Recently a Canadian couple by the name of Kathy Witterick and David Stocker gave birth to a child named Storm. After the initial shock at the ridiculousness of naming a child after an X-men character has passed, try this on for size: Storm’s parents have chosen not to disclose the sex of their child, hoping to shield him/her from the ever-present gender biases of our modern culture. To read more about it, skim the article at the link below:
After the couple’s decision gained some publicity, it has generated a whirlwind of vicious criticism, research interest, and heated discussion. I am fascinated by the lengths these parents are willing to go to in order to challenge the status quo of gender performance. I’ve tried to rationalize both for and against them, and I can’t seem to make heads nor tails of how I am/should be reacting to such an outspoken and outlandish mission. Is it wrong what they are trying to combat? Not in theory. But what lasting psychological damage might they be doing to their kids in the process of making a statement about the socialized, rigid boundaries for the performance of gender?
While talking to friends and coworkers about the situation I’ve heard opinions from “I see what they are trying to do…” to “They are just bad and selfish parents, setting their kids up to be bullied and unaccepted”. And while I am usually all up for challenging societal norms – especially on gender, I find myself reluctantly agreeing the with the naysayers. But what I can’t figure out is, why should my gut reaction be to reject an idea that so dramatically and un-apologetically challenges gender stereotyping?
I’ve tried to break it down and find a reason for my negative reaction:
1) This child is still going to be inundated with media and other social pressures that will quickly (and probably unsympathetically) identify for her/him the lines that the parents are trying so desperately to keep concealed in shades of gray. But that isn’t a good enough explanation….
2) The performance and execution of gender is not a choice in society. As incarcerating as that statement is, we – both psychologically and culturally – organize our world into categories. And one of the most basic of those categories is gender (for us, male vs. female). But I am still not satisfied with that explanation….
3) Could it be that my discomfort arises simply out of concern for the child itself? After all, it is only due to an extreme form of parental control that this baby is now faced with an incredibly confusing and challenging life (Note the passage in the article about the two boys the couple has already brought into the world). It is easy to say “the baby should have been given a choice” but think about the application here. This sentiment is often thrown around about everything from a child’s supposedly chosen (I disagree with “choice” theory but that is a blog post for another day) sexual orientation to religion. And if we begrudgingly accept the impossibility of living comfortably in society while ouside of gender, why shouldn’t the child in question be allowed to age in an environment where he/she is initially ascribed a gender based on sex, all the while being comforted by loving, supporting parents whom he/she knows will support their child regardless of their chosen alternative gender paths?
But here is the problem – I’ve just rationalized the necessity of gender roles using arguments that I don’t even agree with. Because lets think for a moment. Lets suppose the parents did reveal that their child was born with a vagina and 2 “X” chromosomes, thereby making “it” a “she” by cultural definition (I know that I am muddling up sex/gender but just bear with me). Even with both blue and pink clothes, dresses and cargo pants, fire trucks and dolls, what happens if Storm, on her third birthday, chooses a baskin-robbins cake with a My Little Pony theme? Does it mean that there is a gene in girls that make them love ponies? (I hate ponies). No, it means that gender is always going to be inescapable force – a barely perceptible but unmistakable undertow. And short of flying this child to a remote desert island, these parents are insisting on using their child to conduct a social experiment that, in my opinion, is bound to fail. That is what I have a problem with. Using your own child, infantile and incapable of protest, to take on thousands of years of gender construction and create the perfect androgyny.
30 years from now, I don’t know whether or not Storm will be a happy person. More importantly, however, those “loving” parents don’t have a clue. Children or adults who decide to adopt gender neutral pronouns and rid their vocabulary of other gendered language do so because they have made a conscious decision to walk away from the restrictions of gender. And I absolutely agree with them that our society could stand to loosen our gender definitions. But as hard as I try, I can’t seem to respect this particular family for their choice, nor can I see the potential for positive results. They haven’t allowed their children to make educated decisions about their relationship with gender, leaving them utterly unprepared to meet the challenges of rejecting male/female distinctions in an unavoidably gendered society. I don’t know. I feel like I’m talking myself in circles. I’d love to hear how others react to this whole mess (joyfully, furiously, anxiously, solemnly, adverbs are fun) so let me know where your head-scratching leads you.
But for now I must bid you adieu. I have a potluck for work tomorrow and – Top Chef that I am – I decided to make guacamole. But I forgot to buy chips. So I will have to stumble into a CVS tomorrow morning bright and early to pick up some Tostitos. And probably some candy.