A while back, when I asked what was wrong with radical feminism, I got one answer I agreed with: Radical feminism, in its concern over the institutions of gender, has often treated transgender and transsexual individuals very badly, trans women in particular. The rationale, such as it is, is that those who make an effort to live as someone of the “opposite” gender are indulging in gender essentialism. They are reinforcing the stereotypes of what it means to be male or female by insisting that these things make them feel they are the gender they are supposed to be.
It’s not hard to have some sympathy for the position. Reading the excellent profile of a family that took their young XY daughter seriously when she said she was female (if you have not read it yet, do so), one of the first things that confronted me was this:
Jonas was all boy. He loved Spiderman, action figures, pirates, and swords.
Wyatt favored pink tutus and beads. At 4, he insisted on a Barbie birthday cake and had a thing for mermaids. On Halloween, Jonas was Buzz Lightyear. Wyatt wanted to be a princess; his mother compromised on a prince costume.
Once, when Wyatt appeared in a sequin shirt and his mother’s heels, his father said: “You don’t want to wear that.’’
It hurt a little, as Barbie and princesses often do. My first impulse was to say, “No, no, no! That’s not what being female is about! You can love all those things and still be a boy just fine!”
Then I told myself to shut up.
Reading the rest of the profile, it is easy to see that Nicole is not simply embracing femininity because of a few interests. She’s not a stereotype, and she’s not an anti-stereotype. She’s simply a girl with diverse interests, from miniskirts to leadership, plus a Y chromosome and some male genitalia she has no interest in using.
She also has quite enough to deal with without worrying about how she contributes or detracts from anyone else’s movement. In truth, however, she is contributing to the challenging of gender stereotypes, even if she claims her gender identity is something she was born with. She has a Y chromosome. She was subjected to the same prenatal androgens her twin brother was.
All those influences that true gender essentialists would like to claim as reasons why women must be different than men fall apart when we look at her. If we needed more evidence that gender is socially constructed (and really, do we still need more?), people like Nicole provide it.
Beyond that, neither I nor anyone else has any business sneering at Barbie and princesses. Being generally concerned about the commercialization of childhood, unattainable body images, the idealization of monarchy, and half a dozen other problematic messages, sure, but not being upset that individual girls play with toys we as a group tell them are girls’ toys. Doing that just elevates boys’ toys over girls’ toys despite similar problems with many toys aimed at boys.
It creates yet one more double-bind for girls. “All these people tell you to play with girl toys, but girl toys are inherently bad. Therefore, girls must be bad.” It’s not hard to see parallels with the ways we treat “male” and “female” professions. We can agitate for the inclusion of women in high-profile, high-pay positions, but that only solves half the problem. Until we recognize that jobs dominated by women are valuable and require skill and training and deserve comensurate pay, we’re not going to solve the problem of unequal earnings.
Until we recognize that the toys and role-playing favored by and/or foisted on girls teach life skills that are useful in parts of our adult lives, we’re never going to tell boys that what the girls are doing is important. We won’t tell them there is virtue in being nurturing or modeling social skills or trying on different personas with their outfits. We won’t give them the sense that there is more to life than what they can build or how high a score they can rack up or how well they support their team. And until they know there is more for them, how they will see more for women as anything but a loss for them?
When I stop and think about Nicole, instead of just reacting, I find her rather refreshing. She didn’t adopt any of the trappings of femininity under duress. Quite the opposite. In the face of significant messages that these things were not for her, in the face of shunning and bullying, Nicole found something so valuable in feminine toys and clothes that she had to claim them for herself.
How can you not love that?