Deborah Siegel asks some compelling questions in the Ms. Blog Magazine, Are We Too Isolated to Fight the Pink v. Blue Battle?, about gender stereotypes and gender identity. I’d like to answer some of them, from my own perspective. My perspective being one where I started The Girl Revolution to both talk about gender issues, knock down stereotypes, and as a mother of both a boy and a girl.
The author and I have a lot in common in that we both held the belief several years ago that gender is mostly a social construct and that we, as parents, had the power to alter the social construct for our kids.
My views and my life have changed with the experience of raising a daughter for nine years and a son for five years. It’s also drastically changed with additional knowledge about the powerful role hormones play in our lives, experimentation with my own gender identity and what feels good to me and observing the greater cultural picture about gender.
The author asks if we (I assume she means those of us who see gender stereotypes as a problem), are too isolated to really break down the barriers of gender stereotypes. I would have to say that in my experience the opposite is true. If I moved myself and my family into a bubble in which there was little to no contact with the outside world – and by outside world I mean grandmas and grandpas, other children, parents of other children, teachers, pediatricians, television, all media, literature and abstained from visiting a grocery store – well, then it would be really, super easy to raise androgynous children completely unaware of gender identities or stereotypes.
Practically the second my son was born, my mother-in-law who was in the room, said, “Oh he’s such a boy!” Then she said it over and over and over and over. Now, academically, I was sure that if dressed exactly the same as his girl cousin and taken into a mall not a soul would be able to tell if he was a boy or a girl. But, instead I just couldn’t resist giving him the most adorable mohawk, which identified him as a boy. Add to that the plethora of toys, games and clothes with gender designations given to my children for birthdays and Christmas and it didn’t take me too long to figure out that I, in truth, was not powerful enough to control the gender identification or stereotyping of my children.
Nor, I realized, did they want me to.
My daughter, it would seem, really did love the color pink. She really did like to be a girl. She liked to identify as one and she had absolutely zero desire to be androgynous, forsaking all gender roles and stereotyping. When I would try, it would irritate the dickens out of her.
My son, likes the color pink too, enjoys watching Dora over Diego, but you know what, even as a tiny baby if we walked by a television display with a football game on, he was profoundly attracted to that. He could also pick out the sound of a train, tractor or diesel and was entranced by it in a way that neither my daughter or I could relate to.
I had to reconsider my position.
The other day, I watched Lisa Ling’s Our America about transgendered people. These are people who feel they are born in the wrong gendered bodies. Even small children who are born in bodies that they feel are the wrong gender find it incredibly painful. Their families, even if they were supportive of a gender change, also found their children’s gender confusion incredibly painful. What I took from that show is the gender is somehow, inherently important to who we are. It is the basis for much of our identity. Enough so that if you are born feeling like a girl and the world wants to identify you as boy that person doesn’t feel whole, complete or happy until they are acknowledged to be a girl and visa versa. They will go to drastic, painful surgical and hormonal lengths to ensure the outside world identifies them as their chosen gender.
So, what’s wrong with a gender stereotype?
Well, it’s wrong when it limits our choices. Feminists are especially irked by it because gender stereotyping limited our choices and our freedom to express our full selves. The box they were trying to shove us in was way too small to allow the full expression of our gifts and talents. This type of gender stereotyping forced us into economically and physically dangerous positions. Which is never okay. Which felt horrible.
But, being a girl and identifying as one and being allowed the full freedom to express ourselves as feminine isn’t dangerous, shouldn’t be fought and feels good.
We’ve made a great deal of progress. Essential progress that our daughters have really benefitted from. The box, is disintegrating. There are more and more ways to be a woman in today’s world and gender stereotypes are less damaging. Yes, there are still problems and in some cases the pendulum appears to have swung too far in one direction, but consider that my mother had to wear a skirt to college because pants weren’t allowed. Consider that I was taught that the only way to be a good mom, was to stay home and forsake work. Consider that women weren’t allowed to have many of the good jobs because they were women.
My daughter doesn’t identify with any of that. The entire concept is foreign to her. When she hears about it she thinks it’s just stupid. When I try to insist that she fight the fights of my youth, or my mother’s youth, she thinks I’m being stupid. In her world, women are chemists, scientists, accountants, lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs, teachers, therapists, writers, bloggers, executives, presidential and vice-presidential candidates, pastors, clowns, stay-at-home moms, furniture saleswomen, Oprah and anything else they decide to be. Those fights are fought and won. There is still enough to do that she can pick her own battles, choose her own barriers to break down. I’ll keep hacking away at the barriers I still see in front of her.
My son doesn’t identify with it either. He doesn’t have any of the old paradigms in his head about what men and women do or don’t do.
But, they are not the same. They do appear to think differently. They do seem to be attracted to different sorts of activities and they do like to express themselves in some different and gender-identified ways. And I’m glad of it. What’s so great about androgyny anyway?