Thursday, December 29, 2011

Gender Construction: Impacting ourselves, our children, and our society

When I teach Introduction to Sociology, we always talk about sex and gender. Of course the first piece of business is to differentiate between the two. Sex relates to ones biological makeup and sexual organs, while gender is the performance and/or presentation of sex. Notably, the two do not need to match. One may present a gender different from his/her sex.  Keeping these in mind, today I'd like to discuss gender construction. That is, how, as a society, we dictate the ways one should look, talk, behave, and work to present his/her assigned gender.  While this post is not dedicated solely to the ending of violence against women, it is dedicated to ending discrimination based on gender (of all people).

What does all this mean? Let me show you.

Things like color have been socially constructed to represent certain genders. Pink=girl; blue=boy
If you attend a baby shower, you may purchase a gift matching these designated colors. What if you don't know the sex of the baby? How can you assign the gender if you don't know the sex? Chaos, right? How can you tell if a baby is a girl or boy if the color, or a bow on the head, or a baseball and bat on the outfit, don't tell you? It doesn't have to be that way.  And, what is the consequence for failing to meet gender norms? Bullying, hate, discrimination, violence. So, let's take a note from this little girl, Riley:

I think Riley asks some great questions. Why is pink marketed to little girls? Why aren't super heroes marketed, gifted, acceptable for little girls? Don't we all need super heroes in our lives? Granted I was the little girl who played with soldiers and semi trucks in addition to barbie playhouse and My Little Ponies. But really, have you stopped to think about this? Have you questioned the way we socialize our children through the toys purchased and/or the clothes provided (even if you do allow the child to choose out of those clothes)? How your nieces, nephews, cousins, are gendered?

So, you say you'd still like your little girl to wear pink and your little boy to wear blue? That's okay. I'm not the judge and jury here. I'm simply trying to make you think, question, and investigate our world.  I encourage you to think also about the ways you might/do react to individuals, even very young (children) who break gender norms. Look at the below links (video and online postings) and think about how you would react. Think about how you would explain it to your children. Better yet, what would you do if your own child came to you requesting to dress the opposite of his/her assigned gender?  And, as a side element, I'd like to discuss further the difference in biological male children wishing to meet female gender norms and biological female children wishing to meet male gender norms. It seems to me that little boys wishing to live, dress, act, or talk like little girls are more strictly policed and criticized. Why is this? So, as you read through this, read other articles, watch videos, it seems to me the problem is with adults, not with kids.

Think about how your responses to these questions *may* affect the perpetuation of strict gender norms and may contribute to hate, prejudice, discrimination, and bullying.

I've ordered her book and plan to read it. I think the struggles she faced/continues to face are normal. I also think she's doing an extraordinary job allowing her child to be who he wants to be. But, some great questions are introduced. What do you think?

Article to check out: 'Genderless' Baby--Baby Storm

Then there is the below ad from J. Crew (which received quite a bit of scrutiny ad criticism):


  1. Granted I have done no research and am simply going off of daily observation, I don't think the toys a child plays with and activities they engage in necessarily are harmful in any respect. Whether it be a girl playing with trucks and baseballs, or a boy playing with dolls and dancing. Those things don't shape a persons gender identity (depending in information they are fed from twit parents, mind you). I think where things start to get hairy in the discussion (and I suppose more so for boys than girls) are when they express desires to be the other gender, and to what degree / at what age. If thinking about clothing and style, the only thing unique to one sex are dresses, skirts, makeup, etc. There doesn't appear to be, at least at face value, these same things on the flip side. Shorts, shirts, etc are acceptable dress for girls. Even dress shirts and ties of sorts, suits, etc have become acceptable. I wonder why that is?

    I also think that parents at times allow their kids to indulge in certain things far before they are ready to make those decisions. I don't think children can appreciate the facets of the discussion at times of "what it means to be a boy / girl." Hair length, style of dress, toys, activities, etc don't make someone one thing or another (as stated previously). Plenty of boys have long hair, girls shirt, play certain "male" sports or engage in "female" activities. I think some of the problem comes from the influences saying "that's a girl thing" or "this is for boys" when in reality it doesn't matter one way or the other. Ramblings of a psychologist in waiting I suppose.

