Gender Matters

by Mark T. Mitchell on April 16, 2012 · 30 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Articles,Culture, High & Low

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In the spring of 2011, articles began popping up about a couple in Toronto who were refusing to publicly reveal the gender of their baby. They named the child “Storm” and committed themselves to raising Storm without the oppressive expectations of gender. They sought to foster a context within which Storm could decide for Storm’s self what Storm would be. As the previous sentences indicate, there are practical problems that go beyond pink or blue jumpers. Storm’s parents lament the “tyranny of pronouns” that serves to limit Storm’s choices even before Storm realizes the possibilities afforded by such an upbringing.

Storm’s older brother, Jazz, is a boy who enjoys wearing dresses and prefers his hair long with three braids. Sometimes he is mistaken for a girl. According to the article,

One of his favourite books is 10,000 Dresses, the story of a boy who loves to dress up. But he doesn’t like being called a girl. Recently, he asked his mom to write a note on his application to the High Park Nature Centre because he likes the group leaders and wants them to know he’s a boy.

Jazz was old enough for school last September, but chose to stay home. “When we would go and visit programs, people — children and adults — would immediately react with Jazz over his gender,” says Witterick, adding the conversation would gravitate to his choice of pink or his hairstyle.

That’s mostly why he doesn’t want to go to school. When asked if it upsets him, he nods, but doesn’t say more.

Instead he grabs a handmade portfolio filled with his drawings and poems. In its pages is a booklet written under his pseudonym, the “Gender Explorer.” In purple and pink lettering, adorned with butterflies, it reads: “Help girls do boy things. Help boys do girl things. Let your kid be whoever they are!”

For parents who seek to avoid imposing anything upon their children, it does strike one as odd that a 5 year old, boy or girl, would create such a pseudonym or trot out such politically correct sentiments. One might even be tempted to suspect that the parents have imposed plenty upon their children all in the name of liberation. The boy’s mute sadness speaks volumes.

Parents here or there who attempt to make their children into subjects of a social experiment offer perhaps a curious side show. But what happens when an entire society seeks to do the same? This is, apparently, what is happening in Sweden, that putative utopia of happiness and Nordic sanity.

According to a piece recently published at Slate,

For many Swedes, gender equality is not enough. Many are pushing for the Nordic nation to be not simply gender-equal but gender-neutral. The idea is that the government and society should tolerate no distinctions at all between the sexes. This means on the narrow level that society should show sensitivity to people who don’t identify themselves as either male or female, including allowing any type of couple to marry. But that’s the least radical part of the project. What many gender-neutral activists are after is a society that entirely erases traditional gender roles and stereotypes at even the most mundane levels.

Here are some of the various ways Swedes are pursuing this program of eradication.

 Activists are lobbying for parents to be able to choose any name for their children (there are currently just 170 legally recognized unisex names in Sweden). The idea is that names should not be at all tied to gender, so it would be acceptable for parents to, say, name a girl Jack or a boy Lisa. A Swedish children’s clothes company has removed the “boys” and “girls” sections in its stores, and the idea of dressing children in a gender-neutral manner has been widely discussed on parenting blogs. This Swedish toy catalog recently decided to switch things around, showing a boy in a Spider-Man costume pushing a pink pram, while a girl in denim rides a yellow tractor.

The Swedish Bowling Association has announced plans to merge male and female bowling tournaments in order to make the sport gender-neutral. Social Democrat politicians have proposed installing gender-neutral restrooms so that members of the public will not be compelled to categorize themselves as either ladies or gents. Several preschools have banished references to pupils’ genders, instead referring to children by their first names or as “buddies.” So, a teacher would say “good morning, buddies” or “good morning, Lisa, Tom, and Jack” rather than, “good morning, boys and girls.” They believe this fulfills the national curriculum’s guideline that preschools should “counteract traditional gender patterns and gender roles” and give girls and boys “the same opportunities to test and develop abilities and interests without being limited by stereotypical gender roles.”

As with our erstwhile Toronto parents, the problem of the pronoun has presented an especially vexing challenge. Nevertheless, a solution has been found.

