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.