Category Archives: gender stereotypes

Race Matters; or, the Judge, the Professor, and the Doctor

These are interesting times.

Judge Sonia Sotomayor has been taken to task for stating, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”  Her word choice is poor, but her point is that her ethnicity and gender carry with them a wealth of experience simply unavailable to a white man.

Can race, gender, or ethnicity be instructive?  Well, let’s examine the evidence.

In a recent moment of almost perfect poetic symbolism, the fine officers of Cambridge, Massachusetts, racially profiled one of the finest minds in Af-Am scholarship, a man who has been instrumental in creating a space in which the uniqueness of black experiences and voices is honored.  Well, now he sure as hell has had an edifying experience as a black American male that is not available to the white population.  Having been an academic long enough to know how their minds work, one of my first thoughts upon reading of Gates’s arrest was, “Wow.  Think of the article he’ll write after this one.”

Don’t get me wrong – I think the man is a genius regardless of race. But, his experiences as an African-American have shaped him into the type of scholar he is.  And, I’d be shocked if this latest experience doesn’t further shape his academic work.

And then we have Regina Benjamin, the nominee for Surgeon General, who is being criticized as too fat for the job.  Now, setting aside my immediate reaction of “Are you fucking kidding me?” for a moment, I do see the point that we need role models for good health.  However, a couple of photos of a plus-sized woman do not by any stretch of the imagination demonstrate that she is not a good doctor or role model.  Show me a grocery receipt with $78 of Twinkees on it and then we can talk about poor health choices.  For all I know Dr. Benjamin eats well and exercises regularly and would weigh a helluvalot more if she didn’t.  Last I checked, people come with different body types.

Oh-ho-ho-ho, isn’t it fun to characterize black women as lazy, stupid slobs who can’t be bothered to walk their empty tub of KFC X-tra Crispy to the trash can?  It’s uncool to call black women “Welfare Queens” nowadays, but calling them too fat and unhealthy to be good doctors is every bit as much about race and gender.

I don’t know Thing One about how it feels to be discriminated against for being fat, female, and black, but Regina Benjamin sure does.  I suspect that experience will serve her well as she tries to educate Americans on their health choices.

Does race, gender, and ethnicity qualify someone for a job?  Of course not.  Does being black or Latina in American make a person necessarily wiser or smarter than someone who is white and male?  Not last I checked?  Does it provide a library of experience from which to draw?  Absolutely.  To pretend otherwise, to try to simply ignore racial and gender identity, is to attempt to marginalize minorities by erasing the very bodies on which American society has been writing far more negative stereotypes for centuries.

The feminists’ son

            Usually, I am into excessive narrative, but this conversation really requires no commentary.  It took place as I pushed three-and-three-quarters Zachary in the stroller home from the birthday party of a classmate.  Benjamin was home with a sitter, and I was starting to feel that third trimester creeping up on me.

Zach: It’s really hard being a boy.  I don’t want to be a boy and a man.  I want to be a girl or a woman.

Me: Why, sweetie?

Zach: I don’t want to have to work in an office.  I want to work at home.

Me (putting the break on the stroller and getting down to eye level): Zachary, lots of women work in offices.  E’s mother works in an office.

Zach: But you don’t.

Me: I used to.  We’re really lucky I can be home with you.

Zach: Was it before I was born?

Me: Yes, it was.  We’re really lucky that we can have me home working and with you and Benjamin.  But, baby, lots of mothers work.  C’s mother works in an office.

            Oh, sweet petunias, what are we teaching our boy?

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Updated to add: He was referring, I think, to the non-Mommy work I do: the writing.  He simply sees that as easier or more pleasant.  But, I worry even more for what he seems to be inferring about the quality of his father’s life.  Does he seem that unhappy to him?

Seems this week has a theme

This is for all of you who have so thoughtfully commented this week, and specifically for Sara, whose son feels the same way.  By the way, Sara, tomorrow is pajama day at school.  I know what your child would be wearing.

