate Professor in American Studies at the University of Maryland, is first and foremost a textiles, costume, and consumer economics scholar. As she points out, “costume” does not mean Halloween dress-up, but rather simply the collective clothing and accouterments that humans use to protect and adorn ourselves. Thus, Pink and Blue is primarily a costume historiography, with primary sources of baby and advice books, paper dolls, and advertisements. It focuses on children’s clothing from birth through age seven or so, from the mid-1800s (though she does stretch back a bit farther for reference) through 2011, particularly the ways in which their dress did — and didn’t — signify gender.

Critiques: I have them

Before I tell you why you should buy and read and share the book anyway, let me tell you of its shortfalls.

First of which is: as a book, Pink and Blue is not that great. Which is not to say the writing is bad: it’s at worst fine, and often ascends to quite engaging or enjoyable. But it lacks the cohesion and polish of a really excellent, thoroughly readable popular text; though it approaches this in many places (especially toward the end), it is uneven. The first chapter, for example, appears to have at one point been written as the introduction (p 8: “In this introduction, I will focus… but in each chapter, where appropriate, I have incorporated…”), and certainly it reads like a book with two (each well-written) intros.

Pink and Blue is, as she says, “several overlapping and interconnected narratives” (p XVI), so there is a significant amount of repetition of information: because of this, and because there are only so many times I can read 1865-this and 1868-that before my eyes cross, I found myself wishing again and again for an overarching time-line, perhaps in appendix or introduction, that covered all the key dates mentioned throughout: the introduction and cessation of “the white dress”, the start of bifurcation in toddler wear, the Little Lord Fauntleroy fad, the Time Without Pink in department store catalogs. Though these things are all rather fuzzy, Paoletti does successfully attach dates to many of them: to lay them out chronologically, and then explain their research and ramifications in the text, would be so helpful in the reading and absorbing of her ideas.

Finally, on the topic of trans and gender non-conforming children, I found earnestness and good intentions but a few cringe-causing comments nonetheless, including cissexist pronoun use and centering of assigned-gender as “real” (as in “a boy who insisted that he was a girl” p 13) and conflation of gender nonconformity and transgender experience1. This is not the main focus of the book, however, and so the few failures are irritating imperfections, not prohibitive problems.

Read It Anyway

If you’re interested in gender, parenting, and the societal forces influencing these — that is, if you’re a regular reader of this blog — odds are excellent you’ll enjoy Pink and Blue. I certainly did, frequently exclaiming over a new thought, a clarifying detail, or a novel approach to historical analysis. It’s not that often that I read a book on gender in which I learn something new to me (rather than learning more about something I already knew): Pink and Blue is a refreshing exception. Even in the places where I disagreed with her analysis, I felt engaged rather than put off.

One of the most intriguing (and novel) ideas in the book is Paoletti’s theory of the generational, developmental evolution of children’s clothing. That is, “[t]he fashionable infant of 1900 was the fashionable schoolgirl of 1908 and the fashionable young miss of 1914, and the fashionable woman of 1920 might become the grandmother in a polyester pantsuit in 1973.” Paoletti asks, and to some extent answers, “what connections might there be between children’s clothing of one era and the adult clothing of the next?” (p 15)

It is this question that most fires my imagination, as I clothe my children; it is this especially that compelled my fascinated flip from page to page until the last; it is this that will guide me as I seek, in whatever small way my writing and activism allow me, to affect the next generation’s gender health; and it is wondering what answers their historians will find in my work that fuels me.

Thanks to the groundbreaking scholarship of Pink and Blue, I have no doubt there will be historians working in this rich and fascinating field for years to come.

***

If you can’t find it at or don’t want to trek to an independent bookstore, support your local blogger and buy Pink and Blue from Powell’s or Amazon.

  1. Although I will admit that especially in children there is a significant amount of blurring between gender nonconformity and transgender experience — and that the two are not mutually exclusive, as in the trans boy who likes flowers as dolls — there are of course many trans girls, just as there are many cis girls, who want nothing more than the mainstream binarist offerings of pink, pink, and more pink. The point being not that they are two distinct categories, but that neither are they interchangeable: transgender does not mean binary-defying any more than cisgender or gender typical means binary-loving.

The Liberatory Mermaid: A Bedtime Story

“Mom, can you tell me a story, the story about the sticks and the world?”

