Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Myth of Girl Gender Bending

Lately, I've run across a lot of articles about boys playing with gender roles usually expressed in dressing up like a princess. These actions are labeled as boys dressing like girls, and I always smile a bit as I glance over at my girls who are not lounging about in princess dresses or plastic heels. My girls have never been over the top girly dressers although Piper has an inclination towards LOUD but that's never manifested itself into fancy dresses or tiaras. I admit that when I read these articles, and used them as a viewer of my own experience, I do roll my eyes a bit. The implication that playing with female gender roles must involve a tendency towards the flashy annoys me as it seems to just reinforce other gender roles.

But this article hit a bit differently. Here's why, this is just one comment that pointed to the same thing:

People tend to get a lot more upset seeing a boy dressing up in girl's clothing than a girl dressing in boy's clothing. Why do you think that is? Generations of social and cultural indoctrination is a good place to start. Maybe the culture doesn't care as much or have as much invested in what girls do as what boys do......

Is this really true? Certainly there is no denying the violence inflicted on men who dress as women or of the bullying these boys likely experienced. I would never dream of suggesting anything different. But are girls who dress as boys really socially acceptable? Are they really left unharmed? Uncommented upon? If this was the case why do these boys express their femininity through such "girly" clothes. Why is wearing pink, feathers, shiny sequins, etc the only expression of femininity being displayed at this camp? If girls are really able to gender bend why is there such volatile and hatred launched at lesbian woman who don't "look like" a woman?

How about this quote from the article linked above:

The couple passed a man they knew from the neighborhood who was standing with a group of other men. The men, commenting on the 23-year-old's masculine dress, shouted anti-gay slurs, calling her "dyke" and "bitch."

 Lately Camille has taken to dressing in Umberto's outgrown clothes. At the beginning of the summer, I began to weed out the clothes Umberto had outgrown. I had a pile of tee shirts to give away when Camille walked in to ask what I was doing. When she the giveaway pile, she asked if she could have the tee shirts.
"Sure," I said without even a second thought. After all girls get to dress like boys right? I admit I didn't pause where I might have paused if Umberto had decided he wanted to wear dresses. Pause not because I have a problem with it but because I'd automatically fear for his safety if he walked around in dresses. But I admit that I didn't think it would even be a problem for Camille. We were at a place, it seemed, where girls could be a bit edgier in how they dressed.

And then Camille got her hair cut really short.

And suddenly I became aware of how people looked at her in public. Because not only was her hair very short but she was dressed like a boy. Not like a girl wearing clothes that were kind of boyish. You know girly tee shirt or jeans with flowers embroidered on the pockets. She was wearing actual boy clothes. And she wasn't wearing earrings or jewelry to set off that cute short hair. As we walked through grocery stores or hung out at Barnes and Nobles, I started to notice the second glances, the confused looks, the pinched mouths when people realized that Camille was indeed a girl. 

It hit me quite strongly that girls are not allowed to dress like boys. It's not socially acceptable. Girls are allowed to wear things that were once considered boyish: jeans, tee shirts, even caps but these things must be remade into the image of girl. When a girl actually dons boys clothes with no subtle signs that she is a girl, it makes people uncomfortable, and I suspect it makes my sweet girl as vulnerable to bullying and violence as the boy who is wearing a dress.

Judith Butler suggests that "Gender is not something that one is, it is something one does, an act...a "doing" rather than a "being." I don't think that Camille has any desire to be a "man" or that she feels displaced in terms of gender. I do think that she hates to be boxed in by gender roles, and that because she likes skulls, skateboards, and darker things she is more inclined to like "boy's" clothes. Her clothing choice, I would argue, is a reflection of how her interests as opposed to a statement about her gender. I think that perhaps Camille experiences her gender as something that is fluid, and changing. I have asked her if she likes being a girl, and she just gives me one of her haughty looks as if to say "What kind of question is THAT?" She refuses the meaning of that question. When asked if she thinks she might like girls better than boys she replies "I am ONLY ten. I don't know WHO I like yet."

H and I have not set off to raise children who automatically challenge gender roles. I dressed my girls in pink and Umberto in blue. We didn't hide their sex from our friends. Nor did we cross dress them as young children. But we also never suggested to them that there were certain ways boys or girls should look. We allowed them expression in how they wanted to dress. We tried to emphasize that heterosexuality is not the only option or even the normal option in our society. We did make a conscience effort to raise human children who value compassion, love, equality, etc. And because we were both influenced by Butler as well as other great feminist thinkers, we likely imparted this idea that gender is fluid onto them without even trying.

I think we have a long ways to go before we see gender as fluid. And I think that the idea that girls can dress as boys is, frankly, grossly over exaggerated. I also tentatively wonder if we place too much expression on our children's desires to wear clothes that not fit into the gender norms. If we read too much meaning into these action, do we risk making perpetuating gender stereotypes. I wonder, often, what a world in which gender and sexuality are seen as malleable creations, would look like. What liberatory possibilities might emerge if there were not such as thing as "boy" or "girl" clothes.

1 comment:

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