The Gender Spectrum: Social pressure to act girly or macho is stronger than you’d think. By Brett Berk

Big changes are afoot in the ways parents address gender with their young kids. I’ve seen little boys pli’ at Boys Ballet, watched girls dig up cicadas at Bug Camp, and witnessed my niece’s friends playing Gay Wedding on their grade-school playground. Recent studies even indicate that two-to-six-year-olds are significantly less rigid about how they classify toys than they were twenty years ago, with modern boys being sufficiently liberated to believe that pretend phones and kitchen play-sets aren’t just for girls. 

But we all know that line about the more things change. In the midst of all this progress, there’s been a retrenching. Recent books instruct parents to celebrate their boys’ innate need for aggression and dominance. Girly Girl Camps have popped up in cities around the country, where young females can avoid all that grody sweating and running around, and revel in manicures and fashion shows. A Chicago summer program requires boys to sport a “masculine” hairstyle. And an Arkansas middle school mandates that girls wear a dress to their graduation.

Biology’s reins on our kids’ destinies have certainly slackened. Yet, that doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to figure out how to raise a healthy “boy” or “girl.” Even if you grew up with many of the choices available to kids today, responding to your child’s individual actions and desires can remain challenging: your daughter’s narcissistic obsession with her hairbrush; your son’s maddening drive to turn every object he picks up into a weapon. When her daughter asked for a pair of frilly Barbie slippers for her fourth birthday, my friend Clarisse responded with a Women’s Studies dissertation, ranting on about how she didn’t approve of Barbie because “she doesn’t look like a real woman.” Her daughter cocked her head. “She isn’t supposed to be a real woman, mommy. She isn’t a woman at all. She’s just a Barbie.”

Things can become even more confusing for parents when their children exhibit “gender-variant behavior” – actions that fall outside our traditional expectations for boys or girls. My friends Kate and Dylan are unambiguously supportive of my flamboyance (up to, say, the third martini), but responded differently to similar conduct in their three year-old son. It wasn’t that they were opposed, or looking for means to “correct” it. They were simply uncertain how or how much to react. Wearing pink marabou-tufted kitten heels around the house was deemed harmless. Wearing them to mommy’s hair appointments was cute; the guys at the salon loved it. But wearing them to school? “He cried that he wants to,” Kate told me, “but I thought, won’t it make him a target?”

Confounding parents’ efforts to deal with all this are myriad social pressures: what the other kids, parents, and strangers may think, say, or do. Most of these revolve around the way masculinity and femininity are defined in such marked opposition to each other, but find their strength in the privileging of traditionally male traits in both genders. If a young girl prefers softball to softboiling, or expresses her hope to become an airline mechanic, parents usually just deem her driven and ambitious. But if a boy chooses the purple Teletubby over the blue one, or favors baking to breaking, moms and (especially) dads almost immediately become concerned that he’s going to turn out funny: less than manly. In fact, recent studies have shown that parents of boys – but not girls – regularly mention their anxiety about their son turning out gay unprompted when talking about kids and gender roles . Giving them cause to “worry” is a landmark analysis of forty-one separate studies that demonstrates a strong correlation between gender-variant childhood behavior in boys and homosexuality. The link doesn’t seem to be as strong for girls, who are – unsurprisingly, to those of us who witnessed the Sapphic hothouse of a college campus – much more fluid in this realm.

Placing the pink and blue icing on this towering cake are parents’ muddled notions about where gendered behavior comes from, and their own roles in their child’s developing sense of masculinity or femininity. The kinds of scientific explanations I subscribe to (e.g. the kind that aren’t derived from the Bible) generally concur that gender is the product of some bewitching stew of the innate (what you’re born with), the nurtured (what your world teaches you), and the adaptive (how you respond to the other two). Now, we all know that once a stew has been boiling for a while, it becomes difficult to figure out where the potato ends and the broth begins. But when one talks to parents about kids and gender – and I do all the time in my work helping companies to develop children’s media, toys, and consumer products – they seem to have a remarkable way of separating out the ingredients. When their kid’s behavior is gender typical – a boy who likes to play with vehicles – they throw up their hands and see gender as fixed and innate: Boys just like cars. But when this behavior is variant – a boy who likes to sew – they see it as socially influenced, and mutable: He gets that from spending too much time with his sisters; we’re going to enroll him in T-ball.

Recent research bears out the existence of exactly this duality. So it’s no wonder parents are so muddled on the subject of gender, and do such a good job of mixing up their kids. When a child conforms to gender stereotypes – ones the grown-ups are usually pretty active in creating and steering them into – parents act like the kid is simply following their biological destiny. But when a child behaves in ways that challenge these norms – abiding their interests or their innate sense of self – moms and dads often treat them as if they’re doing something “wrong” and try to adjust their course.

