Monday, January 24, 2005

Baby X

This is for all of you who I told I'd send you the Baby X story the other day. You should read it. It's short and interesting.

For those of you who don't know what it's about, it's the (fictional) story of X, a child who has no known gender. The child was raised to like dolls AND trucks, to excel at sports AND cooking.

Meanwhile, the Joneses were worrying about other problems. Toys, for instance. And clothes. On his first shopping trip, Mr. Jones told the store clerk, "I need some clothes and toys for my new baby." The clerk smiles and said, "Well, now, is it a boy or a girl?" "It's an X," Mr. Jones said, smiling back. But the clerk got all red in the face and said huffily, "In that case, I'm afraid I can't help you, sir."

So Mr. Jones wandered helplessly up and down the aisles trying to find what X needed. But everything in the store was piled up in sections marked "Boys" or "Girls." There were "Boys' Pajamas" and "Girls' Underwear" and "Boys' Fire Engines" and "Girls' Housekeeping Sets." Mr. Jones consulted page 2,326 of the Official Instruction Manual. "Buy plenty of everything!" it said firmly.

So they bought plenty of sturdy blue pajamas in the Boys' Department and cheerful flowered underwear in the Girls' Department. And they bought all kinds of toys. A boy doll that made pee-pee and cried, "Pa-Pa." And a girl doll that talked in three languages and said, "I am the Pres-I-dent of Gen-er-al Mo-tors." They also bought a storybook about a brave princess who rescued a handsome prince from his ivory tower, and another one about a sister and brother who grew up to be a baseball star and a ballet star, and you had to guess which was which.

The story shows just how much of our world is gendered, though we don't notice it. It illustrates the social construction of femininity and masculinity by showing the means through which they are created. Is it at all a shock that boys act a certain way and girls act another, that they like different toys and different clothes? No. Because we raise them to do just that!

Edit: here's the link! duh!


Anonymous said...

I believed as you did when I was in college the first time, almost 20 years ago. I took lots of psychology courses and I was sure that if people would just raise their kids in a gender-neutral way that the differences between them would be minimal. I went on to have 3 children -- 2 girls and a boy -- and I can tell you that they simply come wired differently. I never trained my daughters to be little prissy things, but they both went through that stage. One is actually more athletic than the other, but they both wanted to play with baby dolls... I bought them cars and other "boy toys" and they didn't play with them. My son came along and had the same mix of toys... Actually, by then, there were more "girl toys" around and he did play with the dolls, but he also immediately latched onto the same cars my daughters had ignored and started pushing them around making motor noises when he was still a tiny thing. There is also an incredible difference between my son and his sisters in his activity level and fearlessness, etc. All on his own, he gets tools and takes appliances apart... tried to drive the car when he was 2... started doing wheelies off the curb on his bike when he was 4... etc., etc... He just thinks of things that my daughters never did. While I still strive to offer them similar opportunities for growth, I've had to admit there are some innate differences between boys and girls.

My father believes a person’s make-up is based strictly on genetics. I disagree and firmly believe that one’s environment has a tremendous influence… but it’s a complicated mix of nature and nurture and family dynamics and outside influences… You'll find all this out on your own when you have your own family.

BTW, I found your blog by reading your comment to Dr. Clark. I took one of his writing courses last semester as a personal enrichment kind of thing… Good luck to you! --Mary

Jennifer said...

Thanks for replying!

The thing is, though, there's no way to "factor out" society's influence on your children. Peers, media, toy stores, expectations, etc... these ALL play a role, even in ways we don't see.

Your son and daughters wouldn't have to look far to see the commercials that show girls playing with dolls and doing each others' hair and boys riding bikes and playing with different sorts of toys and doing different sorts of actvities. Going into a toy store, there is a clearly defined separation between the toys that are meant for girls and the ones meant for boys. And kids (even very young ones) can pick up on these messages.

As soon as kids are in day care or school, the problem is compounded. Anyone who goes outside of the norm for their gender is quickly taught that they're "doing" it wrong. And they learn better.

Kid's television shows often tend (even today) to show boys in active roles and girls in passive ones.

I'm not saying that there is NOTHING innate about gender. I'm just saying that I don't feel that there is any way to know! There's no way we could factor out completely the influences of society. Our definitions of "masculinity" and "femininity" are hardly fixed. They differ immensley across time and space. That shows that they are socially constructed.

There's no way to perform an experiment like in the "Baby X" story. There's no way to factor out socialization, which is why I think it is impossible to know how much of gender is learned and how much is innate.

Anonymous said...

I understand what you're saying and agree for the most part. I really like to believe that men and women aren't that different... and think we should all focus on our similarities, while celebrating our differences. I can't stand anyone putting me in a box based on my gender or race, etc... But I was really amazed by some of the very early differences between my kids, and I carefully controlled their television viewing and outside influences. However, I'm sure it's also partly a temperment kind of thing. My daughters have some things in common but are very different from each other, and my son has a much higher activity/curiosity level than other boys his age. While stereotypes are still promoted in our society, girls and boys today are given many more oppportunities to move beyond them. There's been progress; at least, compared to when I was a kid. Take care...