 Earlier this month, the movement for gender neutrality reached a milestone: Just days after International Women’s Day a new pronoun, hen (pronounced like the bird in English), was added to the online version of the country’s National Encyclopedia. The entry defines hen as a “proposed gender-neutral personal pronoun instead of he [han in Swedish] and she [hon].”The National Encyclopedia announcement came amid a heated debate about gender neutrality that has been raging in Swedish newspaper columns and TV studios and on parenting blogs and feminist websites. It was sparked by the publication of Sweden’s first ever gender-neutral children’s book, Kivi och Monsterhund (Kivi and Monsterdog). It tells the story of Kivi, who wants a dog for “hen’s” birthday. The male author, Jesper Lundqvist, introduces several gender-neutral words in the book. For instance the words mammor and pappor (moms and dads) are replaced with mappor and pammor [I suppose the English equivalents would be Dommy and Maddy].

A few observations.

1. At the start, it perhaps goes without saying that many senses of equality are salutary and to deny that is to exhibit serious moral myopia. Men and women should, for instance, receive the same pay for the same work. Boys and girls should have equal opportunities for education. All should enjoy equality under the law and equal access to the courts.

2. Alexis de Tocqueville argued that in aristocratic ages, inequalities are not much remarked upon for they are everywhere. However, in democratic ages, where equality is the highest social and political priority, even the slightest inequalities will give offense. Thus, the more equal a society becomes, the more glaring even the smallest inequalities will appear. Yet, we must at the same time recall the wise words of Edmund Burke. He understood that perfect equality will simply never be achieved. Inequalities of all kinds seem to be, well, just part of life. If we consider these two insights together, it appears that in our futile attempt to achieve perfect equality, we will find ourselves perpetually offended even as we approach that illusive ideal. A society of perpetual offense does not sound like a pleasant place.

3. We give our boys Ritalin to make them sit down, shut up, and behave more like little girls, who, incidentally tend to outperform boys in elementary school. Our enemies speak to their boys of honor and sacrifice. Which one seems like a winning strategy? Or to put the matter differently, will a society of hens be as strong, vital, creative or even as interesting as a society of hims and hers, of men and women? Who, truth be told, wants to be a hen? Who wants to marry one? Apparently, there are some who want to raise them, but I suspect the children (like Jazz) will find the going tough and childhood will feel more like a controlled experiment than a time of carefree existence. Perhaps it goes without saying that some of us prefer our hens fried or grilled.

4. The irony in all of this is significant. In order to liberate a child–or an entire society for that matter–from the oppressive confines of gender, a whole lot of controls must be put in place. So who, really, is being liberated? Is this simply another attempt by an overzealous parent to impose “hen’s” will onto a child? Here’s a seemingly trivial example, but it gets at the same impulse. The kid’s helmet is amusing. Be sure, however, to watch to the end where you will see this parent’s view of dirt. Much more could be said on that score.

5. Does nature, itself, provide limits? Should we attempt to surpass them? When does surpass become transgress? Is maleness and femaleness a natural limit that actually facilitates human flourishing? Here we come to an interesting point. Could it be that living within certain limits is a key to happiness? Could it be that our modern denial of limits (an impulse that lies at the heart of modern liberalism) is the royal road to misery and a life of perpetual self-righteous offense? Fortunately, some differences seem fixed. Childbearing, for one, is unique to women. At least until an artificial womb is developed and women can be liberated from this unpleasant task of nature.

On that note, in two weeks a baby girl will be born. We are going to adopt her. My wife, three boys and I are thrilled. She will be raised as a girl. Her brothers will be expected to treat her as gentlemen treat a young lady. At the same time, I will teach her how to throw a ball, clean a fish, shoot a gun, and build a fire. Nevertheless, the only hens will be those in the coop, busily doing what hens naturally do.

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar D.W. Sabin April 16, 2012 at 12:59 pm

Multi-culturalism and Gender -neutralism are creeds which play into this utopian notion that anyone can in fact be anything, as though life was, above all, a source of entertainment.

Life would be a dimly loutish thing without our differences and that hard fought notion of respect for “the other” which this multicultural mosh pit delays and obscures. Equality, for the sentimentalist who hoists the flag of post modern life means sameness, a state which ultimately negates any value in notions of equality. Hopefully, someone will follow up on this story of the supposed innocence of a gender confused toddler child as said child reaches puberty, when the charms of youth give way to the hard urges of reality. Actively confusing a little kid is a form of abuse and a surrender to the darker side of relativism. Parents who want to display how “enlightened” they are should wear their own nose rings and man dresses.

avatar Dylan April 16, 2012 at 1:48 pm

Great article, very thoughtful.

