Tag Archives: cissexism

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.

Ecclescock: Deep thoughts on the construction and consequences of oppositional sex

This email exchange started after a full-frontal nude photo of Christopher Eccleston (who played the Ninth Doctor on Doctor Who) was shared on Twitter. Part of the response, in addition to squeeing over Naked!Eccleston, was, essentially, “penises look funny”/”male genitals look weird” — which is a common pronouncement whenever groups of (cis, mostly straight) women start talking about naked (cis) men, and thus served as a starting point to a conversation about the origins, and ramifications, of this meme.

Emily: Speaking of opposites combined, the conversation around Ecclescock on Twitter bewilders me.  I don’t really get the whole disgust-desire that seems to be a huge current running through some heterosexualities…

The formations that produce oppositional sex are… odd…  way odder to me than any given sexed part’s appearance…

Arwyn: I dunno. Like I said, I think all genitals (and many other body parts) look weird upon close study, but I am one of those people who has been known to freak myself out by contemplating my own tongue too closely, soooo…

But yeah. I’m inclined to say that some of it has to do with the male gaze, and cultural training to find only airbrushed, appropriately-tucked-away cis women’s genitals*, and bodies generally, attractive. Even (nominally/primarily) straight women don’t escape that programming, and so are boggled when confronted with the rare sight of non-airbrushed, cis male bodies. (We could argue that even the rare nude cis male bodies we are exposed to are designed by/for a male gaze; either a gay male gaze, or an aspirational straight male gaze — or some repressed combination thereof.)

(*Because heavens forbid we be forced to gaze upon errant inner labia that refuse to be contained. Or fat vulvas, or hairy vulvas, or asymetrical vulvas, or vulvas with interesting, bold coloration. And of course, intersex or non-cis vulvas mustn’t even be whispered of.)

But it does play into/arise from the creation of the myth of oppositional sex. Women are pleasing to gaze upon, therefore men cannot be. Women are beautiful, therefore men cannot be. Women are the attractors, therefore men cannot be.

I go through phases where I find some types (sexes) of bodies more compelling visually than others, as my sexuality naturally fluctuates, and I haven’t escaped entirely the cultural programming that positions women as generally more appealing, (and I’m still convinced most genitals simply look weird), but yeah, I don’t get why the things that are posited to make men “men” (penises, body hair — especially back hair, and don’t get me started on that BS) are often also culturally positioned as “unattractive”.

If you ever figure it out, let me know. :-P

Emily: Ha I’ll get on it :P

Oh I do agree that bodies do look weird upon close study – especially appendages (toes! fingers!) – but you know me, I’m curious about why and how those kinds of perceptions occur.  Tucked-away is really the right phrase, it’s about proportion and all those classical aesthetics, nai?  It’s interesting to me seeing Michelangelo’s David, because the way he sculpts David’s cock really is in proportion to the rest of his body and hence is visually appealing. Which clashes with the phallic idea of “bigger is better” of both straight and gay male gazes just a bit.

But it does play into/arise from the creation of the myth of oppositional sex. Women are pleasing to gaze upon, therefore men cannot be. Women are beautiful, therefore men cannot be. Women are the attractors, therefore men cannot be.

This.  A lot.  And I definitely agree with what you say about the male gaze.  Which is why it’s so interesting that (nominally/primarily) het women internalise that position, because it’s the gaze without the desire, the value-judgment without the end.  Not surprising — cos of course we take on the values of the dominant — but complicated to occupy.

But then this male gaze clashes with another cultural code: the normalising of male bodies as universal, and then general valuing of cis-maleness.  Which is why a cis man’s penis is “weird” but not usually “disgusting” or whatever?  So there’s a kind of moderating, an ambivalence there.  Not valued or desired, but not abject, either.

Where like you say, the “uncontained” bodies that don’t fit this morphology of undesirable-but-acceptable bodies are doubly fucked.  If it was a trans woman’s body pre-SRS, that’s not moderated by privilege, the bad feeling is intensified — being both a liminal body (a clash of codes about how sexed bodies are supposed to be) and being pretty low on the hierarchy of bodies in general.

And of course what’s fascinating is those kinds of abjected bodies end up as niche fetishes for the cis male gaze (disgust-desire)…  where there’s no comparative commercial market of male bodies that plays into the ambivalences of cis women’s gazing/desiring (though I think it persists more as a form of vernacular culture)…

[later]

And following on from that thought about abjected bodies, it matters that Christopher Eccleston is a white dude — and hence not abject, not a categorical object of disgust.  Where a black men’s cock may well be experienced as threat-disgust-desire depending on racial imaginary, rather than “weird.”

