Thursday, January 6, 2011

An Intriguing Idea from Cordelia Fine's "Delusions of Gender"

In Chapter 19 (titled "Gender Detectives") of her book, Delusions of Gender (which I review here), Cordelia Fine describes how children learn to sort themselves into gender categories:

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]
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:

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.

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.
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.

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 transgenderedsexual* people form their gender identities --- they often have strong senses of themselves as sexed, gendered beings, but the sex and gender categories they feel they belong to are not the ones assigned to them at birth.

*Edited 1/23/11 to reflect Juliet's preference, stated in comments, for "transsexual" over "transgendered."


eternalstranger said...

I was wondering about how this theory would attempt to explain transgendered people as well.

I think wanting to be "like" a boy though (rather than transgender), could have something to do with clearly perceiving that our society favors males more than females.As Julia Serano put it, most reasonable people would say that males and females are equal, but few would claim that femininity is masculinity's equal.

The Goldfish said...

I think there's only a hole where transgender should be if you take Fine as saying that we are blank canvasses - I think she's merely demonstrating the weight of conditioning, not the absence of any sex difference at all.

Some radical feminists have argued that if we didn't live in such a gendered world, transgender wouldn't exist - a child assigned male who was interested in "girly" things wouldn't imagine themselves in the wrong body if they were allowed to wear dresses and play with baby dolls (or whatever). I am highly sceptical about this and of course, it wouldn't make any difference to anybody until such a world exists.

Personally, I knew I was a girl, I wanted to be a boy, and I thought I could (and certainly would) choose to be a man when I grew up, just as I could choose to be a nurse or a teacher or a firefighter. I was bitterly disappointed - and disturbed - when my early-developer body showed me otherwise.

I actually remember arguing with a (male) friend when I was about eight about my desire to be a boy. He said I must mean like a boy, but I said "No, I want to be a boy!" But I grew up cis - I guess there are no absolute binaries anywhere in this stuff.

Another point maybe worth mentioning in all this is Freud diagnosising all his wealthy young lady patients as having "penis envy". Freud saw everything in terms of anatomy, but I think it demonstrates a history of girls longing for whatever it is that gives men greater power and freedom. I've had many male friends who were not boyish boys and were called gay or cissy all through school, but none of them have ever reported wanting to be girls.

srand said...

This is on a bit of a tangent.

You mention that: "...while I did not always think of myself as having gender (or even as being human) throughout my entire childhood ..."

Those words caught my attention because they are similar to something I was trying to explain to my husband the other day. I wondered if you could elaborate on this - or if you've already talked about it elsewhere if I could have a link. :)

Lindsay said...


Yeah, I think that might be true, too.

Or even just not having your "cross-gender" interests strongly discouraged, as boys with feminine-typed interests, toy/clothing preferences, etc. usually have. There are some kind of sad passages in Fine's book about parents who think they're totally on the gender-bending bandwagon until their son decides he wants to wear pink clothes or own a Barbie doll.

I think Serano is quite right about masculinity being valued above femininity, in people of whatever sex.

Lindsay said...

@srand - The one place I can think of having mentioned that before is here, in a post responding to Jane Meyerding's thoughtful essay "Growing Up Genderless."

Basically, because I was a child with 1) a very vivid imagination and 2) very low levels of self- and social awareness, I had a very elastic notion of who (or what) I was. Different was just about the only stable component of identity I can remember having; and a lot of the time, especially when I was a younger child, I rarely thought in such terms as to have much of a self-concept at all (and thus, wouldn't have thought of myself in gendered terms because at the time I wouldn't have been thinking of myself in any terms; I just *was*).

It's hard to explain this, since it hasn't been the same throughout my childhood.

Juliet said...

I rather wish I could talk to a really young me to get a better grasp of how I felt way back when. But for about as long as I can remember, I knew I wanted to be a girl but that I never could be and that wanting to be was wrong. It wasn't until college where the idea of gender variance was introduced, and while I found it freeing to just "be" instead of having to feel bad about/fail at conforming to gender norms I hated, nothing quite felt right other than identifying as female. And if I could tell you why, I imagine I'd be quite famous and quite rich.

(A few quick notes:
"Transgendered" isn't a term we like to use in the trans community. To be transgender means all kinds of non-binary gender variance, including cross-dressing, drag, third/no gender, and transsexuality. "Transsexual" is what I am, as someone who was assigned male at birth (I have a penis) but who identifies as female (I now look/talk/respond to female pronouns etc). I hope that helps!)

Lindsay said...

@Juliet - OK, I'll change the post to reflect what you've said here.