Gender reveals should be mocked, but don’t ignore abuse of gender non-conforming kids

The truth behind the “trans child” character on The Babysitters’ Club is that violence was used to teach Kai what girls and boys are permitted to do and be.

Last week, England football captain Harry Kane shared the news that his wife Katie is expecting a baby boy. He did so by kicking a ball at a balloon containing blue — as opposed to pink — powder.

Blue for boys! How sexist, right? What a way to reinforce stereotypes! And so the ritual mocking of the gender reveal started up once more.

“It’s 2020 — are we really still doing this?” harrumphed Grazia magazine. After all, “gender reveal parties perpetuate dangerous stereotypes: the idea that ‘girl’ equals pink princess and ‘boy’ equals blue Action Man is so outdated it’s almost too obvious to state.” How could Kane have been so foolish? Typical footballer — you can bet he won’t have read any Judith Butler.

Had this taken place a decade ago, I too would have joined in with the derision. Back then I was raising two boys (I now have three) and was heartily sick of being advised to read neurosexist classics such as Steve Biddulph’s Raising Boys, Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference or Sexist McIncel’s Why Pink Makes Boys’ Penises Fall Off. “You must read them,” I was told, “because science has proven feminists wrong. Boys really are different, due to cavemen and neurons and stuff.” By which it was meant, boys are born to like the colour blue, playing with trucks, earning more and beating the crap out of other people. I simply didn’t buy it, and thankfully wasn’t the only one.

The early 2010s were an interesting time to be trying to raise children the non-sexist way. The early 2000s had been dominated by a slew of books repackaging standard sexism as cutting-edge science, most of them authored by men who, as Cordelia Fine put it, “like to position themselves as courageous knights of truth, who brave the stifling ideology of political correctness.” To challenge this new sexism was risky: one risked being told one’s over-emotional female brain just wasn’t up to understanding the science. Towards the end of the noughties, however, a tipping point seemed to have been reached.

This came in part through the painstaking debunking work of academics such as Fine and Deborah Cameron, but there was also grassroots activism — not least through Mumsnet, where pressure groups such as Let Toys Be Toys started to form. As a mother who let her boys wear pink, grow their hair, and play with dolls’ houses, I knew which side I was on. And I thought my side was finally winning. Now I’m not so sure.

By the time my middle son was wearing his first dress to a school disco, I thought the stereotype monster might be in its death throes, overwhelmed by its own ridiculousness. Surely the patriarchy could not survive being reduced to kicking footballs at powder-filled balloons and insisting on his-and-hers toy globes. The fragility on show was just too blatant, right? Alas, I was wrong. What I — and many others like me — had not counted on was the repackaging of conservative beliefs about gender as their exact opposite. Bye bye, old gender stereotyping; say hello to the new, faith-based, drug-and-surgeons-knife-powered version.

We feminists might have won the argument that it makes zero sense to predict a child’s likes, dislikes, desires, presentation, and most intimate beliefs on the basis of his or her sex. As for the argument that it makes zero sense to determine a child’s sex on the basis of his or her likes, dislikes, desires, presentation, and most intimate beliefs? That, apparently, is totally different and anyone who proposes this is a raging bigot in need of some serious re-education.

Take, for example, a recent episode of Netflix’s television reboot of The Babysitter’s Club, in which one of the young sitters, Mary Anne, takes care of a trans child named Bailey. There’s much to say about the rampant stereotyping that runs through the whole storyline, but one particularly egregious scene occurs when Bailey has a temperature and is taken to hospital. The doctor and nurse, on seeing Bailey’s medical records, assume that the child is a boy and use male pronouns, in spite of Bailey’s long blonde hair and a glittery butterfly top. This is good, right? Because boys can have long hair and wear butterfly tops, right? Apparently not. By failing to realize that a boy couldn’t possibly look the way Bailey does, the medical staff reveal themselves to be ignorant bastards, whom Mary Anne must take to task.

“I know you guys are busy,” our righteous sitter says to the doctor and nurse, “but, as you would see, if you look at her and not her chart, Bailey is not a boy. And by treating her like one, you are completely ignoring who she is.”