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            After journeying with Peter Pan and screaming with Mr. Toad, it was time to fly with Dumbo, a ride that is non-threatening both because it involves pastel elephants and because the kids can tell from the outside exactly what they are in for.  Even though we were one of the last families to load, Zachary managed to score a pink elephant with his father, while Benjamin and I giggled just in front in a lovely purple pachyderm.

            Afterwards, the verdict was split: one child wanted the merry-go-round, the other the roller coaster.  We compromised and Zachary went to pee while his brother squealed “PONY!” for the entire length of the carousel ride.  And, because lines were mysteriously short, even for off-season, Zach and I managed to slip onto the teacups before Ben and J caught up with us.

            I get uncomfortably dizzy even when I am not pregnant, so suffice it to say our teacup was one of the more gently spinning ones.  “From now on,” I declared upon our exit, “the teacups are a Daddy ride.”  I went to recover in line for a boat ride through miniature storybook land, a line that moved so quickly that J and the boys almost didn’t manage to get to the front to join me before I boarded.

            And then, Zach got his long-awaited roller coaster, if you can really call the little acorn ride in Mickey’s Toontown a roller coaster.  Benjamin and I, meanwhile, went out to stalk Minnie Mouse.  He had hugged her on the last visit and was completely smitten.  Sadly, all we managed was second-runner-up Mickey, but the toddler was pretty much cooked by this point.  It was time to take the train to Frontierland, sit in the air conditioning with baskets of chicken fingers (while Zachary gingerly lunched on apple slices), and listen to a fantastic banjo show in the Golden Horseshoe. 

            It had been a hell of a morning in Disneyland.  And, because we like to spoil ourselves our children, we stopped off for ice cream on Main Street.  By now, everyone’s goose was totally fried, and we decided to pick up the promised mouse ears on our way to the exit, giving the kids a chance to sleep it off in the car before a rousing game of “visit prospective houses” in the afternoon.

            And that’s how we ended up in a store, Zachary trying on ears while I chased his little brother.  Then, Benjamin stopped in his tracks.  There, in front of him, were rows and rows of stuffed animals.  Mickey Mouse stuffed animals, to be precise.  He grabbed one and clutched it.  “Mi-Mouse!” 

            I sighed.  We want less crap, not more.  We are trying to minimize our impact on the planet by buying only things we really will use, and the ears themselves were enough of a compromise for the day.  But, I also know when I am beaten.   “Go show it to Daddy,” I told him, and Benjamin ran off.  It was clear we would either be buying the animal or surgically removing it from his grasp.  And, because we did not want to deal with the tantrum were trying to be fair, I pulled a pink Mickey bracelet off the shelf for Zachary, whose entire face lit up when we handed it to him. 

            Now, appropriately product-laden, we headed across the street to the right place for ears, the Mad Hatter’s shop.  “Which color do you want?” I asked Zachary, using my ever-widening body to block the sparkly pink ears with a bow.  He scanned about, looking over the rainbow of ears, seeking the color we all knew he would choose.

            “Pink,” he declared, and I subtly guided him to the plain pink ears that were much less likely to occasion teasing among his peers.  While we have long grown used to his monochromania, we try to help him find the pinks that are less ostentatious.  He does not want girly things; he wants pink things.  He just cannot tell the difference, and we have tried to shield him from the stereotype that boys don’t wear pink.  We prefer he not even know that there are pig-heads out there who believe that only girls can like such lovely colors.  Frankly, however, it is hard to find a whole lot of manly pink shorts.  We guide the process so he can be handsome in pink.

            I asked the saleslady for help fitting the proper ears.  “He’d like these pink ones,” I said.

            “Boys can wear pink, you know,” he declared, and inside I suddenly felt like lettuce that has unexpectedly found itself left out in the hot sun.  He knew, then.  He knew the stereotype well enough to take a preemptive strike against it.  Had people said things to him?  At three-and-a-half, were they already trying to take away his joy and his favorite color?  And was he already having to defend his individuality?