“I don’t really know that story; that’s a story you told. Do you want to tell me that story?”

“No, I want you to tell me one. Don’t you know any stories? Will you tell me a story please?”

“Well, alright. Once upon a time…”

***

Once upon a time, there was a little mermaid –

***

“A mermaid! …what’s a mermaid?”

“A person whose top half is like a human’s and whose bottom half is like a fish.”

***

Once upon a time, there was a little mermaid, who lived in the ocean. She had a strong tail she swam everywhere with, and she was clever, and beautiful, and so curious.

***

“What’s curious mean?”

“What do you think it means?”

“I’m curious! Sometimes, when there are invisible-pretend monsters, and they attack us, I attack them back, and I get my sword, and I kill them!”

“I think perhaps you mean courageous.”

“Oh. Why? What’s curious?”

“Curious is wanting to know why, and what things are. It’s knowing a little bit, and wanting to know more.”

“I’m curious!”

“Yes, you are.”

***

This little mermaid was curious about the people who lived on land: there were so many things she didn’t know about them. She didn’t know what shoes were for, because she didn’t have feet, or legs. She didn’t know what streets were, or cars, because she swam everywhere. She didn’t know what she didn’t know, and she wanted to learn.

One day, she met a powerful and wise witch, who offered her the chance to change her shape and grow legs like the people on land. But she was a fair witch, and warned the mermaid that to do so would cost her her voice, because all magic has a cost.

***

“Why did she have to lose her voice?”

“Because that was the cost of having legs, because all magic has a cost.”

“Well MY magic doesn’t! I would just give her legs, and she could keep her voice!”

“Well too bad your magic wasn’t there then! The mermaid only had the witch’s magic, so it cost her her voice.”

***

The mermaid was a little scared, but she wanted to learn all she could, so she agreed. The witch cast her spell, and the mermaid’s tail split it two, forming into legs, with feet. She nodded her thanks to the witch, because she could no longer say it, and went to live on land with the people there.

She stayed many years with them, learning about shoes, and streets, and wheels, and so much more. The people of the land liked her and welcomed her, even though they couldn’t talk, because she had no voice –

***

“Why didn’t they use their hands to talk?”

***

– and none of them knew any sign language.

The little mermaid loved it on the land, but she missed her own people, and one day, she decided she had learned enough. She had worn shoes and walked on streets and although she now knew she could never know everything about these people, she was ready to return home. So she dived into the water, and her legs melded together into her powerful flipper once more, and she regained her voice, and went home to tell her people all that she had learned.

***

“The end.”

“I love that story. Will you tell it again?”

“Maybe some other time. For now, let’s get you ready for bed.”

“Ok. Thank you for the story. I love you.”

“I love you too.”

To my second born, at six months

Dear Vulva Baby,

You are a delight.

You are also a second child, which means I have not written to/of/about you as much as you deserve, and as a second child, I know, I know exactly how much that will hurt when you realize it.

But now, on the day you turn six months old, let me take a moment to say the things I feel no less deeply for not saying them as frequently.

You are a delight: I delight in you, and you bring light and joy wherever you go. You smile and flirt with everyone, snuggle and love those you trust, and communicate more and better than any baby I’ve met.

You are strong: from turning yourself top side up (if wrong way round) the day before you were born, holding your head up on your own the day after, and standing, standing, standing strong on your deliciously thick and rolly thighs, you are of and in your body so fully and adeptly.

You make us laugh, and you play with us so well, asking for the games you know in ways so clever it takes my breath away. Of course you cry, of course you get cranky and tired and needful, but only when you have a need, and when it is met, you play, play, play.

You are already a music star.

I have so many fears for your future, so many worries, so many things it kills me to not be able to control. But you: you draw me out, bring me back, and help me stay here, with you-now.

There are so many more things I want to tell you of you — the way you laugh when we play bite your ribs, the way you learned to nurse politely within a week of cutting a tooth, the way you shriek with joy when seeing your brother, the dog, the cat, the way you stuff as many fingers in your mouth as possible — but most of all, most of all, I wish I could convey to you the way I love you. It is vast, and deep, and words fail me because there is nothing unique in this, my love for you, except you. Bubbly, beloved, bouncing, bright you. And I am hopelessly, hopefully, unceasingly in love with you.

Happy half birthday, my second-born, my baby-child. I love you.