07 July 2006


Having sons has taught me a lot about other people's ideas of gender roles and expectations. That we are raising James without strict gender roles seems to be confusing for a lot of people, and I think it's interesting to look at the reactions various people have to the appearance James chooses.

Any of you who've been reading this blog for a while are familiar with James' ponytail, which he wears pretty rarely now. Adults tend to think his ponytail is funny, but they usually take it in stride. Kids, though, particularly little girls, get a good chuckle over James' ponytail, telling him he looks like a girl. Kids have already internalized, before school age, that ponytail=girl. Even James thinks that's the norm, despite his own ponytails, and despite the fact that we know a few males with longer-than-average hair.

We had another gender incident recently, though, in which I found people's reactions quite curious. After seeing that I'd painted my toenails for one of the weddings we attended, James asked if I would paint his nails -- fingers and toes (and while he was at it, why not try on my heels, too? -- though that was not in public). So I painted his nails, and wondered what kind of reactions he would get. And to my surprise, kids, particularly little girls, don't seem to mind. In fact, several little girls have remarked that they, too, had painted nails, and compared their own to James', sort of bonding over it. Yet some adults we knew were confused. He had his nails painted for one of the weddings we went to last month, and several of our friends wanted to know why. Apparently "he wanted them painted" had not occurred to them. To some of them it was weird, I guess, that a little boy should want that at all.

So it's interesting to me that one stereotypically female trait -- a ponytail -- prompts teasing from his peers but little reaction from adults, while another stereotypically female trait -- nail-painting -- is accepted by his peers but questioned by adults. So far it's still clear to everyone that he's a boy (well, he was mistaken for a girl once while he was wearing a barrette my mom gave him to keep his hair out of his eyes, but otherwise it's clear). In behavior he's very much a typical boy -- running, shouting, climbing, sticks, stones, dirt -- but he's doing these things with painted nails and a ponytail.

One day, earlier this summer, James came home and told me that he didn't like rainbows anymore -- they're for girls. And butterflies are for girls too. "Pretty things are for girls." It kind of broke my heart a little bit. And I know that he doesn't truly believe that -- his rejection of rainbows and butterflies lasted all of ten minutes or so -- but to know that he already understands the cultural message that pretty things are for girls does make me sad, and a little angry. I mean, there's nothing inherently female about liking butterflies; it's totally arbitrary. That my son should, even for a minute, feel that he needs to deny an appreciation for pretty things in order to avoid an association with "girl things" makes me mad. That anything should be denied to my son, or discouraged, because of some arbitrary female classification, is ridiculous. I want my sons to have every opportunity, every experience they desire, and to let social pressures and standards limit their experience is, to me, unacceptable.

So my son likes to chase butterflies. He has a construction-paper rainbow hanging in his bedroom window. He wears a ponytail sometimes (though he's considering cutting his hair -- he's interested in a mohawk) and he likes to have his nails painted. Lately he's been asking me for a skirt. (At first he was confused about what a skirt was -- he made a remark that skirts don't have sleeves, to which I replied, "Well, no they don't.. do you actually know what a skirt is?" He didn't, yet once I explained and showed him some, he is still asking for one.) And I may actually get him a skirt. I'm learning to worry less about what other people will think of him, and to be more concerned with allowing James to make his own choices, to feel confident about himself, and to stand up for himself. I used to deny him things (the sparkly pink Dora the Explorer sandals he wanted a couple of years ago come to mind) to try and protect him from what I anticipated other people's reactions would be. Now I'm starting to think that it's more important to teach him to deal with other people's reactions for himself, to talk about the cultural standards that provoke those reactions and why we don't believe in the same standards.

Who made the rule that only girls can wear skirts, anyway? Ridiculous.


kim said...

So many people think that all these gender differences are innate, so it must be fascinating to see firsthand how many of them are learned.

I've had people who also have one year old daughters tell me that their kid likes dolls and that it must be the girl's natural affinity coming out already. My little girl has no interest in dolls and prefers cement mixers and dumptrucks to anything else in the world. For toddlers, I'm guessing that these interests in dolls or trucks have nothing to do with gender, but how parents encourage or discourage what their kids like makes a huge difference. Although I'm personally not into girly stuff (or construction vehicles for that matter), I want to remain as neutral as possible in encouraging Molly's interests when it comes to gender specific stuff.

I have concern as well when kids realize that some things (like rainbows and butterflies) are for girls and different things are for boys. The notion of separate but equal is rarely ever equal, and I think that girls' things become secondary or negative (think gender specific career fields, writing styles and literature, sports).

Heidi said...

That's funny, Kim -- James has always been very into typical "boy" things, but Evan is as likely to play with a baby doll as a car or truck (and he was totally in love with a real live baby at the library today). So while I agree that parental encouragement can make a difference, I do think some of these preferences are innate -- but not necessarily tied to gender, as my boys nicely demonstrate.

I love having two boys with very different personalities -- it gives me a good perspective on gender issues like this. If certain things are "boy" things, then in almost every example, one of my children is not a boy. Yet the fact that they are both boys would indicate that the assumption of gender-determined preferences is what's faulty here.

Anonymous said...

Not many women would be attracted to a man who wears "dingdongs" in his ponytail on tht top of his head, while wearing red nail polish on his fingers...and toes that are sticking out from under his skirt.
Your post regarding your son may be proof to what many say that being gay is not a choice. It is thought that people are gay at birth, no choice. Reading your post, I have to wonder if it will be his, or yours.

Anonymous said...

another brilliant post. i Love that you're raising your son like this. he'll grow up to be a much more open and tolerant person than many of the kids raised in a strict gender roles environment.

just a little thought that i had - then you've got skirts (or kilts, alright) in scotland being a thing of pride. ridiculous, indeed! and just yesterday i watched this documentary on albania, there was a lot of talk about blood vendetta.. anyway, they mentioned a woman who now lives as a man (if i got it right, she is a sworn virgin and chose to become a man because that was the only way for her to survive) and is treated with respect. the rules made up by different societies really puzzle me sometimes. and the freedom they (attempt to) take away.
love you,