Wednesday, December 16, 2015

"I Don't Like Girls!"

It happened when we were reading Nate the Great. Nate said he didn't like girls, and then Jack concurred. I said, "What about Henri [as in Henrietta] and Izzy and Maggie?" Jack's response was to tell me all about Sebastian and how he's "the messiest in the world!"

I tried not to take it too seriously, but it didn't stop there. Jack also told me quite forcefully that he didn't like pink because it was for girls. "It's okay if you don't like pink," I told him, "but pink can be for anybody--boys or girls."

I'm told it's normal at his age to take gender identification to extremes. He's trying to figure out what being a boy means, because he's only recently become aware of the concept.

But it still worries me when he excludes the female doll from his elaborate playtime scenarios. "I don't want any girls," he says. I just have to remind him that one of his favorite people in the world--me--just happens to be a girl.

And pretty soon he'll have another favorite girl (we hope). We found out yesterday that Jack will soon be having a little sister. His reaction, as you might expect, was one of disappointment: "I don't want a girl. I want a brudder!"

When I was pregnant with Jack, I debated about whether I wanted to find out the sex. My stomach turned at the very prospect of all the pink and ruffles and glitter and princesses that might be headed our way. I have no patience for that junk. This time, I knew we would find out because I wanted the baby to be real for Jack, and right now, gender is what's real to him, whether I like it or not.

Half a year of pre-K 3 has made him all too aware that he's supposed to steer clear of "girl stuff." But now girl stuff will come into his life whether he likes it or not. And I expect he'll warm up to it all--sister included.

Coming up: Another book review? The longest post ever? Complete sentences? Find out next time on Oh, the Iron Man.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Books We Love: "Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress" by Christine Baldacchino

There is something about seeing a gorgeously illustrated book artfully displayed in my local bookstore: I can't resist. And it didn't hurt, with Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, that I was feeling guilty. Before Jack was born, I said I would offer him all the options, regardless of gender. He would get girls' and boys' toys in equal measure, and that included girls' clothes in the dress-up box. But when it came down to it, the best I could do was a play kitchen and one of my old purses (which, by the way, Jack loves).

So I bought a book about a boy who wears a dress.

My desire to give Jack "girl things" to play with does not come from some crazy liberal desire to make him transgender or some crazy feminist desire to emasculate him. All I want is for him to feel that feminine items, whether they be dresses or dolls or tea sets, are as valid--and valued--as superheroes, trucks, and dinosaurs. This, I believe, is the beginning of truly valuing women and all the emotions, jobs, and pastimes that are labeled feminine. It's not just about wearing a dress or carrying a purse; it's about erasing gender stereotypes. (But I digress. There will be much, much more on this another day.) However, I think my fear of what my husband or other family members would say or think kept me from going as far as I wanted. Morris Micklewhite gave me a way to share something with Jack that I couldn't quite accomplish in real life.

The book is not explicitly about a transgender child. (If that's what you're looking for, here's a good list.) Morris has reasons for liking the dress and high heels from his classroom's dress-up box: the dress is the color of his mother's hair and makes a swishing sound when he walks, and the heels create a satisfying click with each step. He never expresses a desire to be a girl. He still loves stereotypically boy things, like spaceships. For him liking both dresses and spaceships is completely logical.

But his classmates don't see how these things can coexist. "Astronauts don't wear dresses," the other boys in his class tell him. The girls are just as harsh: "You can't wear it! You're a boy!" When the girls see that Morris's mother has painted his fingernails, they chase him around the playground shouting, "Pinky fingers!" And when he sits down to eat his snack with the boys, they all scoot away, saying, "We don't want you to turn us into girls."

Jack has started to sound like Morris's classmates. More than once he's told me, "I don't like girls" or "That's for girls." I will write about how I have dealt with this in greater detail later, but for now I will just say that it hurts my heart when he says these things. It hurts most because I know he doesn't mean them. He has friends who are girls and he loves them. But the world is quickly teaching him, despite my best efforts, that he needs to belong to a certain group, that he must identify with that group if he wants to feel accepted. And identifying with that group means denigrating another.

