"It's a girl!"
Sex and gender in utero
In September I received the text I’ve been low-key awaiting for decades. Ever since I encountered the Cool Aunt trope in sitcoms and YA literature, I’ve imagined hosting my sister’s future children for weekends in the big city, where we try new foods and visit interesting museums and I serve as confidante for the problems they find too embarrassing to discuss with their parents. (It is perhaps telling that my daydreams about motherhood tend to be much more fraught.)
In the months since the photo of my sister’s positive pregnancy test popped up on my phone, there’s been a low hum of excitement in our family. We’ve speculated about how holidays will change with an infant in the mix, encouraged my dad to retire in time to act as part-time babysitter, and floated the idea of a corny-game-free baby shower in the spring.
But that abstract excitement morphed into something more concrete when my sister’s latest ultrasound revealed the fetus’s sex. This little being quickly transformed from “it” or “the baby” to “she” and “my niece.” And that subtle shift in language somehow allowed me to really see the future child in my mind’s eye, to imagine what she might look like and what interests we might share.
The gender scholar in me finds this reaction Highly Problematic. When my family discusses the impending baby in gendered terms, I’m invariably the buzzkill. “Boys can do crafts too, Mom!” “The fact that there’s no penis tells us absolutely nothing about what this child will be like!” I have thus far refrained from giving a lecture on intersex and nonbinary individuals, but don’t put it past me.
My sister is also a card-carrying feminist with no interest in a (potentially explosive) gender-reveal party. She picked out the theme for the child’s nursery well before she knew the fetus’s sex. And both she and her husband are adamant that their daughter will play with whatever toys she wants to.
Nevertheless, this fetus’s socialization as a gendered being has already begun.
The Low-Hanging Fruit of Gender Socialization
“Gender socialization” is one of those terms—like “neoliberalism” or “postmodernism”—that seems to mean everything and nothing. We get the gist, sure, but when pressed to explain it in concrete terms, many of us come up short.
Low-hanging fruit includes the practice of clothing girls in pink and boys in blue (but did you know pink used to be a masculine color? ); the aforementioned gender-reveal fireworks; and the bestowal of trucks and dolls on boys and girls, respectively.
If you’re reading this newsletter, there’s a good chance you’ve reflected on such practices and perhaps tried to act differently with the children in your own life. More yellow and green and orange; less blue and pink. More Legos and picture books and stuffed animals; fewer Barbies and firetrucks. That’s great! I salute you!
The problem, as anyone who’s been to a New England apple orchard in October knows, is that after the low-hanging fruit is picked off, there’s still a whole bunch left in the tree above. And this high-hanging fruit (?) is, by definition, difficult to access—even for those of us very much on board with the ideas that genitalia are not destiny and there are (or should be) many different ways to enact one’s gender identity.
This challenge hit home for me almost as soon as I was allowed to talk about my sister’s pregnancy. I knew what I would be (aunt), but in the absence of a sex determination, I had only clunky language to talk about the child-to-be: “my future niece” rolls off the tongue much easier than “my sister’s future child” or “the being to whom I will be an aunt.”
I have since learned of the gender-neutral term “nibling,” but I am not entirely sure this is a positive development. Surely we can come up with a word that does not connote a snacking mouse?
More recently, there was the undeniable fact that my mental image of the future child sharpened almost as soon as my sister sent the “it’s-a-girl” update. I can imagine “her” in a way I couldn’t imagine “the child.” I feel bad about this, and I’m working to do better. But my guilt is slightly assuaged when I remind myself what I’m up against.
In her book Framed by Gender, Cecilia Ridgeway lays out a compelling theory about why gender inequality persists. Social relations, her argument begins, require coordination among disparate individuals. And successful coordination requires those individuals to have some shared base of knowledge or understanding. The meaning of categories like gender, race, and age is a central part of such an understanding.
In our daily life, gender is often a background category rather than the focus of our conscious attention. “Specific institutional roles (teacher, student) with clear instructions for behavior are typically in the foreground of people’s definitions of self and other in a situation,” Ridgeway notes. “Background gender identities, however, import an added set of meanings that modifies how actors perform their focal institutional identities” (p. 90). Further, certain contexts (think dating, or childcare) bump those “background” identities into the foreground.
Unfortunately, in the case of my future niece, sex is just about the only piece of information I have about who this child will be. It’s the chief ingredient with which I can build out my Cool Aunt fantasies. In the absence of other information, her sex is almost inevitably foregrounded. The situation will improve once she’s born and we can interact. But even then, her assigned sex will likely shape my interactions with her. (There’s evidence, for instance, that mothers speak more with female infants.)
Some scholars have argued that the only way to “solve” gender inequality is to de-gender our world altogether. So long as categories like “masculine” and “feminine” remain socially meaningful, we will arrange them hierarchically. Others, including scholars of transgender, counter that there are pleasures to enacting one’s gender. The problems come when we equate gender and sex, or rank one gender higher than others, or assume there are only two genders.
I won’t wade into that debate here (but leave a note in the comments if you’d like more on this subject!). Nor will I leave you with a clear call to action or permission to accept the inevitable. Instead—and at the risk of sounding incredibly cheesy, my apologies—I’m offering more of an invitation to contemplation. These issues are challenging. We should think seriously about how even innocuous practices like learning a fetus’s sex might contribute to the continued social differentiation (and, usually, implicit ranking) of all things male and female. But we should also be cautious about erasing that practice without replacing it with new vehicles into which family and friends can pour their anticipation for, and excitement about, the impending child.
And so we return to a perennial theme of this newsletter. Our personal ideals and values are continually bumping up against the constraints of the wider world: the language it makes available, the way it teaches us to think and categorize, the fact that well-meaning others may have very different ideals that we cannot simply dismiss out of hand.
I won’t prescribe any particular way out of this dilemma. Instead, I’ll reiterate that I’m in the thick of it with you. And in the coming year, I’m excited to continue building out this community as a space where we can share in the struggle and learn from each other.
On that note, now’s a good time to invite a friend or two to join us! I have big plans for TDD in 2022, and I’m grateful for everyone who’s along for the ride. Comment here, email me (Allison.firstname.lastname@example.org), or DM me on Twitter (@AllisonDaminger) with your questions, suggestions, and feedback. I read it all.