Friday, November 13, 2009

Ma vie en rose

This started out as a comment on someone else's post on boys and gender issues, but it's getting long enough that I'm making it a post instead.

I've found the gender issues for both of my children have been remarkably interrelated, which shouldn't be surprising since gender politics are interrelated. With Alec, I've confronted new issues that I haven't before with K, because it's more accepted for girls to transcend gender barriers. This, of course, is because boy stuff = good and girl stuff = bad, so it's more accepted for girls to do boy stuff than it is for boys to do girl stuff.

At the tender age of four months, the biggest area this has come up for with Alec is with clothing. When I was pregnant, K wanted to buy Baby Brother an outfit every time we passed baby clothes, and I was often happy to oblige. But I found myself steering her away from the frilly dresses she was attracted to, once biting down the words "Boys don't wear dresses" right before they came out of my mouth. Part of my motivation with this was that we already had plenty of baby girl clothes, so if I was going to spend money, I'd rather do it on more boy-oriented stuff. But the other part was the same thing that made me initially set aside the hand-me-down baby clothes from K that were pink or had flowers. It wasn't even so much my not wanting to see my son in pink as I was afraid of having to defend putting him in pink when we were out in public.

However, one night I was looking at a pink flowered nightgown that was of the type I liked best (snaps up the front), and decided that 1) it was stupid not to use perfectly good clothes because society has arbitrarily decided they're not for girls, 2) why do I care what random strangers think about how I dress my children, and 3), if I'm willing to buy dinosaurs for K, I should be willing to put Alec in pink. So now I do. I haven't put him in any dresses and I don't think I will, but so far the adorable pink sleeper with the bunny on it has failed to cause his penis to fall off. I'm still a little shy of putting him in anything too girly to go out, mostly because I'm pathologically conflict-averse and just don't want to deal with nose old ladies with rigid gender expectations.

This Sunday, Alec will be wearing the christening gown my grandfather wore in 1906. In fact, he wore dresses until he was three years old. I suspect he also wore pink since it was considered a boy's color in those days. He was still manly enough to father two children.

As Alec gets older, there will certainly be more clothes issues - would I let him wear a dress in public? Will I let him have long hair (given that his father has long hair, almost certainly). The issue again will not be as much what I'm comfortable with as trying to negotiate his desires with what the rest of the world thinks. The nosy old ladies will turn into his peers, and I'll have to decide how to help him balance expressing his true self with peer acceptance. But that will be true whether he wants to wear a dress or not.

But I'll also butt up against things that are more my issues, that I'm already dealing with K - as a feminist, what sort of toys do I allow my children to play with? And as usual, it's the girl toys that come up suspect. Out of the entire world of boy toys, military toys are the only ones that give me pause, and I haven't come to a real decision about that. But with girl toys, there are tons of things that bother me. Cooking and housework toys are fine, since I don't even considered those gendered toys as every adult needs to know how to feed themselves and keep up basic household hygiene. Baby doll play is about nurturing, which again I consider applicable to both sexes. Dollhouses are a miniature version of household play. All fine for both of my children.

But then we get to princesses, which I've already discussed. And Barbie. I'm more leery but consider both of those more or less inocuous if we approach them the right way. But then there's hair dressing toys, or play makeup kits, or fashion design software.

There are age issues with those things as well, but I don't want to get into that here. Let's say right now they're being considered for a hypothetical ten-year-old, and the makeup won't be worn in public.

When I ask myself, why is it okay for my child to pretend to cook or take care of babies the way she will when she's an adult, but not pretend to style hair or put together pretty outfits the way she will when she's an adult, the only answer I can come up with is that unlike housework or child care, those are things women do that haven't become acceptable for heteresexual men to do as well. Women are judged by how they look in a way that men just aren't, and knowing how to put yourself together well is an important skill for a woman who wants to be professionally successful. I often wish I had had more opportuntities to learn that sort of thing when I was younger. But because this is something that only women do, it's of course seen as superficial and worthless. But just try climbing the corporate ladder with no makeup on. So I wouldn't buy any of those things for my preschool daughter, but when she's older, well, why not? Do they truly have inherently less social worth than playing paintball? And if my son shows interest in these things, I can't in fairness deny then to him any more than I would refuse to buy my daughter a skateboard.

It's astonishing how far down the internalized sexism goes when you start interrogating it. And no wonder this got too long for just a comment. I just keep trying to remind myself the conclusion I came to when I started wondering why I didn't want to buy K pink: the only thing wrong with the color pink (besides not especially complimenting her complexion) is that it's the code color for girl that everything meant for girls is required to be coated in. There's nothing wrong with being a girl, therefore there's nothing wrong with pink as long as it's balanced with all of the other colors.

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