Butterflies or tractors?

The quandaries of gender and gender norms and gender policing…Erika Kleinman’s three-year-old daughter wanted her hair cut very short, really short Mom. It took three tries for Kleinman to cut it as short as her daughter wanted it, and she wondered why she found it so difficult.

When I was in the fifth month of my pregnancy with my first child, everyone wanted to know the sex. “Boy or girl?” When I said, “Surprise,” they were openly horrified. “No one is going to know what to get the baby!” Pink or blue? Cupcakes or puppy dogs? Butterflies or tractors? These conversations annoyed me. I have a foot in my spleen and no bladder capacity and you want to know pink or blue?

Even without the key information of my baby’s sex, people sounded off on how different boys and girls are. Boys are so bold, so daring. Girls are so sweet, such good listeners. Many of these people were college educated, where they ostensibly took one class which addressed binary gender constructs. One lesbian mother described her son as “all boy.” What does that even mean? I don’t hold gay people to a higher standard when it comes to questioning gender roles, but it is testimony of how deep these perceptions of girls and boys run in this culture.

It’s tricky. I’ve been taught by a couple of generations of skeptics not to cling to the starry-eyed aka delusional idea that gender is totally constructed and totally fluid. Ok, but it’s clearly not totally inborn, either, because if it were, why would all the god damn policing be necessary?

That’s one thing that men get a lot worse than women do, as far as I can tell. Depressingly, that’s because being girly or womany when you’re that other gender is such a disgrace, while it’s not so disgraceful in the other direction.

What would happen if we gave up on the idea that boys and girls are so different? As the director of my child’s preschool pointed out, “It can be more effective to highlight our similarities. Instead of putting people into separate corners, it pulls us into one community.” She suggested that when Phoebe says she is a boy, we could say: “Yes, and we’re all human!” What a radical idea.

And what would it be like if instead of describing our children as “all boy” or “just so girly,” we talked about how much our kids love being in charge, how they love to draw, and swim, and have picnics in the park? How they spend hours in the bath, and how much they want to know how things work? How they like being the center of attention or maybe how they take their time to get to know someone? Instead of trotting out the same old stereotypes about what girls and boys are like, we could talk about what our children do; how they move through the world. We could talk about all the ways they are human, and how great it is just to be a part of it.

I wish we could do that. I see no sign of it whatsoever, though – if anything American culture has gotten more macho over the past few decades rather than less so.




  1. chigau (違う) says

    “No one is going to know what to get the baby!”
    Give money.
    The parent(s) will know what to do with it.

  2. says

    Re: What to get the baby

    Something cute, funny, and non-gendered, like a onesie that says “Warning: Does Not Come With Instructions”.

    Is this… not obvious to others? And do people really think the baby is going to care if it’s wearing pink, blue, green, or stripes with polka dots and plaid trim? Because babies? Babies don’t care, as long as they’re warm and comfy and fed and cuddled. Kiddo’s too busy finishing up developing. (Compared to other species of primates, humans are born underdeveloped, to accommodate our larger heads.)

  3. hoary puccoon says

    Kids change over the years, anyway. When my older daughter was 12 years, 9 months, she announced she only wanted to wear jeans, and would never, ever again wear a skirt under any conditions. For her 13th birthday I gave her a really cute dress. Flowered. A ruffle on the bottom. She was thrilled, wore it everywhere. In those 3 months, some hormones had kicked in. 🙂

  4. Jackie says

    I remember a friend looking at my daughter’s Christmas gifts one year and commenting that it was cool that we bought her “boy’s toys” too.

    She was referring to a soccer ball and a sled.

    I didn’t know that girls weren’t supposed to like soccer or sledding.

    The gender role conditioning starts so early. It’s so sad.

  5. screechymonkey says

    I’ve been surprised by how many of my friends suddenly turned into gender essentialists when they had kids. Suddenly every difference between how one person’s son and another person’s daughter behaves is attributable to their gender. It’s all “oh, boys are like that.”

  6. johnthedrunkard says

    The expectations and policing are much deeper than most recognize. I recall articles demonstrating that adults behavior towards infants was radically different depending upon the perceived gender of the baby. The same baby, wrapped in pink or blue, would invoke completely different reactions.

    While absolute fluidity appears to be a fantasy, there is NO ‘blank slate’ for gender in this culture. Parent’s expectations are going to generate confirmation of their prejudices. Race creeps in here along with gender. I’ve seen Black parents blithely assume that boys were ‘naturally devilish’ and effectively push them into defiant macho molds.

  7. says

    “No one is going to know what to get the baby!”

    Shock! Horror! Pull me up a fainting couch. Oh wait, that sounds like a deficiency on your part, whether or not i get free baby stuff. In fact, maybe i don’t want baby stuff from you. Unless you enclose the receipt.

    Ok, but it’s clearly not totally inborn, either, because if it were, why would all the god damn policing be necessary?

    IKR? QFT.

    We could talk about all the ways they are human, and how great it is just to be a part of it.

    Individual differences are hard! I need convenient gestalts. Preferably traditional categories in which i can box things up forever and ever, amen.

  8. says

    Gee. When my hormones “kicked in,” I was firmly committed to wearing only pants for the rest of my life, and except for a rare few occasions or in hot summers, I’ve stuck to that. I find suggesting that “hormones” are responsible for wanting to wear dresses really rather offensive.

  9. hoary puccoon says

    Yeah, well be offended, then. My daughter still wears flowered dresses a lot. She is also an artist, a political activist, an expert white-water kayaker, and was once a state champion in swimming. She was never raised to feel that she ought to restrict herself to “gender appropriate” behavior, and she never has. It’s just a fact that when she hit puberty (which was quite a while ago) she did a sudden shift on her apparel preferences. If that idea offends you, well, what can I say?

  10. ceesays says

    it’s not the dress

    it’s the assertion that “hormones” are responsible for the desire to wear the dress. It’s not a terribly reasoned thing to say, unless you happen to have conducted a study that measures the endocrine levels of a population of people and compared it to their sartorial preferences, and found a statistically significant correlation to the levels of certain hormones and the preference for trousers or skirts, respectively.

    Clearer now, I hope.

  11. mildlymagnificent says

    I suspect that USAnians have always been a bit tougher on imposing gender restrictions than Australians, though the differences seem to be shrinking recently. 25+ years ago one of my kids had two really close friends at daycare. One boy, one girl, they did everything together. Including getting into the dress-up box as a team. The staff quite happily took a photo for 3 sets of highly amused parents of their “wedding party”.

    All of them were decked out in the fanciest (according to their lights) items they could find. Two beaming little 3 year old girls either side of their best friend – the proudly smiling boy wearing the most highly prized item, the wedding veil. A friend who’d recently returned from a year or two in the USA recounted some stories from her dealings with parents, daycare and schools there and predicted that her experience was that this sort of thing would be not just frowned on but severely stamped out ‘over there’.

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