Spousal Unit and I have very deliberately decided not to know the sex of our unborn offspring (to be known from here on out by the cleverish pseudonym Gadlet – as in Piglet. Hm. Can there be a pseudonym if there isn’t even a nym yet? Well, anyway, I digress…)
Initially Spousal Unit had a number of high falutin’ reasons for this decision. Primarily, he thought it was both “unnatural” to have such information from the sonograms (this from a man of science) and an invasion of little Gadlet’s privacy (this from a liberal with few libertarian leanings, let alone any kind of belief about the sanctity of the fetus in utero). Since he seemed pretty vehement about this position, I capitulated to his wishes. And besides, they were slightly better articulated than my best argument which was: “I just wanna know.”
At first this decision had few consequences except maybe to annoy our friends and relatives who wanted to start buying things for the Gadlet. But lately, it’s started to have consequences for us too. In the past few weeks I’ve started to realize that maybe I am going to have a new human come into my life and that that new human might actually need some specialized small human stuff of their own and so I might have to start buying things for the Gadlet too. And now, I’m annoyed. I’m appalled and I’m more than a little pissed off.
Before I launch into my tale of righteous indignation, let me readily admit that as a historian of gender my years of training in reading gendered meaning into historical and contemporary texts may be influencing how I shop for baby products. But, insane overeducation aside, I think there is something strange and, frankly, awful going on in American life. That something is that we seem hell bent and determined to excessively gender our infants.
Now, let me tell you where I stand on infants. I love them. The newborn to 3-month stage is probably my favorite, and I’ve got decades of babysitting other people’s newborns under my belt to back up this position. They are tiny and helpless and sweet and hysterical and terrifying and frustrating and adorable. But, and let me be clear here, they do not have gender identities. At the risk of angering all the Angelina haters out there, I agree with her. Infants are blobs. They’re developing personalities and personness and identities, but they aren’t there yet. And they sure as hell don’t have a sense of themselves as “boy” or “girl.” They eat. They scream. They poop. They scream. They sleep. They eat. They scream. Lather, rinse, repeat. Eventually, these blobs do start to develop identities and become little persons and probably sometime in that process they get a sense of themselves and what the particular arrangement of their physical parts mean, influenced of course by what people around them tell them those parts mean. But, if I believe anything it is that a 3-week old human does not have a gender identity in their own right.
(I guess I’m assuming here that you all are savvy about the distinctions between “sex” and “gender.” While far, far smarter people than I have grappled with this, my basic definition is that “sex” is the way that biological parts are organized on our bodies and that “gender” is the social meaning given to those parts by ourselves and by others. Hence my conviction that there is no inherent meaning in an infant’s body aside from the meaning that we give to it.)
Given those biases and beliefs, let me describe my first experience shopping for infant clothing for the Gadlet.
About 6 weeks or so ago, I was feeling sick and completely disconnected from the parasite that was taking over my body and ruining my digestion, health, life… and, yes, I was feeling a little melodramatic. So, I thought it might help if I went to Target to look at baby clothes and to buy something sweet and tiny to remind me that there was a reason I had gotten myself into this situation, aside from the fact that sex is much better without barrier birth control.
I drove my sick ass to Target, walked into the newborn section and stood there completely kerflummoxed. The wall of clothing was divided neatly in half. On one half of the wall there were “boy” clothes. On the other half “girl” clothes. The “boy” clothes were in bold colors like blues and reds and the “girl” clothes were exclusively pink and pale purple. This seemed bad enough to someone who so vehemently hated pink as a kid that her grandmother worried that this meant she was a lesbian and so decided to pink her up in any way she could every Christmas including buying a hot pink sweater the year she asked for something from the men’s department and a pink Walkman the year she thought she had the system beat by asking for a Walkman.
Bad as this was, then I looked at what the little onesies all said. (All of these clothes had texts of some kind printed on them — apparently it is as important to put words into our infants’ mouths as it is to gender them. But, again, I digress…) The “boy” clothes all had trucks and cars on them and said in clear print across the little tiny chests “Watch Me Go.” The “girl” clothes had flowers or butterflies on them and said in curly script “Aren’t I cute?”
As I stood there reading these things I couldn’t believe it. At birth we are already sending the message to our children that boys are actors and that girls are objects. Boys act — They GO. Girls are objects of admiration. They don’t act. They exist to be decorative, CUTE.
Needless to say, this disturbed me. I walked out of the store without having made a purchase. But, still feeling consumerish and unwilling to leave the mall without having some little damned thing that would make me feel better about how sick I was, I ventured into the Old Navy. Again, the section was divided in half into “boy” and “girl” clothes. And they too had newborn onesies with print (pink and blue, of course). The girl ones? “Future Prom Queen” or “Future Cheerleader” or (and I’ll give them credit for this one) “Future Valedictorian.” Hm, I thought, what about the boys? “Future Quaterback,” (and I’ll give them credit for this one) “Future Prom King,” and “Future Class President.” While the football/cheerleader dichotomy is too obvious to dignify with a close reading, I found the President/Valedictorian one to be particularly interesting. The message here? Boys are Leaders. Girls are Smart. What, boys can’t be Smart? Girls can’t be President?