Arwyn:

But then this male gaze clashes with another cultural code: the normalising of male bodies as universal, and then general valuing of cis-maleness.  Which is why a cis man’s penis is “weird” but not usually “disgusting” or whatever?  So there’s a kind of moderating, an ambivalence there.  Not valued or desired, but not abject, either.

Like, we’re not allowed to be disgusted by the cis male body (unless, of course, it’s not white, not thin/”fit”, not appropriately unhairy, not typical/apparently able, etc), but we’ve not been taught to find it appealing in the ways we have the idealized cis female body, so the ambivalence comes out in a feeling of “weirdness”.

There’s also something about the prudery of a culture that almost never SEES a typical naked body, and especially not a frontal male nude, the David excepted (and oft mocked for the very proportionality you pointed out). To some extent, I think the “weirdness” is also simple unfamiliarity, and especially unfamiliarity of the range of humanity (as opposed to specific familiarity with one or a small number of sets of genitals, eg those of a lover).

Emily: So the solution really is: more nudity!

Arwyn: So much yes.

Also tacos.

Emily: And burritos.  A full range of snacking options.

10 Myths About Gender Neutral Parenting

I had a fabulously fun time on the radio yesterday talking about gender neutral parenting on OPB’s Think Out Loud, and while the session went great (you can listen to it at that link!), many topics came up we weren’t able to address in the time alloted. Many of those topics are fundamental misconceptions about what I and many parents mean when we say “gender neutral parenting“. To that end, in what I expect will be a number of upcoming posts on the subject, here are 10 myths (plus a bonus!) about gender neutral parenting, debunked:

Myth: You’re trying to do away with gender.

TRUTH: While I can’t speak for all parents who identify with the term “gender neutral parenting”, that is certainly not the goal of my family or those I know who are practicing this style of parenting. The last “wave” of gender-neutral parenting, in the 70s and early 80s, arguably had the goal of “androgyny for all children”, based on the belief that gender was entirely culturally created and imposed — and then, when (shockingly!) the kids had their own ideas, we as a culture appear to have thrown up our hands and said “to heck with it, it’s all innate!” The truth, which I believe the modern “gender neutral” (more accurately called “gender diverse”) movement is based on, is somewhere in between. Gender, it is true, is innate, and so to some extent is a desire for a traditional or nontraditional gender performance — but what gender performance looks like and what the culturally accepted gender roles are are almost entirely socially constructed, and thus malleable. Today’s gender neutral parenting is not about doing away with gender (if it ever really was), but about doing away with many of the unhealthy pressures around gender, and giving our children the freedom to figure out what gender means to them.

Myth: Your child will never learn about gender if you don’t teach it to them.

TRUTH: It’s always amused me, in a dark and Alanis-ironic sort of way, how the people who most argue that sex = gender also seem to think that gender is so fragile that any sort of variation in rearing practices will damage it. The truth is we all have some sort of gender identity (even if, for some of us, it’s a strong feeling of not having a gender at all, or if it changes over time), and all, in one way or another, perform that gender identity either according to or in a flaunting of our culture’s expectations (or, most often, some mix thereof). So of course our children will learn about gender, what gender means to us, what gender means to the people around them, and what gender means to their society.

But rather than telling them what their gender is in some sort of absolute, often coercive way, and giving them a narrow prescription of how they are supposed to perform that gender, we give them time and freedom to use their amazing observational and social skills to figure out gender for themselves, much as we might give them time to learn to walk — all the while modeling it for them, and trusting they’ll pick it up when they’re ready. Not on their own, or without guidance, but at their own pace, with an awareness that they might come up with answers we may never have thought of.

Myth: You’ll damage them. / You’ll confuse them.

TRUTH: In “traditional”, phenotypical sex = gender = gender performance families, it is guaranteed that 1-5% of children are confused and damaged. These are the 1-5% of children who are transgender, “gender variant”, or gender “non-conforming” — that is, whose internal sense of gender does not accord with the gender assigned to them based on their genitals, who may not fit neatly into the genders “boy” or “girl”, or whose gender performance preferences do not conform to their assigned or declared gender. Being raised in such an environment, with inflexible gender assignments and rigid gender expectations, is highly damaging for many of these children. Being trans* is not inherently, unbearably stressful; being trans* in a culture that rarely even acknowledges the existence of people like you and mocks them when it does often is, and is much more confusing for children, who aren’t even aware of what is happening.

