Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Girl? Boy? Shetland Pony? A few thoughts on the social construction of gender identity

An acquaintance was second guessing herself recently over the name she'd given her youngest child. The name is one that is usually associated with being female, but the child is currently "presenting as a boy."

Holy wah. I knew gender identification issues have gotten weird in the past few years, but we're talking about a preschooler, a kid that probably can't tie his? her? their? own shoelaces yet. If a 3 year old wants to refer to their self as one gender or another, fine. And if ten years later that child is still preferring one gender over another regardless of perceived biological sex, also fine. (I say perceived biological sex because physiological sex is a lot messier than the average person realizes, but that's a subject for a different post.*)

As a social scientist I know that gender is socially constructed, not biologically determined, and can be fluid. I personally believe that in this particular case there's been a whole lot of unconscious in-house social conditioning to make the child prefer being a boy (two older brothers extremely close to the child in age, for example), but when the parents are doing their best to let the child be who the child wants to be, also fine. I'd much rather see parents let kids dress in what the children prefer and play with what they like instead of doing the usual freak out that occurs when a little boy decides to play with dolls or a little girl announces she hates wearing dresses.

I am, however, curious as to how a 3 year old can "present as a boy." Clothing? Have clothes really become so gendered that it's now automatic that if a child with a girl's name is not in a princess dress or midget hooker outfit from Walmart the assumption is that only boys wear pants and tee shirts? Toy preference? Doing what I do and demanding the boy toy in Happy Meals at McDonald's? Unless there's a movie promotion going on, the boy toys are always more fun, more likely to be action toys than the cheesy midget Barbies girls get stuck with. It's pretty easy to see why some girls would much prefer to be boys -- boys get to wear the comfortable clothes and play with the fun stuff.

There was a time in our not so distant history when up to a certain age there was no real way to tell at a glance whether a child was a girl or a boy. All preschoolers wore dresses. The child in the photo above? That's future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt presenting, I guess, as a girl. (His mother reportedly cried when those curls got cut.) There were certain rituals associated with a child growing older. At some point little boys would suffer through their first real hair cut, the dresses would be lovingly packed away in a steamer trunk in the attic, and the little boy would find himself in short pants. Not long ones. Long pants were associated with getting closer to adulthood. Little girls stayed in dresses, albeit ones that with shorter hemlines than the ones adult women wore.

I'm not sure just when the unisex dresses for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers vanished, maybe around 1920 or so. We have family photos of men born in the 20th century wearing those cute little toddler dresses for formal portraits, so in historic terms it wasn't that long ago.

Anyway, I can understand why strangers seeing a child for the first time dressed in a non-princess outfit could mistake that child for a little boy. Both of my kids were treated to that assumption when they were 3 or 4 years old -- it's like we're such a patriarchal society that male is the default setting for everything. No cute pink headband on the infant? Has to be a boy. No ruffles or a unicorn on the tee shirt? Must be a boy. Short hair? Would rather be outside looking for bugs and snakes instead of inside playing with Barbies? Must be a boy. . . There was a time when toys were also relatively nongendered: girls played with hoops and sticks like the boys did, boys had no problem having tea parties and playing house with the girls. Now some adults are so trapped in toxic masculinity and homophobia they don't even want little boys to have stuffed animals because cuddly toys might turn the boy gay. Seriously.

But, circling back to the specific example of the child who got me thinking about gender fluidity, I tend to discount the fact the child who was assigned a biological sex of female is now declaring that he's a boy. There is a possibility the child will turn out to be genuinely transgender, but the odds are against it. Gender identity can be remarkably fluid in children; researchers have found that little kids can move back and forth between saying they're girls and self-identifying as boys several times before puberty hits and adds hormonal pressures to the societal ones. Given the rich imaginations of small children and also allowing for the fact that this particular self-identification has received a good bit of positive reinforcement (if only in the sense of the parents telling the child they can be whatever they want to be without trying to express a preference themselves), I tend to view it with the same bemusement I felt when my cousin, a preschooler at the time, insisted that she wasn't a girl, she was a pony. That particular obsession didn't last long -- it turns out ponies eat a rather boring diet (no ice cream, for example) -- but part of me thinks that if something similar happened today there would be earnest young parents so desperate to respect the child's autonomy and sense of self that they'd be cleaning out a stall for her and saying it was fine to sleep in the barn.

As for the name, that's the least of the worries for the parents. Between parents getting creative with spelling, following feminist advice to give girls traditional boys' names so the kids won't be discriminated against when they go job hunting, and just making stuff up for the heck of it, a name really isn't much of a gender signifier any more, if it ever was. Plus, of course, within a few years no matter what gender identity the child prefers long term, the kid is going to hate the name on the birth certificate. If it's a common name, it'll be hated because it's too common -- I'm still annoyed with my parents for naming me Nancy. Supposedly it was only the 7th most popular girl's name the year I was born, but I swear the statistics are wrong because any time there's a group of women close to me in age there will be at least one other Nancy. If it's not at all common, the child will hate it because it's too different. If it's not an unusual name but you got creative with the spelling, they'll hate it because they're always having to correct other people who want to spell Lynnda as Linda or DuWayne as Duane. There are some things where the parent is always going to be the loser, and naming the baby is one of them.

Thinking about the social construction of identity, the whole getting enculturated with the prevailing norms and role expectations package, reminded me of another case, a kid who, to use a contemporary buzz word, presented as a beagle. Or maybe a collie. I'm not sure what type of dog the family had. The child was the first born of an introverted couple, a pair of soft-spoken quiet people who apparently did not engage in much small talk at home and had never been told there's a reason people "baby talk" to infants. Language development in the child was a tad slow -- and it turned out his first words were barks. When the child barked at the doctor during a routine check-up it became obvious  the family pet spent more time talking to the baby than the parents did.

*Perceived biological sex, aka the sex you're assigned at birth, is based on the external appearance of genitalia. Definite vulva, you're a girl. Definite penis, you're a boy. If you have ambiguous genitalia, you can be assigned a sex that does not match up with reality as you get older. Back when I was reading academic journals, I read an interesting report on intersex issues that posited that there might be as many as six distinct sexes based on endocrinology and genetics in addition to external physical appearance. Biology is messy.

1 comment:

  1. I have avoided giving much thought to Gender ID issues for a number of reasons, the least of which is don't we have enough on our communal plates to worry about besides what sex someone thinks they are?

    And you are absolutely right about not too far back a hundred years ago or so, most white kids from well to do families wore long hair and dresses as preschoolers. I have a picture of my father (born 1905) sitting on my Grandfather's lap in a dress and long curls.

    Different times, different customs.

    And when my daughter was 3 or 4, she claimed she would now be a dog. We set her meals up right next to Annie's bowl on the floor and let her have at it. That particular moment of fluidity only lasted 2 meals I think.


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