            We bought the ears: pink for him and red for his brother (he looks beautiful in red), and made a serendipitous Minnie-sighting as we headed for the exit.  Two hugs and one picture later, we were finally out the gate, Benjamin in the stroller and Zachary perched on J’s shoulders, pink ears, pink shorts, and pink bracelet gleaming in the sun.

            And that’s when I heard it.  A girl behind me, older than my children but still young enough to sound like a child.  “Do you see that boy?  He’s a boy and he’s wearing pink.”

            I wanted to spin around, confront her parents for allowing her to sink into the mud of gender stereotypes, point out that my son loves trains and busses and building along with stickers and coloring and cranes and construction sites and flowers.  But that would be playing right into the bigotry that is so inherent in our society that a preschooler cannot dress how he chooses without feeling the need to defend himself.

            And so, without even turning around, I shot back, “Boys can like pink.”  At least he knows I am defending right alongside him.

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I promise tomorrow’s post is not about gender!  But it is an important one, so please do stop by.

Not into yoga?

Check out the other Hump Day Hmms on walking out of stride.

            “We’ll find out the sex on Tuesday,” I replied, as we stood around outside Buca de Beppo’s with a collection of J’s relatives.  It was a graduation, an event made all the sweeter because the graduate in question has a child of her own in college. 

            “Can you say ‘gender’ instead?  ‘We’ll find out the gender of the baby.’”  Jane is, after all, twelve, and made somewhat uncomfortable by the word “sex,” just as the turquoise David reproduction in the restaurant had made her squirm.

            “But we won’t find out the gender of the baby,” I told her.  “We’ll find out the sex.  Sex is biological, gender is socially constructed.  You cannot know the gender of a baby before it is even born.”

            As the child looked confused, her father half-joked, “Where did you learn that crap?” 

            “Actually, I have a Ph.D. in that crap,” I told him, smiling.

            To be totally honest, my degree is in literature, but you haven’t been able to get near an English department in the last 20 years without tripping over gender theory, queer theory, and a few other types of identity theory.  I believed much of what I believe before ever setting foot into the hallowed Greenlaw Hall in the fall of 1999, but my studies have given order to my beliefs and names to the abstract concepts I somehow felt were true.

            I do believe that there are differences between the sexes.  Our bodies are constructed differently, even down to the eyeballs.  Apparently, girls see more color and texture, while boys on the whole see more motion.  That, right there, sets us up for some divergence.  I do not claim the sexes are the same, and I honor those differences, understanding for example that puberty comes at different times and treats the two sexes very differently.

            Gender is the social construct we build up around sex.  So, while a need to pee in a different position is sex-based, clothing is man-made and therefore a gendered construct.  Toys, makeup, cars, earrings, trains, footballs, and tea sets are all man-made, constructed out of our imaginations.  And, along with the price tag, they seem to come stamped with a gender.  But, make no mistake, if we make the item, we make the gender association that comes with it.

            Judith Butler proves that gender is an imitation of an imitation of an imitation.  Most of the things we ascribe to sex differences are actually gender differences.  In other words, “girls are just like that” is usually correct because the girl is imitating another female who learned her gender in a similar kind of imitation.  Gender is nothing more than an echo in an empty room.

             That is not to say I do not myself follow gender norms.  Hey, I grew up in society, too, you know.  But, I do not feel comfortable forcing arbitrary gender stereotypes on children.  They will hear that echo soon enough. 

             Gender has its place and can make life interesting.  I get that.  What I don’t get is why we need such strict gender lines.  Why can’t we accept gender as fluid?  (“We” in this case refers to the straight community, because the gay community has been much better about allowing for a wide variety of gender expressions.) Why can’t a person identify as male, even macho, but still wear skirts because he finds them pretty?  Why can’t a person identify as female but be a football fan?  Why do these behaviors get marked as odd or deviant?

