Sunday, April 18, 2010

Girls love pink (again)

The BBC reports on results presented at a recent conference showing that children under a year old favour gender typical toys.

The study looked at children from nine months to 3 years old (they say 36 months in most of the stories, not sure why, except that perhaps they assume most readers can't or won't bother to divide by 12 and realise that we're not talking about small babies at all) which seems plenty old enough to have been subject to significant socialisation at home and nursery/playgroups. It seems very likely to me that the children would be likely to reach for familiar toys and colours, and also that there are very few homes where children would have a gender-neutral environment and choice of toys. Even if as parents you try to let your child's gender identity develop naturally and in his/her own time, there are well-meaning relatives who will try to drown your little girl in a sea of pink dresses.

It's unlikely of course that the researchers are completely unaware of this, and may have made some attempt to correct for the confounding issues, though it's difficult to see how this can have been done in any meaningful way. I tried to find the original paper, however it seems that there isn't any paper, at least none that's been published yet, so it's impossible to comment on the methodology used or how significant the results were.

Interestingly it appears to be someone's undergraduate project, in which case they've done well to have it presented at a conference. Still I wonder how well it goes down in the academic community when you use over-simplified results and socially provocative statements in order to promote yourself in the mainstream media.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Living dolls

I read this article recently in the Guardian about parents who choose to select/control the sex of their child. It focused on white, middle-class British parents, so this is not the usual context of the Chinese ‘one-child policy’ or India’s ‘lost girls’, and in fact the main focus was on women who wanted to have a girl child.

Most of the objections discussed seemed to be around the idea of sex-selection as ‘unnatural’, or ‘interference with divine will’. I’m not even going to discuss that much, as I don’t have any objections along those lines, and the whole idea of what is and isn’t natural, and the relationship between ‘natural’ and ‘good’ is a logical minefield and never leads to any useful conclusions. For me, the alarm bells were more around the reasons the women gave for wanting girls.

"But, Susan says, "I got sick of walking down the high street past BabyGap and seeing these delightful little girl outfits in the window and just getting this pang.""

"Nicola says. "I remember seeing someone in town with a little girl all dressed up. I thought, 'I'm never going to have that.'"

This, to me, is just crazy. It’s all about the clothes. It’s not the first time I’ve heard such arguments, women desperate to have a girl, women who already have several children, determined to create a completely new human being, just so they can have a living doll to dress up in little pink outfits. I’m not particularly maternal or fond of children, but this much I do know - a child is not a doll or an accessory, but an individual person with her own personality and identity. The child small enough to dress up only lasts so long. What happens next? Suppose she doesn’t want to wear pink any more, or have long hair like a princess doll, or suppose she likes science or sports better than shopping and fashion and inane gossip. Suppose she turns out to be lesbian or even transgender? What will you do then, send her back to the shop and ask for the ‘proper’ girl that you paid for?

The assumption seems to be that if you can determine the sex of your child, you have automatically determined exactly what their appearance and personality will be like, and that will be your stereotyped image of what a ‘girl’ or a ‘boy’ is like. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, people are a bit more complicated than that. And children, which the breeders often seem to forget, are actually people. There can be enough pressure on a child anyway to meet their parents’ standards of behaviour and gender conformity; how much more will there be when your parents have paid significant amounts, perhaps taken out a large loan or remortgaged their house, for the sole purpose of ensuring that you will be a child that wears pretty dresses and has long, pretty hair, and not a messy, energetic one? Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if the dressing-up obsessed ‘mummies’ just bought themselves a doll?

Maybe they feel that having a girl would be like going back in time to meet themself as a little girl, armed with all the knowledge and experience they have now and able to help her have a better life than they did. I can understand that up to a point. Now of course my guidance (I like to think) would be better, I’d like to tell my younger self to let go of the religious guilt and shame about myself, to have more confidence in my abilities to not worry about what others think of me. Whereas the women in the story presumably would go back and smother their younger self in pink frills and princess toys and impress on them that the most important thing in the world is to be visually pleasing to others. But for both them and me, that’s just fantasy and not relevant to having a child of our own. Your daughter is not you, not a second attempt at becoming yourself, though the woman who refers to her daughter as a ‘mini-mummy’ doesn’t seem to have grasped this. Fortunately she seems to be content so far with her 'mini-mummy', so "completely different from the boys in every respect", though perhaps suffering from a massive case of confirmation bias.

I don’t think sex-selection is a bad thing in itself, and I don’t see the purpose of banning it, particularly if the requests are not biased significantly towards one gender or the other. It could be a good thing if it prevents each woman producing a brood of unwanted ‘wrong-sex’ children in the obsessive quest for one with the right set of genitals. What I do object to, and more violently the longer I think about it, is the reasoning behind it in every story I’ve heard on the subject, the strict gender-policing of behaviour and dress and even of the personality one is allowed to express, which these parents are imposing on their children before they are even conceived.