“Your little girl is so cute”, I get this about twice a day. Most of the time my cursory response is an appreciative “thank you” but if I have the time and am not trying to stuff my child into a car seat or avoid life-threatening peril I will correct these well-wishers by saying “thank you, and she is a he.” I am rarely bothered by this (sometimes puzzled, but rarely bothered) and figure that my blond, curly-haired toddler son is just that damn cute that he transcends the limitations of boy cuteness and has jumped into a whole other gender quotient of cute.
I reflected on this common occurrence recently when I happened upon the news/social experiment happening in Sweden concerning one young couple and their toddler of uncertain gender. The parents in question are electing to raise their child (going by the gender, and even species, ambiguous name of “Pop”) without any clear gender distinction or adherence to any typical gender norms. “We want Pop to grow up more freely and avoid being forced into a specific gender mould from the outset,” Pop’s mother told a local Swedish newspaper, and she went on to add, “It’s cruel to bring a child into the world with a blue or pink stamp on their forehead.”
What this all means for “Pop” and his/her companions, family members, and the like remains to be seen. “Pop”, according to the article, sports both girls and boys clothes, and is fully aware of his/her gender, but to everyone else it remains a close kept secret.
While at its core this social experiment seems to be more of an exploit and stunt than a true discipline or benevolent sacrifice for the good of the child. These parents already, no doubt, have countless detractors and critics, and I have no desire to join the fray. With that said, I think there is something genuinely compelling about this particular approach and the obvious nature vs. nurture questions that arise around it. While gender is a biological fact (some in the transgender community would likely argue this point) and not a social or artificial construct, there is little doubt that contemporary society adheres to distinctly rigid ideas of gender conformity (that old “boys will be boys” and “girls are beautiful and sweet” notion of gender identity is still greatly in effect). These relatively unchallenged notions of gender identity (specifically in young boys and girls) often lead to modes of repression (as well as suppression) and imposed limitations without much explanation, rhyme or reason (end product of this is likely pro wrestling and Paris Hilton).
I am confident that you readers out there are holding on to some strong opinions that just want to be liberated right here on the page. Is gender largely a construct or is it simply a biological fact? Are “Pop’s” parents visionaries or misguided loons? As a society, are we reinforcing gender stereotypes in an effort to simplify matters for our children or ourselves? Lots of questions here. Feel free to ask more or attempt to answer.
Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.