What Makes Gender?

I spent an evening recently with a friend, discussing the similarities of our childhoods. We were both “tomboys” who preferred balls to dolls and were frequently chided by friends and family for not behaving as girls should.

I grew up in Pennsylvania. She grew up in Tehran.

The similarities in our life stories reminded me how fully human society is permeated with limiting and sometimes absurd ideas of how gender should be expressed. Girls should be nice and polite and clean and play with dolls and girls like pink because women who were more successful at gathering berries had a higher rate of survival. It’s evolution. Of course, the fact that pink was the color for boys until the 1940s is irrelevant.

Boy And Girl Cupcakes

You might think these are just tasty and delicious, but really, they are helping to enforce negative gender stereotypes.

I have a lot of respect for the Canadian parents who made the news a few months ago for attempting to raise a gender-neutral child. Even well-intentioned, well-educated, hippie, liberal, progressive, vegan, socialist parents have grown up in a sexist world and can unconsciously reinforce society’s bullshit notions about girls and Barbies.

Teaching girls to be nice and polite makes it difficult for women to tell men “No” during unwanted sexual encounters. Telling girls they aren’t good at math results in fewer female engineers and scientists. Even forcing girls to be (too) clean has detrimental effects. A study I read a few years ago hypothesized that women may get sick more often then men because, as children, they are less exposed to germs since girls are expected to be neat and tidy.

Playing with dolls and preferring the color pink doesn’t make you a girl anymore than chewing on a bone makes you my dog. Those are things we do, not who we are. The arbitrary assignment of gender characteristics isn’t why I identify as a woman.

What defines gender? I’m not sure I can answer that. I’ve never questioned my identity as a woman. Despite spending my childhood with short hair and constantly covered in dirt, I’ve been privileged to be cisgendered. I can say that girls can be clean and dirty, smart and dumb, love dolls and trucks, wear skirts and pants. These traits aren’t uniquely male or female or any other gender identity.

Stereotypical notions of what behavior is appropriate for girls and what behavior is appropriate for boys does nothing but limit humanity. Why should McDonald’s dictate what qualifies as a girls’ toy or a boys’ toy? I want to decide for myself how I behave and what I wear and the things I  play with. Society wastes countless resources on designing and enforcing gender rules. If that effort didn’t exist, I could have spent my afternoon watching Unsolved Mysteries rather than expressing my dissent. That would be a much more productive use of my time.

This post was written for The Gender Celebration Carnival organized by Ellie Lumpesse.

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