Ruth Padawar’s NYT article about gender-fluid children outlines the challenges faced by boys who want to wear dresses and the parents who want to both nurture and protect them. Despite her best efforts the author more than once seems to collapse biological sex and socially constructed normative gender expectations. For instance, she writes, “Girls with C.A.H. are typically raised as females and given hormones to feminize, yet studies show they are more physically active and aggressive than the average girl, and more likely to prefer trucks, blocks and male playmates.” So, okay, the studies suggest that, but are we really thinking about the whole picture? It seems odd to me to suggest that trucks, blocks, and male friends are somehow tied to elevated testosterone levels. Perhaps the choice of toys is the child’s attempt to relate to their friends or their response to the gendered toy culture all around them.
In addition, I think Padawar downplays the challenges faced by women who do not align with social gender norms. Sure, most women in the U.S. can wear pants without those around them batting an eyelash, but that merely suggests that the way we socially construct gendered behaviors is historical and contextual. And it is true that young “tomboys” are often viewed with bemused patience by parents, peers, etc. But older girls and women who are viewed as unfeminine face more severe social pressures and prejudices. One need only look at some of the coverage of female Olympians to see that society is less forgiving of gender fluidity as we age (here, here, here, and here, for instance). This is not to downplay the pressures faced by boys and young men, but it doesn’t help anyone to erroneously minimize the pressures faced by girls and young women.
Despite these things, Padawer’s article is a thoughtful piece that outlines the challenges faced by non-normative children and their families.
And now we come to the reason that I chose to share the article here on The Spiral Dance: implicit throughout the article is the role that emerging media and online social networks can play in the lives of parents and their children.
More than once Padawer notes that the parents of a child who pushes gender boundaries found support through a message board, blog, or email list. In a month when we’ve been hearing so many negatives about the use of emerging media to criticize or downright bully Olympic athletes, this is a good reminder that there are also online environments in which people find comfort and community.