Gender, Sex, And The Jolie-Pitt Peter Pan… Thing


Brad and Angelina’s transgender son (biological daughter), who prefers to be called John received a recent surge of interest and press when he stepped out on the red carpet dressed in a suit along with his older brothers. “She only wants to be called John. John or Peter.” Pitt told Oprah in an Interview. “So it’s a Peter Pan thing. So we’ve got to call her John.” The press has led to a wider discussion on gender neutral parenting and how to best navigate situations when a child of one sex is showing sustained preferences for an ‘opposite-sex interest’.

While many of the parenting articles like this one from the parenting blog of the New York Times touches on the basic issues and questions of the subject, most rely on vignettes to prove that ‘gender’ is somehow something we are ‘doing’ to our kids—and need to do less of. So for parents who are curious about the issue of gender-based vs. gender-neutral parenting, (or have their son dressing in glitter and heels) here are some basics on the issue.

Gender Is Not The Same Thing As Sex

There is a difference between being male/female (which is a person’s sex), and being a man/woman (which is a persons’ gendered identity). This is also distinct from a person’s sexual preference, that is, what sex and/or gender they are attracted to. A male or female is something that you are, whereas a man or a woman is something you can increasingly become. Both sex and the physical underpinnings of gender are more or less set within the first few weeks of life; gender is more malleable after birth.

The four defining things that make up sex (your chromosomes, primary and secondary sex characteristics, hormone levels, and brain processing) may be in disagreement resulting in a condition called intersex; that is, not fully being either male or female. It is a common misunderstanding that the ‘male/female box’ can be cleanly checked if a person has XX or XY chromosomes. The New York Times, in the article “What If It’s (Sort of) a Boy and (Sort of) a Girl?” notes: “even the International Olympic Committee acknowledged this when it suspended its practice of mandatory chromosomal testing for female athletes in 2000, reflecting current medical understanding that a female who tests positive for a Y chromosome can still be a woman.” (Yes, there’s an outrageous story behind that policy change. Look it up.)

Any mis-measure of the prenatal hormonal cocktail can produce a baby whose sex cannot be confirmed by a quick diaper change—a condition that is “biologically understandable while statistically uncommon.” As many as 2% of live births do not conform to the ideal male or female. Because “intersexuals quite literally embody both sexes,” the authorities in this field claim that the distinctions ‘male and female’ do not actually exist. (I suppose their argument goes that if there is a proven deviation from the norm, there must be no norm?) This is nonsense. Even a two-year-old can understand that ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ are real categories of things.

Gender Is Made Up Of Feminine And Masculine Characteristics

If ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ are real categories of things (even with deviations from this principle) having a gendered identity of feminine and masculine characteristics are also real categories of things. I’ll address feminine characteristics here because boys dressing up in sequins and heels tend to send more parents into researching this topic than when girls want short hair and cargo pants. A feminine characteristic is a just trait which more prevalent in females; which implies that it is also found in males. Just as other characteristics (like being an artist or a parent etc) retain their nature when they are present in different people, femininity maintains its nature even when acting in males. A feminine characteristic is feminine whether a man or a woman has this characteristic because femininity retains its connection to the female sex, even when operating within the opposite sex. (We intrinsically understand this–thus the parental panic.) When we say, “girls like dressing up in heels”, it like saying “men are taller than women”. Statistically, men are on average half a foot taller than women, but this doesn’t mean that all men are taller than all women. It only means we have found a satisfyingly consistent tendency.

A few years back my husband Matt and I were having coffee with our friends Heidi and Mike, discussing gender and Mike began to draw lines on a napkin.  “Maybe,” he started in a still-distracted tone, “being the fullest woman or man you can be, isn’t about having all the ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ qualities in order to achieve some ‘ideal’. Maybe it’s growing in all the gender-related qualities that you are supposed to have,” he said as he presented the napkin drawing of a spectrum with the words masculinity and femininity at either end.  “And maybe men and women are both supposed to have a balance of both,” Matt added.

Gender Is Not An Imaginary Or Voluntary

I think a lot of the panic over the issue of gender neutral parenting comes down to two assumptions—neither of which are true. The first is that gender is an imaginary construct super-imposed by society and parents need to protect our inherently genderless children from this onslaught with our choices in their clothing, toys, and nursery decorations. This idea is so ludicrous—I am not even going to attempt to address it. Maybe Matt Walsh will pick it up. The truth is that gender is a not merely a label we make up to categorize things, it is actually real— just as human nature exists as truly as the world’s several billion people who are defined by it.

The second is that parents, through not being careful enough, or sensitive enough, or educated enough, can easily ‘damage’ their kids’ gendered identities. This is rather self-indulgent overestimation of our ‘power’ as parents. Even in our own gendered identity I think we overestimate our creative license in choosing our identity; we want to believe that we can be inspired enough or intentional enough to graft any number of attractive qualities onto the self. This can only result in a space between the reality and appearances of a person’s life. Our gender cannot be taken from us because gender is not ultimately something externally graphed onto the self, but something that comes from within. If our personal constructions of chosen style and interests are taken from us, if culture’s restrictions and roles are eradicated, if every external influence is scraped off and our very bodies are carved into, there is still something within that is either feminine or masculine. I’ll conclude with the same end as the NYTimes parenting article: “The seeming contradiction is just one of the many conundrums — and one of the most important lessons — of parenting. You can’t “make” your children anything. You can’t really “stop” them from being anything in particular, either. But you can help them explore the fullest definition of who they are.”

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