What Can The View Teach Us About Genderless Babies?

 
By now, you’ve no doubt gotten wind of the controversy caused by two Toronto parents who decided not to tell the world the gender of their new baby, Storm. The story jumped from our national press across the 49th parallel, where the hosts of ABC’s The View had this to say:

These positions are actually some of the least extreme I’ve seen on this topic.  Still, it’s not hard to see that much of what’s being expressed here is more visceral than rational — post-hoc justifications for what are essentially feelings more than arguments.  This is the type of lizard brain response I find endlessly fascinating, at once belying our pretense at rationality and giving us a window into our cognition.

Essentially Incorrect

Let’s start with the opening exchange:

Whoopi: A Toronto couple, they’re making headlines because they refuse to reveal the sex of their four month old. They want to raise the child in a “genderless fashion”, so the child is free from, you know, societal gender norms. Which is kind of interesting.

The Blonde One To Whoopi’s Left: I don’t get it, it’s like when the baby was born they said, “Congratulations, it’s an It?” What did they say?

What Not-Whoopi is getting at here is that something just doesn’t feel right about not being able to identify a child’s gender. It’s such a key piece of how we categorize the world — a simple, binary classification. In fact, I suspect, given gender’s importance in reproduction, that it’s often the first distinction we make on encountering someone.

I talked about this in my Skeptic’s Guide to Magical Thinking last year. Part of our cognitive hard wiring is to see the world through certain templates that may or may not accurately reflect reality, but are usually pretty close. In this case, what Not-Whoopi is probably driven by is Essentialism — the belief that living things have an irreducible quality that cannot be explained by physics and chemistry alone. Essentialism is partly caused by our tendency to categorize, thus “male” and “female” are more than just reflections of gentials and hormone balance, but the essence of maleness and femaleness. That’s a lot more than they taught in biology.

When we deny people the ability to categorize, we deny them the ability to essentialize, and that makes humans very uneasy. It’s not hard to think of examples — pretty much anyone we’d, in a less politic era, have called a “freak” will qualify. That list will differ based on cultural factors, but watch your reaction — if you’re queasy or hostile, it’s a pretty good sign that a category violation has occurred.

The Herd Reacts

Continuing on:

Barbara: There was a poll that the Today Show did, by the way, of 52,000 people. 11% said “A Great Idea’, 89% said “Terrible Idea”.

The Other Blonde One To Barbara’s Right: It troubles me that this seems to be some sort of social experiment, where they’re using their child to send a message to everybody else.

Did you see what Not-Barbara did there? She sounded for a second like she was concerned for the child (more on that below) but really, she’s concerned about the message this family is sending. Make no mistake — a good chunk of the vitriol behind the reaction to this story is aimed at the perceived affront to societal norms these people are making. I think there are two aspects to this:

The first is personal. If Storm’s parents are right about the harm gender stereotyping does to children, then all of us parents who didn’t worry so much about it are wrong. Being wrong produces cognitive dissonance, and can result in a whole slew of behaviours to convince yourself that you’re actually right. More to the point: being wrong about how you’re parenting produces more cognitive dissonance than you can possibly imagine, and a reaction that can be shockingly violent. Just wade into the Homebirthing or Breastfeeding waters for a little taste of what that’s like.

The second seems to be simple herd conformance. It’s no secret that humans are social animals finely attuned to those individuals that are a bit too individual. Assuming that the intensity of herd response depends on the perceived threat such individuality presents, we might well expect parenting and gender — both pretty fundamental to the herd’s continuance — to evoke a pretty strong reaction.

But What About the Children?

Not-Whoopi made her position clear by quoting the wisdom of Lady Gaga: the baby was “Born This Way”, so any veering from that must be bad. Barbara made a similar (though perhaps better argued) point by quoting child psychiatrist Harold Koplewicz that “there is no such thing as gender neutrality,” and “infants are not a blank slate.” Which are both true, yet completely beside the point.

Storm’s parents aren’t actually raising their child as gender neutral — no one’s duct taping their genitalia shut — nor are they, from what I’ve read, assuming a stridently behaviorist stance. They’re trying to change the way that other people treat the child. That’s completely different.

It also addresses the point made later by Not-Barbara, that Storm will have to navigate the world in his or her body, and he or she needs to learn how to do that. Yet the parents’ “experiment” won’t stop that from happening. When the time is right, Storm will probably define his or her gender identity without much trouble — there are so many biological and social signals, they can be pretty hard to miss. In the same way that dressing up in women’s clothing won’t make a boy gay, it won’t make him gender confused or trans-gendered either. But for right now, as The One In The Middle Who Isn’t Star Jones points out, “The child is a baby, so he doesn’t know.”

Storm’s gender isn’t nearly as relevant to Storm as it is to the adults around Storm…and for the lizard brains inside their heads. Storm’s parents are probably being a bit idealistic, but any charges that they’re harming this child are simply not supported by the facts in this story as we know them.

