Updated: May 1
Maybe don’t read this is you’re really into traditional gender roles.
The more I learn about the ways in which we socialize children to perform gender, the more I find the whole concept of binary gender identification disturbing and useless.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve found it disturbing since I was a child. I felt like it was unfair and stupid that there was a set of expectations for boys, and completely different one for girls. I experienced these separate expectations as oppressive and infuriating, because the expectation for “girl” didn’t suit me– I wanted to run and jump and yell and make messes and boss everyone around, and I didn’t like it when my personality and behavior drew surprise or disappointment, just because I was a girl.
I suspect a little boy might find his gender expectations just as oppressive and heartbreaking, especially if he wanted to play with dolls and put on shows and be cuddled and write poetry and cry.
These socially constructed binary gender expectations obviously work for and suit some kids, or they wouldn’t exist. I get that. I just question if there’s any benefit to us continuing to sort, identify, and condition kids according to gender.
When I talk about how those traditional (binary) gender roles are archaic, oppressive, limiting, and useless, I am often met with huge amounts of resistance and irritation. Who do I think I am, deconstructing thousands of years of perfectly tailored gender roles?? These gender roles exist for a reason!!! Biology!! Preference!! Stop being so difficult and just relax!!
It’s fascinating to me how upset it makes people to imagine a world in which gender wasn’t the defining characteristic of someone’s life.
These people tend to throw around words like “biology” to back up their arguments here, despite not actually knowing what that means or being able to back up their claims. (I highly recommend reading the book Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference to see what the actual science of gender shows.)
But I’m not talking about the biological differences between men and women today. I’m talking about the performance of gender that we currently socialize children to identify with, express, and embody.
Think of it like this: fathers who teach their boys “how to be men” isn’t biology. Parents who teach a child to be a “good girl” isn’t biology. That’s teaching a gender performance, based on cultural values and expectations about masculinity and femininity, beliefs about what being male or female means, and separate expectations for how each gender should behave.
Learning how to be a good boy or girl is about learning what type of gender performance is expected of you, and learning how to be a good man or woman is about learning how to succeed within the bounds of that gender role.
Part of the reason I care so deeply about gender roles is because due to living in a patriarchy, the messaging we get disadvantages girls and women, while advantaging boys and men. It’s about far more than just assuming boys will like trucks and girls will like cars– if that’s as far as gender performance conditioning went, I wouldn’t have any complaints.
But alas, gender roles and gendered performance conditioning is constantly disadvantaging and shortchanging girls.
For example, we put little boys in practical clothing, with pockets and pragmatic waistbands, while we put little girls in frilly dresses and rompers with no pockets and bunch of layers of frill or decoration. Is this biology? LOL NO. Baby girls are not biologically wired to want to look cute, my friends.
To the detriment of her mobility or access to adventure, we prioritize our own pleasure from looking at a cute baby girl over her experience of being comfortable and free. In so doing, we teach her that what she looks like to us is more important than her own experience. And if she has a brother or playmate around, it won’t go unnoticed by any of them that he is dressed for his own experience and adventure, unhindered, and that nobody seems to care what he looks like.
You might think “good lord Jessi, it’s just harmless fun to dress her up, relax!”
That’s fine. We can agree to disagree, because I work with women every single day who are trying to claw their way out of body hatred and feeling as if their sole source of value to the world is how they look, and I see that we are fighting against a goddamn tidal wave of social conditioning which starts with every little detail– dressing her up, gendered tv shows, gendered toys, teaching her that her virginity is a prize, praising her for being “good” (aka resisting her impulses and wild nature), and expecting her to be nice, pleasant, friendly, helpful, likable, and nurturing.
Think about how you dress now, and the many uncomfortable and impractical ways in which you prioritize the pleasure of others looking at you over your own comfort and freedom.
Spanx, high heels, sticky mascara, tight dresses, pants with no pockets so we have to carry a separate bag, push up bras or just bras in general, the list goes on and on.
But my desire to abolish gender roles isn’t just about girls and women. Men are committing suicide at disproportionate rates compared to women, they’re suffering from loneliness and isolation in their older years due to not learning how to intimately connect with others, and they’re dying at far younger ages.
Men are taught to hide their feelings and any signs of weakness or femininity, and it damages them deeply. They struggle to connect, communicate, feel their feelings, be soft, relax, enjoy sensuality, or partake in anything deemed too feminine or gay like dancing, reading, and the pleasure of prostate stimulation!
When my nephew was three years old, I brought him a tiny face-mist spray bottle that I never used, thinking he might enjoy playing with it, and was surprised when he seemed hesitant and suspicious. I showed him what it did, pushing down the button and misted myself in the face, which made him laugh, but then he got really serious and asked “is it for girls though? Or is it for boys too?”
He was three, and he had already learned that even if something looks fun, it would be an inexcusable faux pas to play with something made for girls. (For the record once I assured him it was for everyone, he ran around spraying stuff and had a great time.)
Conditioned binary gender roles shortchange boys and men too.
The fact that this kid was willing to forego playing with something he ended up loving isn’t biology. It represents the way we teach children to identify with and perform their gender. We say: this is for people like you, and that is for people like them.
Recently I went to dinner with a male friend who has done a lot of work to explore and dismantle his own gender performance, after noticing the many ways he was taught men should act, which didn’t serve his best interests or full expression of self.
Before we left, he checked the temperature and grabbed a heavy-ish coat. I was just wearing a sweater, and I laughed. When he asked why I was laughing, I said it’s because I’m not used to men dressing more warmly than me!
He laughed too, and said that admitting to getting cold (and dressing to prevent it) is something he didn’t used to do, because it didn’t seem “masculine enough.”
Stories like this might seem trivial, but in truth there is so much damage done when we teach kids to fit themselves into one of two binary gender roles– not to mention the untold trauma inflicted upon intersex, transgender, and non-binary individuals who are taught that there is no place in our society for them.
Fun fact: did you know that being born intersex (ie with a combination of internal and external reproductive organs which doesn’t quite fall under “male” or “female”) is as common as being born redhead?
When I think about gender performance, I can’t help but wonder– is there any benefit to teaching children to identify with and perform a binary-based gender performance? Is there any benefit to performing or upholding these roles and performances as adults?
I mean, really. I can’t think of a single benefit, but I could write a goddamn book on the drawbacks.
So why the hell do we still do it and teach it? Why do we think it’s so important to uphold the idea that gender is a binary, to be sure we can distinguish the genders from each other, and to establish gender as the most important factor in a child’s whole identity?
Why does it bring up soooo much anger and resistance to suggest that maybe gender isn’t binary, and that maybe we don’t need gender roles at all?
My ultimate fantasy is a culture in which we don’t identify gender as an interesting or important factor of a person’s identity; don’t sort or label kids according to gender, don’t have gendered toys or clothes or activities, and don’t ever talk about gender at all because there are no gender roles, expectations, or performance cues attached to make the topic meaningful.
Since that’s not gonna happen in my lifetime however, I’d settle for a world in which there were tons of gender options, all of them were given equal respect and exposure and opportunity, and none of them were based on a baby’s genitals.
I’m curious though. Do you see a benefit to teaching and performing differentiated gender roles? Do you see a benefit to upholding the gender binary?
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