"There is difference and there is power. And who holds the power decides the meaning of the difference." --June Jordan

Friday, June 26, 2009

Pop: A Fabulous Child's Story

(Updated to add link to the Lois Gould story. Thanks, Malta!)

Each quarter, my students read Lois Gould's 1972 short story, "X: A Fabulous Child's Story", in which fictional parents raise their fictional child without naming its gender so that it can grow up without internalizing gender stereotypes.

That story was written in 1972, but it seems that a pair of real parents in present-day Sweden have decided to try the exact same experiment with their child, who is, for the purposes of the article, called "Pop":

Pop’s parents, both 24, made a decision when their baby was born to keep Pop’s sex a secret. Aside from a select few – those who have changed the child’s diaper – nobody knows Pop’s gender; if anyone enquires, Pop’s parents simply say they don’t disclose this information.

In an interview with newspaper Svenska Dagbladet in March, the parents were quoted saying their decision was rooted in the feminist philosophy that gender is a social construction.

“We want Pop to grow up more freely and avoid being forced into a specific gender mould from the outset,” Pop’s mother said. “It’s cruel to bring a child into the world with a blue or pink stamp on their forehead.”

The child’s parents said so long as they keep Pop’s gender a secret, he or she will be able to avoid preconceived notions of how people should be treated if male or female.

Pop’s wardrobe includes everything from dresses to trousers and Pop’s hairstyle changes on a regular basis. And Pop usually decides how Pop is going to dress on a given morning.

Although Pop knows that there are physical differences between a boy and a girl, Pop’s parents never use personal pronouns when referring to the child – they just say Pop.

“I believe that the self-confidence and personality that Pop has shaped will remain for a lifetime,” said Pop’s mother.

LOVE this. I can't imagine how difficult it must be for these parents to constantly explain to people that they choose not to disclose Pop's sex, but it makes me smile to think that this child has made it to age 2 and a half without ever having to hear from family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers about how little boys or little girls are supposed to be and think and feel and behave and have to try to figure out which mold to conform to. It won't be so easy once Pop is exposed to lots of other kids and media influences, but until that point, I totally don't see any reason why kids have to be so identified by sex.

The rest of the article gets annoying by introducing a psychologist concern troll who feels it necessary to explain that there are "natural" differences between boys and girls, as if it could ever be possible to separate out social influences and know about such differences with any certainty:
Pinker says there are many ways that males and females differ from birth; even if gender is kept ‘secret,’ prenatal hormones developed in the second trimester of pregnancy already alter the way the child behaves and feels.

She says once children can speak, males tell aggressive stories 87 per cent of the time, while females only 17 per cent. In a study, children aged two to four were given a task to work together for a reward, and boys used physical tactics 50 times more than girls, she says.

First of all, 87 per cent is not 100 per cent, and 17 per cent is not 0 per cent, which tells us that there is more than one way to act like a boy or a girl. If you separate out genders in a study in order to look for differences, your biased ass will probably find them. Secondly, nothing about these studies proves that any of these differences are natural and not related to gender socialization. I can't imagine what citing these studies could possibly have to do with parents' decision not to associate everything in their child's life with pink/blue, doll/truck, and vagina/penis.


Kelly said...

LOVE this. I'm going to find and read that short story.

I think what Pop's parents are doing is great, though I imagine they must hear a lot of criticism.

TVille said...

Do you know if X is available somewhere online? I read the story years ago and can't find the anthology that it was in...I'd like to read it again.

TVille said...

ah-ha! I found it. Thanks for reminding me of the story. :-)

Tracey said...

TVille: I was actually looking for an electronic version to link to in this post. Think you could post the link? Sadly, the storybook version is out of print.

Malta said...

I had to look it up too after reading about Pop. It's available here:


Tracey said...

Thanks, Malta! I'll update the post so that the link is there.

plumpdumpling said...

Obviously, I believe in this. But man, this could suck for the kid as he or she gets older. It's one thing to be a genderless kid in a genderless society, but it's gotta be hard to be a genderless kid in a society that loves to separate everything by gender. I guess mixed-race kids are turning out okay these days, though, so maybe it's cool.

