The obsession with gender starts early. As parents-to-be, the first question we were asked, “what are you having?” (answer: a human baby, I hope!) was only the beginning. This was followed by the cultural lore, “Girls steal your beauty” or “you’re carrying low it’s a boy.” Apparently, although we had no desire to gender our baby, people felt the need to categorize on our behalf. This was a problem. We did not want to reinforce gender binaries, we did not want anyone putting their gendered stereotypes onto our baby, and we did not want our baby to be limited or determined by these stereotypes/beliefs.
I started to research, like I do when faced with a problem, how to raise our precious baby free of gender stereotypes?
Maybe you assume that labeling, sorting and categorizing by gender doesn’t really matter. That it’s no big deal as long as you treat everyone fairly. Children are smart though, and they don’t only pay attention to the overt, obvious cues and messages from the adults around them, they pick up on the subtle cues (Brown 12-14). Visit a Toys R Us, or a Carter’s, the stores are split in half, with a “boys” section and a “girls” section, one side covered in dolls and pink, the other in cars and blue. Children notice this categorization.
Consider the way we compliment babies. B.J. Epstein notes, “when my toddler is thought to be a boy, people refer to his behaviour and personality–his smiles, his inquisitive nature, his cheekiness, his calm mood. But when my child is seen as a girl, people mostly comment on her looks–she’s gorgeous, she’s beautiful, she’s cute, she has lovely brown eyes, she’s going to break boys’ hearts” (Epstein). Notice the emphasis is on the baby boys behaviour and on the baby girls appearance, from birth. These types of compliments, repeated often through the first few years of their life, it’s no surprise that children learn the importance of gender.
Rebecca Bigler, a developmental psychologist from the University of Texas at Austin, has spent years showing that “simply labeling a group leads children to develop stereotypes about those groups” (Brown 16). (For a brief synopsis of the study) This has vast implications, not only for gender, but for race as well. In this particular study, that Bigler replicated many times over a 15 year period (Brown 18), the gender labelling classes were more likely to say that “only men” and “only women” should do certain jobs. “They said ‘only men’ should be a construction worker, doctor or president of the United States. They said ‘only women’ should be a nurse, house cleaner, or babysitter…’only women’ can be kind, gentle, and take care of children” (Brown 17). This is particularly troubling if you want your daughter to aim high in her career, or if you want your son to be a caring partner and/or father.
Why is the labelling of gender so problematic, over say eye colour? Bigler found that children pay attention to the groups that adults deem important. When we say, “look at that girl over there” or “who is the boy with the green shoes?,” children assume that gender is the predominant feature. If you think about it, we do this for race as well. Children notice differences all the time, after all there are many different hair colours and eye colours, however we don’t make these meaningful categories, we don’t constantly label people by their hair and eye colour they way we do with gender (and race). With gender, children notice the difference and adults make it meaningful.
What can you do to minimize gender across childhood?
- Let your baby wear all the colours! Don’t buy everything in one colour. Pink and blue, green and yellow, purple and red. Bold, primary colours and soft, pastel colours.
- Say no to “Daddy’s little Princess” and “Mommy’s little Man.” Don’t buy clothes that label your child’s gender.
- Give your child a variety of toys. Trucks and dolls for all.
- Refuse gender labels when you talk to your children, instead of “good girl,” “good baby”, or “Nice work __.” They don’t need to be gender labelled when you compliment their abilities. The world reinforces their gender enough already, they don’t need it from you too.
The Next Step
Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” has a line I particularly enjoy, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” I believe this to be true of all people. We are complex beings, varied in our personality traits, sometimes contradictory in our behaviours and beliefs. Unique and multifaceted with a full range of ages, abilities, ethnicities, sexes, genders, occupations, education levels, experiences. And yet, we try to pigeon hole people into two crude stereotypes when we enforce a gender binary.
“When gender is salient in the environment, or we categorize someone as male or female, gender stereotypes are automatically primed” (Fine 7). Have you ever filled out a form that looks like this?
Even a seemingly innocent question such as this, can prime gender, according to Cordelia Fine, Ph.D (9). This means that even if we are not trying to impose gender stereotypes, they are present without ever being openly expressed. So while we may think we have evolved beyond sexism, whenever we emphasize gender as a category, our brains are primed, ready to subconsciously call up gender based stereotypes that we see all around us. We are bombarded with media images that reinforce these stereotypes. “Even if you, personally, don’t subscribe to these stereotypes, there is a part of your brain that isn’t so prissy…Stereotypes, as well as attitudes, goals, and identity also appear to exist at an implicit level, and operate ‘without the encumbrances of awareness, intention, and control,’ as social psychologists Brian Nosek and Jeffrey Hansen have put it (Fine 4). No matter how progressive, you are still subject to the environment in which you live, which is gendered.
Judith Butler says, “even if the sexes appear to be unproblematically binary in their morphology and constitution…there is no reason to assume that genders ought also to remain as two…When the constructed status of gender is theorized as radically independent of sex, gender itself becomes a free floating artifice, with the consequence that man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as easily as a female one” (Imitation and Gender Insubordination 6). Butler also speaks of gender as “a kind of becoming or activity,” and claims that as such “gender ought not to be conceived as a noun or a substantial thing or a static cultural marker, but rather as an incessant and repeated action of some sort” (Compulsory Order of Sex/Gender/Desire 143). This is what I’d love to see, this is the world in which I’d love to raise my child. Where we can put on, and take off our gender. Where we all recognize the performative nature of gender and we become ourselves; we’re not rigidly fixed in set categories.
My partner and I decided that we would let our baby be a baby: we could call our baby “baby,” or by their name, and instead of gendered pronouns “she/he,” we would simply use “they.” Opt-out of the binary. De-emphasize the category. Teach our baby the performative nature of gender, so that when they go out into the larger world, they are more in charge of the role they choose to play. They choose. They decide. Isn’t that nicer than having someone decide for you?
Brown, Christia Spears. Parenting Beyond Pink & Blue. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2014. Print
Bunnell, J.T. and Irit Reinheimer. Girls Will Be Boys Will Be Girls. New York: Soft Skull Press, 2004. Print
Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. Eds. Henry Abalone, Michele Aina Barale, and David Halperin. New York: Routledge, 1993. 307-320. Print
Butler, Judtih. “The Compulsory Order of Sex/Gender/Desire” from Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. 6-7. Print
Epstein, B.J. “Let’s Stop Complimenting Male and Female Babies Differently, Ok?” Kveller 15 Nov. 2015.
Fine, Cordelia. Delusions of Gender. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010. Print