An essay on kids, character, and gender
By Elizabeth Marino, Ph.D.
There is no doubt that my daughter Louise falls on the calm end of the 2-year old character spectrum. The other day at the beach she sat on a blanket eating melon, reading books, and cleaning the sand from between her toes while her 2-year-old friend Benjamin ran up to his chin in the lake, stole a water gun from the beach party next to us, threw his melon in the sand until it was black and THEN ate it. Because Louise is the kind of kid who likes books and tends to sit still she is often subject to comments from adults about gender. We get, at least once every week, “she is such a little girl,” or “girls are so much easier at this age,” or other declarative statements that end with some version of the sentiment “stereotypes exist for a reason.”
This kind of commentary truly grates on me – and this is dangerous territory because my own frustration with the comment “she’s such a girl” could easily slip into critique of my daughter’s character, which is a trap I obviously want to avoid. To be clear, I don’t think Louise and Benjamin have similar character types; and I don’t necessarily doubt that on average girls may be less likely, at 2 years old, to run headfirst into a large body of water. But when we’re talking about two kids, we are not talking about averages – and this constant barrage of gendered language creates, I think, real problems. For me, the most terrifying outcome that arises when we identify these behaviors with gender and sex is that it sets up a framework for Louise that ultimately ends up politicizing her every move as a gendered decision.
Let me explain.
The social politics and performance of stereotypes is complicated. Ask any marginalized or stigmatized group of people - African Americans, lesbians, southerners, Christians, Muslims, atheists, the over-educated, the under-educated, the poor –and I’m sure all are, at one time or another (some more than others), forced to perform the arduous task of either cashing in on and confirming stereotypical behavior or hyper-performance in an effort to combat stereotypes. For myself this includes either playing up southern charm in social settings (hi y’all, come on in) or over-performing intellectualism so as not to be written off as a rural redneck idiot (I lost my accent the minute I became a philosophy major at Notre Dame). This constant negotiation with stereotypes is exhausting and is a basic tenant of prejudice.
When we force, from infancy, a framework for understanding behavior based on gender stereotypes then we set our kids (especially our girls) up for viewing every single one of their actions as a move to gender-identify or rebuke gender identity. If Lou likes to cook it’s because she’s a girl. If she doesn’t like to cook it’s because she’s not ‘girly’. If she likes fashion it’s because she’s a girl. If she doesn’t it’s because she’s not ‘girly’. If she rides bikes it’s because she’s not ‘girly’. If she likes to babysit it’s because she’s a good, care-giving girl. This yes/no, up/down, girly/not girly identification with every single decision our kids make is exhausting and undermines the beautiful, complex, even contradictory aspects of ourselves as human beings who do and do not like to cook, who do and do not like books, who do and do not feel gendered.
The gender-focused, hyper-reductionist explanation for behavior also, I think, predisposes our kids for eventually defining themselves as the face-book friendly, easily digestible, stock character ‘type of girls’ that seems so common these days. How frightening for the options to be: a mountain-bike-riding, craft-beer drinking, wilderness therapist; or a hair ‘done’, cosmopolitan drinking, legal assistant; or a no-make-up, tea connoisseur, feminist academic.
At very least, reductionism is boring. How much lovelier to invoke the notion from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, “I am large, I contain multitudes”.
When I look at Louise I see multitudes. I see the vast expanse of a character with unseen depths and complications who will remain ever mysterious to me – who may remain mysterious even to herself. When she’s at the beach I see a kid who is a little bit afraid of new things, who likes to eat, who likes watching other people, who likes the feel of sand in her toes, who thinks her mother is still the best person to hang with, who is working up the courage, who is content where she’s at. What I don’t see – what I don’t want her to ever see in herself– is that she is all of these things just because “she’s such a girl.”