Wishing for More Gender Trouble

22 Sep

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I’ve been getting into a little bit of Gender Trouble lately. That is, I’ve been reading Judith Butler’s book by that name for a class I am teaching. And though it is, as one of my colleagues said recently, “one of the hardest books I’ve ever read,” I’ve managed to grasp several bits of it and those bits have me thinking about motherhood. Now Butler doesn’t talk about motherhood, but she does talk about Freud and gender identity development in the family, among many other things. In her explorations and critiques, she looks at some Freudian concepts, in particular as they related to the way we categorize people into one of only two categories—male and female—even though, as she argues, these biological “facts” are just as constructed as the gender ideas we graft onto them. She talks about the roots of identity development and how we come to see ourselves in gendered ways. So I’ve been thinking about how directive even the most open-minded parenting is, how it moves children into restrictive categories that they then struggle to maintain or break from for the rest of their lives.

I have fancied myself the kind of parent who pushes up against gender norms and works to expand the social parameters for what it means to be a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’ in these times. I’ve tried to let my children live more freely than the standard social norms would have them live. But in looking back at my mothering over the past—dare I say it—two decades, especially in light of Butler’s ideas, I think maybe my work on this front isn’t all that impressive. I really did only know two categories for gender so at best I think I made boy-ness a little roomier for my son and girl-ness a little roomier for my daughter but I didn’t really think any larger than that. I made it a lot easier to be a boy or girl in my house and to do it in self-determined ways. But I didn’t challenge the gender binary, the split into just two genders. Now, after reading Butler, I wish I’d known how. I realize that if I had, I wouldn’t have been doing it in a vacuum. I realize that family is but one place where children learn how to “do” gender, that it’s probably impossible to live fully outside of gender norms, that what works within family cultures often doesn’t translate well to larger cultures and that this has consequence for the lives that children live. And I did make a good bit of progress in moving my own thinking beyond the stereotypical categories and restrictive thinking I learned—from everywhere–as I grew up. I suppose that is no small feat. Even so, I wish I had been able to do things even more differently, radically even.

I wonder what life and identity would have been like for my children had I used different frames for thinking about them as people, had I done something different with the question after their births “Is it a boy or a girl?,” had I the courage or the faintest understanding of how to live, myself, outside of a gender binary. Oh sure, I engaged my own micropolitics when I could. I employed what I call “strategic confusion” at McDonald’s when they asked whether I wanted a girl toy or a boy toy in their happy meal; I looked for the most gender neutral clothing I could find—discovering to my surprise then that it was much harder to do this for my son than for my daughter; I let them wear what they wanted and didn’t use derivatives of the phrase “because you’re a boy/girl” as justification for anything; I bought dolls for him and a truck for her and books that offered images of resistance for them both; I bought art supplies for their friends’ birthday gifts. I had conversations with school officials on behalf of both of them regarding one gender or sexuality issue or another. I got comfortable with other people’s discomfort with the choices I made. The list goes on. But I wish I’d known how to do it bigger, how to challenge social structure more profoundly. I wish I’d known how to construe “biology” differently. I wonder how our family would have been different if I had.


Posted by on September 22, 2011 in Families, Feminism, Motherhood, Parenting


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7 responses to “Wishing for More Gender Trouble

  1. Rachael

    September 22, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    Being pregnant with my second, I’m curious about possible responses to the “Boy or girl?” question.

    Also curious how much more difficult Butler’s book is than Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto,” which I’m going to attempt to read this weekend. Or, should I say, “read”? Or perhaps, “go cross-eyed looking at”?

    • Dr. Mama

      September 23, 2011 at 1:59 pm

      Hi Rachael,

      I have two strategies I use. One is strategic confusion, as I mentioned: “What do you mean?” is one of my favorite questions. You could follow this with “well (child’s name, or ‘my baby’) is not much of any gender at this point” or something like that. The other strategy is don’t bite. That is, the questioner doesn’t always have to be the one who sets the frame for the discussion. The answerer can offer an alternative frame. So you could say “My baby is happy and healthy and so is the mother and our family is making adjustments just fine.” This of course is not what the questioner wanted to hear, but it is what you wanted to say and they’re not the boss of you! :). You could also be more direct and say something along the lines of “well, we’re trying to focus more on the health and happness of the baby and the family than that, but we’re all doing great, thank you, and the baby’s name is (whatever it is).

      And Haraway or Butler. Now there’s a quandary. I’m gonna go with Butler is harder. But that doesn’t mean your weekend will be any lighter than mine, as I finish Gender Trouble, so don’t be overly relieved. Good luck!

  2. Ciprian

    September 23, 2011 at 3:15 am

    if you don’t mind Dr. Mama, can you please explain how would an ideal, supportive, surrounding society would be like (in terms of how would the human condition would be bettered)? A society iin which these “gender roles” would not be as they are now and where you need not struggle against the current in raising your children the way you want?

    I am asking this questions because It is relatively hard for me to see this big picture, thus unable to perceive the final purpose of this philosophy of gender deconstruction.

    • Dr. Mama

      September 23, 2011 at 1:47 pm

      I’m not sure if I can even fully imagine it, Ciprian, to tell you the truth. We might start to look at persons as persons first, rather than in terms of gender first; we might stop blocking access to certain areas of social life because gendered norms restrict some persons from family and emotional connection, and others from public, political power, and others from the right to live fully and unapologetically at all. Perhaps people would not feel like identity is a prescribed dichotomy from which they have only two choices, with either of those choices being constricting. People who don’t fit neatly into “masculine” or “feminine” frames would not feel eclipsed or ignored. People’s sexuality or gender identity would matter less than their humanity. Perhaps we’d have a clearer sense intellectually of what constitutes “fact” and would recognize the contingent nature of “facts,” like biological ‘”facts,” and we would treat them contingently, and this might have all kinds of impact on what we question and what we don’t. These are my first thoughts.

  3. Ciprian

    October 7, 2011 at 7:18 am

    I am grateful for the answer. In my opinion, your vision is to a certain extent a localized application of a similar principle found in some Eastern philosophical schools of thought which contend that our inner personhood transcends that which we most immediately tend to identify with (gender, race, age). It does not transcend everything though, in the sense that it would actually be just nothingness, but it does go beyond superficial evaluation. This philosophical culture encourages introspection and I think one of the problems of our modern society is the lack of it, which makes us fall victims to false identifications.

    I hope it makes sense :))

  4. Pingback: A Boy or a Girl?

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