What Happens when a Tomboy Gives Birth to a Princess?

Written By John Richards on Monday, August 20, 2012 | 10:55 AM

Bookcase with gender confusion.The New York Times Magazine has been sitting on our coffee table for the past week. The cover photo of a beautiful young boy with long flowing hair wearing a pink flowered dress caught the attention of my six-year-old-daughter, Maia. She asked if he was like her friend from preschool who had loved to paint his nails and dress up in her princess gowns. I said I didn't know.

Last weekend's cover story, "What's So Bad About a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress?" detailed parents' struggle to accommodate boys who don't fit stereotypical expectations about gender roles. Reading the article, I could only imagine how difficult it must be for these parents whose young boys beg to wear dresses to school. Our kids don't grow up in a vacuum but in a world of social pressures, judgments and bullies.

In college, I camped out on the "nurture" side wearing a military jacket, devouring Judith Butler's, "Gender Trouble." On weekend trips home, I tried to persuade my parents that sex and gender were constructs, and their gendered parenting had caused irreparable harm to my brothers and I. Yes, obnoxious in hindsight.

Then I had a baby. Watching the kids on the playground dissolved my resolution about the social construction of gender just a little bit. The boys raced around bashing fences with sticks, and I cheered for my daughter to join in (and to be careful). She looked at me like I was crazy and promptly fell in love with all things pink and princess. For two years, Maia wore a dress to her Montessori preschool EVERY DAY. On the few occasions, when I wore a dress, she'd gasp theatrically about my beauty. 

The New York Times article claims it's difficult to determine how much of our gendered behavior can be accounted for by genetics. From the article: 

The largest study was a 2006 Dutch survey of twins, 14,000 at age 7 and 8,500 at age 10. The study concluded that genes account for 70 percent of gender-atypical behavior in both sexes. Exactly what is inherited, however, remains unclear: the specific behavior preferences, the impulse to associate with the other gender, the urge to reject limits imposed on them - or something else entirely.
Despite my efforts to interest Maia in balls and trucks, she gravitated to quieter play with puzzles and art. I desperately wanted to keep Barbies, with their unrealistic plastic bodies and evil empty stares, out of her toy box, and the idea that a handsome prince would save her, out of her head. But of course her beloved babysitter gave her a Barbie for her birthday, and it turned out to be her favorite item in the whole entire world. Then she watched Cinderella at a friend's house and waltzed around the house with her imaginary prince for days. I gave up. 

I think most of us agree that gendered behavior exists somewhere on a spectrum. And the article points out that culturally we are much more accepting of women having fluid gender identities than men. My mom loves to tell people how much I hated getting dressed up as a child. I would peel off the itchy, constricting dresses and tights the moment she was out of sight.
Now that Maia is six, I've started to see my influence on her gender identity. This summer, she announced she no longer wanted to be one of those "fancy girls." Instead, Maia claims she is more like one of her tomboyish best friends. Her ten-year-old brother also gives her daily lessons in karate, skateboarding and burping on demand. 

Last month when we moved into a new house, Maia rejected all of her pink room furnishings. Of course these were the same bookshelf, dollhouse and toy crates that I'd spend several afternoons painting pink (my least favorite color) after she'd begged and begged. The new color is blue. Who knows what will be next? 

I am learning to let go of my imaginings of what my child will be, what sport she will play, what friends she'll gravitate toward, what professions she'll try, and what people she'll love. But it's hard. In some ways, I'm glad Maia is a girl and has a little more room to experiment with gender roles.
As for my feminist theories, I still think much of the way we act is determined by our upbringing, social mores, and cues from our friends, parents and television. But I also think it's easy and foolish to underestimate the power of genetics and the pervasiveness of culture, which yes, has been constructed, but which exerts very real power over us every minute of every day. Now please excuse me, I have some reality television to watch. 

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