June 18, 2015
Deborah’s recent TEDx talk explores the idea that we adults might have something to learn about our approach to gender from very young children, who often manage to exist outside the ‘norms’ of the gender binary.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Deborah about her (wow-how-does-she-fit-it-all-in) work.
TH: Deborah, firstly I wanted to let you know how pleased I was when you got in touch after hearing about our campaign ‘No Gender December‘ late last year. Thanks for generously giving up some time to share your thoughts on gender stereotypes and your work around the gender binary and kids. You have been doing so much interesting work that frankly I wonder when you find time to sleep!
Your biography is extensive to say the least – among many other things – you are a gender scholar as well as an accomplished writer, who was inspired to start thinking differently about gender by the experience of having boy/girl twins.
Can you explain a little bit about the process of acquiring gender identity, and why young children under 3 could teach us something about being open-minded and less binary in our approach to gender?
DS: It’s a fascinating moment we’re living through right now in the land of gender, right? And who better to take a cue from than our littlest ones?
When I first told people close to me that I was thinking about a book about the gendering of childhood in the earliest years, friends with older kids would say to me, “but all the interesting gender stuff happens later!” That may be true, from a bird’s eye view. But when kids are tiny, when they don’t even yet know what sex they are, there’s a lot of subtle activity happening then, too.
Up to two years old, babies are objective observers; they don’t know which side of the alleged gender divide they are on. Then, they start labeling everything—including themselves. They start to get a sense that they are either “boy” or “girl” by age three. Around age four, kids often become little gender police, because when you’re just beginning to shore up who you think you are, you want things to be clear. Children’s views about gender differences reach what’s called ‘peak rigidity’ between five and seven years, at which point they realize their gender (and their anatomy) isn’t likely to change. Before that, they’re not quite sure. If we could read their brains during those fluid years, I wonder what we’d learn about what life is like before socialization more fully kicks in.
Of course, many say that moment never exists, that gender (the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex) begins in utero. Studies show that expectant mothers describe fetal movement differently depending on their sex: boys “jab,” girls “roll.” Still, I’d like to believe in a time before gender, a time when anything’s possible, when kids can be fully who they are and we, as adults, can join them in exploring who that is.
What we do know without question is that for the rest of their lives they’ll be getting messages about how boys and girls are supposed to behave and where they do or don’t belong. (Witness Nobel laureate Tim Hunt’s career-killing comment last week that women scientists cry too easily and are sexy distractions for men, who belong in the lab?) There’s this very narrow window when none of that matters, when kids are deliciously oblivious to cultural expectation, even as they’re bombarded by the implicit assumptions of parents, caregivers, and strangers on the street who respond to them in different ways. If only we could honor that window and retain some of that openness as adults, our understanding of “masculine” and “feminine” would greatly expand, to the benefit, I believe, of all.
TH: What has the feedback been like in relation to your TedX talk – how did the public respond to this idea?
DS: The day I gave that talk, I wore a goofy pair of tights—one leg pink, the other blue. And the most common question I got early on was, “Where’d you get those tights?” (Answer: I made them!)
The second question was often, “How’d you get to give a TEDx talk?” (Answer: I applied. More about that here.) There’s this mystique the process, but it’s something I now strongly encourage others with messages to spread to look into, if it’s on their bucket list. (The other hat I wear now, actually, is “coach”—I work with people who have expertise, and whose voices or perspectives are often less represented; I help them forge a bridge to a more public presence and build a platform around their ideas.)
If you liked my talk, you’ll also like Is Anatomy Destiny? (Alice Dreger), Understanding the Complexities of Gender (Sam Killerman), and How Movies Teach Manhood (Colin Stokes). Ha, I sound like Amazon. But seriously, I do think these new forums for spreading ideas have helped mainstream concepts that once existed on the fringe, or were locked in academe. The response to my talk has persuaded me to do another. The more of us who are out there bringing current research around gender to life, the better, I feel.
TH: It was a golden moment for me, coming across your Tots in Genderland project on Pinterest. You describe it as being a ‘multimedia experiment in thinking aloud and in community about the gendering of earliest childhood’. It is such a fantastic way of exploring ‘gender norms’ marketed to kids and the myriad ways that kids bust out of them.
The collections of images you’ve pinned tell an interesting story when viewed all together like this. They provide a commentary about the gender stereotypes sold to kids in a visually-dramatic fashion – like the ‘kiddy’s dream’ bathroom scales in pink, covered in pictures of food and cute animals – marketed only to girls and the ‘It’s Girl Stuff’ cleaning sets (grrrr), along with the ‘God’s little princess’ bible in pink contrasting the ‘God’s mighty warrior’ in blue (shudder).
