On gender

“Seems,” madam? Nay, it is; I know not “seems.” – Hamlet

A friend and I were recently having a conversation about her daughter. Her daughter is four, and during this conversation my friend bemoaned the fact that her four-year-old daughter has developed an interest in princesses. “She loves that shit,” my friend said. “And there’s nothing really I can do about that.”

Both my friend and I identify as feminists, and as such, we see gender as inherently problematic – particularly for girls, but also for boys. I understood where she was coming from in expressing dismay at her daughter’s affinity for a bit of stereotypical frivolity.

Now, gender norms would have us think, “Well, of course she like princesses and fairytales – she’s a little girl.” Gender would have us believe that the little girl’s interest in dresses and castles and glitter was a direct result of her biological sex. Sexist hierarchies are upheld when people believe this. Gender reads a child’s interest in baby dolls or trucks as a reflection of their DNA, rather than the byproduct of socialization or, you know, just unique human personality. (Like, I really dig true crime books and dirt bag rock on vinyl, but I would never attribute my fondness for those things to my female biology.)

So back to my friend’s daughter. After a bit of cajoling, my friend admitted that she had books about princesses that she read to her daughter at night. “But,” my friend said. “I always change the ending to and then she went to college.” The reason I mention this, is that it’s important to note her daughter did not, apropos of nothing, develop an affinity for princesses. She had her mom read her a book that she liked, and she got really into that shit. She also got really into Oscar the Grouch from watching “Sesame Street.” And when I came to visit, got really into looking at pictures of my dog. She’s a human being with interests. Even at four, we have personalities, we have interests. Even at four, we’re drawn to some things and not others.

For a patriarchy to survive, human interests – for books or colors or movies, must be tethered to sex. The very notion of gender has nothing to do with choice, and everything to do with control. The concept “gender” exists, at its core, to convince little boys and girls that their biology has preordained their futures – what they will do, what they will like (buy), what they will say, and how they will say it. Patriarchy, and the beneficiaries of, hope we will fall in lock-step with the lie.

I was lucky to grow up in a home where neither my mother nor my father were enforcers of so-called “gender norms.” My brother and I both played with Barbie dolls, and enjoyed it. My brother and I both went fishing with dad, and enjoyed it. When my mother put curlers in my hair, or painted my nails for Easter, my brother sometimes wanted a curler or two in his hair, a bit of nail polish on his fingers, and my mother granted this. My father didn’t freak out when I put mascara on my brother (he asked me to), and my mom didn’t question my female-ness when I played He-Man with my brother. None of this meant my brother or I were “gender queer.” Later, when my sister came along, she went through an extensive phase of wanting to wear “boy clothes” and “boy hats.” My mother let her. No one cared. It was cute, and eventually, she stopped wanting to wear the construction hats and overalls. None of this meant anything about our biology, our sex – my sister and I were still female, my brother still male. All this meant is that we were kids, who liked things. I was lucky enough to have parents who could grasp this.

This is the difference between “seems” and “is.” Gender “seems.” Sex “is.” Gender is a pretense. Sex is fact.

Today, I sometimes worry that as our society increasingly conflates gender and sex, increasingly reinforces the false notion that gender comes from within, that parents, having fully bought the lie, will either confuse or destroy their children – either by pushing their boys toward altering their bodies to fit their interests, or by killing the souls of their girl children, by teaching them their sex is a very specific destiny.

This is dangerous.

This is a lie.

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