We all saw (and possibly raised our eyebrows at) the story last week about parents Beck Laxton and Kieran Cooper who raised their child Sasha ‘gender neutral’ to the age of five. These sound like extreme lengths to go to, not least from a secret-keeping point of view (imagine five years and never accidentally saying he) and naturally the story has prompted a slew of self-important columns from ‘mothers who know best’ as well as mumblings about abuse and “imperilling healthy development” from people who have little discernible understanding of developmental psychology.
But sometimes when you look around at the amount of consumer rubbish that gets pumped out about what girls and boys are supposedly into, you can understand why someone might be tempted to do this. You can see how two would-be parents, sick to death of wading through carefully separated pink butterflies and blue trains, could reach saturation point; how they might have turned to one another and said: “Fuck this!”
Take for example the Next website. Today I came across the following:
I mean, really? Your son gets his favourite characters and popular themes but your daughter… no, no your daughter has to be a princess. And what’s more, she has to want to feel like a princess. Also, why do boys get referred to as “your child” but girls are “your little girl”? (oh how we love a diminutive when it comes to women).
For crying out loud, Next, it’s not rocket science. If Hamleys managed it, you can. Just do a ‘kids’ section and let people pick the styles for themselves. Do you need an example? Ok, check out Laura Ashley if you must.
Of course Next aren’t the only retailers to be guilty of this nonsensical gender-specific marketing. It’s something Marketing Weeks’s associate editor Ruth Mortimer gets angry about quite regularly. Not to mention the team at PinkStinks. Yes, it’s great that Hamleys changed their store layout. But Hamleys is just one store. All the time high street shops like Next are still happily doing it, it won’t go away.
So what are we to do? After a week of listening to people expounding ignorantly on the impossibility of gender neutrality and banging on about “boys will still be boys”, I do begin to wonder. We are long past the experimental days of psychologist John Money but there MUST be an alternative to this gendered madness.
In 1966 Money – a sexologist and gender identity specialist – famously persuaded the parents of David Raimer, a baby boy whose penis was accidentally destroyed during circumcision, to allow plastic surgeons to reassign his sex. They constructed a vagina, prescribed him female hormones and essentially turned him into a girl. Suffice it to say, it didn’t work and David (renamed Brenda) switched back to a male identity at the age of fifteen. He suffered from depression and a plethora of issues surrounding his dysfunctional family and romantic relationships. He committed suicide in 2004.
In addition to concluding that gender is not necessarily entirely determined by culture (or ‘nurture’, depending on your field), the main thing we can deduce from this is that withholding information is never the answer. Raimer’s parents did not ‘fess up about his sex change until he was in his mid teens, by which point he had already experienced bullying and the major depressive episodes that would continue to visit him throughout his life.
Most of the consternation over Sasha’s story stems from the fact that his parents tried to keep his sex a secret. Sasha himself always knew he was a boy; he was merely encouraged to take an interest in any kind of toy or clothing he liked. But by refusing to tell anyone outside a close group of friends and family, his parents prompted a maelstrom of perplexity and ridicule. This, they would no doubt argue, is a problem entirely of other people’s making. And I’m beginning to think I agree.
Ignorance is undoubtedly the road to ruin and for me it goes without saying that the child in the situation needs to be kept informed. But what about the rest of us? None of the commentators or indeed the other parents at Sasha’s school claim to have a problem with a boy wearing a tutu and fairy wings. What they don’t like is not knowing what they’re dealing with. Is it a boy in a tutu or is it a girl.We need to know. We need to understand.
Except… do we? Isn’t that exactly the issue Sasha’s parents (and anyone else who opposes gender-bias) are trying to confront? You might not ‘have a problem’ with a boy in a tutu but once you know it’s a boy, doesn’t that colour your judgement of him? Can you honestly say it won’t affect the way you treat him? That is not to suggest there are no gender differences at all or that we should seek to banish them altogether. We shouldn’t pretend gender doesn’t matter or that it isn’t interesting but we do need to avoid limiting the experience of the individual based on what we know of their sex.
Strangely enough, it’s the Next website that provides the clue. By using “child” instead of “boy” or “girl” you allow yourself to offer “favourite characters and popular themes” (which might well include princesses but also includes a vast number of alternatives) without prejudice.
Perhaps after all it’s not such a bonkers idea to try and raise a child gender-neutral. As long as you approach it in an honest and transparent way, as far as I can tell the most you could be exposing your child to is questioning. And you never know, you might even find they are offered greater and more varied opportunities in return.