12 February 2007

the power of toule

i've been puzzling over this one for a while now. i had been wanting to get cosmo a tu-tu to dress-up in. he's started to take an interest in playing dress-up...he enjoys putting on different hats, putting hats on us and wearing multiple strands of shiny mardi-gras beads from last years' gay pride parade. i thought a tu-tu would be fun because it has such a fascinating texture, plus cosmo LOVES to dance. for the longest time, he would just bob up and down to music, now he runs around, waving his arms, and somehow taught himself how to spin. we almost always have music on in our house (when we aren't listening to NPR, that is), and cosmo enjoys all kinds. he'll even wave his arms around to music on the radio in the car. so, it occurred to me that he might really take to dancing in a tu-tu. but i hesitated. i thought people might think i was trying to impose my notions of gender fluidity on my one year old boy. they'd think i was setting him up for a lifetime of gender confusion. then i had to ask myself, first off, who are these "people?" not my friends. relatives maybe? the public at large? who knows, in any case, those voices shouldn't carry so much weight in my decision making about how to raise my child. i ended up coming up with a response to those voices anyway.

i remembered a favorite essay by marilyn frye called simply "sexism." it appears in her book the politics of reality: essays in feminist theory. she is a brilliant thinker, and her writing is crystal clear. my gleaning here won't do her work justice, so i highly recommend that you read this book (though some of the material is rather dated) and her more recent collection of essays, willful virgin. what stayed with me over the years, about this particular essay is this: those "people" who get so bent out of shape about dressing babies in gender ambiguous/inappropriate clothing are the very same people who claim that clear boundaries and differences between the sexes are utterly NATURAL and biologically determined. so... if these distinctions are so natural and inevitable, then why is it, that in our culture, they must be reinforced, programmed and pounded into every fiber of our beings from the day we come out of the womb? the first question asked of every new parent: "boy or girl?" if you don't sex mark your infant in the obligatory pink or blue onsie, people who meet you in the market become anxious. "how can i tell? is it rude to ask? should i take a guess?" this anxiety, this desperate need to know points to the primary place that sex distinction holds in our society...still.
i'll go ahead and quote frye:

It is a general and obvious principle of information theory that when it is very, very important that certain information be conveyed the suitable strategy is redundancy. If a message must get through, one sends it repeatedly and by as many means or media as one has at one's command. On the other end, as a receiver of information, if one receives the same information over and over, conveyed by every medium one knows, another massage comes through as well, and implicitly: the message that this information is very very, important. the enormous frequency with which information about people's sexes is conveyed conveys implicitly the message that this topic is enormously important. i suspect that this is the single topic on which we most frequently receive information from others throughout our entire lives. if i am right, it would go part way to explaining why we end up, with an almost irresistible impression, unarticulated, that the matter of people's sexes is the most important and fundamental topic in the world.(27)

small children's minds must be hopelessly boggled by all this. We know our own sexes, and learn to think it a matter of first importance that one is a girl or a boy so early that we do not remember not knowing...

she goes on to talk about why this is.

It is extremely costly to subordinate a large group of people simply by applications of material force, as is indicated by the costs of maximum security prisons and of military suppression of nationalist movements. For subordination to be permanent and cost effective, it is necessary to create conditions such that the subordinated group acquiesces to some extent in the subordination. Probably one of the most effective ways to secure acquiescence is to convince people that their subordination is inevitable. The mechanisms by which the subordinate and dominate categories are defined can contribute greatly to popular belief in the inevitability of the dominance/subordination structure.

