A New Era of Gender Neutrality?

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By Ashley-Michelle Papon

Earlier this summer, Google Plus debuted as the newest social networking service. Although technophiles immediately took to review sites to predict Google Plus’ inevitable rise to surpass its predecessor Facebook for advances in technology and design, social activists couldn’t help but notice the advance in demographic tracking. Like other sites, Google Plus asks users to share their personal information such as name, contact information, and gender. Unlike other sites, however, Google Plus includes the “other” option alongside “male” and “female.”

The Google Plus interface option may not seem like massive progress in the war to re-frame the body politic, but it nevertheless comes on the tail end of several news stories that illustrate modern understanding of sex and gender are changing to go beyond simply presumptive male and female.

In May, news outlets ran the shocking story of Kathy Witterick and David Stocker, a Canadian couple who had recently given birth and declined to announce the prescribed sex of their child. Identified as only Baby Storm, the family immediately came under massive scrutiny, weathering criticisms from using the child as a political token to attempting to raise a “genderless” child.

Even more recently, a preschool in Stockholm courted controversy with its decision to erase gender stereotyping, eliminating references to gender pronouns and equalizing the time spent with traditionally male and female toys, such as trucks and kitchen utensils. Much like the reaction to the Baby Storm story, critics decried the school for a tunnel vision that leaves the children ill prepared to be genderless in a heavily gendered world.

Much of the mainstream media has taken each of these events and characterized it as the dawn of a new and genderless age. Even respected news sources such as NPR to jump on the bandwagon, hypothesizing that “gender neutrality is the new black” in its June 23rd broadcast, “The End of Gender?” Contrary to these depictions, however, these events do not represent a movement toward a society populated by the genderless. What they actually represent is the gradual shift away from forcibly categorizing individuals to a given gender.

Modern gender theory holds that while sex is biologically based, gender is a much more complicated concept that can’t simply be assigned at birth. As Jos Truitt, a contributor to Feministing, notes, gender is something to be figured out by each individual. Truitt concludes by reflecting, “We should all be so lucky, all be able to define ourselves on our own terms, instead of having a gender imposed on us.”

Which is exactly what the figures in each of these news events, from the Google Plus profile options to Storm’s parents to the preschool’s administration, have come to understand. They aren’t attempting to shade the gender of individuals behind a veil of political correctness; they’re merely avoiding the practice of pigeonholing gender.

“Sex differences are real and some are probably present at birth, but then social factors magnify them,” Lise Eliot, an associate professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School, tells NPR on June 23. “So if we, as a society, feel that gender divisions do more harm than good, it would be valuable to break them down.”

It goes without saying that gender divisions are often the cause of considerable stigmatizing effects, particularly on girls and women. Critics of the system argue that it sets individuals up to adhere to scripted behavior patterns and traits, at the expense of the individual identity. And these predetermined expectations lead to backlash against individuals who fail to subscribe to them, particularly in educational settings. In 1994, Myra Sadker published Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls, which took an in-depth look at how pervasive gender bias impacted education. The results were nothing short of startling: teachers not only rewarded female students for displaying typically ‘feminine’ traits; they helped female students by doing the work for them. Conversely, male students were acknowledged for being smart and empowered to work out their own solutions.

Granted, the bias Sadker identifies is sexism, but sexism has long been empowered, at least partially, by gender-based assumptions in the status quo, and it’s sexism that perpetuates such gender-based stereotypes. These stereotypes are not only inaccurate; they’re damaging, and the real value of the damage can’t be totally parsed out because of the over-reliance our culture has on gender. The idea that a little girl is more organized than a little boy holds about as much scientific merit as the idea that what defines gender rests between a person’s legs, yet these ideas persist in the status quo, limiting spaces and power for men, women, and every identity in between.

As Miriam Perez correctly asserts, “Gender is intrinsically and forcibly scripted into everything we do, how we live our lives. In order to counteract these norms, we have to approach things with an entirely different lens.” An entirely different lens, which should exclude mandatory gender classification. With this understanding, the proposal of gender neutrality or the exclusion of gender assumption doesn’t appear so radical.

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Comments

  1. “Critics of the system argue that [gender division] sets individuals up to adhere to scripted behavior patterns and traits, at the expense of the individual identity.”

    Why single-out gender in socially-ascribed personality traits?

    Let’s just stop talking to children altogether, put them each in a reserved individual pen or something, better yet, out in the forest, making sure they don’t interact with anybody at any time, lest anybody should threaten their individual identity by making any socially pre-determined assumptions about them, which is bound to happen if anyone addresses them using some kind of language. We all know how socially loaded language can be.

    I really don’t see any other way of ensuring that their true individual identity has all the potential to blossom, sheltered from society’s biases and pre-conceptions, which play no beneficial role whatsoever. Language is the ultimate mental prison, really. It is a very clever ploy by society to ensnare the children’s brains in the prison of society’s language before they have any opportunity to develop their own language, which would be the only way for them to express fully their own individual identity.

  2. Wow. I love this. I wasn’t sure at the article’s beginning. . .with all the comments on a “gender neutrality” in the culture’s consciousness. I feel that by keeping things open and not feeling restricted by their sex and told their gender, children moreso have the chance to choose their own (as the article clearly agrees with).
    I feel that by doing this. . .giving children a more open mind like that of the universe, especially in terms of keeping their gender terms and ideas open, we aren’t shutting any doors on gender. . .none of that neutrality stuff. . .we are making things genderFULL full full!

    “Modern gender theory holds that while sex is biologically based, gender is a much more complicated concept that can’t simply be assigned at birth. As Jos Truitt, a contributor to Feministing, notes, gender is something to be figured out by each individual. Truitt concludes by reflecting, “We should all be so lucky, all be able to define ourselves on our own terms, instead of having a gender imposed on us.” ”

    oh my! exactly! :)

  3. I find these little vignettes very encouraging.

    One, for stimulating conversation about the difference between gender and sex. That alone is really, really big. And important. That, of course, (hopefully) leads to point two: starting the dialogue around more inclusion by openness instead of exclusion by stark gender definitions that no one thinks about.

    Of course, the additional benefit is additional scrutiny of those stark gender definitions – what they mean, and how we treat each other an our children.

  4. Great article. I really liked the quotes you had. Thanks for sharing this!

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