Pop, Storm and the Gender-Free Child

Okay, so everyone is asking me what I think about Storm, the latest child whose parents have announced they are raising (oh God I need a pronoun--him? Her? It?--this is so hard without a pronoun) gender free. I have so many thoughts on the subject, I'm just going to put them all down in a jumble. I get that Storm's parents are disgusted by the current hyper-gender segmentation of childhood. They're right about that. A hundred years ago babies were not so maniacally and relentlessly gender-coded. In an earlier  blog post I point out that all babies and toddlers used to be dressed in white, frilly gowns with long flowing hair, ideally in curls. Check out the picture of a cutie pie FDR in his dress and patent leather shoes. And that sweet little dress on Ronald Reagan. Apparently, boys in dresses grow up to be President (though not girls in dresses--boo!).

Back in the day, according to my guru Jo Paoletti at pink is for boys, women's magazines used to also have contests: people would send in pictures of their babies and readers would guess whether they were boys or girls. That was considered great fun and no one expected anyone would REALLY be able to tell the difference. Babies were considered sort of gender neutral until they were 2 or 3 when boys were "breeched": their hair cut and the dresses exchanged for short pants.

I've also written before--in CAMD and on this blog--that signifiers of gender are subjective and about fashion. That pink and blue (for instance) were originally introduced around 1900 as "nursery colors." When they were gender coded, pink was for boys, blue for girls. If you look back at classic Disney movies you'll find that Sleeping Beauty, Alice (in Wonderland), Mary Poppins, Wendy (Peter Pan) and, yes, Cinderella are dressed in shades of azure. Meanwhile, Wendy's little brother Michael is wearing pink pjs. That's because pink was viewed as a pastel shade of red, which connoted strength and masculinity, while blue was associated with constancy, faith and the Virgin Mary. Check these photos out:

Wendy:

Michael:

 

Sleeping Beauty (Aurora) in blue, Prince in Pink (Disney changed Aurora's gown color in the Disney Princess line allegedly to distinguish her from Cinderella)

 

Among its many problems the current fixation on polarization of gender discourages cross-sex friendships, which are critical to kids psychological, cognitive and emotional well-being as well as to their future professional and romantic relationships.

So I totally understand having a strong--even reactionary--response to the ways the media and marketers have amplified gender differences and invented them where they don't need to exist.  For instance, do we really need pink tinker toys?

 

Maybe that meets girls where they're at, letting them know that building is for them. But when they're instructed to build "a butterfly, a flower and a microphone" (what's with the microphone???? Another blog post at some point....) it just seems like more fuel on the princess-to-diva fire. And discourages cross-sex play. And woe to the boy who likes pink.

At the same time, kids do really need to assert their gender from the ages of about 3-6. STRONGLY. Because they don't understand it the same way we do. They don't get the whole penis-vagina thing (I will not put hyperlinks on those words--you know what they are). They base judgement on externals--hair length, dress length (this is why you can't stuff your three-year-old girl into pants: she doesn't want to turn into a boy) etc. They think you can switch sexes if you change clothes. You can grow up to be a boy OR a girl, a mommy OR a daddy. It's called gender impermanence. And so they gravitate towards whatever tools our culture gives them that most strongly assert BOY or GIRL.

For that reason, I think it's fine to have a unisex baby or a unisex 1-year-old. Most of the time older kids, too, should just be "kids" and their sex should be de-emphasized in school and at home. AND they also need to have tools through which to assert it. When I was a child, girls played mommy and had baby dolls and buggies and doll houses and such. Now they have lipstick and sparkles and Bratz dolls and pink. So rather than try to neutralize gender, my advice would be to try to help your child--male or female--cultivate a healthy, resilient, self-determining sense of what being a girl or a boy means. Which is why I developed (and yes, yes, need to update) the fight fun with fun list. To give parents a place to start in finding images, playthings, books, movies, projects, resources and other ideas about how to raise a girl with a strong, powerful, connected feminine identity that wasn't perpetually linked to appearance, play-sexiness and defining yourself by how you believe you and your body are perceived by others.

Protesting the hyper-segmentation of gender is great and it's important. Protesting the ways girlhood has been insidiously sexualized is crucial. Opposing the marketing/media culture's attempts to raise our children to be little consumer-bots  is imperative. But the other piece, rather than ignoring gender, is finding ways to help our children embrace and delight in their identities as girls and boys--while recognizing that those identities vary as much or more within as between the sexes, that they are part of an individual and not his or her sum.  So I respect the motivation of Storm's parents (and those of the Swedish Pop, whom I wrote about in CAMD) and I have no doubt that, for instance, if they alter the pronoun they use with the baby they will get different results from people, but over the longterm, it's not really a workable strategy for change.