How society influences our gender identity is a provocative topic and ideas of boy and girl seem have become cemented in our worldviews. No longer do prospective parents even need to just tell people what the sex of their baby is anymore; now they can do it with cake! Which does sound more fun, and delicious. Such is the rigidity of the blue/pink assignment to the sexes that just a glance at a bit of dough will tell us what we have (probably not) all been waiting to find out about this soon-to-be person. Frankly, boy or girl, I will already like them more than most people on account of their existence meaning I get cake. But are we conforming too much to these gender rules? It’s as if they have been around since the dawn of time, and not because we came up with them ourselves with the encouragement of marketing companies.
I often find it mildly entertaining when, for example, a colour other than pink is chosen for the outdoor outfits of a baby girl – and a small minority of people slightly lose their shit (The poor child! How are people supposed to know what it is?!) I mean, don’t get me wrong, I understand the mortification of getting a baby’s sex wrong in front of its parents as much as the next person, but I find there are more ways around it than the binary colour-coding of infants. Some trusty examples to have at hand when you come across a baby (hopefully accompanied by one or both of its parents) and are frantically scanning the area for that pink bow or a tiny pair of blue converse would be simply “Isn’t your baby just lovely”, or “What a cute little baby”, you could even direct it at the baby: “aren’t you just gorgeous?!” always works a treat. Maybe you’d even like to try “I’m glad you’ve decided against colour coding your offspring according to its socially assigned gender category, what a lucky baby”. If you have a go at that last one, please do let me know how you get on.
Don’t get me wrong, I do see the utility in the blue-boy/pink-girl thing. It keeps things simple and I don’t think there’s any harm in it, in itself. However, we know it doesn’t end there. Much debate has arisen around whether there are things that boys and girls are innately drawn towards, or whether the differences are social. I have heard many anecdotes from parents with all the best intentions striving to make sure their children are free to make up their own minds when it comes to play, only to find the grip of their little girl’s hands around a doll so monumentally tight that it would take a strong (and brave) person to take it from her. So it is understandable that the common perception is that this is the natural way of things, we’re born this way. However, recent psychological research has shown us that the picture is more complex. More and more we are recognising the immense ability of the infant brain to be influenced by its environment and social surrounding at younger and younger stages of development. According to attachment theory for example, the attention and emotional response of parents towards their infants can predict the security the child will go on to feel in their adult relationships. In terms of gender identity, we now know that without realising, parents will send out reinforcing messages of approval when their infants choose to play with items that are traditional to their sex. Adults have also been found to play with their children differently according to their own gender, which has in turn been influenced by the society that has shaped their own identities. For example, some studies have found that men engage in more rough and tumble play with sons, women engage in more inside play with daughters. Girls are prepared for caring roles and domesticity, and boys for adventure, exploration, and physicality. In just a snapshot of this research, it is already easy to see that rather than being born with a penchant for Polly Pocket or Hot Wheels (yes, it has been a while since I bought a toy…or had a Happy Meal), our young minds are recognising our assignment to a particular gender and all that it entails, before you can say “I just ate a crayon…a blue one”.
So what’s the problem? So what if society influences boys to play with “masculine” things and girls to play with “feminine” things, both types of traditional play supports children’s development, it also gives enjoyment and pleasure. Of course, there is nothing wrong with any of these things. However, I would argue that those who follow these gender boundaries rigidly, and forbid the crossing of them are at risk of contributing to longer-term effects. The lessons children have learned from what toys are acceptable for them to play with don’t end when they grow out of the sand pit. It is more acceptable to let a girl play with traditional masculine things, because as a society, we award them more value. Traditionally “girly” toys are associated with domesticity, caring, household – the types of roles associated with adult occupations that often pay the least, if anything. But what about boys who want to engage in traditional feminine play? It is often seen as a weakness, a character flaw, and something that has to be addressed. It is as if allowing boys to cross that particular gender boundary is in some way doing them a disservice; why would they want to enter the undervalued feminine realm when there is so much more waiting for them in the masculine one?
Now that we are becoming more aware of how much we influence young minds, important questions arise about what message we are sending our sons when we make fun, or chastise them for playing with dolls, or wanting to play dress-up. My optimistic side would hope that the fear of homosexuality caused by something pink touching the man-child is no longer very prevalent; although realistically I know that this is still the case in many households (my optimistic side isn’t that big). So what does that teach a developing young male mind about how to see their female counterparts? How much value and credibility will they award females and the things associated with their gender in the future? If someone was warning me so strongly against playing with a yo-yo, or nervously laughing at me when I did after a quiet word with my parents, I would probably start to think there was seriously something wrong with the yo-yo, and by association, with the people who are allowed to play with yo-yos all the time. This type of adherence to gender rules is what damages individuality, creativity, exploration and the development of children who are secure in their own identities. It teaches boys that something is wrong with them if they want to play with traditionally female oriented toys, and it encourages undervaluing of girls.
The popular recent news story of the 9- year old boy in the US who was told by teachers to change his “My Little Pony” lunch bag, lest incur the wrath of bullies, shows us that there are people who endorse conservative gender boundaries so much that they would validate the behaviour of children who bully whilst crushing another’s confidence, individuality, and self-esteem. The debate between nature versus nurture is no longer relevant, we know we are shaped by both biology and environment, and we also know that the two work together to make us what we are. But it is worth remembering that sex is biological, gender is social. The rules have been socially constructed, they have been created by us, they are changeable, and we are not born with them.