Boys will be boys

“But my son doesn’t like anything pink!”, they say. “But my daughter wants a Barbie for her birthday!”, they say.

They say this if I talk about gender roles. They say this when I suggest that science kits in shops being aimed at boys, and bejewelled vacuum cleaners designed traditionally to appeal to girls, are quietly evil. They say this as a defence, a kind of “I’m not racist, but…”, an attestation that they’re fully-evolved, sensitive and societally valuable members of the species.

They know that men and women should be equal, even if they can’t disentangle ‘equal’ and ‘the same’. If challenged on it, they’d even acknowledge that ‘men’ and ‘woman’ aren’t especially useful phrases here, that gender identity is both much more fluid than society has hitherto acknowledged, and that it’s not something that society should, in fact, bother much about. And still. Still they persist. And they don’t appreciate the power of the tiny.

The reason your son doesn’t want anything pink is because through a hundred phrases, a thousand reactions to his choices, a million barely perceptible cues, he has gotten the impression from you that to want pink things is inappropriate. I’m not blaming you; that’s what society taught you too. You know by now, intellectually, that this lesson was fallacious, yet still you can’t help reacting in the way you were schooled to. (In its own way, that’s worse; being aware of your prejudices is wasted if you don’t fight against them.)

There is nothing wrong with your daughter wanting a Barbie. There is nothing wrong with your son not wanting anything pink. But please recognise that these choices are almost certainly not solely theirs; would you seriously assert that your child’s personality and preferences are fully formed at three, five, ten? I’m 33, and mine aren’t; I don’t expect them to be as I draw my last breath.

We are all children of a society, and we pass its mores on in turn to our children in a billion barely perceptible actions and reactions. The act of imposing gender roles on our children is both infinitely more subtle and wildly more pernicious than you think; this is true for something so fundamental as gender, and it’s true throughout the range of human differences. People, ladies, gentlemen and everything in between; people is what we should be celebrating, despising, criticising and idolising. The only time biological sex – not gender – is important is when you want to have a child.

And by all the gods, in every one of the trillion interactions we all have with him or with her, we should let that child know that it should do anything it can do and be anything it wants to be.