Delusions of Gender: so why do girls play with dolls and boys play with cars?

[This is the 7th (and last) of a series of posts discussing the book ‘Delusions of Gender’ by Cordelia Fine]

We become aware of gender at a very young age. In fact, as Cordelia Fine reports in the last section of her book, we seem to be only too eager to learn the ‘language’ of gender:

“Developmental psychologists Carol Martin and Diane Ruble suggest that children become ‘gender detectives’, in search of clues as to the implications of belonging to the male or female tribe. Nor do they wait for formal instruction. The academic literature is scattered with anecdotal reports of preschoolers’ amusingly flawed scientific accounts of gender difference… In fact, young children are so eager to carve up the world into what is female and what is male that Martin and Ruble have reported finding it difficult to create stimuli for their studies that children see as gender neutral, ‘because children appear to seize on any element that may implicate a gender norm so that they may categorize it as male or female.’”

This is fascinating, and very much seems to support Francis Burton’s theory around gender being a set of learned, culturally-determined behaviours, where the predisposition to learn and follow either the male or the female norms is hormonally-triggered. It’s also interesting to reflect that in most languages (English being a bit of an exception), all nouns are gendered: as if the gendering instinct is so very strong that it spills over and colours everything we see… Kind of reminds me of the way belief in supernatural agents seems to be a spillover of our over-active theory of mind. But I digress.

The main thrust of this part of the book is that, for our part, adults seem astonishingly eager to impose gender upon children, even while we often claim that we are not doing so! Differentiation between the sexes starts even before birth:

“Sociologist Barbara Rothman asked a group of mothers to describe the movements of their foetuses in the last three months of pregnancy. Among the women who didn’t know the sex of their baby while they were pregnant, there was no particular pattern to the way that (what turned out to be) male and female babies were described. But women who knew the sex of their unborn baby described the movements of sons and daughters differently. All were ‘active’, but male activity was more likely to be described as ‘vigorous’ and ‘strong’…”

A series of studies are described in the book showing the myriad ways parents go on to treat girls and boys differently. Toys, even at a very young age, are gender-specific and laden with expectations that children readily pick up. Parents converse more with girl babies, despite boys being no less responsive to it; they underestimate / overestimate what physical feats their child can accomplish, depending on the child’s sex. Everything is colour-coded pink and blue just to really drive it all home. In short, “children are born into a world in which gender is continually emphasised through conventions of dress, appearance, language, colour, segregation and symbols. Everything around the child indicates that whether one is male or female is a matter of great importance.”

Some of the studies gave glimpses of just how arbitrary these gender norms might be. In one, preschool-aged girls were, over a period of time, exposed to some stories that portrayed females in stereotypically masculine roles and activities. The result?

“After just a few readings of the counterstereotypic stories, these girls abandoned stroller, baby doll and ironing board to experiment with fire trucks, blocks and helicopters. By the last few days of the experiment these girls were playing almost exclusively with the boyish toys.”

(And why the hell wouldn’t they?! Those things are much more fun!)

The more I’ve thought about all this, the more weird it all seems. We do all this effortful socialisation of boys and girls, and we hardly even notice we’re doing it. And yet it’s pretty much culturally compulsory when you think of the fear and horror that would be aroused in some folks by dressing a boy in girls’ clothes, or giving a girl nothing but fire trucks and helicopters to play with… It’s as if we think deep down that children need to be socialised into their respective genders, to avoid setting them up for lifelong confusion… And yet, when faced with the resulting differences in boys’ and girls’ preferences and behaviours – and much later in life, the career choices they make – we so readily forget all that, throw our hands up in the air and say, well, it simply must all be biological!

“Emily Kane suggests that the rapidity with which highly educated and privileged parents fall back on biological explanations reflects their position at ‘the vanguard of a limited sociological imagination’. Harsh but, I think, fair.”

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2 Responses to Delusions of Gender: so why do girls play with dolls and boys play with cars?

  1. caraboska says:

    I was brought up in a gender-neutral household. I am biologically female, but was not a “typical girl”. Since my family viewed this as a good thing, no one thought anything of it at home. I was of course carefully taught that society might well care – and that I should be sure to ignore it if it did. But then I fell in with an evangelical crowd in college… and ended up suspecting that I am transgender.

    Obviously, living as I have has led to a lot of rejection. Sometimes my only comfort was that it was in some sense a matter of my own choice: that I adamantly insisted on being who I am, regardless of whether it pleases other people, and they reacted to it as they did. And I, too, refused to remain in situations where who I am was not treated with respect.

    After several decades of sitting on the fence, I have finally transitioned and started living as a man. It became clear to me that if I want to make a total connection with someone, it does become important who has what kind of plumbing, it does become important what sort of gender identity one adopts. And I realized that my biology is more of a mismatch for my inner being than I had suspected.

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