This past week there’s been a lot of attention and discussion around the idea of gender, particularly on the topic of raising a gender neutral child.
This attention has spiralled from five year old Sasha Laxton, whose parents refused to disclose his sex in an effort to raise him as gender neutral and avoid stereotyping. What a grand attempt to free a child from a culture that insists gender is an expression of self.
Individual gender identification is not only on trend, it’s a theoretical development that could change the way we perform socially stylised actions of masculinity and femininity and it’s another step forward, changing the way we perceive gender.
In western society, from the day that you’re born, it is instantly assumed that your gender is synonymous with who you are. It’s tantamount to your sex and is considered an innate, biological reaction. From the second we yelp from the womb our sex is called out and the pink or blue paraphernalia swiftly follows. From the toys we played with as a child, to the mass media we gorged in our adolescence. This delineation of gender is in the films we watch and the fashions we adhere to.
MAN = HANDSOME, BRUTE, HUNK, BUTCH, STRONG, ACTIVE, POWER, DICK
WOMAN = ELEGANT, FRAGILE, BEAUTIFUL, PASSIVE, VAGINA, PINK, DEMURE, DOLL
It goes without saying that the avant garde, the feminists and the mavericks of this world have challenged these assumptions for years. Particularly great writers like Angela Carter, whose illuminating short stories in The Bloody Chamber provide an interesting case study for the assessment of gender as performative. Extracting the latent content from the fairy tales we read as children, she MIMICS, DISLOCATES and CREATES new ideas about The Masculine and The Feminine. Although criticised for never being able to fantasise Cinderella into bed with the fairy godmother, Carter uses the very tales we learned from as children and forces us to question our assumed knowledge and understanding of our own performance.
Gender is a role we play whilst standing on a stage: surrounded by garish mirrors that reflect the masculine male and the feminine female back onto us. Gender is a culturally inscribed spectacle and the idea that masculinity is a male trait and femininity a female one is being collapsed. This questioning and attack on the archetypal stereotypes of men and women provides space to consider the societal pressure for these irrefutable binaries of gender. Is this act by Sasha Laxton’s parents an act of kindness or a short fall into a world of psychological confusion and schoolyard bullying?
If we ingest the words of theorists like Judith Butler and Joan Riviere who view the body as a site for performativity, we scratch beneath the surface and start to uncover something new. We start to question, and cultural questioning is the apex for the beginning of change.
Is it a fantasy, or a fragment of your imagination? Look at yourself in the mirror. Do your movements and mannerisms mirror your inner soul, your deepest individualities –your very uniqueness? Or, are you reproducing, imitating these modes of being from the culture that surrounds and imposes on you.
With the likes of Andrej Pejic and gender subverting experimentation in the iconography of the counter culture, you must admit, there is something very interesting happening. So then we must consider that Sasha Laxton, aged 5, may well be one of the privileged minorities.
“The presumption of a binary gender system implicitly retains the belief in a mimetic relation of gender to sex whereby genders mirrors sex or is otherwise restricted by it” – Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity
“Women who wish for masculinity may put on a mask of womanliness to avert anxiety and the retribution feared from men” – Joan Riviere, Womanliness and Masquerade in Psychoanalysis and Female Sexuality
“The conception of womanliness as a mask, behind which man suspects some hidden danger, throws a little light on the enigma” – Joan Riviere, Womanliness and Masquerade in Psychoanalysis and Female Sexuality
“A women’s sexuality is more complex because a girl has to change her erotogenic zone and her object- both of which a boy retains. A girl has to both, transfer her love from one parent to another and relocate her locus of pleasure from the clitoris, or ‘small penis,’ to the vagina” – Sigmund Freud, Femininity in Psychoanalysis and Gender: An Introductory Reader
“It’s not the concept of rearing allegedly gender-neutral children that causes affront – it’s fear of those who have the courage (and liberty) not to conform” – Yvonne Roberts, Observer
“Gender is socially constructed and learned behaviour that society considers appropriate – a set of rules laid down to benefit males and keep females in our place” – Julie Bindel, Independent
Nice, but idealist argument. You’ve not really addressed the impossibility of raising a child gender-neutral: there is no way for the parents not to know if the child is male or female, and once they have this knowledge they will automatically, subconsciously, apply this knowledge in the raising of the child. How can you treat a child as ‘neutral’ when you know their sex? We all have deeply ingrained behaviours associated with sex that, yes, may be societal constructs, but you can’t eliminate them just because you say you have- it would take generations. And they can only avoid it to their own extent as long as the child doesn’t encounter other people who aren’t attempting to ignore these things- impossible. All they will really achieve (having talked at length to a psychoanalyst about this) is one messed-up kid.
My argument doesn’t say – brilliant, there we are – let’s all go and indulge in individual gender identification. I tell you what, I’ll cut my hair off and sit with my legs open and Dave, you put a dress on and tell people you like pink.
It’s not idealist. It’s a theoretical critique on why one would want to raise a gender neutral child. Using theories on gender, I’ve explained its role in creating these socially stylised actions.
I have also made no reference whatsoever to completely eliminating gender role play, I agree it would take generations. I am simply saying that the iconography of gender in mass media is progressing past these male/masculine female/feminine binaries. People are starting to accept and exemplify that their gender is their choice. This may be one little boy, but the increasing attempts to raise gender neutral children, be it in many different shapes and forms is the start of an interesting and exciting change.
Couldn’t agree with you more Abbie. It’s a shame that sex is defined in human’s instead of being of choice as certain reptiles are allowed. Were it a choice, society, and the individual, would have fewer pressures to conform to stereotypes at an early age. Granted surgical procedures allow individuals to appear as their determined gender, this unfortunately does not extend to reproductive capabilities. Interesting question, whom do you think society would be tougher on, a crop topped girl wearing overalls and sitting with with her legs apart or a male in pink dress wearing lipstick?
Why should we need or want anyone to be gender neutral? Males and Females are biologically different creatures. As long as someone’s gender doesn’t place a limit on their liberties, and it is their ability that separates them, then as far as I see it there isn’t much to worry about.
Gender stereotypes seem more placed in commercialism than anything else.
I found this a truely interesting read, having gone to school and still having a close friend who is transgendered, not sterotyping the way they were supposed to feel/behave based on their genitalia from birth would have actually saved them from being “messed up” when they discovered for themselves who they were and wanted to be.