This piece was originally published on the Good Men Project as part of a special series on the End of Gender. This series includes bloggers from Role/Reboot, Good Men Project, The Huffington Post, Salon, HyperVocal, Ms. Magazine, YourTango, Psychology Today, Princess Free Zone, The Next Great Generation, and Man-Making.
I’d like to present a hypothetical situation. What if you discovered that the words “girls are allergic to algebra” were written by a teacher on a chalkboard in your child’s algebra class? Every day your child walked into class, he or she would read those words. If your child came to you and told you about it, would you tell them that it wasn’t a big deal and to lighten up? Or would it upset you as a parent to know that someone thought your daughter was not smart enough to excel in math? What if your son was being exposed to the message that girls are stupid? Would you then, if necessary, make a stink until those words were erased? I’m assuming if you cared anything about your child you’d be pretty pissed off and would do everything in your power to make sure they would not read those words every day. If you had to sign a petition to get those words removed, you’d do it. And you probably wouldn’t say that words don’t matter.
Because, of course, we know that words do matter. They matter every day in almost every situation. They matter at work, at home, between friends, between partners. How we speak to our children and what they read will have a significant influence on their self-esteem, intellect, and relationships. Words and language, being our primary form of communication, send messages and become part of how we make sense of our world and the world around us. But, for some reason, those same words on a t-shirt are prone to be taken less seriously.
I do understand that, on first glance and taken as a single incident, a t-shirt (or a rattle) seems completely harmless, but combined with so many other contributing factors—including cultural upbringing, peer pressure, and media and advertising—gender stereotypes are reinforced and eventually absorbed to the point where they’re not questioned. Case in point, a recent study shows that girls begin to choose the color pink from about the age of two, while boys begin to avoid the color at the same time. Before then, the study says, children have no particular affinity toward one or the other. According to the article, by the age of two “toddlers become ‘gender detectives’ and as soon as they can understand whether they are either a boy or a girl, they look for ways to conform to the appropriate stereotype.” (The whole “pink is for girls” and “blue is for boys” has been completely debunked by historical analysis proving those colors were actually reversed back in the early 20th century.) And, yet, many people staunchly adhere to the notion that girls are prewired to gravitate to pink and boys to blue.
“Conforming” is a worrisome word. Even though we live in a society in which conforming is sometimes necessary to maintain peace and tranquility, being “sheeple” does not make for progress, nor does it foster independent thinking. When ideas about male and female are challenged, a standard reply is usually “that’s just the way boys/girls are.” Often, when discussing gender the tone is not civil—people get angry, even hateful. I once had a person comment, in response to one of my blog posts, that I was “a sick human being” for “fighting the pull for little girls to be girly.” This person went on to say they could “only assume [my] daughter is butch or a lesbian.” All because I had made the case that children should not be inundated with any one specific color. In my mind, this kind of reaction is a defense mechanism based on personal feelings about one’s own gender identity. When people cannot logically articulate the reasons why they are so angry, they lash out.
“Conforming” is a worrisome word. Even though we live in a society in which conforming is sometimes necessary to maintain peace and tranquility, being “sheeple” does not make for progress, nor does it foster independent thinking. When ideas about male and female are challenged, a standard reply is usually “that’s just the way boys/girls are.”
You may have heard about the Canadian parents who decided to raise their child in a gender-free environment. They named the child Storm and did not reveal to anyone if it was male or female, including the child. Instead of focusing on specific gender-oriented colors, toys, or clothes, they simply offered a variety of choices to allow Storm to develop its own natural inclinations without being influenced one way or the other. The birth announcement said, “We’ve decided not to share Storm’s sex for now—a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm’s lifetime (a more progressive place? …).” How amazing, I thought, that these parents were truly giving their child an open field to run in any direction. Instead, however, many were appalled at the notion of a child not being given gender cues and, as a result, Kathy Witterick and David Stocker received a barrage of negative and sometimes irate reactions from the media, as well as the public and even child psychologists. Based on much of the commentary, you would’ve thought these people were monsters. What I found so interesting about it was the suggestion that the child wouldn’t know its own gender and end up confused and perhaps even transgendered. It seems to me, although I’m no psychologist, that the child indeed has a gender whether or not it is actually called a boy or girl. (I mean, what did the Neanderthals do without language or the colors pink and blue?!) The parents said nothing about denying their child’s actual biological makeup.
All of this leads me to believe that one of the biggest challenges is delineating between actual gender differences (boys tend to develop language skills later than girls) and superficial differences (only girls can have pink toenails) and convincing some that this is not about removing gender, being gender-less, or turning a girl into a boy or a boy into a girl. It is not about a t-shirt. But it could be about words that just happened to be on a t-shirt. It could be about making a fuss over a little girl who carries a Star Wars water bottle or a little boy who dresses as a princess. Promoting negative gender stereotypes in any way, shape, or form means limiting our children’s potential. And if I have to continue to be a soldier in the gender war to help the cause, so be it.
Michele Yulo is the founder of Princess Free Zone, Inc., a brand and blog that offers an alternative to all things princess for little girls by addressing issues of gender and gender stereotyping. She has a Master’s degree in English from Georgia State University and enjoys writing and enlightened discourse. You can visit her website at www.princessfreezone.com , join PFZ on Facebook or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit Andi Smith/Flickr