While I am on the other side of the world, the father of my children is home, suffering our usual demands. And because there is no end to how modern our relationship is, he has written a guest post:
Mallory Ortberg’s excellent satirical piece published recently on how to introduce gender theory to babies has resonated with me over the days since I read it while I have been with my own children; I’ll not take this opportunity to write a treatise on Judith Butler’s ‘Gender Trouble’ though suffice to say that it was a book (amongst others) that changed my worldview for the better.
My eyes were opened in a way that allowed me to view my fellow humans with their range of sexualities and identities with a great deal more compassion, love and consideration than I had previously. Perhaps most importantly, this has led me to consider the destructive ideals of masculinity that are so prevalent and to begin to look at myself and what I can do to work towards a better way of being male.
Judith Butler talks about the way that gender is created and performed by all of us; there are of course those things that seem to be notable and reliable differences between boy babies and girl babies; chromosomes and genitals mostly, but physicality and demeanour are easy to point to – I will always remember when my daughter was born how much smaller, more fragile and vulnerable she seemed to me than my son when he was brand new. Their physicality as a result of gender will change over the years of their childhood – by the time they are 9 & 10 rather than 3 & 4, there’s every chance my daughter will be the physically stronger one of the pair for a time, and so on, and so on. It becomes very tempting to start assigning attributes to their gender like an amateur evolutionary psychologist. Mae is fascinated by babies – is this the beginning of her maternal instincts as a woman? Does this mean that when Theo uses his physical strength to get what he wants in a dispute with his sister (over, say, a stuffed toy dog or the last of the popcorn) that it is just his natural inclination to be an oppressive, overbearing man appearing?
The Blue/Pink binary is pervasive and real and one only need look at Your Local Toy Store or the gender-specific treats dished out with fast food meals to see this: boys get muscle bound monsters with guns that shoot and kill the other monsters, girls get stickers with pink monkeys on them. Even if individual families are able to create spaces where a child might feel safe deviating from these norms, the message children continue to be bombarded with when they venture out into the world is about the same as it was in the 1950s (arguably, it’s worse now, but that’s another blog). Heterosexuality is Normal, anything else is abnormal and, of course, all the rest about ‘boys against girls'; dominance and submission, aggression and sublimation and reinforcement of the patriarchal ideal is inferred. I hope that there are an increasing number of us who are aware of the fact that these ready-cut stereotypes of gendered behaviour contribute to the dangerous climate of sexism, racism and homophobia that continues to create an oppressive violent environment. For young men especially, it is all too easy to leap into a powerful aggressive role that is sitting pre-prepared for him by society. Whether it fits him as a person or not, when a young man takes on the position of an aggressive, homophobic, sexist male, he is able to assume power. Acting out prejudices and aggression only confirm the power he and his peers can assume over others; when things happen collectively, no individual feels completely responsible and the prophesy continues to fulfil itself.
I hear a lot of the time that parents just want their children to grow up to be happy. This isn’t enough for me – it seems that there are vast numbers of people out there who are very happy to live off the benefits of their position in society without examining themselves, who they are and where they fit. (Boys Will Be Boys?) (Not All Men?) I want my children to be compassionate, thoughtful adults. People who are able to admit when they were wrong about something or did something that hurt someone else and try to change their behaviour. People who see others as People, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, sexuality, occupation or the colour of their clothes. People who see when others are being oppressive or abusive and are able to confidently see why and challenge that behaviour.
When I look back at myself as a younger man I realise the levels of (unfortunately, widely societally acceptable and therefore unchallenged) homophobia, sexism and racism that I clung onto until the likes of Judith Butler and those who exposed me to her work and discussed it with me, challenged me and gave me the tools to start to look at myself in relation to others. The question this raises for me is how to take this and use it as a parent to help Theo and Mae be the best people they can be. Butler and Foucault aren’t bedtime reading for 3 and 4 year olds, but celebrating the empathy that my children so often show for each other, our pets and the other people in their lives, gently encouraging them to look at why they have the opinions they hold, and encouraging them to see how their actions affect other people, whether those actions have been good or bad, seems a good place to start. Having these conversations with them, and with the other people in my life seems a pretty good way to continue to strive towards something more than just ‘happiness’ in my own life, too.
Brett Johansen is a father & idealist from Nelson, New Zealand. His interests include playing records on the radio, motor sport and robust critical discourse. He is good at tweeting, cooking and heavy lifting. He cried when he saw both his children for the first time.
You can find more of him here.