What "Gender Reveals" Reveal About Us
Blue this, pink this. It's all far too narrow, says TOMBOY author Lisa Selin Davis. Listen in as she and I chat "girl power", boys toys, and what parents can do to counter the gender "norm" agenda.
The ABBAPAPA Q&A with TOMBOY author Lisa Selin Davis
When Lisa Selin Davis’ first-grade daughter declared herself a “tomboy,” owning her preference for clothes and toys traditionally deemed masculine, her mother made the commitment to support her child’s unconventional likes and advocated for her with family and friends and at school. Her passion even drove her to write a 2017 op-ed in The New York Times: “My Daughter’s Not Transgender. She’s a Tomboy.” A couple of years later, Selin Davis wrote a book about the subject. TOMBOY: The Surprising History & Future of Girls Who Dare to Be Different takes a fascinating and devoutly academic look into the ways in which American kids’ lives continue to be funneled into ever-narrower blue and pink silos. In understanding how capitalism, homophobia, and yes, biology, serve to further prescribe what is deemed normal, parents can take steps to undo some of the messaging and ensure that their kids are afforded the broadest of options—
Gender reveal parties seem to get more popular and more elaborate with every passing year. What sort of intention does this set for a family and their child?
Gender reveal parties are tied to the proliferation of prenatal sex testing, which was very rare even thirty years ago. Now, because of all different kinds of technology around reproduction, almost everybody in America can know the sex of their baby, whether or not they choose to. Actually, prenatal sex testing is a large part of how we came to gender children's material goods. Which, of course, allowed for selling twice as many of those things.
Parents aren’t revealing their child’s gender then—they are really revealing their baby’s sex?
The word gender means many things to many people. To some, gender means gender identity, and you certainly could not reveal that before your child is born. Gender identity is something that emerges and that may change. Another meaning of gender—that I subscribe to—is that gender is about societal expectations, gender norms, and gender stereotypes. When you have a gender reveal party, you're using gender as a synonym for sex, which is the third way it is sometimes used. But what you're actually revealing is the way that you are going to limit your child's life. You're actually saying, you're having pink or blue icing. And then you're saying, “I am now going to cut off everything on the pink or blue side from this moment on,” without even questioning what got put on each side and why.
Is it really that limiting?
Well, I would ask, why would we want to start, before the child is even born, sending messages that, if it's a bunch of pink balloons, that this child should only wear certain things and should only take dance classes, and should be focused entirely on being other-centered? And why, if it's a blue icing on the cake should we say, “You should like balls, and you can't ever wear dresses, and you need to learn how to hide your emotions.” I'm not saying not to do them. I’m just saying know what it is and know what is meant by gender when you're doing it—what kind of assumptions are you making about who that child is going to be because of a chromosome or a body part?
What’s wrong with parents and caregivers wanting their kids to take a certain pride in their gender? We have seen this major girl-power movement. Where’s the danger in that?
I don't think there's an inherent danger any time you open up a new slice of culture to people. If the message of the seventies was the way for a girl to be liberated is to be like a boy, then the message of the late eighties and nineties was you don't have to be like a boy to be liberated. That is a good message, in theory. The problem with these paradigm shifts is that they don't always build on each other—instead they replace each other.
They become prescriptive in new ways?
And this is my argument in the book, about edging out these masculine girls who might have been normalized or encouraged in the 70s. If we make space for other gender identities and other kinds of kids, and we have new understandings of gender, let's not forget the old ones. Let's build on it. It's perfectly fine to be an empowered feminine girl, but it's also perfectly fine to be an empowered masculine girl, and it's perfectly fine to be an empowered masculine or feminine trans girl.
What can parents do to ensure we are messaging that breadth of possibility to our children? I know that there are times when my husband and I catch ourselves, saying to our toddler son, for instance, “Eat that, because you want to be big and strong.” Maybe he doesn’t want to be big and strong.
Right, maybe you want to be Timothée Chalamet.... With all social change, parents can think about two types of actions. There is what we do as individuals and families and how we raise our kids, and then there is how we try to change the culture. I think you work on your family. How your family lives, how your family talks about this stuff, and then you work on your school, and then you work on the culture.
You write in the book about how pervasive and dominant the gender messaging is in our culture. Is it even possible for any of our kids to get away from this unscathed?
