The Gender Thing

July 19, 2011
My son in a dress

My son in a fancy dress

As those of us who waste time at work reading media headlines know, the issue of little boys playing with girl stuff has gotten a lot of panties wadded around a lot of conservative ankles recently. There was the ad with the boy getting his nails painted, the kid dressed as a girl for Halloween…

…and, simultaneously, there was my then-two-year-old son donning his older sister’s dress to preschool, pretending to walk in my shoes with his heels up, and getting deemed a girl by passersby because of his flouncy golden curls. Even today, at 3 1/2, Sam sometimes goes for days being a fairy princess named Chana, arguing with his sister that he IS a girl and DOES have the necessary equipment, and speaking in a high-pitched voice.

But is he a cross-dresser or gender-confused?

No. He’s THREE. He also tells us that he’s four, lives in an imaginary office where he has five daughters, shoots imaginary rainbow pellets with anything long enough to work as a gun, and believes he can fly.

He also pretty much adheres to a standard of saying the opposite of whatever his sister says. So, if she says it’s cold, he says it’s hot; if she says he’s a boy, he claims otherwise. (And she gets annoyed. It’s so predictable.)

What gets hard is all these voices out there, around us, telling Sam what he can and can’t be, in ways you wouldn’t, these days with a girl.

No one ever told Josephine that she needed to:

– Wear a dress

– Only wear pink

– Not play with balls or cars

– not pretend to be a boy supercharacter

And if anyone had, I would have hit them (like a boy?). But no one would; we all know better. Yet frequently, caregivers and others tell Sam – in my presence – :

– Boys don’t wear dresses!

– You don’t need a headband

– Be a big boy, don’t cry

– You’re a boy, you can’t be Supergirl

– You don’t want to play that, you’re a boy

– He needs more boy things

– he’s  a mama’s boy

There’s this huge concern that somehow, if he puts on a skirt or plays with Jo’s pony dolls or cries or prefers fancy clothes that there’s this huge, pending danger that he’ll end up – oh my gosh, as a girl, or gay. That if we don’t beat in enough Boyness now, he’ll be lost to that gray land of indeterminate identity…

…and what? He’ll actually know how to do laundry? He won’t beat his girlfriend? He’ll have healthy emotional expression? He’ll know how to trust people? He’ll be a fun dresser?

It distresses me how ANXIOUS people get about this.

Now, I didn’t really have a tomboy in Josephine; she has definitely been a girly-girl. But she does love to climb trees, kick balls, see fire engines, play rough and dirty with dogs, have adventures – she and Sam both. No one is worried about her not being girl enough.

I look around at most of the men I know who are my age, and I feel a great deal of pity for how many of them are so emotionally retarded, expressively restricted, psychologically bound up. Males in our society are offered such a limited range of identity – their clothes are standard-issue bland, their demeanor can range from tough to tough & quiet, their hair can be short and maybe a little shaggy, etc. And when they skew even slightly off this teeny band of Normal, they risk getting harassed, called names, beaten up, discriminated against, worse.

As I’ve often thought, feminists have only done half the work by trying to get women outside the strict boundaries of cultural gender biases. If we don’t get guys, starting when they are little boys, accepting themselves as whole people, developing their whole selves, we’re going to have an unequal society still, perpetuating this notion that women are civilized and men are not. Which is actually a very old notion. And doesn’t hold men accountable for much.

In an age when we need role models of every kind…

… well, I just beg you: Let my son wear a dress. Let your son try nailpolish. Let your kids cry. Let your children explore what it means to be human, whatever that means. And breathe. They’ll be okay – they’ll be even better than okay, if you just let them be who they are.


The Lessons of “Glee”

January 15, 2010

the cast of GleeI like the TV show “Glee.”

But I’m not sure if I totally agree that it teaches the valuable lessons it’s trying so hard to convey.

On the surface, you have a collection of kids that would heart-warm any hard-core member of the Liberal Diversity Police – they’ve got it covered, with the gay kid, the kid in the wheelchair, the Asian chick, the big black girl, the “ugly” but talented girl with two dads, and the “beautiful” cheerleader who gets knocked up.