I agree that the battle for absolute equality will never find a perfect equilibrium, yet I think equality is always an ideal worth fighting for.

These Canadian parents are only harming their child by forcing “hen” to be an outsider in world defined by gender. But nevertheless, creating a gender neutral household is completely within their rights. Many would decry home-schooling or rural living as similarly isolating a child from their peers.

I don’t think teaching honour and courage requires a framework of gender.

How harmful are gendered pronouns? In my opinion: not very. But I think the progress of gender equality over the last 150 years or so has been a great boon for our society and while I am deeply distrustful of utpopian thinking, I beleive this is one worth fighting for.

avatar Gene Callahan April 16, 2012 at 2:02 pm

They have not gone far enough. They are still imposing a species on their kid.

avatar Emily April 16, 2012 at 3:19 pm

The statement that Ritalin is prescribed to make boys act more like girls is enormously false and really quite counterproductive. The traits that Ritalin promotes are not in any way those that anyone familiar with little girls would call “feminine.” The overmedication of children is an issue who’s complexity and validity is completely undermined by theories of an anti-boy feminist agenda.

avatar Erica Wanis April 16, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Excellent article. This whole movement would be hilarious if it wasn’t so… well, sad. As previously mentioned, the children being manipulated by this scheme are going to suffer real trauma as they get older.

avatar Joan April 16, 2012 at 9:42 pm

When I was in college in the 1970s, I remember being told that U.S. girls’ greater quickness in learning to read was an effect of elementary school teaching having become an overwhelmingly feminine profession in this country, starting during World War I. In Germany, where elementary school teachers were mostly men, boys learned to read before girls. Why has this common-sense explanation been completely forgotten? Probably because it works out in practice as an argument for increasing then numbers of men in the teaching profession, which in turn would require improving teachers’ compensation, and we as a nation just don’t value education that much. No wonder there’s a home schooling movement.

avatar Jacob Woods April 17, 2012 at 11:19 am

Surely, puberty will hit and a person will realize that there is a “natural” order to the world. However, that natural order does include a vast range of diversity. Which is amazing. That diversity includes trans, intersex, sexual attractions ranging from pansexual – gay – to queer to, bi etc. What this child will not experience is confusion, but likely liberation from feeling trapped within binaries. The child is not being forced into anything. Storm is just interested in what storm is interested in. For me, it would have been nice to not be afraid of being a choregrpaher or a dancer because I was afraid of it being to girly. Regardless of the pessimistic postmodern rant above, it’s never to late for me to be a dancer. I too, was once more of a biological determinist. Now leaning on more social construction. When did pink become gendered? Plus, Sweden’s got it right now!

avatar Rob G April 17, 2012 at 8:37 pm

“They are still imposing a species on their kid.”

That’s different, Gene. That’s genetic.
Oh, wait…

I feel nothing but pity for the poor child. The parents? I’d like to clonk their heads together like Moe.

“However, that natural order does include a vast range of diversity. Which is amazing. That diversity includes trans, intersex, sexual attractions ranging from pansexual – gay – to queer to, bi etc. What this child will not experience is confusion”

Hmmm…and maybe he/she will engage in other “natural” activities like throwing feces around and urinating and defecating in public. Of course, he/she won’t feel “confused” when other folks react negatively to these behaviors, but liberated by not being bound by socially determined norms.

avatar Jacob Woods April 17, 2012 at 9:28 pm

The only person throwing feces is. . . ohhhhhh! Insert useless redundant arbitrary insult here, here, and HERE. . .

Internet discourse, lacks so much depth.

avatar Rob G April 18, 2012 at 9:30 am

Miss points much?

avatar Dylan April 18, 2012 at 1:45 pm

Rob G

Most people would agree that reckless hedonism can have terrible consequences. But what hasn’t been mentioned is that people with “non-traditional” sexual orientations can and due have healthy romantic lives that work in a society that is concerned with the dangers of excess and the importance of limits.

I hope you can understand how offensive it is being compared to people throwing filth in the street. To assume that the only sexual desire that can be acted upon without a swift fall into complete old testament debauchery is between men and women is, in short, close-minded.

Until you actually see people wallowing in feces on the street, please keep the hyberbolic predictions to yourself.

