Babies and Gender Construction

When I look at my daughter, my baby girl, I don’t detect her gender. I am aware of her sex, for it was announced to me, rather loudly and emphatically, by nurses and surgeons, when she was born, ‘It’s a girl!’ I am aware of her sex too, when I change her diapers. Other than that, I do not know if I’m dealing with a boy or a girl. At eleven weeks, it’s all baby all the time; no sexual difference manifests itself. Perhaps I’m not expert enough to know the difference between a boy’s wailing and a girls’ wailing, or perhaps there is some magic marker that I am not aware of. But I think I possess sufficient expertise in this domain; I am the child’s father after all. Why would anyone else know better than me? My daughter’s mother, my wife, agrees; for now, it could be just as well a boy; we don’t see the girl yet.

But there are times when we have seen my girl, accompanied by her gender. My mother-in-law, her grandmother, bought her a frilly white dress, sleeveless, complete with white fur stole. My wife dressed her up in it for an outing to a wedding. She was cooed and gushed over, and everyone told us how adorable she was. It was the first time I had seen her look so ‘feminine’; the clothes had clothed her in a gender. And then, just the other day, she wore a pink skirt, also a gift. Again she looked, suddenly, as never before, ‘like a girl.’ The clothes magically transformed her; immediately, the collected set of impressions associated with white and pink dresses, ‘pretty’ and ‘delicate’, forced themselves to the fore. We were looking, amazingly enough, not at a gender-neutral baby any more but at a creature with a very distinct gender. We had participated in an act of gender construction. (I had noticed inklings of this when her first pink gifts came rolling in after birth; before that, as we had asked the asked the ultrasound clinic to keep her sex a secret, her gifts had been gender neutral.)

I have been told for a long time that gender is a social construct. I have both read and taught feminist theory. (In Fall 2007, at Brooklyn College, I taught ‘Philosophy and Feminism’ using Ann Cudd and Robin Andreasen‘s anthology; I also assigned Ursula Le Guin‘s ‘Left Hand of Darkness‘).  But I don’t think I have ever experienced the truth of that theoretical claim quite as viscerally as I have in the past few weeks, by something quite as simple as my interactions with this gurgling, bawling, cooing creature, recognizably human for sure, and certainly of the female sex as far as her biological inheritance is concerned, but lacking any other mode of definition that would allow her to be slotted into our socially determined categories of ‘boy’, ‘girl’, ‘man’, or ‘woman’. Right now, she’s just a baby; she awaits definition, a process in which she will participate, and hopefully, leave her own distinct imprint.

5 comments on “Babies and Gender Construction

  1. Noson says:

    Nice post! I have seen pictures of your daughter on Facebook and she is gorgeous! People are not making it up!

    I know the feminist mantra is that gender is a social construct. But there is enough scientific evidence to show that this is not so simple. For a nice survey see chapter 18 of Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate.”

    I am sure your daughter will grow to be a perfect human being! She has great genes!

    • Samir Chopra says:

      Noson,

      Thanks. I don’t doubt we all have biological inheritances from our genetic and chromosomal maps. I don’t think feminists do either. Their point is largely directed against debunking too many things that are supposed to have biological origin but can be shown to have social provenance. (I think I’ve read The Blank Slate, but I’m not sure.)

      And thanks again for the good wishes.

  2. awbraae says:

    The use of lack of gender to create alienness was one of the most interesting things about the Left Hand of Darkness. I found it interesting how the main narrator kept referring to it as well. Almost as if they were speaking for the presumed reader in the era (early 70s I think) that the book was written, at that stage it would have been impossible to conceive of a world not divided into binary gender categories.

  3. Samir Chopra says:

    Awbraae: Precisely – most of my students commented on that too, on how the gender shifting made you change your perceptions of characters as well.

  4. David Auerbach says:

    Wait until you start going to toy stores. That’s when I was really hammered as to how early this antediluvian dichotomy is foisted onto us and how segregated the roles are made to be. One aisle: dolls! The other aisle: cars!

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