And somehow, they’re talented performers learning the valuable lessons that despite their shortcomings and differences, they CAN have friends, they CAN earn success, and they CAN – yes, they can! – find love and acceptance!

You can tell I’m being sarcastic, can’t you?

So, yes; the kids overcome their challenging flaws.

But the show’s argument, “valuable lesson,” still rests upon, agrees with, the founding assumption that being anything less than blonde, svelte, abled, white, and “pretty” indeed is a challenge and a flaw.

This is a problem. And it’s an outdated one. I don’t know what reality the show’s high school is based upon, but I went to two high schools, one in California and one in Virginia, and neither of them looked at all like Glee’s.

Yes, there were cliques, and distinctions about popularity and beauty, but they weren’t this cookie-cutter, this cut and dry and black and white.

One of the most popular girls at my magnet school in LA had a large port-wine birthmark on her face – yet she was a dominating queen of the social sphere, barely talking to me.

And in California, the most popular girls were the most tan, and that made the darker skinned girls – of various Asian and African-American ethnicities – reside securely at the top of the heap.

At my high school in Virginia, where the student population was more starkly black and white, it wasn’t so much beauty as past relationships and histories dating back to kindergarten that created hierarchies of power and exclusion. Really ugly girls with pimples and braces could sneer at gorgeous ones, because the former were known and the latter had just transferred from out of state.

Glee’s ideas of who is in and who is out seems more based on simplistic cliches promoted by advertising – and the whole thing is very slick, shot in that clear, colorful glow of a commercial – instead of reflecting the complexities of how things truly work.

I just really have a problem that the black and Asian girls are considered outsiders by virtue of their race – there’s no real question of this initial line of thinking. Yes, I’m sure there are plenty of places in this country where that kind of discrimination exists – but the show presents this without any cultural context, or without calling it racial discrimination. It’s just assumed that that’s how things are.

So instead of really questioning and undermining our ideas of beauty and acceptance, the show reinforces stereotypes – including the stereotype that blonde cheerleaders are mean and thoughtless snobs. I was a redheaded cheerleader, and I can tell you that plenty of my teammates were just like that – but not all of them conformed. My blonde friend Jennifer was a sweetie pie.

The main lesson I’m learning from “Glee” is that television shows have an easier time finding their popularity by staying on the surface of our cultural cliches –  and we apparently are so starved for any kind of diversity in our media, we’ll take it. Which is kind of pathetic.

Chitty Chitty is Sh-tty Sh-tty

April 11, 2008

So, we do allow our toddler to watch media – short clips on Youtube of Little Bear and Miss Piggy, movies like Mary Poppins and the Muppets –  a limited number of things on video or dvd, mostly for those moments when we’re single parenting or as a special treat. We usually watch with her, talking about the show during and after. And we read to her and she reads by herself four times as much as she watches anything. So we feel okay about it.  I know some who don’t let their kids watch anything, and others whose children have their own tv. So we’re kind of in the middle, I guess.

But boy, do I feel AWFUL about exposing my child to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang the other night.
I had seen reviews of the movie that put it up there with Mary Poppins in terms of its acceptability for young children. So I didn’t expect:

1) A man yelling that he was going to beat up the little kids in the opening scene

2) An unexplained missing mother – “Where’s their mommy?” my daughter kept asking worriedly –

3) The granddad making fun/putting down the father figure.

Yikes! Depressing, scary, and traumatic, and the movie was just starting…

But it was the scene where the dogs bust into the candy factory that made my daughter erupt into tears. “Where dogs?” she cried, when the next scene popped up. “No, dogs don’t eat candy!” She started wailing.

She was so upset by the dogs eating candy and getting into trouble possibly that she couldn’t sleep. At 9, 10, 11, 12 pm that night, she kept coming out of her bedroom to declare: “Dogs don’t eat candy. Dogs eat dinner.” and “I don’t like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I like Mary Poppins.”

I have apparently scarred her for life.

Which just goes to show that you cannot always predict what is going to upset a young child – and that if you’re going to let your kid watch stuff, be prepared at all times…  and don’t just go on reviews… stick with Little Bear…