Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Girls Will Be Boys: Projecting Societal Conceptions of Gender onto Children

On my way to work the other morning, I overheard a really unsettling conversation on a radio talk show. The hosts were in the midst of a discussion about Angelina Jolie & Brad Pitt's 4-year-old daughter, Shiloh. Normally, I don't get involved in celebrity gossip, but this caught my attention for several reasons. First, who the heck talks about a 4-year-old on national, local, or any kind of radio? Secondly, don't we all have better things to do and bigger problems to worry about? Above all, though, I was particularly intrigued and disturbed by their discussion of Shiloh's gender presentation.Apparently, it is a huge-freaking-deal that Shiloh Jolie-Pitt dresses in tracksuits and wants her hair cut short. The radio commentators suggested that Shiloh, who was recently spotted in a pair of boy's swimming trunks, is becoming "a little dyke." This issue is, in fact, so pressing that not only have DJs devoted minutes of their shows to the Shiloh J.P. lesbian conspiracy, but trusted news sources (Life & Style, US Weekly, People) have followed suit. Life & Style brought to the forefront the question that has clearly been on all of our minds: through allowing Shiloh to wear clothes marketed for boys and not exposing her to enough "girlie things," are Brad and Angelina ruining their child's life? Why would they do this to her? Stop being totally unfit parents and put the girl in a dress already!

My limited knowledge of and level of concern for the Pitt-Jolie family not withstanding, let me tell you that I absolutely do not care what Shiloh chooses to wear, say, or do. As a matter of fact, I have very few limitations to what I find acceptable in the realm of childhood self-expression. I was a wild woman, as my parents allowed me to dress myself, and I came up with all sorts of ensembles featuring wacky hats, mixed patterns, and gratuitous accessories. But through this experimentation, especially at an age when I was still mostly unaware of all that is trendy or socially acceptable, I became completely confident in any way I chose to present myself to the world. Therefore, it blows my mind that full-grown adults utilize the choices of one little girl, who is unknowingly and unintentionally in the public eye, to launch discussions of what is and isn't acceptable for girls and boys.

This whole "is she or isn't she a girl?" controversy makes it remarkably evident that gender policing begins at an incredibly young age. From the moment we are wrapped in a pink or blue blanket and welcomed into the world to the time when we are able to make our own informed decisions and analyses, we are under the careful guidance of the adults in our lives. They are the ones who will teach us how we should and shouldn't interact with the rest of the world, and will help us shape our future beliefs and senses. And to make this impact, we can't just worry about what our kids are wearing. We have to worry about what they're playing with:

(Above: one of the bestselling boy's toys and of the bestselling girl's toys on

We have to worry about what they're reading:

We even have to worry about what they're watching, thinking, eating... we have to worry a lot. If we are not extra vigilant, our children will become the next feature on the KISS FM morning show.

We give little girls purses and credit cards so they can practice going into debt after one too many shopping sprees & applying their lipstick while weaving through morning traffic. We give little boys miniature axes and tools to they can practice putting their lives in danger while pursuing heroic professions. We give little girls books such as the Twilight series so they can daydream about becoming a two-dimensional character who waits for a mysterious man to sweep her off of her feet, teaching them lessons that will no doubt trickle into their day to day lives. We give little boys books such as The Day My Butt Went Psycho (which is, mind you, based on a true story) so that they can not only laugh about the unsurpassed humor which is the runaway buttocks, but so that they can find pleasure in reading as an escape from what is real. Granted, these are all exaggerations and generalizations, but what we can draw from them is that we treat girls and boys much differently (duh...), and therefore, expect different things from them.

By putting these examples in place, we are telling children that girls and boys will want to do, say, wear, and be different things. By not having prevalent examples of possible transgressions for these norms, we are saying to kids that some things are just for boys and some are just for girls. And this is how children learn to police gender. If a girl, like Shiloh, wants to wear pants, it is apparently okay to call her out for being out of the ordinary. If a boy wanted to read Twilight, he might be singled out as odd or even queer. It makes me sad that children learn these labels from adults, and that they become experts at identifying gender at a very young age.

We project our notions of what is right and wrong for different genders onto our children because we don't want them to stand out for not cooperating with these unwritten rules. But through doing this, aren't we just limiting the creativity and expressive ability of future generations? Is there a way we can avoid this, or are gender norms such a built-in component in society that it is impossible not to acknowledge it? Do you think it's possible to raise gender-neutral children? Even though I am less than optimistic after hearing the offensive commentary on the radio the other day, I would like to hear your thoughts. How can we make a move toward gender acceptance or neutrality, especially in terms of children?



    That's an article on Swedish parents raising a gender-neutral child. It was written in 2009 and I always wanted to know more about Pop's development.

  2. I definitely remember reading about Pop, and I wish there were more follow-up stories on Pop's development.

    Whether or not I agree or disagree with any of this, here is an interesting interview about gender and children. Who am I to argue with a neuroscience professor?