Gender is something that we humans have constucted around the kernel of biology. If parents think that this social construct will hold their child back, then it is completely within their rights as parents give a child a blank slate.

avatar Rob G April 18, 2012 at 2:09 pm

Miss Points Much? Version 2.0

avatar pb April 18, 2012 at 6:55 pm

‘Gender is something that we humans have constucted around the kernel of biology.”

BS.

avatar Anymouse April 18, 2012 at 9:17 pm

“To assume that the only sexual desire that can be acted upon without a swift fall into complete old testament debauchery is between men and women is, in short, close-minded.”
No, it is reasonable. I can see the people with divorces, and the people with serious social problems, and the people with infections. We know there are problems outside a traditional heteronormative society.

avatar Rob G April 19, 2012 at 7:42 am

“Gender is something that we humans have constucted around the kernel of biology. If parents think that this social construct will hold their child back, then it is completely within their rights as parents give a child a blank slate.”

Try replacing the word “gender” in that sentence with “health,” “hygiene,” or “intelligence,” and see how ridiculously inane it is. The only reason such a brainless notion has any traction whatsoever is because it’s related to sex, the modern sine qua non of all freedoms. This is what happens when an entire society thinks with its genitalia.

avatar Tony A. April 19, 2012 at 10:47 am

How horribly close-minded of anyone to think that throwing one’s feces in the street could in any way be meant as an insult. This modern fetish with cleanliness and hygiene is nothing more than a social construct we humans have constructed around the kernel of biology. What right do you have to insist something as natural as feces-making be hidden away, as if it were unclean? The very language we use to describe this most essential part of the natural order – “water closet” – “flushing” – “waste treatment” – is so hurtful, so damaging. This is why we have decided to liberate our child from the repression that is diapers and toilet training. And if this means our child will not be welcome in society, well, that is just too bad, because we are completely within our rights to give our child a blank slate. (Unlike that repressive, evil couple in Toronto, we have refused to impose a name upon our child – what if our child doesn’t want to be “Storm”? Who are we to impose such limitations on him / her / it / hen / chicken / rooster / etc.)

avatar Dylan April 19, 2012 at 2:00 pm

I’ll say it again: until we see throngs of people throwing feces in the street (or a shortage of bridal gowns for animals) let’s not talk about it as if it is something that is likely happen, if for only faint hope that we can keep this discussion grounded in reality rather than paranoia.

I agree that political correctness (as it relates to equality) often has unintended consequences. It can ironically sometimes give people unfair advantages and disadvantages. What I would like to see is a world where a boy thinks it is OK to dance in the ballet and be on the football team without any internal conflict or external pressures from his peers. This is a minor quibble when compared to the grande scope of civil rights in general, but it is still important, and it is why I sympathize with the parents’ decision. Although I concede keeping their child’s gender a secret is experimental, and the child might in time resent his/her parents for it, but that would not be a new phenomenon, as those of you with grown secular children might understand.

As for the other more tangential comments, wake up! people do think with their genitals! (elected officials and priests more than others it seems). As with anything else, restraint is a virtue, sexual acts can be destructive. But from my perspective, this does not negate the validity of same sex relationships.

I think people should wake up and stop living in this fantastic utopia where boys will only ever want to be cowboys, men will only ever want to have sex with women. And where a man kissing a man today might lead you to do who knows what tomorrow? Filth throwing? Plane Hijacking? Bursting into flames?! These are paranoid delusions.

I beleive if you thought about it, with an open mind, it wouldn’t seem so absurd.

avatar Anymouse April 20, 2012 at 1:28 am

I might ask how such points of view can possibly sustain a society that believes in “place” or “limits”. I see such viewpoints taking us back to the very same social problems we have today.

avatar Dylan April 20, 2012 at 12:07 pm

In this case at least, Emerson said it best: “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”
I am deeply skeptical of the myth progress with regard to the environment, technology and other social issues. But I stand resolutely by my points above

avatar Gene Callahan April 20, 2012 at 11:21 pm

“But from my perspective, this does not negate the validity of same sex relationships. ”

Dylan, I’m confused: How does letting a kid know he is a boy or a girl “negate the validity of same sex relationships”?

avatar Dar April 23, 2012 at 3:54 am

This isn’t going far enough.

I for one am offended at the sight of poor baby animals being forced to adopt restrictive life-styles by their parents.

That a chick learns to fly, or a cub learns to hunt, from its parents, is proof that it’s all just a social construct.