             We gender our children from the moment we know their sex, and some of that is unavoidable.  Language, as a social construct, has much more to do with gender than sex, so as soon as we refer to a fetus as “he” or “she,” we are gendering.  The names we choose gender, as well.  No one ever went to a Peter, Paul, and Mary concert and got confused about which one was Mary.  Names are the first rafter over which people build their identities, and the names we choose signal a lot about what we want for our children, including their gender identities.  If the sex is male, we choose a male name in hopes the child will also gender identify that way.

             But we do not have to build the child’s entire gender identity before it is even born.  We do not have to assume colors, clothes, toys, hobbies, and traits just because that’s the picture we have in our heads.

              So, yesterday, at the ultrasound, I learned many things.  I learned that this baby has all the right numbers of lobes and ventricles.  I learned that it plans on being as much of a pain in the ass as its brothers when it steadfastly refused to turn its head so the technician could check for cleft lip.  I learned that it is about as modest about its genitalia as are its brothers, because usually the technician cannot say for sure if it is a girl, but this time she was pretty damned sure. 

              What I did not learn was what the technician-in-training said, which is that I will be spending a lot of time shopping.  I have no idea if my daughter will like shopping.  If she takes after me, she’ll hate it.  If she takes after her father, there will be no getting her out of the mall.  I did not learn what she will want to play with; I did not learn how she will want to dress; I did not learn whether she will be prom queen or a quarterback; I did not learn who she will marry.  And I have no idea how she will feel about pina coladas and walks in the rain.

              I learned her sex.  Her gender will take a few more years to figure itself out.

Blue Satin Sashes

            Today is our anniversary.  Seven years ago today, I married the only other person I could imagine putting up with on a daily basis.  Of course, at the time, I had no idea I would rarely actually see him on a daily basis.  I had no idea that our careers would go the way they have, that our lives would bend sideways and my intense career focus would get sidelined for his growing ambitions.  We had no inkling that I would end up home with children while he spent nights in hotels.

            What we did know was that we wanted two children.  We had no idea how complicated accomplishing said children would be or the strength our relationship would need to survive fertility treatment in the face of constant absences from one another.  Nor did we quite gather the strain the compromises of life would put on us.  But we did know we were best friends and that we could do it together.

            And, did I mention we knew we wanted two children?  Well, four months ago, J was obviously home for a few minutes, because now it appears we are having a third child.  And today, on our anniversary, I will be going in for the ultrasound.

            J has never made one of these little appointments.  I go on my own and call him from the car.  “Yes, the baby looks healthy… No, there is no cleft-palate… Yes, it’s a boy.”  I don’t really care that he misses the ultrasounds.  We both feel that it is more important that he be there after the birth, and, amazingly, despite his absurd work life, he really is.  Our sons are strongly attached to him, and they see him a lot more than they really ought to, given the call of his work.  There are fallow stretches, times when work lets up and he is home every night for bath.  There are weekends and there are holidays (although he is yet again cutting a three-day weekend short to travel next week).  And we both agree that the top priority is family time.

            We agree on a lot about parenting, J and I.  We agree that kids need structure and routine.  We agree that we need to say “no” to useless crap and “yes” to books.  We agree that education is the most important investment we can make.

            And, we agree that dresses are not necessary for little girls.  Although J has less of an objection than I do, we are in agreement that if this one turns out to defy the odds and confirm her brother’s suspicions, she will operate under the same policy as her brothers: you get a dress when you are old enough to ask for one.  In the meantime, they are a hindrance to crawling and climbing, and we will return any we get as gifts.

            I know I am in the minority on this one, and even my husband feels it much less passionately than I do.  But I maintain that the only reason to put a little girl in a dress is to gender her.  We all know they are much less convenient to the business of childhood, and I know no grown woman who would go rock climbing in tights and a dress, yet we expect little girls to climb the jungle gym in just such attire.  Sure, when she is two or three, she may begin requesting dresses, and then I will be happy to oblige, just as I was with her older brother’s clothing requests. 