For efficient subordination, what's wanted is that the structure not appear to be a cultural artifact kept in place by human decision or custom, but that it appear natural...It must seem natural that individuals of the one category are dominated by individuals of the other and that as groups, the one dominates the other. To make this seem natural, it will help if it seems to all concerned that members of the two groups are very different from each other, and this appearance is enhanced if it can be made to appear that within each group, the members are very alike one another...All behavior which encourages the appearance that humans are biologically sharply sex-dimorphic encourages the acquiescence of women (and to the extent it needs encouragement, of men) in women's subordination.

now, we might point out that a lot has changed in the US since Frye wrote this, back in the 1970s--after all, we currently have a female front-runner candidate for the office of the president of the united states. but ask yourself, what is the single most remarkable thing about her candidacy? she is a woman.

but i have strayed from my original purpose in writing about cosmo's tu-tu. i realized, finally, that my fears about imposing gender identity issues upon him by getting him things like skirts or beads (before he is old enough to choose things for himself) need further scrutiny. the truth is, i am already imposing gender identity on him every time i dress him in boys clothes. but of course that never gets questioned, because it reinforces a social structure that is widely accepted. yet in subtle (or not so subtle) ways, it contributes to social hierarchies of dominance and oppression that i am firmly opposed to.

so, the way i see it, the least i can do is offer cosmo a tu-tu.

06 February 2007

sing and sign

cosmo sung his first recognizable song! he's been humming for months now, i'm not even sure when that started, but last night i discerned a familiar tune. we were in the great green chair, listening to the news when cosmo pulled away from nursing to sing "bah beh bah bome bah beh bee bome" with the rhythm and near melody of the all things considered theme song. it's quite telling, isn't it?-- that this is his first song? yes we are a couple of news junkies, and cosmo has heard this song at the same time every day for his entire life. mostly i'm embarrassed because NPR is basically corporate media that tries to pretend it is otherwise...and we listen to it twice a day. in any case, cosmo singing is terribly exciting. he knows he is doing it, he has picked up on our delighted response to it and he'll usually try it if we sing it for him, or he hears it on the radio. i must note here, that not only has he heard it on the radio daily, he has also heard us singing it, in imitation upon hearing it, or just because it's a catchy tune. again with the repetition. it really has an effect at this age...the same thing over and over again, and suddenly they just know it.

i've experienced this in the way cosmo has learned words, and begins to associate images or objects with these words...i.e. they have meaning. he points to the pumpkin when i say "where's the pumpkin?" at first it was just things like noses and belly buttons, but now it is not restricted to objects in his environment. a picture in a book is enough. he can also make the connection between a penguin on tv and the images in his book busy penguins or the football image on the puzzle, and his nerf football. we drum on drums while we read hand, hand, fingers, thumb.

he has many words, but uses them infrequently, and hesitantly. his voice is very soft. when he does speak, he gets the cadence down perfectly, and sometimes manages to mumble complex words, which he can't really pronounce, but knows how they sound. our months and months of signing to him actually had an impact too. now that he has tasted communication, he is eager to express himself, even when his voice isn't ready. tonight he made the sign for nursing...in context! and he also makes the potty sign, and will point to a picture of a potty and make the sign. he has a sign for diaper, more, all done, hi and bye, yes and no, and one he made up for ceiling fan. he also make one up for "where is the kitty? i don't know? where did he go?" basically, any intriguing question of some sort: he shrugs his shoulders and bends his elbows completely, arms up against his body, and spreads his fingers wide (not to be confused with "hot hot hot!") when we say "splits!" he immediately slides his feet apart, and he'll push both arms out in the back if we say "wings!" he discovered these last few gestures, we simply named them.

01 February 2007

homemade pasta!

it is not actually necessary to drape the noodles over wooden dowels, but i recently experienced the huge disappointment of failing to adequately separate the pasta before cooking it. we had made a beautiful batch of near-perfect spinach raviolis. i piled them all on a plate, and let them sit for an hour or so. we were having company, and i was so proud of us for getting all the work out of the way before brooke and dominica arrived. when we went to put the raviolis into the boiling water, we discovered that they had all melded together into one big mass of gooey pasta dough and sloppy spinach/ricotta filling. we managed to salvage enough of them to make a modest meal, but they weren't very pretty. i learned my lesson: just because the dough seems firm and dry when you are making it, it won't stay that way. mark bittman suggests the dowels, and i knew it would satisfy my old-world, rustic predilections, so, of course, i tried it. as you may have noticed, i find them to be quite beautiful.