01 Apr Princes, Princesses and Preferences: Reflections on Gender in the 21st Century

charlie on beachBy Teddy McGlynn-Wright

I’m not ready to wade into all the princess debates coming out in the wake of the newly updated Cinderella movie (Parentmap and the Stranger, and lots of others have already done that), but I have been thinking a lot about gender in the wake of international women’s day.  Honestly, what got me thinking about it wasn’t the powerful women in my life or those in history or Madeline Albright’s brooch collection.  It was a piece I heard on Invisibilia about categorization.  In their opening segment, they reference coffee shop Rize of NYC which conducts tipjar experiments placing two tip jars on the counter with distinct, discrete (and often oppositional) categories, like puppies vs. kittens, Substance vs. Style, Black Sabbath vs. Led Zepplin.

You see, categorizing is one of the first things we learn to do as humans.  Identifying what fits where and ‘which one of these is not like the other,’ can be done by babies as young as 4 months old. can recognize that cats and dogs fit into the same schema of ‘animals’ or ‘four-legged’ things and that cats and dogs are different kinds of animals and four-legged things.  It’s important that we don’t confuse dogs with say tables or housecats with lions, I get this from an evolutionary perspective.  The Neanderthal who moved quickly enough away from that table has lots of descendants alive today, the one who waited to figure out if the housecat was a tiger didn’t leave a genetic legacy.

Part of my wondering about categories isn’t just our ability to categorize other things (or people) but our desire to self-categorize.  To belong.  For instance, I identify as a parent pretty strongly these days and find a sense of community with other parents almost immediately on meeting them.   There are a whole host of shared experiences, mythologies, hurts and triumphs that are in some ways unique to this parent category into which I’ve entered.   We all have various identity-communities that we belong to, and toddlers do, too.  Charlie can differentiate between cats and dogs and tables, between strangers and friends, adults and children and she seems to be developing a sense of where she belongs, too.   And yet I wonder whether and to what extent she has a sense of gender.  What category is she putting herself into at such an early age?

Gender is one of the most defining (social) categories into which we’re placed and to some extent that we choose.  And so I wonder when she may begin expressing that sense of recognition, belonging or even preference for those who are like her in some specifically gendered way.  I don’t have much self-consciousness about Charlie’s gender ambiguity.  It’s pretty common that when folks first meet her, they aren’t clear about how to gender her.  In fact Charlie was featured in the Tiny Trees pitch for this fall’s Social Venture Partners’ Fast Pitch competition and one question Andrew got repeatedly was whether Charlie was a boy or a girl.  He was told that if he introduced her as Charlie, (rather than Charlotte, her given name) he had to quickly throw in some gendered pronouns in order so the audience wouldn’t be confused or distracted.  So he did, he said “she” 4 times in the first 30 seconds, so as not to distract from the message.  What’s wild is that even in a five-minute pitch, and in which gender is completely irrelevant, people need to know which category that the person they’re looking at/listening to/learning about fits into.  How often are any of us 5 minutes into a conversation with someone without knowing their gender identity?  (Trick question! probably a lot more often than you think because gender isn’t binary, and isn’t that easy to discern.  Sorry for the gotcha there, just had to make the point.)

So when we’re out and someone refers to her as “Princess,” we say, “Actually, we prefer ‘President.’”

Preferences (ones that we express, that we keep secret and those that are revealed by others) are one of the ways that gender sexism socializes us.  Charlie often dresses in more gender neutral or boyish clothes and as a result her gender and preferences can often be misleading.  What’s wild is that depending on how others read her determines so much of how they react to her.  As a boy, she’s strong, active, daring, adventurous.   As a girl, she is pretty, verbal, and in danger of messing up her clothes by playing so ‘rough.’   Many of the things she’s naturally inclined toward: climbing things, wearing pigtails, playing in the dirt, drawing, nurturing her friends (and stuffed animals), don’t fit into a single, polarized gender category.  And they shouldn’t.  But depending on which of these she’s doing and when, will dump a whole host of gendered expectations on her and continue the startlingly subtle constriction of her preferences and choices.  Aside from all these specific preferences we are taught that generally women and girls’ preferences don’t matter much.  Women and girls themselves are socialized to suppress, ignore or apologize for their preferences.  Men and boys, on the other hand, are told that their preferences are entitlements to be asserted (and if necessary, defended).  I’m just not down with that.

OK, since I broke the glass slipper on the “P-word,” I’ll take it to Disney once here.  In both their versions of Cinderella, her choices were limited and her preferences were all but ignored.  The prince, and his cronies, literally trotted out every (eligible) woman in the kingdom in an effort to meet his preference for a bride.  This is the gendered story that I’m left with: prince’s preferences matter.  I want her to have preferences like a Disney prince. . .not so much in the slipper way, more in the move mountains to make these happen way.

I don’t know how her socialization will proceed.  I don’t know what categories she’ll land smack in the middle of and which she’ll rebel against or which she’ll chafe at.  I do know that people will look at her and assume all kinds of preferences based on the way they read her gender.  And I do want her to grow up in a world where she can express a full range of choices, emotions, preferences and expectations and not be completely cut off and hemmed in by the preferences of others.  I want this for her because she deserves it and because it won’t be given to her.  That’s one of the male socialization lessons I get to offer her: that her preferences can be her own and she has every right to assert them.  What toys to play with, who to hold hands with, what clothes to wear, which questions to answer in class, I want her to throw parties and glitter and footballs (and futbols).  So yeah, while many may pronounce that our preferences define us, I’d like to maintain that we can also define our preferences.  That while categorization is evolution, it is not destiny.  And I know all about destiny, I learned it from a Disney Prince.


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