The end up of all of this pressure, categorization, and mixed messaging is, as you’d expect, a wide-ranging mess. We’ve created bunches of crazy rules to define what’s appropriately male or female. Instead of dealing head-on with the fact that the biggest difference between men and women is in our reproductive biology, we’ve created bunches of crazy rules to define what’s appropriately MALE or FEMALE, and these loopy strictures rope in jumbles of unwarranted outcomes. Kids are taught to apply gender rules to animals (dull and docile sheep vs. crafty and aggressive sharks), mythological characters (omnipresent but benevolent God vs. volatile and vindictive Mother Nature), and shapes (quick: which is more male, a heart or a square?). But it is our gendering of colors that perhaps best exposes the arbitrary nature of these divisions. Most people don’t know this, but prior to WWII, the order was actually reversed, with pink thought to be a more male color (a babified version of manly and powerful red), and blue thought to be more girly (watery, dainty and associated with the Virgin Mary).

These rules serve little practical purpose, but since young kids immediately register how pervasive they are, they can’t help but apply them to everything in their lives, attempting to define themselves and the world around them in terms of their adherence or opposition to these categories – girls do this; boys don’t do that; boys like this; girls can’t do that. In fact, Sandra Lipsitz Bem, one of the founders of modern gender studies, states that “no other dichotomy in human experience appears to have as many entities linked to it as does the distinction between female and male.”

So we’ve done a pretty good job of making gender the big lens through which young kids view the world, but the choices we offer them for analyzing and synthesizing this information comes down to a needlessly simple either/or choice: BOY or GIRL. This limited set of options doesn’t match up with the expansive and multivalent nature of a child’s brain. These kinds of dualities – right/wrong, us/them, patriot/terrorist – tend to reduce things to the lowest common denominator, glossing over all the interesting gradations, and diminishing our understanding instead of enhancing it (think George W. Bush on Iraq . . . or anything). Plus – and this is a big addendum – very few people actually fit neatly into either of these categories. Most kids (like most grown-ups) are not boy’s boys, or girly girls in any stereotypical kind of way, and end up feeling confused and/or damaged by their efforts to meld their own nuanced experiences with the strictures of these norms. We all know what it feels like to try to squeeze ourselves into a pair of pants that are too small. Imagine how that feels to a child’s sensitive nerve endings. Now imagine being forced to wear that restrictive garment for your entire life.

I’m not some radical advocating the elimination of the categories of boy and girl, or campaigning for replacing all gendered pronouns with a senseless prefix like co-. And I’m not against kids being rough-and-tumble or prissy if that’s who they are. I just want to help parents give their kids a little more wiggle room in terms of the options they’re offered for being human. To probe and poke at the dichotomies we’ve created. Back when I was a preschool teacher, I used to spend my days decked out in funky cloths, flouncing around the streets of New York singing, and acting as the primary caregiver to groups of young children. None of this was particularly gender-typical behavior for an American male, and the kids often told me so. Kids need a little more wiggle room in the options they’re offered for being human. “You can’t do that,” they’d say, “That’s for girls.” I’d shrug off their invocations. “Well I’m a boy, and I’m doing it,” I’d say. “So I guess it’s for boys too.” This response puzzled them, but with repeated use, I could see them taking it in. I’ll never forget the glee on one girl’s face when she finally found a way out of this bind. “Brett’s a woman-man,” she told her friends one morning, as I wrapped a pink scarf around my head. “He can do whatever he wants.”

Kids certainly need structure and rules, as well as opportunities to explore behavioral norms. But it’s important to recognize that many of these norms are socially constructed. And since we’re the ones who do much of the construction, we need to remember that we have the power to tear things down if what we’ve created is not serving us. In a sense, to perform an interior redesign of the house of gender, where we’re able to increase the size and scope of both the kitchen and the media room to the point where they meet, merge, and create some hybridized points of overlap. The Bugi culture in Indonesia acknowledges five different genders: makkunrai (feminine woman), calabai (feminine man), calalai (masculine woman), oroan’ (masculine man), and bissu (having male and female energies). I’m not sure if that’s exactly the right number of options or not, but at least these distinctions suggest the existence of a spectrum, instead of just two isolated and oppositional points.

The idea of our culture embracing such a model may seem unlikely, ridiculous, or even weird. But it wasn’t that long ago that the same could have been said of a girl who wanted to be a doctor, or a woman who actually became one. Things change. Things stay the same. Rules get broken. So slip on those kitten heels, moms and dads. Gender is a giant amusement park, and there’s no good reason your kid shouldn’t be allowed to go on every ride!

Article Posted 10 years Ago

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