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.


chuck said...

cute *and* ethical!

MaGreen said...

i love his tu-tu. i agree -- it's so hard not to impress norms on the bebes. most of babyg's clothes are given to her by krista who is purposefully holding back boy clothes. and dresses make ecing very simple. and i don't want to cut her hair...even if she was a boy i wouldn't want to...but she's a girl and so long hair is so freighted. and all this clearly underscores, for babyg, social 'girlhood' norms. i don't have any idea how to nip them.

cake said...

yeah, i know all of this would be even more charged for me if i had a girl...i would imagine that a t-shirt (no pants) would work just as well for ec-ing. i bet both our kids will be running around in little more than a diaper this summer--if that.

i also do not want to cut cosmo's hair. i am sure i will eventually, but not now.