12 Responses to “What Can The View Teach Us About Genderless Babies?”

  1. Everything you need to know about this exchange occurs at 1min into the segment:

    “Next: Dr. Oz”

    • Erik Davis says:

      Actually, the really funny thing was that when I was watching the segment on the ABC-TV site, it rolled directly into a segment, from some other show, about Chaz Bono.

  2. Eamon Knight says:

    Well, calling the kid “Storm” causes me a wee bit of prejudice against the parents, ‘cuz of that Tim Minchin monologue, but other than that: more power to them! But other than that, it’s bleeding obvious that the reactions against are people rationalizing their own unexamined discomfort into fake concern for the child.

  3. Jason says:

    WIth this particular story, I am very interested to better understand the parents rationale for arriving at their decision. For example, what is their view of their family, friends, community …. indeed society at large, that they decided to introduce their child with the explicit notion to not divulge a basic biological reality of that person. Therefore, I am left not so much worried or concerned about the child, as many believe they are falling back upon, but I am interested instead about the perspective of the new parents, their view of the world and those that surround them.

  4. The thing that I found interesting was that all the non-Whoopi’s kept going back and forth between “gender is fully biological and you can’t make this child gender-neutral” and “this child needs to learn how to navigate a gendered world – you’re taking that experience away from him!”

    The fact that these are the two main arguments against what the parents are doing is proof that the real reason is fully emotional. I, for one, am glad that Storm’s parents are doing this. It draws attention to how prevalent gender normativity still is.

  5. Moderation says:

    Help me understand the point of view I hear being expressed here. Would we be ok if these parents were covering this child so that the race were unknown? What if they decided to intentionally, dress and address the child as the opposite of its actual gender? I have to agree with Jason, before a parent places this burden (I agree it is not currently a burden, but it could well become one) it would be good to hear their rationale for doing it. Certainly this decision should offer some benefit to the child that is significantly greater than the potential harm. This is not the child choosing to be a part of a defacto social experiment, it is the parent.

    On the lighter side, the parents must not be planning on any dates until the kid is potty trained as I believe I read that they have not told anyone but their other children (no grandparents or family friends). Also, this will likely not last long as I don’t see the young siblings keeping this secret for long. I have a toddler and I would not recommend her as a confidant.

    • Erik Davis says:

      In their own words: http://www.parentcentral.ca/parent/newsfeatures/article/998960–genderless-baby-s-mother-responds-to-media-frenzy

      Not to be too glib, but my sense is that they’re just hippies, and that this is a bit of (muddled) idealism. I seriously doubt this will make a difference to the kid if they don’t take it to extremes or let it go on too long…which from what I’ve read they don’t intend to. But as I said above, I doubt it’ll do much harm either. We get gender cues from a lot of places — both biological and cultural — and parenting is only one element.

      Personally, I’m much more interested in the public response and what it says about how we respond to ideas outside the accepted norms.

    • Forcing a child to be a gender they don’t identify with (whether it be their biological gender or not) is wrong. No question there. But letting children determine their own gender construct for themselves and allowing them to become only as gender-normative as they feel comfortable being seems like the exact opposite of harm.

      Now, unlike Storm’s parents, I never hid my son’s gender. But I do occasionally dress him in clothes that make people assume that he’s a girl. I do this because I want him to feel comfortable and confident in his sexuality and his gender – to wear what makes him feel good rather than what others tell him is appropriate for his gender.

      At the moment, he’s only 3-months-old, so he has no peers to worry about. But once that becomes an issue, he’ll be old enough to express his own wishes as far as dress goes. But for now, we’re raising him to see gender as just a biological fact, with all the “male” traits optional, and all the “female” traits available – should he want them.

      If he ends up preferring My Little Pony to Tonka Trunks, that’s okay. If he grows up to prefer men as sexual partners to women, that’s okay too. If he decides that he wants to be a “manly man” who abides by all of society’s gender rules and completely eschews anything “female,” that’s also okay. He has the right to construct his own gender and sexuality, his own being, as he chooses. And, frankly, as long as he’s happy, I’m happy too.

      Would you say that’s “wrong” or “damaging” to him?

  6. Alex says:

    Personally, I plan to raise my children species neutral. When people ask “is that a chimp or a lizard?” I’ll respond with “it’s whatever it wants to be”. Why should we force our social norms on our children? If they want to be pink cupcake-shitting unicorns, who are we to say “no”?

  7. keightytwo says:

    I think they are right, but taking it too far. Gender stereotypes in our society aren’t completely arbitrary, but are excessive in a lot of ways. But no matter how accurate or exaggerated they are, they are also a reality of our society. It’s a society that storm will be a part of. I think that by creating a gender sterile environment they may actually be doing a disservice to storm. I think a parent’s role is not to raise a child, but to raise an adult. It’s a parent’s job to prepare the kid for life by informing them about the world and teaching them how to make the best decisions in that world. That doesn’t seem to me to be what they are doing. They want Storm to make a social choice without the backdrop of society. It seems like their strategy is to remove all context and at some point hope a choice is made (at some point a choice WILL have to be made. Right or wrong, that is how our society is set up.) After all, if the child doesn’t understand all that society associates with male and female genders, how will the child be able to choose one? If all the child will ever know is gender neutrality, then there IS no decision because there is no choice being presented. While I agree that it would be a positive thing for the child will not be stuck in one camp or the other and can choose a little from both camps, the problem is that its not consistent with the society we live in and the choice that will have to be made. I think there are better ways to give children gender freedoms without having to shelter them from social truths.

