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Research shows that stereotyping often occurs subtly. We handle baby boys in a rough-and-tumble fashion; girls are handled much more delicately. (Jo Unruh/iStockphoto)
Research shows that stereotyping often occurs subtly. We handle baby boys in a rough-and-tumble fashion; girls are handled much more delicately. (Jo Unruh/iStockphoto)

Arthur Schafer

Why all the fuss about a 'genderless' baby? Add to ...

Radio talk-show lines across Canada are sizzling with angry denunciations of Kathy Witterick and David Stocker, parents of two boys, Jazz (5) and Kio (2), plus baby Storm.

Jazz and Kio know the sex of their new sibling but close friends and other family members, including grandparents, are not being told. Storm's parents describe what they're doing as allowing the baby to grow and develop, for a time, without a fixed gender.

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Is this a cruel experiment being carried out upon a defenceless baby, as critics allege, or a reasonable attempt to undermine rigid sex role stereotypes, as the parents insist?

When my children were born, in the early 1970s, they were immediately wrapped in the appropriate blanket: blue for my son and, two years later, pink for my daughter. My wife and I were also given an educational booklet. The cover showed a little boy in astronaut gear and a little girl wearing an apron and standing in front of a child's bake oven.

This gender stereotyping was crude. But social science research shows that stereotyping often occurs subtly. We handle baby boys in a rough-and-tumble fashion; girls are handled much more delicately. This occurs without conscious awareness. We speak to baby girls in soft coochy-coo tones while speaking more loudly to baby boys. It's difficult to resolve the perennial "nature" versus "nurture" debate partly because differential socialization starts at birth.

The past half century has seen many significant changes. The Bay's toy department used to sell doctor's kits and nurse's kits. The contents of these kits were identical. But the cover of the doctor's kit bore a picture of a boy while the nurse's kit showed a girl. Most Canadians see unisex doctor's kits as progress. Indeed, as Canadian women begin to outnumber men in faculties of medicine and law, some critics now argue that the era of equal opportunity may have gone too far.

And yet, one could argue that plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Overwhelmingly, boys are still given G.I. Joe action figures while girls receive Barbies. At puberty, boys discover that guys who weep at movies find it tough to get a second date, and girls quickly figure out that if they're "too smart," their romantic life will suffer. The business pages still show a huge predominance of men appointed to top jobs. But if you look at the photos of male high-school graduates, you'll be struck by how many, including the jocks, wear an earring. When "The Governator," famous for sneering at "girly men," was recently exposed as "The Spermanator," there were many more jeers than shouts of, "Way to go, Arnie." In short, the evidence points every which way. Select your examples carefully and you can prove anything.

Jazz struggles with people's reaction to his long hair. Both boys are given a tough time when they wear dresses. Their parents hope that by creating "gender space" for baby Storm, the inhibiting effects of sex role stereotyping will be counteracted.

Success won't be easy. Canadian gender norms will continue to evolve, but along the way deviation will still be punished with ridicule and worse. Home-schooling may temporarily shield Storm and his/her brothers from the worst kinds of mockery and taunting. Soon enough, however, they will have to engage with a society that can still manifest cruel intolerance. Whatever their fate, the debate about what it means to be male or female in 21st-century Canada is not going away any time soon.

Arthur Schafer is director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba.

 

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