Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Boy oh boy

   We went to the playground at the mall last night--a godawful, consumerist place to put a playground, I admit, but the only place to play indoors on a summer night in the desert--and I love meeting the other kids and parents. I was watching two little boys, about five or six, and liking them because they were gentle with Little Bug, sweet and friendly. Then I saw them hold hands out of their sheer enjoyment of each other, and one stroked the other gently on the arm. My heart lurched for them, as I looked around for the dad or the bigger boy who would beat them up. Nothing happened, but I learned something from my fear. Even--or I think especially--for little boys, masculinity precludes showing affection for each other. In fact, I thought as I watched them, this is why boys learn to hit each other--the only way they can legitimately touch each other is if it's shrouded in roughness.
   I find myself surprised at how much I want to shield Little Bug from the expectations of early childhood's version of masculinity. I remember the time Jennifer came home from looking all over town for a dress-up party outfit for Bug, and reported that there were endless opportunities to put him in camouflage, but almost nothing else. "Apparently little girls go to parties, and little boys go to war." I don't want him to go to war, especially not at nine months.
    One time we were talking with a developmental specialist about how our Little Bug was doing, and we told a favorite story about how he was. He was visiting his cousin, and he took his cousin's piano and investigated it fiercely--threw himself at it, flipped it over, gave it a bear hug. His cousin watched the entire proceeding with growing alarm, and finally his mom said, "Hey, little guy, do you want to show Bug how you play with it?" And his cousin crawled over, and using one finger, showed him how to plink a  key. We laughed as we told this, and the developmental specialist said, admiringly, "Yes, Little Bug is all boy." I wanted to say, as opposed to what? They're both boys, one bold, one mild in this particular interaction; the next time Little Bug is afraid, or gentle, or loving, will you say he is less a boy?
   In the rest of my life, gender has grown more complicated. Women who work out can show off their muscles (like Little Bug's tia in the picture)--female masculinity is no longer terrifying or subject to pop Freudianism, whether the women in question are lesbians or not. The men I ride bikes with worry out loud about whether they are fat. Transgender folks, especially youth, seem to challenge binary notions of gender without even fairly conventional folk getting too bent out of shape, at least in the southwestern city where we live. When I lift weights at the gym, it's still pretty much a boy space, and I get to overhear all sorts of fascinating conversations. Like the butch boy student who worried out loud to his friend about whether a young woman he met at a party had given him a wrong number on purpose or by accident, all vulnerable and hurt, and his friend asked him if had asked his mother what she thought. Some college students describe their gender as always needing enunciation ("my name is Chris and I identify as male.") Men I know embrace the concept of metrosexual, and have discovered that wearing flower prints and carrying a man-bag is a sure-fire way to pick up women.
   But in the pink and blue world of early childhood, it's still frighteningly about boys growing into the most caricatured versions of men. A whole slew of books--The Dangerous Book for Boys, Raising Cain, The Trouble with Boys--sell us a complex mixture of how young masculinity can be toxic and cruel together with an insistence that boys are completely different from girls. If I talk about how Little Bug likes to look at books again, apparently having reached an end, for now, of his perpetual motion phase, folks tell me that this is unusual for a boy. As good consumers of this literature of boyhood, we seem sold on the idea that boys can't accomplish the literary and attention-based tasks of childhood. Boys naturally play with guns (even in the historical period before there were guns? I want to ask), run wild, struggle to learn to read, and need frequent recess; girls are verbal, relational, and settle down easily. Despite all the good feminist scientific work debunking it, the difference between boys and girls turns out (surprise, surprise) to be all about brain structure.
   The thing I worry about, even beyond what we are doing to boys and girls, is that we are smuggling back into the wider culture really fixed notions of the relationship of male and female to masculinity and femininity. How, after all, are these youngsters who are so rigidly masculine or feminine supposed to grow up into the metrosexual men, the queers, the strong, jocky women, the gender-bending intellectuals and transgender folk I know as adults? When I was young (when I was a boy, as Dar Williams says in her song of that title) in the 1970s, movies and television featuring the likes of Kristy McNichols, Tatum O'Neal, and Jodie Foster, together with the flowering of a Free to Be You and Me feminism made it clear that  girls and sometimes boys fit really badly into the gendered expectations the culture had for them, and that there was something wild and fun about that. Despite the anxiety about homosexuality that lurked behind all this (remember that in Free to Be, it turns out that William wants a doll so he can be a heterosexual daddy some day), boys and girls had more space forty years ago to be complexly gendered, at least until they hit adolescence.
  I want better for Little Bug than camouflage and the expectation that he will hit people and struggle to learn to read on schedule. I want better for all our boys, and girls, than the belief that we know what's important about them from the minute we identify their genitals on an ultrasound. True story: when Jennifer got the 20-week ultrasound, the tech said: "There it is! We know the gender! He's a boy!" Jennifer replied, without missing a beat: "We know the sex. We won't know his gender for a long time." As the tech retreated into puzzled silence, I thought, yes, exactly. Let's hope gender is something he can feel safe to live out in complicated ways throughout his life.


  1. so ever since I remember, my mother tells me the story of how back then when they could not identify the sex of the fetus w/ ultra sound devices - when I was in womb- they listened to my heartbeat and based on the number of my heartbeats and some other (clearly pseudo-scientific) methods predicted my sex to be mother was so surprised when I was born with female genitals.
    Then, as years went by, I heard over and over again from both men and women about how I act like a boy and carry myself in a "masculine" way (what is that anyway?) and how I "emasculate" men!!! it took me such a long time to claim my gender, which from where I stand, is a perfect fit of masculine and feminine for me-
    it took me such a long time to come out and identify as a queer woman and it may take me forever to explain to puzzled people that I can be queer and have a partner who identifies as male…
    but you know all of these I feel like I can handle…
    what I have a hard time handling is how to react when people impose their perception of sexuality and gender on my daughter…
    I cannot tell you how many times people have told me- “oh what a cute little boy”
    When she was younger (non-verbal) I just would not point out otherwise…Now if they hang around for a moment she will say: “ I am a big girl!” and that ‘s that for now
    And so many times, they are shocked and quietly whisper to me…”wow but she is so strong” or “oh she has such a demonstrative personality” or “wow she takes a leading position doesn’t she?”
    …and I have so much to say but have not yet mastered the ability to calm the rage that boils in my belly and to engage them in a constructive way- so I just remain silent and then come home and am outraged at myself for not taking advantage of these opportunities to push their boundaries –
    So this is where I have to check myself…

  2. Laura, you are right, of course, but even here in fly-over country, at our very diverse public school, I watched 7 and 8 year old boys hug each other on a field trip yesterday. Unselfconsciously. And my very active, videogame loving boy likes nothing better than to sit in a chair and read for hours. I agree with your premise, but the truth is much more complicated, at least til adolescence (which we have not hit yet).

  3. When Ava was three, she told me she felt sorry for kids from mom/dad families because they didn't have "mommas" (my ex is a butch gal who identifies as female, "Cuz those are the cards (she) was dealt," but not because she really sees herself as a woman). Ava thought mommas were more perfect parents than daddies. Then she thought again and said, "Probably those kids think having a momma is a problem. And I feel sorry for them about that, too." I was astonished that she naturally began developing a complex sensibility about gender without any emotional charge attached to the conversation.

    She's always displayed a fairly subtle dance with middle-class hetero norms of femininity -- I can't wait to see what's next as adolescence looms. XX, Jennie