For maybe the first time ever STA, RJP, FWA and I happened to be watching the Today Show yesterday morning and saw their segment on the parents who are raising their third child as genderless. I’m not sure what the segment was called, but the article on Today’s website was entitled, “He, She or It? Family Keeps Gender a Secret”. I must admit that while I have seen various links to the story circulating on the interwebz (several of which were posted by students from this semester), I haven’t really followed it. Therefore this “oh bother” speaks specifically to the coverage of this story on the Today Show this morning. There are so many ways that Today’s framing of this issue with this title (and the article/segment) bothers me. Here are just three:
ONE: Does violence through pronoun usage
He, She or It? Really? Using “it” to refer to someone who does not identify/is not identified as either male or female is not okay. This baby is not an it, they are a person. And contrary to what one “expert” on the segment suggests (1 min 50 secs in), one’s humanity should not be predicated on a clear and rigid gender presentation (see J Butler’s Undoing Gender for more on gender and the “human”). By the way, this “family researcher” just happens to be the director of Focus on the Family, a “global Christian ministry dedicated to helping families thrive” and encouraging “parents to raise their children according to morals and values grounded in biblical principles.” Why isn’t this important fact, a fact that certainly influences his interpretation of the “scientific Truths” he purports, mentioned in the segment? And, wouldn’t it make more sense to have a trained scientist discussing the science behind sex and gender differences? Just sayin’.
TWO: Implies that regardless of how the parents choose to raise this child (or even how the child chooses to identify/present themselves) the “truth” of sex/gender* still exists–it’s just hidden.
To suggest that the family is keeping a secret about the child’s sex/gender is to indicate that some essential truth about that sex exists but isn’t being told. And, what is that truth of sex/gender, exactly? Is it boy = penis and girl = vagina (or, no penis)? And what are the implications of this equation for gender, if sex = biology and gender = social rules/roles? Could it be this?
We discussed these issues of sex/gender a lot in my politics of sex class this past spring. See my notes for more on this discussion.
*note: I’m writing sex/gender because they are used interchangeably in the article/segment. In the interest of making this entry accessible to a wide range of readers, I decided not to discuss the problematic ways in which the Today Show conflates and confuses sex and gender and how different feminist and queer theorists theorize the relationship between sex and gender. For one discussion of the differences between sex and gender, see my notes on sex/gender/desire for my politics of sex class.
THREE: Encourages us to morally judge (and condemn) parents by describing their actions as “keeping a secret”
The focus of the TV segment is on the question of whether or not these parents are doing the right thing and not about what gender-neutral parenting (or even negotiating gender in child-rearing practices) means for the child. As viewers we are being invited to morally judge them (literally: there was a poll with 11% saying what these parents did was “great” and 89% saying that it was terrible). I think that there are many other, potentially more productive ways, in which to approach this issue and to think through the problems and possibilities of negotiating gender rules/norms with our kids. In my queer/ing ethics class this past spring, we spent a lot of time thinking through what it might mean to engage in ethical practices that don’t involve judgment. What questions aren’t asked when we devote so much of our energy asking, Are these parents morally right or wrong?, and then answering by condemning them as terrible parents? Why aren’t we asking: What societal forces/structures have made gender such a problem that these parents don’t want to impose gender on their child? How does gender work? Could it work differently? Are our only options rigid gender roles or no gender? Why does assigning gender matter so much to us and why do we become so enraged/uncomfortable/anxious when someone’s gender isn’t obvious?
The Today Show article/segment speaks to a lot of different topics I discussed in my three classes this semester. In addition to the class notes links I offer above, check out my entry on gender-netural parenting for my feminist debates class.
Now, since this is an “Oh Bother!” post, I want to hear from you. What do you think about this segment? About gender-neutral parenting? About the parent’s promotion of a “free to be..you and me” mentality? About the primary expert not being a scientist but a “family values” researcher?
If you aren’t a regular reader of this blog, here’s my explanation of the “oh bother!” category:
OH BOTHER!: I am starting a new category this morning called “oh bother.” This category will include anything that I find particularly reprehensible, repulsive, or just plain annoying. The term, bother, has been one that I have adopted as of late in order to stop saying f**k (which is a favorite word of mine) in front of my highly impressionable kids (who are 3 and 6). Any resemblance to Winnie the Pooh’s catch-phrase is purely coincidental. (Don’t get me wrong, I really like classic Winnie the Pooh. But, somehow, I don’t think Pooh meant “oh bother” in the same spirit that I do.) Like I said, I started uttering “oh bother” about a year ago when my kids got old enough to understand and repeat inappropriate words. It seems rather fitting to use this phrase in relation to making/staying in trouble. After all, to be bothered by something is another way of being troubled by it, right? To bother someone is to trouble them, right? To be in a state of botherment (is this a word?) is to be in a state of trouble. This category is different from my other categories. The “oh bother” examples are meant to be analyzed by you, dear reader, and not me. I want to know what you think about these examples. Perhaps the “oh bother” is a request or a command–as in, (won’t you please) bother these examples for me because I can’t or don’t want to.