Feminist Friday–The Polemics of Pat

It’s Feminist Friday, kids! This week’s topic, set for us by our hostess at the Transatlantic Blonde blog, is Gender Roles. And I’m not sure if this post is even mostly about Pat, or if it contains much real polemics at all, or if I am even using the word “polemics” correctly, but damn it makes a good title. So let’s go with it, shall we?

This is a link to the Feminist Friday hosting blog. Click it.

Gender roles is serious business. For all the talk you hear about how gender doesn’t matter and the right person for the job, and we’re all friends, aren’t we, people really, really don’t like to not know whether to treat a person as male or female. First case in point:

It's time for androgyny!

Pat O'Neill Riley

Oh, Pat. An ordinary person living life, upsetting all those people on Saturday Night Live who couldn’t pin a gender on you, and absolutely did not know how to treat you at all. Those people wasted a lot of your time trying to figure you out, but at least they were never openly rude to you, and let you get on with whatever it was you wanted to do–shop, work, date–without judging you for it. And when it seemed that strangers and coworkers were crossing the line between curiosity and harassment, you always demanded to be treated with respect and got it. What a happy fantasy!

Second case in point: The four-month-old baby Storm Stocker, whose parents have declined to tell their friends if they had a boy or a girl, and plan to let the child develop a personal identity based on what he or she likes. Opinion journalists and the commenting public are very, very angry about this. Criticism runs the gamut from stifling the child’s normal development to setting them up as freaks destined to be bullied and harassed. (Victim blaming! But that’s another topic for another time.) The big controversy seems to be over whether the parents are denying the child the ability to form a coherent self-identity, which gender is assumed to be a critical part of, or if they are just protecting the child from receiving messages about gender from friends and relatives, who are assumed will treat a baby differently if they think it is a boy or girl–messages that will limit a child’s sense of possibility for what he or she could achieve as a boy or girl, based on stereotypes about what men and women are supposed to do. FYI: Everyone in the immediate family knows the baby’s sex; the family just aren’t telling anyone else.

I’m in the camp that thinks 1) it’s just a baby; 2) that baby will become a child that is as able to tell what his or her gender is as every other child on the planet is–even the transgendered ones; and 3) it’s nice to think of a kid being spared all the gender conformity signals that permeate products and advertising directed at people of all age. Nobody’s really worried about the baby’s future.  Nuh uh. (Well, maybe the psychiatrists are sincerely worried if they think bullying is inevitable, or if they know something we don’t about the family.) But the regular people lambasting Storm’s parents for keeping this secret? Those people are worried about themselves, and how uncomfortable they are going to feel when they can’t rely on the status quo to guide them in how to interact with this person. If they start feeling uncomfortable with the status quo, they might have to start questioning it. They might  find out they really dislike the answers they get, and they might have to act for change. And acting for change is hard, and sometimes painful. There’s a lot to lose if you let people you know skip out on their gender conformity responsibilities, so society makes sure people conform early and often.

So early and so often, in fact, that even perfectly rational adults–skeptical of advertising claims and multilevel marketing scams and political propaganda and manipulative language in general–fall all over themselves to point to evolutionary pysch just-so stories and explanations about the statistical spread of upper body strength that proves men and women just evolved differently is all. No offense intended, of course, but if girls aren’t taking advanced math in high school it’s probably because their ancient foremothers were mostly gathering plants and taking care of babies while the men were out practicing their spatial relation skills hunting for food. But babies and plants were very important! Don’t feel bad! But you should probably pick a different career that lets you talk to people more about feelings. It’s just how your brain is set up. It has nothing to do with the fact that girls and boys learn things like that Dora has to rely on a male Map to tell her how to achieve her goals and that Diego knows how to run an animal rescue foundation stocked with jet skis and hang gliders and power boats and ATVs and decides for himself what would be the best vehicle for the job. Dora’s ancestras antepasadas obviously spent all their time making tortillas while Diego’s ancestros antepasados were out doing the real work. Naturalmente she’d be drawn that way, so don’t get upset about it. It’s not a big deal. Tortillas son muy importantes. And Dora can pull una molcajete out of La Sua Mochila whenever she needs to grind her corn. ¡Viva la evolución!

I mean, come on. Nature? Really? It’s all nurture, people. All nurture.

I mean, if it weren’t nurture, and if people just naturally knew what skills and behaviors were appropriate for male and female humans (like male and female birds know), then we wouldn’t need so much constant reminding about what men and women (and boys and girls) are supposed to do. We wouldn’t have to start training them with pictures on diapers that boys are going places in race cars and rocket ships and girls are as ornamental as flowers, or with kindergarten class play choreography that girls should do hip gyrations to prove that ladybugs are ladies and that boys march and salute to prove that soldier ants can provide for the whole group of bugs. Or that Whyatt on SuperWhy! uses a computer to solve problems and Pig uses tools to build things but Princess Pea waves a magic wand around until letters come out and Red just rollerskates around the room in a short skirt. The danger of babies and children like Storm Stocker is that some kids are going to grow up without an inherent sense of where the limits of appropriate behavior are. This means they will demand their share of social and political power, and the group that has enjoyed the privilege of controlling it (men in this instance, but this could be applied to race or heteronormativity) is going to have to give some up. Men and women have never shared power equally before, and when they do there will be changes. Change is scary. Much better to deflect anxiety about the future with pretend anxiety about Storm’s welfare as a human being, and vilify the parents for making their point about the culture instead of taking responsibility for changing it.

The androgynous space fictional androgynous space through which Pat O’Neill Riley moves is a protective one. By not conforming to the rules of gender, he or she escapes being judged on how well he or she is performing it, and whether or not she or he deserves censure or approval. By focusing all their attention on solving the mystery of Pat’s gender, the Saturday Night Live characters became the butts of the joke that the audience shared with Pat. It is ridiculous, after all, to have to worry so much about whether a person is male or female before engaging in even the most basic social pleasantries. It’s a waste of time and effort that could be put towards moving society forward. By exposing this problem to the viewers, it frees them to understand and assess Pat as a person–a creepy, annoying, kind of disgusting person–and dislike him or her for what he or she actually, honestly, naturally is.

That’s not so much to ask for, is it?

That and an official gender-neutral pronoun for English. It could come in handy.

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  • melaina25  On May 27, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    For me raising a genderless child is very different to raising a child free of gender stereotypes. Blondie Boy’s sex is male, but his gender well that’s still undecided.

    While sex is biologically constructed, gender is culturally constructed. Now I know most people use sex and gender interchangeably but as an academic feminist I don’t; one is defined by DNA and the other society.

    I think the reason Pat was so popular has to do partly with innate human curiosity and partly with society’s driving need to be able to put a person in one of two need little boxes.

    I think Storm’s parents are already raising their other children free from gender stereotypes and their sex has been disclosed so I don’t feel much sincerity in what they are doing here. To me it seems like radicalism just to be radical and maybe to get some press.

    Thanks for joining in! Please read the other posts and comment when you can!

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