On the other hand, there is no evidence that children raised with gender freedom and a celebration of diversity of gender expressions are damaged or confused at all. The key here is the difference between coercion — which can happen both toward strict traditional gender norms or toward gender-elimination or “androgyny” — and freedom. Coercion around gender is harmful for children; freedom is not and cannot be.

Myth: You’ll make your kid gay!

TRUTH: Oh, if only.1 The simple fact, proven over and over and over again both experientially and scientifically, is we can’t control, predict, or change our children’s sexuality.

(What we can do is make life easier for queer/non-straight children, by modeling for all our children celebration of various sexualities, and by being educated ourselves not just about straight and gay but the whole QUILTBAG2. We can raise confident queer kids and strong straight allies, and part of how we do both is by not assuming we know their sexuality until they tell us.)

But back to the myth, which comes from a conflation of gender performance and sexuality. That is, it is only a reflection of:

Myth: Gender = gender performance = sexuality.

TRUTH: There are many permutations of this myth, including the above “Dressing your boy in pink will make him gay”. Other variations include “How will she know she’s a girl if she dresses ‘like a boy’?” and “Oh, what a handsome little lady-killer!” They all rest on the conflation of gender (one’s innate sense of boy, girl, or neither/both/other-ness), gender performance (how one presents one’s gender through clothing and speech and movements and accessories) and sexuality (the gender[s] or lack thereof one is attracted to). These are three different things, and though sometimes they go together in ways we expect, they often don’t. There are femme lesbians and girly straight boys and trans girls who are tomboys and every possible variation under the sun — and then some. The thing is, people are not stereotypes, even those who appear to fit the stereotypes.

How does this relate to gender neutral parenting and especially to gender diverse parenting? One of the goals of this parenting style is to recognize that each of these things is different (and that phenotypical sex is yet another distinct category), so that our children can choose the combination that is right for them — yes, even if what’s right for them appears to conform to the stereotypes.

Myth: Gender neutral parenting means banning Barbies and trucks and princesses and Nerf guns.

TRUTH: Some parents do ban one or all of those things, and often for well-thought-out and highly personal reasons, but it’s certainly not required in order to practice gender-neutral (or especially gender-diverse) parenting. What is discouraged is only having one “type” of toy, whatever it is, or disallowing one “gender” of toy in favor of another (even if it’s cross-gender: that is, banning dolls, but not trucks or guns, for an assigned-girl).

Instead, a gender-diverse household tends to have lots of different kinds of toys, preferably ones that encourage open-ended imaginative play: for example, blocks to build a garage for Barbie to park her truck in, knocked down by a sudden Nerf attack! And if we find our children exclusively playing with one sort of toy in one sort of way, we might use Playful Parenting or similar tactics to encourage a broadening of play; but most children rarely get so stuck as to call for any sort of even subtle adult redirection.

Myth: Gender neutral parenting is impossible. / It’s all or nothing.

TRUTH: While 100% “gender neutral” parenting perhaps is impossible, even for the families who decline to share the phenotypical sex of their child and do not assign them a gender, there is a wide spectrum possible between that absolute idealism and the most rigid of “traditional” sex-segregated and stereotyped parenting. In truth, most “mainstream” parenting falls somewhere in-between as well, with very few parents completely disallowing all dolls or light colored clothes for assigned-boys and even fewer banning balls or blocks or pants for assigned-girls.

What most self-identified gender-neutral or gender-diverse parents do is try, as much as is practical or possible in their own lives, to move closer toward the “ideal” by turning down the sex-stereotyping and offering their children more options. In truth, many “gender neutral” families look not much different than many “traditional” families, especially past the infant months, whether due to following the child’s own preferences, gifts from more traditional family members, a bias in hand-me-downs, concerns about push-back from the public (especially in more marginalized families, who may depend on extended family or social services), or any number of other reasons.

Certainly as a child ages and comes into their own identity, it may be harder to tell a gender-neutral family apart from any other, which brings us to:

Myth: Gender neutral parenting is a failure if your girl wants to wear pink (or your boy refuses to).

TRUTH: All children are individuals, with their own preferences, and eventually with their own awareness of their gender and preferences about their gender performance. For many children, especially during a period shortly after coming in to a solid internal sense of their own gender (usually somewhere around 3-4 years old), this means wanting to align themselves strongly with what they perceive to be the cultural norms for that gender. Far from wanting to do away with this process, gender neutral parenting is all about leading up to this process in an entirely healthy way, for children of ALL genders and gender performance preferences, including the probably-majority who fall along “stereotypical” lines.