God, imagine how annoying it is to have to refer to the kid by his or her name ALL of the time, though.

I really don't understand how you keep arguing against hormones, though. It makes sense to me that, in general, hormones appear in different levels in girls and boys. There's certainly a spectrum of femininity and masculinity, but opposites exist, and no matter how much social conditioning we do, those hormones are going to influence us. Point me toward some stuff to read to help me understand your side.

Tracey said...

My problem with the hormones argument is that even hormones don't exist in a vacuum. So many aspects of our biology rely on contexts of history, geography, and culture, making it extremely difficult to make claims about natural differences. And even if hormonal differences could be found to exist historically and cross-culturally, independently of other variables, I just don't see any way that information could be used in a way that isn't politically dangerous (like encouraging men and women to fit certain molds based on biology-based expectations).

The notion of a spectrum or a continuum of gender negates any usefulness for the opposites at the ends of the spectrum. If we use those opposites to define what it means to be male or female, without regard for everything in between, we're doing the vast majority of people a disservice.

As far as information to point you to, I'm not sure. My students read a great article by Ruth Hubbard called "Rethinking Women's Biology" that makes some really great points about the problems with studying biological differences between the sexes, but I can't find a copy of it online. Remind me about it, and I'll show it to you when you're here.

Matthew said...

I really don’t get the point. Challenging he traditional learned/received notions of gender roles is something I’m all for.

But denying the kid’s gender? That is ridiculous. I mean, this blog is called Unapologetically Female… clearly you don’t believe in denying your own gender. Either the kid is a boy or a girl. You don’t have to deny the poor kid’s biology in order to challenge stereotypical gender roles. In fact, one could argue by denying the kid any gender at all, the parents are actually forcing a kind of role on the kid of their own.

In the end it’s really nobody but the parents’ business, but to me this is more about parental narcissism and a rather silly ideological point. Keeping the kid’s gender secret from everyone is just a weird publicity stunt. And it won’t work either, might I add?

Tracey said...

Matthew: I have to disagree that the parents are "denying" the kid a gender any more that parents who raise their kids without a religion so that they may make their own choices about their beliefs are harming their children.

When a baby's sex is public knowledge, people treat it differently based on it's maleness or femaleness, even though it really isn't old enough to have developed any real sort of gender identity. So, it makes total sense to me to prevent this unfair socialization, or to at least postpone it as long as possible.

Anonymous said...

A "concern troll?" What a simplistic, dismissive way to treat an expert opinion. Firstly, trolls are people who espouse a belief they don't actually hold, simply to elicit a reaction. A psychologist expressing her professional opinion based on the evidence at hand does not fall under that category.

And sure, gender identity is a complex and controversial topic, and sure socialization has a lot to do with it, but don't act as if it's cut and dried fact that there are NO neurological differences between sexes. It's simply that nobody knows how much they effect gender identity.

Tracey said...

Yeah, so, the last thing I have time or interest in doing is responding to argumentative comments on a blog. Thanks for stopping by.

plumpdumpling said...

I'm not sure what you mean by "hormones don't exist in a vacuum". They're created by our male or female bits, right?, so even if there were absolutely no cultural triggers to a child, his male bits would still generally release male hormones and vice versa.

I do see how defining things can lead to abusing their definitions, but it seems like we have to do that as humans. The point-whatever percentage of difference between human and chimp DNA means huge functional differences, just like the point-whatever difference in estrogen in men and women means huge functional differences.

Tracey said...

I mean two things when I say "hormones don't exist in a vacuum". First, I mean that hormone levels are not at all the only contributing factors to how we understand and perform gender, and secondly, hormone levels can change depending on our environments. They aren't the same in everyone, and they can vary greatly throughout our lives.

whatever difference in estrogen in men and women means huge functional differences

I think that could be the case if the difference was cut and dry instead of existing along a continuum. But hormone levels mix with genetics, other aspects of biology, environment, and socialization, and pre-conceived notions of a "huge functional difference" actually translate into political differences between all men and all women.

plumpdumpling said...

Hey, um, I thought that comment by Anonymous was interesting. OMG, would you totally ignore my comments if you didn't already know me?!