But really, who wants their child to hurt the way Morris does? Don't we all want our children to feel like they belong? After the snack-time shunning, Morris pretends to be sick so he can miss school the next day. At home with his mother, he feels safe and happy. He escapes into his make-believe world where all of his favorite things--rocket ships, his pet cat, elephants, and the tangerine dress--can play happily together. He creates a gorgeous painting of a space jungle with him in the tangerine dress sitting atop a blue elephant. His pet cat is even wearing a space helmet. He goes back to school with a newfound confidence. Because the boys tell him he can't ride in their spaceship, he makes his own and hangs his painting on the front. The boys are curious. "Are there really elephants in space?" they ask. Morris, who would never think of treating these boys the way they treated him, invites them into his ship to join him on his adventure.

This seems too simple. Too easy. Yes, it's a children's book, so it's going to be simple, but as an adult, I can see so many places where this story could go wrong. For instance, where is Morris's father? Absent fathers in children's stories are pretty common, but in this story, I can just see a certain type of psychologist homing in on Morris's relationship with his mother: Are they too close? Is he overly dependent on her because his father left? Does he just need someone to teach him how to "be a man"? And where is the teacher in all this? I imagine he or she is okay with Morris wearing the dress, because we never see the teacher tell him he can't. But I can see many scenarios in which the teacher, or another adult, would step in and tell him dresses are for girls and he needs to take it off.

But thinking about this story with an adult mind is not the point. I'm glad the book's story is less complicated than real life. The book shows us what would happen if adults and society and advertisements stopped telling our children who they should be. If they got to decide, they would play with the kid with the best imagination, no matter what he was wearing.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Pulling Teeth and Weighing Brains

"Early brain scientists, using the cutting-edge techniques of the time, busily filled empty skulls with pearl barley, carefully categorized head shape using tape measures and devoted large portions of careers to the weighing of brains. Infamously, they proposed that women’s intellectual inferiority stemmed from their smaller and lighter brains, a phenomenon that came to be widely known among the Victorian public as ‘the missing five ounces of the female brain.'"

This passage in Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine could easily be a storyline from The Knick, currently my favorite TV show. Steven Soderbergh's vision of a hospital in early 1900s New York is both modern and beautifully (mostly) historically accurate. And after spending too much time thinking about a current book on the "medically proven" differences between male and female brains (Why Gender Matters) and then beginning to read a compelling counterargument (Delusions of Gender), The Knick's depiction of what passed for medicine in 1903 feels almost uncomfortably relevant.

A perfect example: Dr. Gallinger's wife is sent to an insane asylum, supposedly one of the best. (After her baby dies, she loses her mind. Her husband's solution is to adopt another baby, and of course, in a delusional state, she kills it.) John Hodgeman plays a psychiatrist with revolutionary treatments for mental illness. He believes mental illness is caused by infections, specifically in a person's teeth. So when Gallinger comes to the asylum to visit his wife for the first time, she greets him with a toothless grin. The psychiatrist then informs Gallinger that he plans to remove her tonsils and spleen as well. This insanity was considered sound medicine.

While I was deeply unsettled by the teeth pulling, what surprises me is how little we've learned about the brain since then. We still have only a vague understanding of how to treat mental illness. The medications we use affect the brain in ways doctors don't fully understand--which is why a person with mental health issues may have to try several different types of medication before finding one (or more than one) that works. Doctors have made so many amazing advancements in so many areas that we begin to forget they still have mysteries to solve.

"Even the untrained twenty-first-century layperson can see that [weighing brains instead of measuring skulls] brought scientists only a little closer to understanding the mystery of how brain cells create the engine of the mind, and can sense the unfortunate hastiness of the conclusion that women’s cognitive inferiority to men could be weighed in ounces. It may seem like the same sort of prejudice couldn’t possibly creep into the contemporary debate because now we are all so enlightened; perhaps even … overenlightened? Writers who argue that there are hardwired differences between the sexes that account for the gender status quo often like to position themselves as courageous knights of truth, who brave the stifling ideology of political correctness. Yet claims of ‘essential differences’ between the two sexes simply reflect--and give scientific authority to--what I suspect is really a majority opinion. If history tells us anything, it is to take a second, closer look at our society and our science."

Coming up: Will I actually finally write about the worst book I've ever read? Or will I just continue to stew in my annoyance? Will I find the time to finish reviews of one of the great children's books with a female lead and one of the new children's books that has captured my heart? Find out next time on Oh, The Iron Man. (And I promise next time will come sooner rather than later.)