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There is a simultaneously cool and infuriating post over at Feministe about kids and gender policing. It’s made me think about how kids relate to gender, and how the patriarchal gender structures slowly mold little-kid gender play into big-adult gender conformity.
Because, make no mistake, gender is a game. Especially for kids. It has rules, like any game—this means girl, that means boy—but at least initially, those rules aren’t strong. A genderqueer friend of mine works with kids. When they ask zir if ze is a boy or a girl, ze says ze isn’t either. And that’s cool more than it’s weird, at least for a certain age group.
Of course at some point, kids start realizing that the adult world is playing this game much more seriously than they are. And that breaking the rules, or bending them even slightly, can put you in a dangerous place. And that conversely, if you see someone breaking the rules, you can call them on it and gain power over them. That’s when it starts to go sour, and that’s how, eventually, all of us start to forget that it’s just a game.
I think that’s the best way to present it to kids, if they’re young enough.
What kid isn’t familiar with dress up? What boy hasn’t tried on a dress; what girl hasn’t tried on a suit? When it’s all play, it’s harmless, and that’s when they’ll be really receptive to, well, the truth—all these rules about boys wearing this and girls wearing that? Those are just the rules. You can bend them. You can break them. You can make your own game that’s similar, but different. But when you do that, you’re highlighting the fact that this gender thing? It’s a game. And that’s a thing that a lot of us grown ups have forgotten, or a thing that we need to be reminded of at times even if we haven’t forgotten it entirely. And when you remind people that the thing they use to gain power over others, to hold onto power they have, is a game? Well, sometimes they’ll get a wee bit defensive. Sometimes they’ll try to hurt you—sometimes, they’ll succeed.
That doesn’t make it universally not worth playing. And there’s definitely the potential for real harm there, and make no mistake that kids will become really, really aware of that. The thing is to keep it from crushing them. People will make you play, sure. And sometimes, they’ll make you play by their rules, under threat of blood. And that’s simply injustice, oppression, and there are women who will never be free from that.
But sometimes? Sometimes, you make the rules. Make them glorious.