  2. In regards to your follow up, I think when you start to get into age questions, it gets into a ridiculously large gray area. It's hard to pinpoint 1) when someone is capable of making a decision of that magnitude and 2) when they are ready to make said decision. I use the word decision lightly here. A 5 year old can purport what they desire to do, but that doesn't mean what they say is necessarily accurate or for the best. I think more research is probably necessary here to determine when kids, on average, realize their identity. It's like someone "discovering" their sexual preference, their "type" of mate desired, etc. If I had to guess based on pure thought I would put that somewhere between 13 and 18 years of age, considering brain development, etc. This however can have unintended consequences considering the onset of puberty and how that affects the situation at hand. I don't know that there is a good answer, but I think indulging kids in this prior to puberty is a bit premature. You don't have to enforce strict gender rules with them though. Boys can have long hair, girls can wear "boyish" clothes, each can engage in the others activities, etc. I think tolerance is key here as opposed to "supporting" these things at such a young age. I don't have to go buy my son dresses at age 5 because he wants to "be a princess." I think that stuff has to come later.

  3. Followed the FB posts and the blog posts...such an interesting discussion! Devon- you'd asked about how parents react. I have to say as a parent-to-be (early Feb!!), I am really frustrated by the insistence that I assign gender/sex to my child. We chose not to find out the sex of our baby, and this has caused a lot of frustration among friends/family and coworkers. I'm sure some of it is "play frustration" but it's coming at us from EVERY angle. It comes up in almost every discussion. I get that people don't have a lot of questions they can ask besides "is it a boy or a girl?," but we've also gotten a lot of people saying things like "well, how do i know what to get your kid?" My response is usually something like, um, something that washes well so that when the baby spits up on it I can clean it. Or, does it matter? Is my infant really going to care if it's wearing blue or pink?

    It also seems to me that the part of this discussion is about how we limit people based on seemingly superficial characteristics. It may start with dolls and cars and trucks, but don't we face the same challenges when picking college majors, choosing parenting/household roles and career paths?

  4. I have a daughter who likes to play with trains and cars(typically for boys).... these could also equate to a carriage for a princess or stroller for a baby doll(typically for girls). Does that mean my daughter wants to be a boy? I think not, I think she just likes to play with toys on wheels that she can drive around. I agree with you that society is the one placing the labels.

  5. Thank you all for your thoughts and feedback. Adam, I think its fantastic you introduced the concept of identity. My concern, however, is that children develop identity through socialization and expectations (looking glass self). Thus, an identity is always influenced. Katie, I find it interesting that you have received so much backlash regarding not finding out the sex of your child. In my opinion, this demonstrates the need, by many, to begin gendering when conception occurs--let alone once the birth of the child happens. (Also, WOW! Feb is coming fast. I didn't realize you were so far along. Exciting!) Finally, I think there are many many questions people could still be asking you. For example, asking about your health and that of the baby, plans for birthing, etc. are all, in my opinion, more important than the sex of the baby, but still demonstrate interest and support for you and Mr. K :)

  6. I would be fine with my daughter wanting to do those things (playing with boy things, wearing boy clothes) if she was serious. I would, however, be nervous for her for the stares, questions, etc that she would encounter for going against the norm.

  7. I am a 53 year old woman and I had to fight very hard in my youth to be accepted in worlds that favored or were exclusive to men. I was criticized for not being "domestic" in a female way and for not wanting to be a mother. I crafted my life the way I felt was best for me despite what most people said. I broke the molds through patience, courage and determination. I became a world traveler, engaged in extreme sports and worked hard at keeping myself safe through time. Because I was moving around the world and, especially, the world of men often alone, I was attacked, stalked, insulted and I faced gender discrimination. I managed to escape rape and assault through a over-developed awareness, quick response, intelligence and simply because I could run fast.
    I am impressed by your blog, it was brought to my attention by a friend, and I find in it a forum filled with great information and solidarity. Thank you for the work you are willing to do, don't stop, help us on the road to safety and freedom from fear.