So I still don't agree with your dismissal of hormones, but let's go with it. How does a society look when it's full of genderless people? Can you think of negative aspects?

Tracey said...

I totally don't dismiss hormones. I just don't think they're the gospel of gender, and I don't think they can be used to explain most gender differences we express in our culture. Especially since most of the differences are social/cultural stereotypes. And I don't even think we should live in a genderless society. I just think gender shouldn't be so rigidly defined or pushed onto people without their consent.

And, yeah. It helps that I know you and am already interested in talking to you. Because you know I have no interest in using this blog for arguments or ongoing fights about feminism. I'm perfectly happy preaching to the choir. That anonymous comment wasn't interesting. It was an abrasive waste of space.

Anonymous said...

Tracey, I completely agree with your statement that environment can be one of the influencing factors on hormones. People seem to forget or ignore what environmental toxins can do to a person: lead poisoning can cause aggressive or violent behavior, toxins in the water have been linked to feminization in males, etcetera.

I think what this family is doing is great. Storm is a baby. People don't need to know what's between a baby's legs. Storm's sex/gender is no one's business.

They are not keeping Storm's gender or sex "secret," they're keeping it private.

Also, as to Storm having a hard time as a genderless person in a gendered world...I don't think that's necessarily the case: there are many, many people who are "genderless" in the sense that they don't identify with either gender.


Anonymous said...

Sorry, I referred to the child as Storm. I had just read an article about Storm, another child who's gender is remaining a secret, so I had that on my mind.


Bea said...

I was just posting a blog piece about my own experience of being introduced Lois Gould's book (I received 'X: A Fabulous...' as a gift back in 1978), when I stumbled across your post from 2009. The story of Baby X is a treasure!

Anonymous said...

I know there haven't been many posts here for quite a while but I just thought I'd provide an interesting take on the baby 'X' concept.

I think it is great what these parents are doing. Transgendered people have proven to us time and time again that gender is not affected by hormones and completely unrelated to the sex of a baby! I believe it is a bold move in the right direction.

What do I mean by this? Let me put it this way: one of the greatest dangers a gendered society poses is that it can sometimes force children and adults into gender roles with which they don't identify. And then, of course, when this child or adult tells us that we must be wrong, we become extremely offended and punish the offender. Telling children what they are because of what's between their legs has caused an incredible amount of pain and suffering. In today's modern age, with our "enlightened" view of the world, more and more children are openly choosing to be one gender, both or neither ... and often against our 'best wishes'.

If these parents do manage such a good job of raising the child in a genderless manner, it will become apparent over the years that Pop actually knows who Pop is. Pop will be more drawn to certain types of clothing or manners of expression (this is no doubt the sort of "natural behaviour" created by an inner sense of gender identity upon which society has placed over-exaggerated stereotypes). It will be interesting to see how this plays out. It may be as short a period of time as a few years by which "X's sex will matter". Pop may know for certain, despite having no labels, whether Pop is internally a boy or a girl. It may very well be that Pop's sex matches Pop's gender ... but it may also be that the two do not.

If this is so, then... This brilliant stroke of genius on the parents' part may very well provide the solution to one of society's greatest problems. Let the child decide who the child is!

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Wordwizard said...

What are the odds that Pop's face looks male or female, and always did, or will soon? Some people might be confused by a baby's blob-like face and lack of the hair that men and women style differently, but others will be able to see the natural proportions as male or female whether or not it's announced.

Of course, Pop, or Storm, might have been born in an intersex condition, so that the parents chose not to impose one sex or the other by surgery or conditioning, to give the child unneeded trauma, and wish the child to be able to make up their own mind. In which case, I say, Brave!

Alkyon said...

As I parent of an intersex child I wish I had ran upon such an article years before, so to dig in the knowledge of gender and find the bravery to raise my kid as gender neutral. By doing so, I would have skipped a lot of familly frustration and my kids troubles...
Let kids be kids, let them deside who they really are.

Unknown said...

Oh my. She is looking adorable. I have also used this well-proven natural gender selection and was blessed with a baby girl.