Joanna Mathers looks at the stereo­types of gen­der and how pi­geon­hol­ing chil­dren has be­come even more an is­sue

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Joanna Mathers looks at the stereo­types of gen­der and how pi­geon­hol­ing chil­dren has be­come even more an is­sue

The lounge is a park­ing garage, and the gar­den pock­marked with holes made by ex­ca­va­tors, dirt car­ried away by dump trucks and thrown down into the gully. The gum­boots get a work­out ev­ery day as he trudges across the road with his dada, watch­ing the builders and truck drivers de­velop a new sub­di­vi­sion. Ev­ery time we ask him what he would like to do, he an­swers “watch cars”.

When he was a blue-eyed blond baby, I dressed him in pink and green and blue (not at the same time). He was of­ten mis­taken for a girl when dressed in pink, an as­sump­tion I only oc­ca­sion­ally cor­rected. A friend once said: “You are so brave, dress­ing your boy in girl’s clothes.” She meant pink. “Colours don’t have a gen­der,” I wanted to an­swer, but didn’t.

He had toys of all per­mu­ta­tions — dolls, blocks, tiny an­i­mals — all of which he took an equal in­ter­est in. My “rais­ing my child gen­derneu­tral” ide­ol­ogy didn’t ex­tend to call­ing him “they” but I didn’t want ex­tremes of gen­der foisted upon him at an early age. I wanted him to be free to make his own de­ci­sions about the toys he liked, the way he played, the colours he liked.

From the minute he knew what they were, he chose cars. Red cars, blue cars, Light­ning McQueen. Not just cars though, dig­gers and cranes and buses and planes. Any­thing made from me­tal, with wheels, will suf­fice. He’s be­come a “boy” (note the quote marks) with­out any help from me.

This iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with all things “mas­cu­line” and me­chan­i­cal is fas­ci­nat­ing to me. As a lit­tle girl, I es­chewed dresses and dolls, pre­fer­ring to wear trousers and climb trees. Makeup and fairies did noth­ing for me — in­stead, I was ob­sessed with World War II. My mum al­ways tells me “you were a strange lit­tle girl”. (Noth­ing’s changed.) Peo­ple thought I was a boy. A lot of peo­ple.

So, my son’s gen­der stereo­typ­i­cal ten­dency seems rather sur­pris­ing. But it’s there and I’m happy to em­brace it. I have no is­sue with him lov­ing cars, per se. I’m just sur­prised at how early it de­vel­oped and I’m fas­ci­nated about where it stems from.

I read an in­ter­est­ing study about in­volv­ing mon­key ba­bies (not kids, ob­vi­ously, but close). The rhe­sus mon­keys in the 2008 study con­ducted at Emory Univer­sity in At­lanta were given wheeled ve­hi­cles and plush toys to play with. The male mon­keys over­whelm­ingly chose the wheeled ve­hi­cles; the fe­male mon­keys over­whelm­ingly chose the plush toys. The so­cial­i­sa­tion ar­gu­ment, which is the gen­er­ally ac­cepted ba­sis for gen­der pref­er­ences, can’t be used to ex­plain the pri­mate’s pro­cliv­ity for gen­der stereo­typ­i­cal play.

Mon­key re­search aside, it’s ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to iso­late just why boys and girls go for dif­fer­ent toys. An­nette Henderson is a se­nior lec­turer at the School of Psy­chol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Auck­land.

She says that while there are ge­netic dif­fer­ences in the male and fe­male brains, it’s very hard to prove that these play a role when it comes to gen­der-stereo­typed play, as from the mo­ment they are born, boys and girls are treated dif­fer­ently.

“Boy ba­bies and girl ba­bies will be en­gaged with com­pletely dif­fer­ently ac­cord­ing to their gen­der,” says Henderson.

“Peo­ple com­monly will say, ‘Oh, isn’t he strong?’ of boys or ‘Isn’t she beau­ti­ful?’ of girls. Just lis­ten to how peo­ple talk about girls and boys — even the youngest child will be ab­sorb­ing all of this.”

As kids grow up, the dif­fer­ences be­come even more pro­nounced: “If a girl is do­ing some­thing dan­ger­ous the car­ers are far more likely to tell her to be care­ful. And if boys fall or hurt them­selves in some way, peo­ple are more likely to tell them to just get over it; to sup­press their emo­tions,” she says.

As the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing treated dif­fer­ently ac­cord­ing to gen­der is so ubiq­ui­tous, Henderson says it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to con­duct stud­ies on the de­vel­op­ment of gen­der iden­tity based on the con­cept of ge­netic dif­fer­ence. But there is some in­di­ca­tion in overseas re­search that hor­mones may play a role in what kids like to play with.

A Bri­tish study con­ducted in 2010 found that girls who had a high level of the male sex hor­mone an­dro­gen pre­ferred to play with toys that were male stereo­typ­i­cal. But with such a small sam­ple, it’s hard to gen­er­alise the find­ings and ap­ply them across the board.

Gen­der iden­tity has been a hot topic in re­cent years, as the ex­pe­ri­ence of trans peo­ple has moved out of the shad­ows and into the glar­ing light of main­stream me­dia. Cait­lyn Jen­ner (for­merly Bruce, ex-Olympian and ex-hus­band of Kar­dashian mum, Chris) doc­u­mented her tran­si­tion on the E!’s I Am Cait. While the show was can­celled due to low rat­ings af­ter two sea­sons, it brought the trans ex­pe­ri­ence into the con­scious­ness of mil­lions for prob­a­bly the first time in doc­u­mented his­tory.

The de­vel­op­ment of gen­der iden­tity in trans peo­ple is an in­ter­est­ing topic. We live in a world that’s rife with gen­der norms — ex­tremes of fem­i­nin­ity and mas­culin­ity bom­bard us when­ever we turn on the telly.

Cait­lyn Drinkwa­ter is a doc­toral stu­dent who spe­cialises in gen­der de­vel­op­ment. She is cur­rently do­ing her doc­tor­ate in clin­i­cal psy­chol­ogy and her the­sis fo­cuses on non-binary gen­der iden­tity de­vel­op­ment.

She says that it can be hard for in­di­vid­u­als to de­ter­mine their gen­der iden­tity, as it’s quite

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