You probably already knew that all dogs are boys and all cats are girls, right?
But how much do you know about just how far the gendering of the animal kingdom has gone. Butterflies, ladybugs, horses, birds, dolphins, leopards, peacocks, rabbits, koalas, chipmunks, mice, foxes? All girls. And for the boys? Sharks, whales, lions, tigers, raccoons, caterpillars, bears, monkeys, moose, and of course, dinosaurs. Obviously. Bees and owls and porcupines can still go both ways. For now.
The hyper-gendering of small children is a pretty recent accomplishment. But we’ve come to a strange moment in history where it’s no longer a matter of pink for girls, blue for boys. It's pink vs. camo. And that's a problem. Much more of a problem than all the pinkest pink fluffy ribbons, bows and tutu-spinning fairy princesses you can fit in a toy store.
Wander into any kids clothing or toy store, and, when you come out of the pink, it’s like you’ve stepped into a warzone. Wall-to-wall camouflage. Guns, weapons of any sort, and the clothing to match. Perhaps it shouldn’t be such a surprise, living as we now do, in a country perpetually at war.
Have you ever seen the bumper sticker, “I’m already against the next war”? That’s me. That's how I was raised. Despite the absence of the green-gray-black colored camouflage clothing and the violent toys of future American soldiers in our home, my son has already asked me for a “super shooter.” My son, who is dressed up like a ballerina and plays with his sister and her friends most of the time. My heart may have skipped a bit the day. I worry for him. I know the tide is turning in many circles of a manhood defined by physical strength and the "be a man" school of emotional learning.
With our first child, we wanted to wait to discover the baby's gender at birth. The baby shower was a gender-neutral affair (by which I mean yellow ducks and green frogs everywhere). The pink only came when the birth of a girl was announced. And like any good new mom with a decade of New York under her belt, I dressed my daughter in brown and black and gray.
When she started dressing herself at age two, it was all dresses and pink and purple. Does looking girly make her less than? Of course not. And by that time, I was already asking "What's so awful about pink anyway?" But when she wear pants (rare) or looks more gender neutral (translation: boy-ish), does it sometimes warm my feminist mommy heart? Sure.
This moment seems to be defined by the belief that, "Girls can do anything. But boys must do boy things." And so, it was the birth of my son that really opened my feminist eyes to what gender looks like in America today.
“Tom-boy” girls are nearly universally adored (as long as they grow out of it as teens, of course). Deviation from “boy play,” on the other hand, can be deadly. Literally. There are boys who are killed by homophobia because—despite gay weddings and Ellen and that football player—there are so many more conversations we need to have.
The thing about little ones is that they amble along in their little blurry world, not caring and not noticing, until one day, they do. By three and a half or so, the divide begins. The number of boys who play with girls and the girls who hang with the boys is down to the one or two kids who manage to find room for themselves in both spaces. And to the kids who know that what the world is telling them they like isn’t what they like. This crap is internalized and we need to pay attention to what we are bringing to it. Those of us who care about gender equity--it starts so early, and it's important. Important enough that lives are lost.
I don’t recommend googling “boy killed by parents who thought he was gay.” There’s more than one story there. But maybe read just this, “Gay Dad’s Open Letter to Zachary Dutro-Boggess." If you can stomach it, there’s a lot more: “Mother, Boyfriend Murdered 4-year old Because he might have been gay” or “Accused of Being Gay by His Mother Before She Killed Him." Living where I do, traveling in the circles I do, I have trouble believing these things still really happen. I am shocked every time.
It’s nearly Halloween, and if you walk into your favorite mega-super store, take a look at the boys’ costumes section. From camo to superheroes, all of the costumes are bulging with fake muscles. It's disturbing. How outraged would we be if little girls’ costumes all had fake boobs? I try not to say “never” as a mother, so I’ll just say this: I hope like hell my son isn’t enticed by that vision of manhood. A vision that would have little boys feel just as inadequate in their bodies as little girls have felt since sometime around the invention of Barbie. That’s not equality. That’s lose-lose.
Of course, they don’t realize what it means to really shoot someone or that people are killed in warzones every day, or that real heroes don’t show their power with muscles like that. The answer, I believe is rarely “Just say no.” The answer is somewhere in the conversations we have with our kids.
When we ask the boys what they are shooting from their guns, their little voices still reply “bubbles” or “marshmallows” or the much-loved “lasers.” But one day they won’t answer that way. And not long after that, many of them will find our country presenting them with an open invitation to see what war is really like.
Not long ago, my kids’ pre-school director told a groups of parents that when she was new to teaching, she was as concerned as we are about creating a “gender neutral” environment. She was careful not to let gender stereotypes reign supreme in her classroom. And then she said something like this: “I tired that for a while and then I learned something you’re not going to want to hear.” Pause. “After 10 years of teaching, here’s what I’ve learned…Are you ready for it? Because I’m just gonna say it… Boys and girls are different. They just are. I'm sorry. They just are."
As long as the loud voices out there continue to wax poetic about how terrible the pink aisle is for our girls (and for girls only!), and never think to mention the camo aisle and the fake super-hero muscles, we still have a lot of work to do.
Do you know the age of the average kid, almost always a boy, killed in an accidental shooting in America? Three. My son’s age now.