Thus, after years of wearing blues and browns and reds as well as pinks and pastels and purples, and with a closet full of similar diversity, when your 3-4 year old now-self-proclaimed girl wants to wear exclusively pink, you can know that it is her own knowledge of her gender, her personal preferences, and her awareness of her culture’s gender norms that are driving her choices, rather than highly segregated, sexist programming she might, in a more traditional household, have grown up with. And, you can know that just because this is her preference for now, it might not be reflective of her desires for all time, and you can use the tools of gender neutral parenting to continue to offer her an array of options, while honoring her choices, in the years to come.

Myth: You’re engaging in a social experiment with your child! / You’re indoctrinating them!

TRUTH: All parents “indoctrinate” or “experiment” with their children, in that we follow our own beliefs or our cultural memes and myths and parent accordingly. Everything we do with and for our children communicates to them our ideas about how the world works, how it should be, and what we want for them. The only difference with paths such as gender neutral or gender diverse parenting is that we are going against the current cultural mythos, that says boys and girls are two distinct, discrete genders that as such need to be given entirely different sets of clothes, toys, names, endearments, and role models — which is hardly a universal human belief itself.

Myth: Gender neutral parenting only benefits children who don’t conform to gender expectations.

TRUTH: While as previously mentioned gender neutral/gender diverse parenting is especially beneficial (and necessary!) for non-conforming children, it has numerous benefits for “stereotypical” children as well. For one, also as previously mentioned, it lets us know that if our children do conform closely to socially-approved gender expectations, this is authentic and is coming from within them. But also, many “normal” (cisgender and gender-typical) children are less strongly gendered than traditionally thought, and when raised in a gender neutral way care less about the “boy” or “girl”-ness of their clothing and activities than we might expect.

Further, as peer pressure increases and their awareness of gender norms expands, having a gender-neutral/gender-diverse base (meaning both their home life and the early years of gender neutrality) helps them question the “rightness” of culturally assigned roles and stereotypes, and the very existence of unnecessarily gendered products. And, gender diverse parenting helps prepare even the most culturally-conforming child to be more aware and more accepting of diversity, making them more supportive friends for their gender non-conforming peers.

BONUS Myth: Your children will hate you for screwing them up.

TRUTH: Well, maybe. But that’s pretty much a risk for any parenting path, most definitely including “mainstream” parenting. Considering the very little we have to lose, and how much we have to gain, isn’t it worth it to take that risk on something you believe in? Isn’t it worth trying some variation of gender neutral parenting?

  1. I jest!
  2. Queer Unlabeled Intersex Lesbian Transgender Bisexual Asexual Gay.

Gender neutral parenting, gender stereotyping, and the “genderless baby”

Odds are, you’ve already heard about the Toronto couple who are “hiding” their youngest child’s “gender” — I know I’ve seen stories about it show up in my various social media feeds dozens of times in the past couple days, and had no fewer than half a dozen people send me links or ask my opinion directly. I was even contacted for comment for an article about the family.

To be honest, I think I gave a particularly enthusiastic quote mostly because I’m very tired of this family — and any family who steps outside the mainstream in attempts to avoid or counter the bigotry therein — being so put down and criticized. That said, I don’t think it’s as simple as “everyone should do this!!!”

To start with, let’s get it clear that what Witterick and Stocker are doing isn’t “hiding Storm’s gender” or “keeping the baby’s gender a secret”: someone’s gender, like their sexuality, is something which only that person can reveal for themselves. What it seems, from the stories I’ve read (and that’s a big caveat, given how distorted a person’s life can become through the filters of media), that this family is doing is declining to assign their third child a gender of “boy” or “girl”. And while others are free, should they see Storm’s diaper being changed while out and about, to peer at the baby’s genitals and make their own assignment based on Storm’s apparent sex, they’re not revealing the baby’s phenotypical sex1, either, because in this culture, in which vagina = girl and penis = boy, to do so would be to assign the child a typical binary gender.

(Still with me? Good.)

Next: is it a good thing that they’re doing?

Aw hell, I don’t know.

What I do know is that I’ve heard some transgender people say they wish their parents had done this for them, or that all parents should, or that maybe this will help raise people’s awareness that there aren’t just two genders2. I know that as “damaging” as some people think Witticker and Stocker’s choice is, every day kids (both transgender and cisgender) are being damaged by the assigned genders and gender roles they’re forced into by a culture that cannot abide not “knowing what it is” and the parents who go along with that culture’s dictates.

