In a later chapter, she hypothesizes that this drive to delineate gender categories, and to sort oneself into one of them, might stem from a broader human desire to belong to a group:
Anyone who spends time around children will know how rare it is come across a baby or child whose sex is not labeled by clothing, hairstyle, or accessories. Anyone with ears can hear how adults constantly label gender with words: he, she, man, woman, boy, girl, and so on. And we do this even when we don't have to. Mothers reading picture books, for instance, choose to refer to storybook characters by gender labels (like woman) twice as often as they chose nongendered alternatives (like teacher or person). [Gelman, Taylor & Naguyen, 2004] Just as if adults were always referring to people as left-handers or right-handers (or Anglos and Latinos, or Jews and Catholics), this also helps to draw attention to gender as an important way of dividing the social world into categories.
This tagging of gender --- especially different conventions for male and female dress, hairstyle, and accessories, and use of makeup --- may well help children learn how to divvy up the people around them by sex. We've seen that babies as young as three to four months old can discriminate between males and females. At just ten months old, babies have developed the ability to make mental notes regarding what goes along with being male or female: they will look longer, in surprise, at a picture of a man with an object that was previously only paired with women, and vice versa. [Levy & Haaf, 1994] This means that children are well-placed, early on, to start learning the gender ropes. As they approach their second birthday, children are already learning to pick up the rudiments of gender stereotyping. There's some tentative evidence that they know for whom fire hats, dolls, makeup, and so on are intended before their second birthday. [Serbin, Poulin-Dubois, & Eichstedt, 2002 (PDF); Poulin-Dubois et al., 2002] And at around this time, children start to use gender labels themselves and are able to say to which sex they themselves belong. [Zosuls et al., 2009]
It's at this critical point in their toddler years that children lose their status as objective observers. It is hard to merely dispassionately note what is for boys and what is for girls once you realize that you are a boy (or a girl) yourself. Once children have personally relevant boxes in which to file what they learn (labeled "Me" versus "Not Me"), this adds an extra oomph to the drive to solve the mysteries of gender. [Martin, Ruble & Szkrybalo, 2002 (PDF); Martin & Halverson, 1981] Developmental psychologists Carol Martin and Diane Ruble suggest that children become "gender detectives," in search of clues as to the implications of belonging to the male or female tribe. [Martin & Ruble, 2004 (PDF)] Nor do they wait for formal instruction. The academic literature is scattered with anecdotal reports of preschoolers' amusingly flawed scientific accounts of gender difference:[O]ne child believed that men drank tea and women drank coffee, because that was the way it was in his house. He was thus perplexed when a male visitor requested coffee. Another child, dangling his legs with his father in a very cold lake, announced "only boys like cold water, right Dad?" Such examples suggest that children are actively seeking and "chewing" on information about gender, rather than passively absorbing it from the environment. [Ruble, Lurye, & Zosuls, 2008]
As we've seen, children are born into a world in which gender is continually emphasized through conventions of dress, appearance, language, color, segregation, and symbols. Everything around the child indicates that whether one is male or female is a matter of great importance. Meanwhile, at about two years of age, children discover on which side of the divide they are located. It remains to be seen, in my view, whether subtle gender differences in babies' toy preferences before they know their own sex can be explained by socialization by parents, unwitting or otherwise. But once children know their own sex, in theory they can start to take socialization into their own hands.This theory is really interesting to me, and I particularly like the idea that it's not a particular set of gender-related traits that are innate, but rather 1) the capacity to distinguish the sexes, and to know one's own sex, and 2) the drive to find one's place in the social group in which one lives. In our large, mobile, relatively fluid but still highly gendered society, gender roles are probably going to be the first social identities that suggest themselves to a child.
And it's plausible to think that they will. Gaining membership to a group, any group, normally brings a money-back guarantee of favoritism. In the infamous minimal group studies conducted by Henri Tajfel and colleagues, adults are randomly assigned to trivial groups. For example, they are asked to estimate the number of dots on an array, and then categorized as either a dot overestimator or a dot underestimator. It's hard to imagine a categorization of less psychological significance. And yet membership of even such arbitrarily assigned and short-lived social categories can engender a warm glow toward fellow dot overestimators (or underestimators) that does not extend so far as those who take a different approach to dot guesstimating.
Children, it turns out, are also susceptible to an in-group bias to prefer what belongs to their group. Recent work by Rebecca Bigler and colleagues has shown that this is especially the case when groups are made visually distinct, and authority figures use and label the groups. In one study, three- to five-year-old preschoolers in two child-care classrooms were randomly assigned to the Blue group or the Red group. Over a three-week period all the children wore a red or blue T-shirt every day (according to the group to which they'd been assigned). In one classroom, the teachers left it at that. The color groups were not mentioned again. But in the other classroom, the teachers made constant use of the two categories. Children's cubbies were decorated with blue and red labels, at the door they were told to line up with Blues on this side and Reds on that side, and they were regularly referred to by group label ("Good morning, Blues and Reds"). At the end of the three weeks, the experimenters canvassed each child's opinion on a number of matters. They found that being categorized as a Red or a Blue for just three weeks was enough to bias children's views. The children, for example, preferred toys they were told were liked by their own group and expressed a greater desire to play with other Red (or Blue) children. While some forms of favoritism were common to all the children, more was seen in kids from the classroom in which teachers had made a bigger deal out of the Red versus Blue dichotomy.
Just imagine how powerfully exactly the same psychological mechanisms can drive in-group pride and out-group prejudice when it comes to gender. In the young child's world, gender is the social category that stands out above all others, right from the start. Conventions of clothing and accessories mean that gender is extremely obvious visually, and boys and girls may be regularly labeled and organized ("Now it's the boys' turn to wash their hands") by gender, especially in early education settings. And, unlike adults and older children, younger children don't tend to have other social categories like jock, doctor, Christian or artist with which to identify. The drive for group belonging may explain why young children insist on girlish or boyish behavior or dress even in the face of parental displeasure, suggest Diane Ruble and colleagues.
I like this theory, because it explains a lot of the same things that "hard-wiring" theories of gender explain, but it's much more flexible. Which is good, considering that gender norms have changed, a lot, throughout history and today's conceptions of the Eternal Feminine or the Eternal Masculine sometimes conflict with these past notions of masculine and feminine.
(One trivial example: pink and blue. Pink used to be for boys, because it was like a softer version of red, while blue, the color of the Virgin's veil, used to be for girls. Now, of course, it's the other way round).
There is one thing that the book doesn't address, that I'd like what Fine (or any of those developmental psychologists she cites) thinks about it: given that the usual course is for children to discover what sex they are, and then become interested in learning, and correctly performing, the gender role corresponding to that sex, why do some children choose a different sex to emulate?
I can remember that, while I did not always think of myself as having gender (or even as being human) throughout my entire childhood, when I did think in those terms I always knew two things: 1) I was a girl, and 2) I was, and wanted to be, like a boy. And when I grew up, I would be a woman who was like a man. Furthermore, this wasn't just who I was in the absence of any gender self-socialization; I self-socialized in very much the way Fine describes. I just chose to learn, and conform to, the masculine role.
That sort of thing --- why you would choose to imitate people of the other sex, rather than your own --- isn't answered. And neither is the related matter of how trans
*Edited 1/23/11 to reflect Juliet's preference, stated in comments, for "transsexual" over "transgendered."