Therefore I propose liberating these baby animals from their parents’ oppressive ways and allowing them to choose the mode of transport/nutrition-acquisition/mating/etc…. they choose freely.

avatar Dylan April 23, 2012 at 3:16 pm

How does letting a kid know he is a boy or a girl “negate the validity of same sex relationships”?

I don’t think it does, that was simply in response to some commenters who were uneasy with the concept of homosexuality. Not directly related to the article, but I felt obliged to rebut nevertheless

avatar Anam Cara April 24, 2012 at 6:05 am

All I could think of when reading this is a line from “A Wrinkle in Time” (the movie):
“alike is not equal.”

avatar Howard Merrell April 24, 2012 at 6:37 am

Mark,
Congratulations to you and your family. The arrival of your daughter would be about now, right?

I’m glad for you your current family and for her.

As to the discussion: I am house-broken so I find much of it irrelevant. I cannot believe, however, that no one has made reference to a powerful piece of social commentary from the man who chose to wear black–a very gender-neutral color–http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1BJfDvSITY

avatar Siarlys Jenkins April 24, 2012 at 1:09 pm

If there is not a widely available Swedish translation of “A Boy Named Sue,” it would seem they are badly in need of one.

Human beings have made up all kinds of artificial bases for selected or imposed inequality. These have become sufficiently ingrained that it takes a great deal of conscious effort to cast them aside. Colored people can’t be lawyers, women can’t be engineers, etc.

But every species more complex than a hydra has two sexes, each members of their respective species, but each objectively different. To seek to erase what is real, out of habits formed in the effort to erase what is artificially imposed, is an error.

Even homosexuality is premised on men being men, and women being women, which is why it is a noteworthy distinction whether a man finds a male or a female partner. We got rid of separate rest rooms for “white” and “colored,” but we still have separate restrooms for “men” and “women.”

avatar Albert April 24, 2012 at 2:56 pm

Onion?

avatar Gabe Ruth April 25, 2012 at 11:40 am

As biological limitations seem to be the only thing preventing the full realization of Huxley’s vision, one wonders what he could have done with this development, so bizarre even his foresight and fertile imagination did not predict it.

“Colored people can’t be lawyers, women can’t be engineers, etc.”

Did I just read that? Holy SWPL, someone is being oppressed, we must take dramatic action!

avatar D.W. Sabin April 25, 2012 at 4:33 pm

…”imposing species on a kid”….thats rich. Cripes what a lark. I only wish I could still have kids at home and forthwith instruct them that I think it is in their best interests to graze the near lawn and adopt the patented thousand yard stare of the Bovine as a means to be species neutral.

It aint easy being homophobic in a culture of homofetishism but then, personally, I really don’t give a rats patootie.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins April 29, 2012 at 9:45 pm

Past tense Gabe Ruth, read on.

“I really don’t give a rats patootie.”

Definitely my opinion on all questions of “sexual orientation.” Only, our culture being overwhelmed with the asserted importance of the matter, I could fill a book with all the ways I’ve had to explain why I don’t really care.

avatar Reynardine May 9, 2012 at 7:13 am

This is an interesting site.

Of course, any normal human being is born a girl or a boy. It means a girl will grow up to be a biological woman and a boy will grow up to be a biological man. Sooner or later, you learn that, but not right away. At a very young age, I wanted to grow up to be a yellow gas station, but when I found out I couldn’t, I consoled myself with the idea that at least I could grow up to be a horse.

What is all the obsession with Scandinavian grammar? In English, we commonly use “they” as a third person singular. The generic name for “parent” is “parent”. On the average, men will be stronger and women will live longer, but that’s on the average. Boys, girls, women, and men, have a variety of talents and tastes, and shouldn’t be required to limit them based on somebody else’s idea of what is “nice”. Dainty china tea sets might be thought of as flitty in the U. S., but in England, quite macho curry-colonels enjoy a good tea as well as anyone, and sitting down with one’s kids at a well-laid tea table to a repast of mint tea, fruit, milk, and quickbread is not only wholesome and satisfying, but civilizing. Meanwhile, if your little boy likes skirts and frilly shirts, get him lessons on a chanter and let him strut his stuff in a Scotty parade.

No, I am not actually or constructively, in whole or in part, from the British Isles, and I don’t believe in single-sex schools. Girls, if not repressed, will learn sooner, because (if animals are any guide) they mature a little more quickly. Nonetheless, given a fair chance, all will learn. So must we.

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