Our gendered world

A propos this very interesting discussion about gendered pronouns, and à propos all the babies being born in my social circles, I thought I’d post a note about the salience of gender the moment we are born. I became an aunt last week and so the following has come up a lot in the past few days. The first thing everybody wants to know about the baby is its (their?🙂 gender. At first I was not hiding this bit of information on purpose, but by now I consciously phrase announcements about the event in gender-neutral terms to see how long it takes for the other party to ask whether it is a boy or a girl. As you can imagine, it doesn’t take long. One may argue that this is because, grammatically speaking, people are unable to ask questions about the baby without knowing its gender. But I think it is more than that. Our world is so gender-based that it is hard for people to think about a person without knowing the person’s gender. But what is it exactly about a baby that makes it necessary for us to know its gender? In what ways is it going to be important? Is it so we can say whether the baby is beautiful versus handsome? Is it so we know what types of presents to get for it? If yes then we are off on the path of gendered socialization the moment the little person takes its first breath. All this shows the pressure parents must be under to choose between girl and boy when a child is born sex unknown.

I thought I should add a bit to this post drawing on some work by sociologists who actually study this stuff. Some people in the comments to the original post on Crooked Timber – and elsewhere as well, I am sure – argue that if you look at the behavior of girls and boys already at an early stage you will observe their different preferences for certain colors and activities. We should not forget, however, that it is not possible to raise children in an isolated manner and their social environments – as evidenced by the anecdote in this post – start differentiating them by gender from the start. So the fact that a girl may opt for a “girlie” toy or pink may simply be a reflection of what she has already picked up from her surroundings. It is interesting to note, however, that historically pink and blue were assigned to girls and boys in the exact reverse of today’s conventions. I quote from Padavic and Reskin, Women and Men at Work (p.4.):

Clothing for babies illustrates the creation of sex differences in appearance that have no natural basis. Disposable-diaper manufacturers, for example, market different designs for girls and boys. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, however, male and female infants were dressed alike—usually in white dresses. When Americans began to color code babies’ clothing, they dressed boys in pink and girls in blue. Not until amost 1950 did the convention reverse, with blue becoming defined as masculine and pink as feminine (Kidwell and Steele 1989:24-27). Such shifts demonstrate that what is critical for maintaining and justifying unequal treatment between the sexes is not how cultures set the sexes apart but the fact that they do it at all.

Also, for a very good look at children in their early years, read Barry Thorne’s book on Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School.

Comments are closed.