For a few years, my son wore dresses on and off. We supported him, but he stopped. I don’t know why. We don’t live in a particularly tolerant community although his school was excellent. However, we have friends whose boys continue to wear dresses outside of the house in the face of mockery. They have become more withdrawn or have literally withdrawn from school but don’t stop. Are they on different place on the gender spectrum than my son? Do they have more resilience? Was it just a phase for my son or societal pressure he felt?
Yesterday, my daughter, in her ever-present tutu, picked a daffodil and said: “Mama, it’s my flower gun.” And she shot a man.
I don’t know what these pictures mean for my children other than I hope they feel supported and loved wherever they end up on the gender spectrum, which is what I feel like is missing in the ongoing conversation over gender. Not so much the loving and supporting children, but the concept that gender is a spectrum where children (and adults) shift up and down.
The most common comments I read are the “I never promoted gender roles with my kids but they just naturally like boy and girl stuff proving how innate trucks and tutus are.” This can be rephrased as “I never introduced my kids to guns, and my son makes EVERYTHING a gun proving how important it is for boys to play rough”… and for girls to — oh, wait they usually don’t mention girls in the post because who knows what girls are supposed to do.
Here’s the thing. Having a child is not scientific evidence. It is an “n” of 1 or 5 or however many children a parent has. That’s a very small sample. No journal would accept that study. And as a parent, who clearly does not wants to be seen as “gendering” their child, the study is clearly biased. In other words, the parent has proven nothing about gender, nature , nurture, or even if their kid is going to ask to put a dress on tomorrow.
Gender is, in fact, a spectrum not a binary. In American culture, we love to talk about boy stuff and girl stuff. We may mix it up a little with girls at a young age. Sure, we’ll let little girls play with trains while wearing tiaras, but we don’t always like little boys in dresses. Boy stuff is for everyone, and girl stuff is for girls. But when the girls hit middle school and beyond, we say: “Just kidding, boy stuff like professional sports anyone watches, making money, and feeling safe is actually just for boys. Hope you had fun with those trains.” (Also, why are trains for boys? And dogs? And cats are for girls? Did someone just throw things in the air and see if they fell in the pink circle or the blue one?)
But in reality, gender does not fit into blue boy packages and pink girl packages. Sex is just physical. Gender is a cultural and personal phenomenon that includes how we dress, act, interact, think of ourselves and others. It is an intersection of nature and nurture, and it can vary throughout a person’s lifetime.
There are more effeminate boys and more masculine girls. A boy who dresses as a princess at 3 may never do it again, and a girl may decide at 14 to never again wear dresses and will be buried in pants at 94 years old. This assumption that my boy is like this and my girl is like that and will always be is frustrating and part of how we are nurturing the possibilities out of our children. The assumption of a binary is a huge part of the problem and a contributor to the ongoing sexism rampant in our culture.
If we would let our children be children and not point out, Look at the girl things and the boy things, so often, maybe we would get to know them as individuals first and let them work out their gender identities. Perhaps, they would grow up to find they had more in common with each other, and there would be less of a boys clubs to worry about for everyone.
I’m not promoting gender-blindness since women still make 77 cents to the dollar, and when 5 are in a room, one has probably been sexually assaulted. Girls are still too vulnerable when, in any given mixed gender classroom high school in American, boys are given 50% more talking time. However, gender needs to take its place as a cultural experience since anyone who thinks that females are innately less aggressive has never messed with a bear cub.
However, I am promoting color-blindness in the sense that any comments that bear any resemblance to: AHA! You are a girl even if I dressed you in yellow as a baby as though pink or blue or yellow means anything to a 3 month old who can’t see colors yet, must stop. They should be more: Hey, let’s enjoy yellow together. Oh, you like pink? That’s nice. I say all the time to my children: Colors are just colors. It turns out adults don’t understand that either in their quest for neutrality. Colors are the opposite of gender. While they are physically on spectrum, colors should not culturally be on a spectrum.
Do I believe there are inherent differences in the sexes? Yes, our bodies produce different hormones and have different receptors in different places. But I also think that many girls and boys and men and women could stand next to each other, and, if we took away all our cultural cues, no one could tell their sex apart if they tried.
It might be easier to parent and to sell to two distinct groups, but we just don’t exist that way. And we never have.
Some specific sources beyond the classes I’ve taken on feminism and gender:
- Institute for Women’s Policy Research: Pay Equity and Discrimination
- CDC: Sexual Violence: Data Sources
- PBS: Language Myth #6: Women Talk Too Much
- A nice breakdown of gender terms: Understanding Gender