Hanna’s post about the Swedish couple who are attempting to raise their child "gender-free" (not telling anyone its birth sex or permitting the genitals to be seen by anyone but a select few intimates) has had me thinking all day about the chicken-and-egg problem of gender identification. Do I think the category of gender is more constructed than the dominant culture gives it credit for? Definitely. Does the parenting of this couple horrify me? Completely.
Hanna, your analogy (to a "militant feminist friend" who tried unsuccessfully to make her daughter play with trucks) doesn’t quite hold up; in terms of the violence visited on the kid’s sense of self, the Swedish family’s choice to conceal the fact of gender altogether seems infinitely worse. Being told by your parents that you should (or shouldn’t) conform to this or that gender stereotype is bad enough, but imagine being told, "The entire category of gender, which from empirical observation you can see is hugely significant in all areas of human life, doesn’t apply to you alone, because we say so." I’m picturing my own 3-year-old, who asks complex and essentially unanswerable questions about gender on a daily basis (Why can mamas have babies and papas can’t? Why don’t men wear dresses?), having to keep her own sex a secret. (That would gall her, as she’s very proud to be a girl and would hate to miss a chance to brag about it.) Obviously, you don’t have to dress your kid in tutus or football jerseys (or whatever the Swedish equivalent is), but to truly obfuscate all evidence of gender, and keep your child from giving away the game, would require some fancy footwork.
I’m stymied by the very grammar of this undertaking. Assuming Swedish has gendered personal pronouns (confirmation, Swedish speakers?), this kid’s parents must have to engineer all kinds of weird locutions: "Pop chooses Pop’s clothes Popself." But if I ridicule Pop’s parents (and worry about both Pop and his/her brother/sister on the way), it’s not in a dismissive, vive la différence kind of way. I respect the instinct to radically reinvent the role of gender in childrearing; I think every mother I know seeks, in some measure, to free her child from the constraint of gender expectations. But this couple’s literal and dogmatic interpretation of that instinct strikes me as borderline child abuse.
Photograph of a French child reading a gender-neutral book produced by a Swedish publishing house by STR/AFP/Getty Images.