The doctor and nurse nod solemnly, duly chastened. That’s the last time they’ll be using medical records to determine biological sex rather than glitter and pink stuff. As the mother of a boy who looks not unlike young Bailey, I guess I should be delighted?

But I’ve been told countless times that this is not my problem: having a trans child is not the same as having a gender non-conforming child. Why should I compare my son to Bailey, or his real-life counterpart: nine-year-old transgender actor Kai Shappley? Well, there’s the fact that gender stereotypes affect all children, and if you demand that people determine whether someone is a girl or a boy in accordance with how you situate them on that great continuum between Barbie and GI Joe, you are, as the Grazia piece argues with reference to Harry Kane, encouraging children to assume “there is only one direction for them in life — that a boy should be everything that comes with being ‘blue,’ which is to be ‘macho’ […] and [that girls] have to be everything the colour ‘pink’ represents: pretty, a princess, feminine.” It is entirely incoherent to see the conflation of femaleness with femininity, and maleness with masculinity as harmful in some instances, but benign in others, when we are dealing with one economy of human relationships, in which everyone is defined in relation to others.

If you squint a bit and work very hard at not thinking, you could represent the rise in children claimed to have been “born in the wrong bodies” as a yet another rejection of traditional stereotypes (as though having a sexed body is itself a stereotype). Then again, if you listen to an interview with Kai Shappley’s mother, a different picture emerges:

“I remember even thinking before Kai was three, I think this kid might be gay, and I thought that that could not happen, that would not happen. We started praying fervently. Prayers turned into googling conversion therapy and how can we implement these techniques at home to make Kai not be like this. Putting her on time out for acting like a girl, putting her on time out for stealing girl toys, spanking her, really spanking her, every time she would say ‘you know I’m a girl.’”

This is a description of a parent terrorizing and abusing a child for failing to conform to gender norms — a parent using violence to teach their child what girls and boys are permitted to do and be, a parent utterly horrified at the slightest possibility her child might be gay. It is appalling and once you have heard this woman speak, it’s impossible to look at the way Kai plays Bailey, who cowers in fear at the prospect of having to wear a blue gown instead of the pink one, in the same way. Of course that child can portray the horror of not getting it right, of fearing something terrible might happen if declared sex and presentation “don’t match.” That child really knows.

Those who mock gender reveals rarely dare raise their voices to protest gender stereotyping and homophobia when they are found in the stories of parents of transgender children. Susie Green, CEO of Mermaids, a charity and lobby group for “trans kids,” wouldn’t allow her child, pre-transition, to play with the “wrong” toys. One former employee of the Tavistock Clinic in London claims seeing “so many families who would talk about not wanting their daughters to be lesbian.” The impact of this kind of parental bullying and shaming on children is unclear, but the absence of criticism — when it’s open season on those who throw gender reveals — is remarkable. Hit a child, take away their toys, shame them for having a crush on someone of the same sex: silence. Throw a jokey party with pink balloons and you are responsible for “closed doors, forbidden opportunities, stifled dreams.”

It’s safe to say Harry Kane and his ilk won’t be welcomed into woke fold any time soon. The gender reveal harks back to a traditionalism, which anyone armed with a gender studies degree can mock as ignorant and foolish. The entire concept of gender identity — and indeed, pretty much everything Judith Butler has ever written — might be incoherent, but it’s precisely the kind of incoherence that can make those grappling with it feel they must nod in agreement, just in case something important is going over their head. The hypocrisy of those who criticize Kane, but not the mother of children like Kai Shappley, is fuelled by both fear and intellectual insecurity.

Judith Herman notes that, in the presence of abuse, “it is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing.” Fifteen years ago no one wanted to be called a flat-earther for rejecting the “boys are different” narrative; now no one wants to be called a bigot for questioning the idea that some children’s bodies don’t match their true selves. Call out gender reveal parties all you want (you should — they are ridiculous), but know that this won’t cover your back or compensate for the abuses you ignore. A balloon is just a balloon; a terrorized child is something else.

Victoria Smith is a UK-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared in the New Statesman, the Independent, the Guardian and elsewhere.

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