Now even more disturbed, I gave up on this experiment in baby clothing, grabbed a tiny stuffed zebra rattle and left. But since then, this experience has repeated itself over and over. Every time I’ve tried to buy something for the Gadlet, I’ve come up against this issue. Even with furniture and other baby equipment, excessively gendered items are the rule, not the exception.
Take a look at this bouncy seat:
The text on the website about this seat says “Everything about this says ‘It’s a girl!'”
Why in the hell do we need an infant’s chair or its carseat or bed to declare its gender identity? And don’t even get me started on “nursery decor” which also must clearly reinforce the pinkness of your girl or your boy’s future as a fireman.
Things can be just as bad for boys:
(Shirt says: “Macho” in camo letters, underneath “just like Dad.”) I don’t know about you, but somehow I seriously doubt that a newborn can be “macho,” no matter how hairy they are at birth.
Insanity of my perhaps hormone influenced rage aside, of course, the obvious solution is to put the Gadlet into whatever damned clothes I want, pink, purple, red, trucks, footballs, flowers, etc. no matter what arrangement of body parts it happens to have. And OF COURSE, I will try to buy as neutral products and clothing that I can. (like this one:)
I mean, I’m not dumb, I know how to get around this excessively gendered shit. I was raised on Free to Be You and Me by a feminist and I am a clever consumer in a world of unlimited choices. But, beyond my personal choices I think there is a bigger social issue here that is new and strange and I’ve been trying to figure out why it is that it seems so urgent to Gender American Infants.
I’ve got a couple of theories:
1. The Patriarchy Theory: Because of ultrasound techonology, almost everyone knows the sex of the baby before birth, so there is less incentive to attempt a gender-neutral infant environment. Knowledge is power, right? And we now have the power to shape infants’ gender identities even while in utero. So, we make assumptions about what gender means and we use those assumptions to imagine our kid’s identities. Here is where I think it gets insidious. Not to overplay the old feminist patriarchy saw, but your future Prom Queen can know from the first instant of her life that her job is to be decorative and objectified and your future Class President can know immediately that he commands attention as an active subject. The messages that I’ve seen absolutely lean toward giving boys power and making girls objects, which seems to be a nice and easy way to recreate and perpetuate patriarchy and to make sure that little new Americans learn this as soon as they can.
2. The Homophobia Theory : American culture writ large is homophobic to a fault and so people (like my Grandmother) think that if they put their boy in “Future Linebacker” camo onesies or girls in Pink Puffy Infant seats that declare “It’s a Girl!!!” then they can stave off that whole “gay” thing in advance by making sure that there is no gender ambiguity in their kids’ lives from instant one. If there is such a clear gendered dichotomy, a dichotomy that reinforces an exclusively dual hyper-masculine and hyper-feminine model (football and cheerleader?) then there is no room for “messy” and complicated identity positions like feminine boys and masculine girls, let alone transgender folk, and so America is safe from the “gay menace.” I mean, really, are we so terrified that our boys and our girls might be gender ambiguous (which of course must mean gay) that we can’t buy infant blue jeans without stupid little flowers or footballs embroidered on the ass?
3. The Corporate Theory (credit for this one goes to my mother) Corporate America knows that people need to buy shit for their kids. If they convince people that everything they buy has to be “gender appropriate,” then they have to buy a whole new set of stuff when they get another kid of a different sex. Americans spend their hard earned money on unnecessary shit. Big corporations make more money. The economy thrives.
For a little perspective on children and gender in America, here is one of my favorite images from the Daguerreotype collection at the Library of Congress:
This is a photo of Eliza and John McCallister taken July 23, 1849. They both have curled hair. They both have dresses and mary janes on. Which one is John? Which one is Eliza? Hard to tell. I’m not advocating a return to dressing all children in dresses until their 5th birthday. But, I do think that this shows the distance our culture has come on this issue. (Perhaps ironically, and perhaps not incidentally, in a world where women ostensibly have more options than they did in 1849 it seems more critical to draw distinctions between boys and girls at an early age.)
So, what do I do with all of this? For now, it reinforces SU’s idea about not knowing the particular arrangement of the Gadlet’s body parts until it arrives in the world and gives me my own high fallutin’ reasons for agreeing:
I don’t want to make assumptions about this new human’s identity based on what I think gender means. I don’t want others to make assumptions about this new human’s identity based on what they think gender means. I don’t want to unconsciously or consciously impose an identity onto this infant even before I meet it for the first time. Yes, I know these are impossible goals. And, yes, I know, no one is immune from the influences of their culture. And, no, I’m not going to become a hermit. But, I do want to be thoughtful and deliberate and cautious about how I am thinking about the Gadlet and who it is going to become.
Down the road, if she wants an all pink and purple wardrobe or if he insists on only wearing clothing with footballs on them, so be it. Even better if he insists on the pink wardrobe and she wants some camo pants that say “Macho” on them. But, I want to give the Gadlet a little room to make these choices when it is done being a blob. Does this mean until then that I will only dress the Gadlet in embroidery-free denim overalls and white tee-shirts? Probably not. And if the Gadlet turns out to be a girl, will I buy a girlie little dress for her? Hell, yes I will. It will just be blue and say “Future Leader of the Free World” on it.