It requires consistent pushing back against these messages with your children and in all kinds of ways, very early on. It’s very, very hard for, for instance, for parents who sign up their sons for ballet. The sons don't want to do it by age five because they are aware there aren't any boys in here, and this isn't how you “do boy.” A parent can get a group together to say, let's all do ballet. Lots of boys want to wear dresses and pink and sparkles, I've heard so many times from parents about how if they let their son, for instance, wear the pink backpack to the first day of kindergarten, he comes home at the end of the day, and says, “I'm not doing that anymore.” Instead of parents saying, “You can wear whatever you want, but kids might make fun of you,” be the family that says, “Stuff is not boy stuff or girl stuff.” And then, you can ask the school to have conversations with kids about that. You can ask the school to have pink day. A friend of mine, who's Indian American, was like, “This is not a thing in India; boys wear pink!”
A lot of times, these efforts work and schools make great strides. But what do you say to the child who is still teased and bullied because they don’t conform to gender norms?
The first thing you say to your kid, “No one is going to bully you out of doing what you want to do. Your body does not determine what you like, what you're interested in. And nobody else is going to tell you that you can't do it, because of your body parts, that's ridiculous.” You have that affirming talk of like, “You do you, and I have your back.” In our case, we asked our daughter’s kindergarten teacher to have discussions with the class, that there are all kinds of ways to be a boy and all kinds of ways to be a girl, and there are some kids who identify as neither. And that what category you're in shouldn't determine what you want to wear or who you want to play with, what kind of hair you have. It really didn't take the kids long. It really was harder for the grown-ups. They just couldn't get it. They had forgotten that these are just cultural norms and they've been getting narrower and narrower.
You write about how so much of that narrowing has been fueled by conscious and subconscious homophobia in our culture.
I was actually shocked to find in my research just how much homophobia cowered modern parenting. One thing we can do as parents is to unlink these preferences from gender, and then to stop thinking that because your son likes dresses or your girls like trucks, that it's an indication of anything that's to come. There is research that connects some level of childhood gender non-conformity to gay sexual orientation, later. Sure, some feminine boys are gay, some masculine girls are gay. But, at the same time, some super-macho boys are gay, and some super-feminine girls are gay. Who your child is going to be, you never know. What is best for children is to explore everything that has been mistakenly divided into pink and blue. We cannot draw direct lines between those behaviors and any kind of sexual orientation or gender identity. As parents, we must be 100% open and accepting to any of the possibilities.
Is there any science that would support the claim that trucks, let’s say, are inherently male and that dolls are inherently female?
First of all, whatever your gender beliefs system is, you can find research to back it up. In fact, I have seen the exact same research interpreted by medical and scientific professionals in opposite ways. What I will say is that there is compelling research that shows that whatever you mark as masculine or feminine, as girl typical and boy typical, when kids realize what category they're in, they gravitate to what they're supposed to gravitate toward.
So kids will tend to lean more toward what’s expected—that’s what we are seeing as parents?
Yes. The pink princess phase that's so intense for girls, is kind of proof of that. Because there's nothing biological about pink, rainbows, hearts, unicorns, sparkles, dresses, yet girls are often quite insistent about all of those things. There is even some research that trans kids will do the same thing: a young trans girl may follow the same patterns of gender development as a cis trans girl, in that they will also go through this intense princess phase, especially once they start socializing. The biological urge, if any, is to master your membership in the group regardless of what the group rules are. And the rules, today, have just gone too far.
And then, just like that, many girls will move on from the princess phase overnight. Isn’t that right?
The thing that really shocked and saddened me the most was the research on the pink frilly dress to tomboy phase. Girls learn to internalize sexism by age six—and therefore reject princesses—and boys learn to externalize it and impose it on others. It didn't matter what we were talking about, if we marketed it as feminine and called it girly, it was considered a bad thing. Like, boys shouldn't like rainbows, because they're girly. There's just too much good stuff that is insulted and disparaged because of its association with girls. Even though I was writing a book about girls who didn't conform to gender norms, the research that shocked me the most was about how we treat girls who do conform to gender norms and what messages she is getting.
There is a big difference though, today, between saying there’s no such thing as a boy’s toy or a girl’s toy and saying there’s no such thing as a boy or a girl. Should we be looking beyond boy/girl completely, at this point, as parents?
The way there is confusion and fighting over what gender means, it's the same battle over what boy and girl means. For many people, especially younger people raised in a new language of gender, boy and girl are social categories, and anyone can claim them regardless of body parts. And for other people, gender is a physical category and you can, of course, change your body to a certain extent and you may also identify with that category, regardless of your body.
How can parents best think about this when not everyone sees eye to eye?
It’s akin to faith. If you’re a family that believes in God or is a particular religion, you might order the world in a certain way. You have some evidence to back up your belief system, and you explain to your kids, this is what we believe and some people believe differently. We should be able to accommodate and respect multiple belief systems.
This piece was originally published on September 9, 2020 on Maisonette.