I know that this is a path made easier by the fact that in most other respects, Storm accords with hir culture’s idea of the “default person” and hir family with the “default family”: apparently white, not visibly disabled, apparently middle class, the parents married and apparently cisgender, the children not adopted3. While sexism and cissexism are hardly only middle class white people’s concerns, having privilege in these areas means this family are not being questioned about race and class and sexuality and dis/ability the way a more marginalized family would likely be, which frees up time and mental energy to approach gender and sexism, and to attempt to protect their child(ren) from the worst effects thereof, in this particular, culturally disapproved, way.

I know that logistically, in the English language at least (and many, but not all, others), it’s ridiculously difficult to avoid gendered pronouns, unless we are to call a child “it”. While I very much hope, and work toward the day, that pronouns such as “ze” (or “zie”) and “ou” and a singular4 “they” are universally known and understood, the truth is that right now, they simply aren’t, and playing the pronoun-avoidance game gets wearying. All this on top of dealing every day with people who obsess over gender if it doesn’t accord with their expectations5, much less if you try to introduce a third category to their binary-believing minds, means I completely understand why it’s such a rare choice — one The Man and I don’t make, for instance.

Ultimately, I know that whatever gender (or supposed lack thereof) we assign to our children, the best things we can do for them are:

1) realize that such assignments are, by necessity, provisional, and that we cannot really know our child’s gender until they tell us,

2) turn down (and to the best of our ability turn off) the coding that says gender determines activities, desires, and personalities, and

3) let them be who they are — whether or not that accords with the gender or gender role(s) we’ve assigned them. This means both supporting our assigned-boy children’s enthusiasm for pink and dresses (and supporting our assigned-girl children if they like the same!), and understanding that while gender-neutrality is an excellent place to start kids off from, it should never be our goal for them in the long run.

There are ways one can be any level of “gender neutral”, including taking a path such as Stocker and Witticker are taking, and fail at all three of these, and there are ways one can take the easier path of going along with gender-typing-based-on-genitals6 and follow them well. And while I certainly think that gender-neutral, or better yet, gender-diverse parenting is inherently a good thing, I have no desire, much less the time or energy, to sit in judgment of whether people are doing it “right” — especially a family I don’t personally know and have never talked with directly.

(There’s a lot I want to say about the inflammatory, and often explicitly bigoted and hateful, ways this story is getting reported and commented on7, but I’d be here for another week, and y’all would probably stop reading. But I will say this: 10,000 Dresses is not a story about a boy, it’s a story about a girl whose family thinks she’s a boy, and the fact that even the less overtly biased reporters get that wrong speaks volumes.)

A friend of mine said, “I may not agree with how they are trying to send counter signals [to society's gender stereotyping messages] but I respect that they are.” To me, that is what it comes down to. From what I’ve read, this family has chosen one, albeit unconventional, way to attempt to counter the ridiculously and horrifically stereotyping gender messages and gender roles society puts on children — starting well before birth, now, thanks to ultrasound8 — and regardless of whether I think it’s a (or the) “right” or “best” way, I’m entirely pleased that they are at least trying.

  1. Phenotype: a category based — for our purposes — on appearance, and is not necessarily the same as one’s genotype. That is, a child can have entirely “normal” appearing penis and testicles, and not necessarily have an entirely XY genotype; ditto vulva and vagina and XX.
  2. A hope perhaps proven false by reports that call the baby “genderless”, as though if not “boy” or “girl” one doesn’t have, and could not possibly have, a gender at all.
  3. To my knowledge; I only am sure, from the reports, of the (non)adoption status of Storm.
  4. Or at least, singular-bodied.
  5. But insist that we’re the ones who make such a big deal out of gender by “obscuring” or subverting it. Sure.
  6. And note that because “gender neutral” is a spectrum, these are overlapping categories.
  7. In fact, I had a troll here earlier who called me a “mental case” and a “fucking insane cunt” because I spoke positively about it and about gender neutral/gender diverse parenting in general.
  8. A factoid I find fascinating: I am asked nearly daily if I know “what (I’m) having”, and when I reply “a probably-singular baby”, the other person is more likely than not to admit that they, too, declined to find out the “gender” (read: genital sex) of their child(ren). Ultrasound sex determination (read: guessing, if educatedly) is so ubiquitous that even those of us who decline it nevertheless assume everyone else is doing it.