Gendered by purple pens and buzz cuts

Editor’s Note: This post was written by Jessica Hale, a student in the Spring 2009 Feminist Theory class in The University of Akron’s Women’s Studies Program. To read more student posts, click here.

Female Male SymbolsIt is too late to fix us.

Here I sit, twenty years old, and gendered as can be. My hair is long, my sweatshirt pink. My jeans are in style, and I write with a purple pen.

I look at the young man sitting across the room. A contrast-buzzed hair, his loud angry music pumping through the earphones. I, too, listen to music, but quietly. I don’t want to bother anyone.

Our genders are each firmly in place, this guy and I. Constructed since birth. If you told me tomorrow I should act like a man, I wouldn’t. I don’t want to. My gender, and all the little details of it, are too much a part of who I am.

I believe some of this comes from nature-I think evolution has probably rendered me more nurturing than my buzzed counterpart; he more likely to hunt up some meat for dinner. This would be survival if we were out in the world, a natural way to keep our species going.

But my purple pen? His baggy jeans? Not exactly propagating the human race.

I have a friend who is pregnant. Her baby knows nothing of purple, nothing of angry music. The baby’s gender cannot even be determined yet; it is still wrapped secretly in the tiny chromosomes that will surprise us with the details of this new human.

Soon, of course, it will develop sex organs-hardly necessary for now, until puberty hits-and even then, when it emerges from the womb to the world, this baby will behave the same way, whatever its sex.

It will be hungry. It will cry. It will develop love for its parents and learn to smile. It will begin to play, and if no one guides its choices, to play with the toys that it finds most pleasing. It will laugh, and it will one day speak. Babies are babies, no matter whether their cap is pink or blue.

How long does this androgyny go on? When do we stop relying on clothing color to determine the sex of an unfamiliar child?

I suppose until we start determining it by hair length!

The point is, until puberty, when obvious differentiations between the sexes occur, there is no way to tell a boy from a girl without being put in jail. Children cannot reproduce, and therefore, there is really no need for gender until the point at which they can. Self-segregated play and childhood crushes are totally the product of a gendered society, not the natural course of pre-pubescent life.

What if we raised children like Baby X from the popular feminist fairy-tale “X: A Fabulous Child’s Story” by Lois Gould? What if there was no such thing as gender until gender began to matter?

If we adopted such a system, where children were treated neutrally until they began to mature, then people would get to know themselves as individuals before they get to know themselves as a member of a gender. They would be familiar with their own hearts and minds long before the angst and emotional turmoil of adolescence.

Adolescence would be the time to examine how individuals fits with their gender, and they would be more comfortable deviating from their peers, since the individual consciousness would have been established as more important that the gendered group.

Evolutionarily, there would probably still be differences between males and females as hormones began to kick in. Female strengths, such as community and compromise, would still emerge in due course. Male strengths, such as aggressiveness and competitiveness, would probably also continue.

But what about docility in females? Would the women of this kind of rearing keep her music quiet so as “not to be a bother?” This also applies to domination in males. They would not learn that men must be on top, simply because they are men. We would get to keep all that makes the separate genders fascinating and beautiful and eliminate the oppressive traits that society imposes upon us.

Well, not us. It’s still too late for most of us. We own our genders, and revel in them, even as they keep us from reaching our full selves.

Or perhaps we detest them, try so hard to break free of them that an attempt at separation is just as absorbing.

But the cycle does not need to continue. People do not always need to be defined by gender first and personality second. It is all a matter of teaching future generations what is important: the unique self, who may or may not like using a purple pen for reasons unrelated to biology.


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