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.