Although I have been buried in copy edits, the latest media explosion about a transgender child has been a hard story to ignore. Here is the video about 7-year-old Ryland Whittington, which has gone viral:
Here is a very short article about them posted to the "Good Morning, America" website. And here is one of the many (many) negative, judgemental reactions to the video and their story.
One of my (very astute) former students nudged me on Twitter, wondering about my stake on the story. As I am fond of pointing out, I am a historian, not a psychologist. I am going to take the lazy way out and post a long quote from the last chapter of my book.
There's been quite of bit of back-and-forth about pink lately, Researcher Rebecca Hains summarizes it very neatly:
“What’s the problem with pink, anyway?” griped Yael Kohen in New York. Then, building upon Kohen’s piece, Slate senior editor Allison Benedikt demanded: ”What is it with you moms of girls? I have never met a single one of you who isn’t tortured about pink and princesses.”
Over at Pigtail Palls, Melissa Wardy lays out the counterargument:
There is a difference between being anti-pink and being anti-limitation, and as someone who educates thousands of parents every week on this issue I feel most parents fall into the second camp. We are not anti-pink. We are anti-limitation.
Anyone who studies -- and critiques -- gender distinctions can expect to be accused of one of two things:
Countering the first assertion is a matter of evidence, both scientific and cultural. Biological sex is not either-or. There are as many variations on gender codes as there are cultures in human history. Of course, like other modern controversies, from climate change to vaccination, evidence can not sway the committed unbeliever. My research is aimed at the persuadable reader, and at the embattled advocates for gender equality and acceptance who need the ammunition.
The second accusation is more problematic. People who espouse this view often claim to embrace a more inclusive and accepting view of gender variations. They want their boys to be free to be artists and their girls to be engineers. But gosh-darn-it all this fuss about pink is so TRIVIAL!
Here is where I will take the liberty of substituting "pinkification" for "pink", because it isn't about the color pink itself, but about the cultural pattern of offering children a strongly stereotypical version of gender. Pinkification is what I will call this pattern. Here's why it isn't trivial:
Here's a great post from Kyle Wiley of The Good Men Project (re-blogged via the Huffington Post, but hey, Arianna's rich enough). My favorite line:
It’s not just “a” girl color, but the international spokescolor (yes, a made up word) for the female gender.
Made up words are the best, because like all custom-made items, they fit better than the off-the-rack-versions. That is exactly the idea I have been trying to get across, less articulately, when I talk or write about pink and blue. Blue is NOT a spokescolor; pink is a spokescolor. Why is that, do you think? Is there something magical about pink itself? Mais non.
The magic is one of the oldest known superpowers: giving birth. Stay with me, friends. Here's how I see it: Women used to be powerful because they gave birth. The only way men could be more powerful than women was to control reproduction -- through marriage, through rape, through laws about birth control and abortion. But none of that transfered the magical power from women to men, so a cultural solution emerged instead. Make birth dirty, make sex a sin, make women dirty, weak sinners, lower than men because of their magic power.
Now all you have to do to maintain male superiority is make sure they are not tainted by anything remotely effete or feminine. Punish homosexuality. Raise little boys to be not-girls. Ridicule boys --and men-- who cry, or who are unathletic, or who like pink. It's a small price to pay for a place at the top of the social order.
Why have women put up with this? Many reasons, including a need to protect their offspring, their own survival and this complicated force called "hegemony", which results in acceptance of the dominant culture even when it works against you. (Kind of a cultural Stockholm syndrome.) But all is not lost; there are men and women, mothers and fathers, who believe that all humans have magical powers of love, imagination and creativity, and that humanity will benefit when every baby is valued for its potential to love, imagine and create, not its role in human reproduction.
Peace. (Steps off soapbox, returns to her index cards.)
Everyday Feminism blogger Kelsey Lueptow offers smart, constructive advice for dealing with people who insist on sorting your kids into gender boxes. Point "2 ("Expect People and Society Generally To Put Your Child Into Gender Boxes") is spot-on, in particular. So many new parents and grandparents are shocked to discover that in the decades since they were/had a child, the cultural landscape for babies has become much more gendered than they remember. As a historian, I like to remind people that Things Change. (In fact, the entire point of Pink and Blue is to show how dramatically -- and quickly -- gender coding has changed.) Here's the reassuring subtext: Things Will Change. In fact, things are changing right now. Someday pink will be just another color, though probably not real soon. As Lueptow points out,
"Capitalism means that if the public demand for gender neutral toys rises, the toy companies will comply because even more than they care about perpetuating the current mainstream values, they want your money."
How have you all been? For me, it's been a busy semester, embedded in a busy life, situated in a chaotic world. I'll spare you the gory details, and instead accentuate the positive.
Good things happening this year:
The best news on the gender front is something I have been advocating for and predicting: greater consumer demand for choice in children's toys and clothing, and a growing preference for inclusive, adaptable, ungendered options. Hasbro's announcement of a black and silver Easy-Bake Oven is just the latest example of manufacturers responsiveness to consumer preferences.
Want to see more change? Add your name to this petition on Change.org to ask Target to stop segregating toy aisles. The petition is the work of young leaders Molly Culhane, Phoebe Hughes, and Autumn Lukomski-LaPolice of New Moon Girls (a safe, ad-free, girl-positive website you need to check out if you have a girl aged 8 and up in your life).
I read Devan Corneal's defense of gender stereotyping this morning and have been mulling it over all day. Corneal's main argument in defense of gender stereotypes is that she is following her four-year-old son's wishes, not imposing her own. The flaw in basing your beliefs about gender on your four-year-old son or daughter's world view is that it tends to be based more rigidly on stereotypes than at any other time in their lives.
But where is the harm in indulging their four-year-old fantasies about manly men and girly girls? Here's my take:
1. It encourages them to judge others according to those stereotypes. Little kids are the great enforcers of the gender rules as they see them, and they can be downright cruel to kids who don't conform. When your son hears you tell someone he is "all boy", what is he supposed to think of his playmate who isn't just like him?
2. Stereotypes encourage simplistic ways of viewing a complex world. There is a reason humans use stereotypes. They help us make quick decisions in confusing or chaotic situations. But quick decisions are not always the right ones. Which serves your child better in learning to get along with other people: simple thinking or complex thinking?
3. Many of our gender stereotypes are superficial, arbitrary and subject to change. (This is the main point of my book, Pink and Blue.) Boys 100 years ago wore pink and played with dolls. Legos used to be unisex. Field hockey is a man's game in India. Elevating stereotypes to the level of natural law is, well, silly.
4. Stereotypes depend on our believing that sex and gender are binary (either-or). To summarize the last 50 years of research on the subject, they are not. There are babies born everyday who are not clearly boys or girls on the outside, and our insides -- physical, mental and emotional -- comprise an infinite range of gender identity and expressions.
Stereotypes may be cute in a four-year-old, but think of the stereotypes of teenagers, adults and elders we see in our media. How do we feel about those? Are we equally ok with our children believing in racial stereotypes? Before you let your child embrace a stereotype, think it through.