“Boys Are Wonderful and Wild and Dirty”—And So Is Sally

I just came upon this sentence in a comment on a blog post on some other blog out in the blogosphere:

Boys are wonderful and wild and dirty and tender and love their mamas and want to be like their daddies.

Here’s the thing: Sally is wonderful and wild and dirty and tender and loves her mama and wants to be like her daddy.

A couple months ago I was at a wedding, and an older woman stopped by me to admire my small son Bobby, who had just started furniture creeping. He had a bruise on his forehead, and when she asked about it I told her about how he’d gotten it in an attempt to move from the living room chair to the coffee table. Her response?

“Yes, that’s how boys are—rough and tumble! I remember well.”

Well you know what I remember? I remember Sally doing the exact same things when she was a baby. The same daring attempts, the same bruises, the same scrapes. Sally has always been a very rough and tumble sort of child. And guess what? She’s a girl.

And you know what else? Bobby is actually more cautious and less daring that Sally was. Things Sally would have attempted, Bobby sits back and thinks “Hmm, should I? Maybe not, I might get hurt. I better do what I already know I can do.” Isn’t it “supposed to be” the other way around?

As of right now, I actually see no gender differences whatsoever between my children. I’m firmly convinced that babies don’t have gender, just personalities, and even as Sally, now in preschool, plays princesses and tea parties, she doesn’t do those things in a gendered way. I mean, half the time she plays the prince, which just means that she wears a cape instead of a fancy dress. And the whole point of playing princesses is going on adventures, not doing needlepoint or something. And when she plays Doctor Who, she’s the Doctor and Bobby is Amy. And besides, Sally spends just as much time poring over human anatomy books as she does her princess stories—more, actually. Oh, and dinosaurs. Sally is a huge dinosaur fan. She’s even thinking of being an archaeologist because she wants to dig up dinosaurs.

So when I read a comment like “boys are wonderful and wild and dirty and tender and love their mamas and want to be like their daddies,” I have to shake my head. I know my oldest is only in preschool, but Sally and Bobby have so far only cemented my conviction that gender is entirely socially constructed*. Yes, there are biological differences, but gender is not sex. Anyway, you know how little boys are supposed to be made up of “snips and snails and puppy dog tails” while girls are supposed to be made up of “sugar and spice and everything nice”? Well the thing is, boys aren’t born boys—we make them boys. And the same is true with girls.

Now, I know this won’t last forever. My kids aren’t growing up in a bubble, and they will be socialized at least in part into our society’s prescribed gender roles, whether I like it or not. And even if they resist being nailed down, they will have to navigate in a world where people make huge gendered assumptions whether people fit those assumptions or not. But for the moment, I’m just going to enjoy the present, and focus on raising two little individuals, not a girl and a boy.

So how about you? What are your thoughts and observations on children and gender?

———

* Several of the commenters had an interesting exchange about the difference between “gender identity” and “gender-coded behavior.” I want to reproduce it here, because I found it both very interesting and extremely helpful.

Ibis3:

There is evidence to suggest that gender identity at least is not entirely culturally constructed. For one, there is the experience of trans kids who are enculturated as one gender but still feel like the other. And then there is the very sad case of David Reimer, a boy who had a botched circumcision so they decided to give him sex reassignment surgery and raise him as a girl. The result was not successful, as one would expect it to be if gender were entirely socially constructed.

Swimr1:

Or, you could argue that we are all individuals and that we shouldn’t be forced (via media, parents, society) to act like an artificial construct (gender) in the first place.

Jayn:

Yeah, I got the impression Libby was conflating gender identity with gender roles. Kids are certainly treated differently based on their sex, but a boy who is treated like a girl doesn’t become a girl.

Red:

I think there are far less gender differences than society tends to believe–but at the same time, saying that it’s completely a social construct seems…I don’t know…un-affirming, I suppose, to the people who claim to have felt like the “other” gender since they were toddlers (and these aren’t people who just wished they could act out the roles of the other gender…they actually felt that they WERE the other gender in essence.). I don’t know how to define gender as a social construct without somehow de-legitimizing these people’s stories. (Is de-legitimizing a word???)

M:

There’s a big difference between gender identity and gender-coded behavior. Gender identity is what do I feel like- do I feel like a girl or like a boy? Gender-coded behavior is what the post is about, though. Things like persistence, rough-and-tumble play, fearlessness, caution, playing with dolls, climbing trees, displaying emotions (especially crying), etc. None of those behaviors/attitudes have anything to do with how one feels on the inside as one’s gender.

Rosa:

what M said, basically. A person who feels that they are a girl is going to express that in whatever way their culture says girls are – American culture today says girls talk a lot, in the 18th and early 19th century it said girls were more reserved and less articulate.

It’s easy to express it the opposite way (“I knew I was a girl because I liked Barbie and not GI Joe”) because we are so steeped in the gender assumptions they’re invisible. But in a culture with different gendered toys, the expression would be different.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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