    Take, for example, Jazz, Storm’s older brother who although identifies as male, likes to wear pink and grow his hair long. Jazz does understand that these behaviours are not typically associated with masculinity, but seems to get enough support from those around him to feel comfortable to be who he is and do what makes him happy. As long as behaviours are never discouraged on the grounds that they don’t match your junk, where exactly is the harm? To me, Jazz is both learning an honest view about his society and still being encouraged to be who he is. He makes the choice to wear pink not based ONLY what he wants to do, but how it will be seen. He can make the choice to conform to society’s views or not. Ah, there’s that word; conformity! The idea of conforming to society does have a negative connotation to it, but its not always a bad thing. In fact, as social animals, it can be a good thing. There comes a point where people are expected to follow certain social rules. And we would be appalled if parents said they weren’t going to teach their children good manners and how to behave decently in public because that’s imposing conformity on them. I would say unless there is reason to think the child will be harmed unless their environment is 100% gender neutral, its just more trouble than its worth.

    Who is this really about? If its REALLY just about letting Storm choose storm’s gender (awkward incorrect wording begins!), why can’t they just play along with the cooing strangers out in public who just want to gush and will never see the kid again? Surely they don’t think those chance encounters, probably more common the younger and unaware the child is, will make that big of an impression on Storm’s view of gender stereotypes. Why can’t family and friends likely to be involved in the kids life just be informed of its sex but made aware that they will be raising the kid gender neutral (although from what we know about Jazz, I think the family’s views on gender are known and respected anyway). If it were my family member, I would be offended that they don’t trust me enough to respect their decision. The principle that they were keeping secrets from me and refusing to share information about a family member would be hurtful regardless of how relevant the actual information of the physical sex actually is or isn’t. (the mother says she doesn’t believe in secrets. Call it what you want, but when you are intentionally not disclosing information, its a secret)

    If its about changing society’s views on gender roles and stereotypes, I think how they are raising Jazz lends itself better to the cause since they are simply challenging the ideas of others that boys can’t wear pink dresses and whatnot. With Storm they are actually imposing change in language and behaviour and while the behaviours themselves aren’t important, the fact that change is being imposed on them will sour some enough that they miss the point.

    In reading what the mother herself has said about it, she did admit that this IS a social experiment. She said it came about when Jazz “..wondered if people would respond differently if they didn’t know the baby’s sex. What gifts would they bring?”

    Again, I don’t think they are absolutely wrong and horrible to do this, I just think at best, it’s going too far, and at worst there may be unintended consequences.

  8. Nancy says:

    When I heard about Storm and Storms family, I was starry eyed. It took me back to being about ten years old, around 1974, and reading a fictional story in Ms magazine (I think) about a family who sent their child (named X or something equally unimaginative) to school but refused to disclose if the child was a boy or a girl.

    Why was I so thrilled with that story as a child myself? Probably because of the stifling expectations around gender that surrounded us. That kid was free, man! It certainly left an impression on me. Many many years later, I realized that as I child I had pictured myself as a man grown up, because the womens roles didn’t work for me. Males and females both have to deal with gender expectations that may not fit. Storm’s family are just ahead of the curve. Way ahead, perhaps.

    I heard Storm’s family on CBC radio and they sure came across as very thoughtful parents, totally family oriented and loving. I hope the fervor dies down so they can carry on quietly, but also happy they have raised an interesting issue. They will catch some open minds, people who may examine their own reactions to the idea and wonder.
    As for social experiment – Wow. Every child is a totally uncontrolled social experiment. Should we home school or not? Should we go to x or y play date? Family bed or not. God or not? Church or not? Santa or not? On and on.

  9. Nancy says:

    http://coe.k-state.edu/about/download/profdev/X%20story.pdf

    link to an abridged copy of the baby X story I recall from my childhood – found at http://tarottrends.com/content/about-baby-storm which I thought I should mention because I was so surprised to find it at all. Neat trip down memory lane.

    Not a new concept, obviously, but in this world of viral information one little family decision gets weighed in on all over the world, eh?

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  • Erik Davis

    Erik is a technology professional based in Toronto, focused on the intersection of the internet and the traditional media and telecommunications sectors. A reluctant blogger, he was inspired by the great work Skeptic North has done to combat misinformation and shoddy science reporting in the Canadian media, and in the public at large. Erik has a particular interest in critical reasoning, and in understanding why there’s so little of it in the public discourse. You can follow Erik's occasional 140 character musings @erikjdavis