            In the meantime, girl or boy, this child will play with cars, dolls, trucks, stuffed animals, musical instruments, and, it goes without saying in our house, trains.  We will read books about two princes who fall in love and caterpillars who eat chocolate cake.  And, the kid will wear pants, because a girl spends 90 some years of her life conforming to gender standards and she deserves two years off at the start.

            Today, I will call J to wish him happy anniversary and hopefully to tell him that the baby looks healthy (touch wood).  I also will let him know whether we need to figure out another boy name, because we do tend to conform to gender standards when it comes to names, hypocrites that we are.  And, four months from now, we will get a chance to learn whether this particular event actually plays out the way we expected it to or whether, like everything else, we can only predict our lives so much.

My dude

I have been commenting a bit less on blogs these days.  I am still reading, I promise, but y’all are writing an awful lot and if I commented on all those posts, well, I’d never see my kids.  And then what would I write about?

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           Benjamin, as I have mentioned before, is strongly anti-mitten.  Mittens, in his opinion, are designed for the sole purpose of restricting his tactile involvement with the world.  He has, however, lately softened his approach, demonstrating a willingness to wear gloves, at least, on what I refer to as “Bronte Days” here in London.  (These are the days I picture meeting Heathcliff on the moors in winds so fierce they could shear your nipples right off.)

             He seems to have recognized that my efforts to encourage mitten-usage are maternal concern, not maniacal, controlling, and creative attempts at torturing him.  He does not always consent to wear the gloves, but he has become less offended by the mere suggestion.

            So it was that, one recent weekend afternoon, we went out for a walk and I tucked his gloves into my pocket.  Our “walks” lately do not get very far.  Zach is on his scooter, but he gets awfully frustrated, because Benjamin is moving on his own agenda.  Pushing the doll’s carriage.  We make quite a sight on the streets of Southwest London, where gender stereotypes for babies and toddlers are all the rage.  Ben is very tall for his age and all torso, built like a brick outhouse with limbs, and he is also the only eighteen-month-old boy in a two mile radius to be seen plodding down the road behind his baby.  If the doll slumps over, he stops, looks at me, and says “baby,” while attempting to straighten it up.  He refuses to proceed until his progeny is comfortable once again.  Sometimes, he ditches the stroller and carries the doll instead.  He’s a new-age kind of parent, and he has taken a page from William and Martha Sears.  He is all about baby-wearing.

            It surprises me how many smiles he gets, how many people actually comment on how cute it is.  This is a neighborhood where little girls wear dresses every single day in the summer and many days in the winter, even just to climb the monkey bars at the playground.  When Zach wanted pink shorts, it was very hard to find them, because the boys don’t wear pink and the girls don’t wear shorts.  Since ours is the house where once-upon-a-time Zachary breastfed his panda bear, a pink doll’s house rises up between the large bin of vehicles and the toy farm, and it is a toss-up whether the play kitchen or the train set is the favorite plaything, we often stand out in a society that embraces gender stereotypes so fully.  Yet, people love to see my little guy charging down the street, stopping now and then to kiss his baby doll.

            Zachary can only wait patiently though so much of this, and on the day in question, when Benjamin stopped two doors away from our house to pull out his baby and carry it the rest of the way, his older brother scooted on ahead and knocked for his father to let him in.  Ben, however, had more immediate concerns.  He held his baby.  He examined its little hands.  He looked up at me.

            “Baby,” he said.  “Cole.” 

            “The baby is cold?” I asked.

            “Baby… cole… mitten.”  He looked up, brown eyes wide and serious, as he gently fingered the bare doll hands.  “Baby… baby… cole… mitten… baby… cole.”

            “You want to put mittens on the baby?”

            Ben learned the word “no” long ago.  “Yes” is a different story.  Instead of saying it, his whole face acts it out, lighting up with a mischievous smile and enthusiastic head-nodding, often accompanied by a full-throttle laugh.  And so it was that, ten feet from our front door, we found ourselves pulling out the gloves I had brought along, just in case my baby needed them, and fitting them onto his baby’s little hands, instead.