DS: Aw, I love how you’ve framed this. The story you’ve pulled is better than anything I could articulate. But there’s a bit of history to it, too, and I’m only realizing this in retrospect.
The Pinterest board follows my own trajectory in that the way I’ve come to look upon this all over the past five years has changed. Both that board and The Pink and Blue Diaries Tumblr blog started as my attempt—as a new mother of boy/girl twins raised in the era of unisex overalls—to say out loud “Can you friggin’ believe this?” every time I’d come across another instance of gender-segregated marketing. As someone who’d spent her adult life thus far studying and writing about gender and representation,
I was feeling righteous, incredulous, outraged. Also, grumpy, and tired. I initially took my cue from The Pink and Blue Project, a thesis project by photographer JeongMee Yoon, who, in 2005, created these incredible portraits of girls and boys posing in their respectively pink and blue rooms alongside their exclusively pink or blue clothing, toys, and accessories as part of her MFA thesis. I couldn’t believe the thundershower of pink and blue raining down on us in this so-called enlightened age and felt compelled to document it somehow.
Then, something interesting happened as my infants became tots. More and more parents started posting pictures of their kids performing gender-nonconforming behaviours online, and I grew inspired by these images of very young kids breaking gender norms. I began pinning images of my girl putting a tiara on my boy’s head, my boy pushing a pink toy lawnmower, my girl dressed in toolbelt and worker’s goggles. I invited others to pin with me. It became my small attempt to counter the daily visual intake I found so oppressive early on. In an era of increasingly gender-segregated toy aisles, I find hope—and power—in visuals of kids going against the grain so young. The tagline for the Tots in Genderland board reads now: “Young children breaking, and upholding, gender norms. Toys they play with. And messages received.”
And I have to say, in the five and a half years since I became a parent, it’s been amazing to watch a collective counter-response to the intensified pink-and-blue-ification of early childhood take root. There’s this growing tribe of parents and indie merchandisers who are offering us real alternatives to the pink and blue mentality of, say, Toys R Us or Mattel. See the Brave Girls Alliance (of which I’m part) for a killer list.
My favourite images to pin these days are those of kids visually speaking back: the girl wearing the pink t-shirt that says “Forget Princess, call me President” (thank you, Toward the Stars), or the image of the boy feeding a baby doll, captioned “Real Men Play with Dolls” (thank you, Princess Free Zone).
So now I pin the outrage, the inspiration, and the activist messages, side by side. The board has become a mash-up of different forces—a reflection of the alternatively progressive and retro cultures in which we’re raising kids.
And five years in, after watching my tots become kids with semi-expanded notions of “masculine” and “feminine” in spite of it all, I’m starting to see humour in some of my earlier hyper-concern. I’m still concerned, but I’m also embracing the topic with more sense of play.
I was recently inspired by Melissa Ann Pinney and Anne Patchett’s collaborative book of words and images, Two, which gave me a new idea: wouldn’t it be fun to juxtapose an image of a boy and girl playing side-by-side with a composed image of objects they own, positioned in the same poses as they are? Something like this, below:
(If any of you reading this has a pairing you’d like to share, ping me, ok? Maybe we’ll start a new board, who knows.)
TH: You also co-created ‘The Pink & Blue Diaries’ with your husband and graphic artist, Marco Acevedo, which is a graphic memoir about the gendering of childhood in the earliest years of life and includes ‘snippets of life’, images and conversations with your twins. Would you like to tell us a little about this?
DS: Since this topic I’m obsessed with—the gendering of childhood—is so rich in visual material, it was clear to me early on that any book I might write would have to incorporate images somehow. I’m married to a graphic designer, a graduate of art school who approaches the world with a visual lens. So of course I had to rope him in.
In truth, the project has been a collaboration from the start. I’ve been thinking out loud with Marco since Day 1, and we’ve had the great good fortune to do a series of residencies together at Ragdale (“Writing and Drawing Camp” as we explain it to our kids). While I’ve struggled to find time to concentrate on the book whole hog, I’ve been determined to get my observations down, in bulleted form, from the time they turned one. The Tumblr blog is an archive of articles, conversations, and visuals that I sensed I’d want to return to once I had more time for the long-form writing project.
What we realized during our last residency, in March, was that we think the book wants to be a series of illustrated essays. I’m still enamoured with the idea of graphic memoir, and Marco, a comics fan, has developed an amazing body of drawings that I know we’ll figure out how to use. But I’m ready now to write in paragraphs again and not just in comic bubble form. For a while, I thought that one-liners were all I had bandwidth for.
TH: Deborah, it’s been an absolute pleasure and I can’t wait to catch up with you again soon.
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