There's a story that's been all over the media recently, about a couple who have been raising their child gender neutral. For those who've not heard that term before, it basically means they've refused to tell anyone if little Sasha is a boy or a girl. Now Sasha's five years old and enrolled in school, the secret's out: it's a boy!
Why is this even newsworthy? Well partly, one suspects, because it's been a slowish week, and the Daily Mail had nothing better to get on its high horse about. Let's face it, if you put most parents under the microscope there'd be something the majority thought was questionable about their style.
How has this affected the child in question? Well the tabloids have been quick to quote psychologists who have been saying, very gravely, stuff along the line of "there is no telling what future psychological damage will manifest as a result of this unorthodox upbringing" et cetera.
Let me be the first to call bullshit. As if there's any way on earth that any child can escape socialisation into gendered roles, no matter what their parents' intentions are. Studies have been carried out on this stuff for decades. One of my favourites involved a woman with a very young baby (at the point where they all look the same, no matter what their parents say) leaving said infant in the care of a group of other women on some pretext or other. The sociologist made sure that there was a conveniently-located box of baby toys available, and watched how the women interacted with the child. When the baby was dressed in pink and given a female name, they all cooed and aah-ed and told her that she was beautiful and encouraged her to play with soft toys and pink things. When the same baby was dressed in blue and given a boy's name, you've guessed it, he was told he was a handsome little man and encouraged to play with toy cars and other manly things.
Now little Sasha may have escaped the worst of this, because his parents refused to tell anyone what sex he was. That means that randoms in the street can't disturb the developing ego with comments about what a beautiful little girl or handsome little boy he is. Does surviving without this for the first five years of life make any difference to the psyche of any child? Who knows. Does it have a detrimental effect? Unlikely. After all, what real harm can it do?
The ways that our gendered behaviour is learned, and how it affects us on an individual level, have been the subject of fierce debate for years. We're still not sure how much is innate and how much is acquired - hence the universal interest in feral children, when they turn up. And gendered behaviour isn't fixed, and never has been. We all do some things that are considered typical of our sex, and some that aren't. Personally I won't be seen dead in a dress. My girly-girl sister is a total petrolhead who follows various Grand Prix around the world, and not because she wants to snare herself a millionaire racing driver, but because she wants to dribble over the cars while jabbering on about torque and bhp and goodness knows what else. Everyone's got that kind of dichotomy within them between their physical self and their gendered identity. It's so common that most of us don't even notice it, or think much of it when we do.
Ultimately, despite all the good intentions of his parents, little Sasha will almost certainly end up as socialised as the rest of us. There's just no escaping it. Freud recognised that years ago, when he wrote Civilization and Its Discontents. Society and civilisation exist as self-propagating unifying forces: to belong, one must conform. Foucault argued, in more recent years, that to ecsape the effect of socialisation and discover your innate or 'true' self you must indulge in self-alienating behaviours. Now that sounds to me like very good justification for heading off to 'Frisco and getting off your face on acid, but theoretically his thinking is sound. It is only by escaping the bonds of civilisation that we can become the people that we were truly born to be. Sadly, civilisation don't like that. People who breaks its laws are viciously punished, and I'm not just talking murders and psychopaths. Every fourteen year old knows the agony of turning up to school in the wrong pair of shoes and being ostracised for the rest of term.
And Sasha has been socialised by his parents, whether they like to think that or not. His mother, for reasons best known to herself, posted a video of him on YouTube this week, discussing the concept of gendered behaviours. He was more than aware that blue was for boys and pink was for girls, but he considered such stereotypes "silly". Of course he does, he's five years old and that's what he's been told to think. That means exactly squat in the grand scheme of things. But the fact remains that he is aware of what the stereotypes of gendered behaviour are, he understands that they exist and how they apply. That he is being encouraged to disregard them is, in my book, a positive thing. But that kid ain't gender neutral, more gender ambivalent.
I've seen some interestingly outraged responses to this story in the media. A favourite headline has accused the parents of "neutering" their son. Bollocks. Most proscribed gendered behaviours are nonsense anyway. What's Action Man if he's not a doll? He might have shorter hair than Barbie, but otherwise what's the difference? Equally, Barbie's hot pink Hummer is still a toy car, however you dress it up. There's more cross-over in these areas than most people realise. Ultimately most kids' toys are props that encourage imaginative play, that's all. It is the adults that put a gendered spin on these things, and that is what the children in turn pick up.
Who says that a girl should wear pink and a boy should wear blue? Actually up until WWI it was the other way round. I forget what changed it, but in the Victorian era boys would wear frilly pink dresses until they were three or four at least. They still grew up into very reserved, emotionally restrained and standoffish men, for the most part. These days if you tried to put your three year old son in a pink frock (1) he'd refuse, screaming, because it's 'girly' - they pick this stuff up pretty quick, and (2) you'd probably have social services knocking on your door sharpish. At the very least, the neighbours would be horrified.
But why does anyone actually care? So what if little Sasha is raised differently to his classmates. Will Sasha encourage the other boys in his class to start playing with dolls, dress in pink, and generally behave in an effeminate way? Is gender neutrality catching?
The inference is that if Sasha grows up less male, he grows up more female. Heaven forbid, they might even be turning him gay. Now does 'less male' really equate to 'more female'? Are male and female binaries that we vacillate between? Or is gendered identity more of a continuum, a sliding scale? I personally subscibe to the latter view. Manly men, girly men, butch women and femmes exist all around us: some a gay, some are straight, some are neither, or something in between. Gendered identity is fluid, and it is performative. We are all playing a role when we act in typically 'male' or 'female' ways. The burly meathead who spends half his life in the gym bulking up is acting a part just as much as the drag queen performing a routine. In fact, he's taking it far more seriously, because the drag queen's act is ironic. I dare you to ask the next gym bunny you see if his gendered performance is for real.
I bet you anything that Sasha's more feminine ways are bullied out of him sharpish. Human beings are creatures that like to belong, and he'll no doubt conform pretty quickly to what his peers consider acceptable, no matter what his parents think. After all, they're not forcing him to dress in drag and play with dolls: they're just giving him the choice to express himself how he wants. If they try and force him to be less rigid in his identity as he grows up then I'm sure they will damage him: but they'll only be doing to him what they consider that society would have done anyway, just in reverse. As long as he grows up feeling free to wear what he wants, and play how he wants, then I don't see that his unorthodox upbringing will have any detrimental affect on his psyche: if anything, he'll probably emerge a better adjusted person than most of his peers.
Children are expressive creatures, endlessly imaginative and generally accepting of the world as it is presented to them. It's adults that fuck them up. One of my favourite short stories makes exactly that point - Thomas Kearnes' This House is Not a Home. It's less than 1000 words: read it. I insist. It's brilliant. Then think twice the next time you encourage a child to act in a proscribed manner.