When David Beckham revealed that his wife Victoria was
expecting a baby girl, he explained that they had already painted the room in
pink and lilac in preparation and that Victoria was looking forward to buying
lots of pretty clothes for her. The poor kid hadn't even been born but already
was being socialized into "appropriate" colors and setting out that her
acceptability as a girl would be based on "looking pretty."
But what if their daughter will want to play football, have
short hair, and wear dungarees? Maybe their daughter will someday want to
transition and become a man (as we have seen with Chaz Bono). And just maybe
this young child will be a person who loves shoes and handbags and will go
girlie-shopping with her mom -- who's to say?
Now, if you winced when you read that last sentence, then
think again -- what is it that makes you feel uncomfortable with thedea that
this child might develop a more male identity? It's a subtle but very
evident social pressure that parents feel under to have "normal" children, and
that means "proper boys" or "proper girls."
The new movieTomboy, which opens tonight in New York, explores this
theme: the protagonist is a young person told to be female, but who wishes to
inhabit the world of the boy and to be treated as male. It's an endearing
film, but it highlights the agonies a young person can experience when their
inner self is constrained unfairly by social rules determined purely on the
basis of apparent genital apparatus.
Despite more than 30 years of second wave feminism, we still
reiterate and reinforce these rules and still encourage children to see
maleness as defined in opposition to femaleness and femaleness as lesser within
that system. But, imagine a world where children were born without genitals and
you only got to find out the sex at puberty! How might we raise children then?
At a very basic level, our expectations would be more equal and less
gender biased. The labels we reserve for socially favored gender behavior
would become meaningless and we'd finally end the inequality between sexes.
But these rigid binary gender rules do exist within our society and this
places uncomfortable pressures on children and their parents as the young
person tries to work out how to be themselves in a society that places so many
limitations of what they can do based on their nominal sex. Within
schools there is a significant problem of homophobic bullying - but the reality
is that it's the gender non-conformity that gets picked on. It has nothing to
do with who they want sex with.
Recently we had a significant a brouhaha over the supposed gender
confusion of young Shiloh, child of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Shiloh
is only 4, for her the world is a fascinating and exciting place with so much
potential. And here is a young person exploring the world and making sense of
how to be in it. And Shiloh has rather cleverly worked out that there was a
fork in the road of the life journey and having inadvertently been sent down
the route toward "girl-world" and "womanhood" has quickly realized that
masculinity would make a more appealing journey. Maybe she'll be a butch
lesbian, a lifelong tomboy, a trans guy, or, like a former tomboy, a typical
straight woman. Who knows?
And yet people feel frightened by this. Newspapers, web forums,
and blogs were awash with comments questioning the outcome of all of this.
Parents and children alike are under close scrutiny to follow these strict
gender rules -- I mean, try buying a girl toy that isn't pink or purple at the
moment: it's quite a challenge. The rules, it seems, are simple: boys
should be boys and like boy stuff, girls should be girls and be pretty and well
behaved, and be surrounded by pink and purple sparkly things (and waiting for a
prince to come for them).
The tomboy identity has, of course, always been seen as an endearing
diversion as long as the girl went back to being a "proper girl" by "tweenage"
or puberty at the latest. And of course, when it comes to boys wanting to
express femininity or a girl-identity, it is so taboo that it apparently
affords license to release the hounds of hell on the parent who would even
contemplate permitting that. (Just look at all the debates over boys wearing
princess Halloween costumes last month.)
Allowing and or encouraging a child to be gender
non-conforming can be remarkably uncomfortable for parents too as they face the
open condemnation of others: here in the case of Jolie and Pitt I commend their
strength of character to handle the criticism and allow their child to find
their own route in life. Shiloh, like any young person, needs the space
and the freedom to define an identity that fits, a way of being in the world
that feels congruent.
Our understanding of gender identity is still evolving but what is
increasingly evident is that there are structural brain differences between
typically male and typically female brains but the gender of the brain sits on
a spectrum of maleness and femaleness. Evidence for this has been growing over
the last decade and a recent article in the New Scientist sheds further light on this. In a society that
places so many divisions and rules based on genital anatomy, its easy to see
that for someone whose brain gender is very much at odds with their genitals
the option of transsexual surgery can be so necessary and valuable in these
instances. But maybe there is space for more gender diversity: maybe not
everyone has to be shoe-horned into a rigidly defined binary.
I admire the parent who allows their child to self define, to explore
how to be themselves and affords that person acceptance. If the end
result really is that more people end up as adults living openly as
transgender, gay, lesbian or bisexual then what's the problem?
Surely that has to be preferable to those same people living
with chronic internal discomfort, trying to be something others expect of them
that simply isn't who or what they are.
These are exciting times and as more young people question the
compulsory identities they were assigned at birth we will no doubt start to
become more accustomed to a broader bandwidth of gender and sexual identities. Imagine
a prospective parent saying, "I'd like three children, maybe one of each!"