Lizzie Maughan, Flinders University
I saw a meme the other day and it said, “Be the person you needed when you were younger”. It’s a bit cheesy in the way that these earnest memes always are, but it might also be what’s at the heart of my research.
I was a gender non-conforming kid. People didn’t know whether I was a boy or a girl, and I had no internal sense of being a boy or a girl. What I “knew” was that I was a girl because I didn’t have a penis; that people decided my gender based on the cut of my hair and the clothes I wore; that I was treated better when people thought I was a boy; and that there was no other options than being a boy or a girl. This did not make for a particularly happy childhood. I was taught (by my second wave feminist mother) that as a girl I could do anything I wanted. But this was insufficient and unsatisfying information. I didn’t want to be in a gender box. I needed someone to talk with about the tensions between doing “anything I wanted” and the reactions of people around me. I needed an alternative to the binary notion of gender I was being offered.
Rigid, essentialist, and binary ideas of gender don’t just restrict queer kids like me, but everyone.
What if someone had actually explored gender with me? What if I’d been offered the possibility that gender does not have to be binary? That gender was socially constructed? What if I’d had the chance to discuss stereotypes and how they made me feel? What if I’d been given tools to challenge people who told me I was getting my gender wrong? What if this was part of my education at school?
So I want to be that someone, the person who makes space for kids to explore gender and offer them a flexible conception of gender. That’s my PhD project. I plan to research gender with children in an early years classroom (4-8 year olds) to get further insights into how children do gender and to answer the question: how do young children engage with a more flexible conception of gender than the essentialist and binary one they are forced to live with?
This exploration of gender will position children as co-constructors of gender knowledge through a variety of lessons overtly about gender, using a variety of provocations covering ideas such as stereotypes, non-binary gender, transgender identity, being an ally, gendered language, and gender policing. I’ll be observing how children engage with the ideas both in these lessons and later, in less teacher-directed, more independent activities. I will collaborate with the children in analysing the qualitative data I collect and in reviewing the project.
So what’s going to happen? How will young children respond to this more flexible conception of gender? This is the fantastic task I’m undertaking at the moment.
Previous research has suggested kids have a lot to share on the topics of gender and sexuality when they are given the opportunity, such as Blaise’s 2005 book Playing It Straight. Davies’ foundational work in 1989, Frogs and Snails and Feminist Tales, showed that children policed other kids’ gender performances and frequently negotiated gender boundaries, something Davies called ‘category maintenance work’. Teacher-researchers have shared instances of feminist or queer storytelling that have been met with confusion, denial, and even laughter that has shut down the conversation. Unfortunately not many researchers have overtly explored gender with kids in their early years, perhaps due to the difficulties of engaging in research with children in a risk-averse era.
Luckily, I have two I prepared earlier! That is, I parent two young kids. J is 4 years old, S is 7 years old, and my partner and I have done a lot of gender work with them. For now, J is a girl who dreams of being a princess with long flowing hair, and S presents as a gender creative boy. Here are a couple of stories to ponder:
S at a public playground with his friend F.
F: Everyone thinks we’re girls.
F: They think we are girls because we have long hair.
S: They have stereotypes. We can trick them. We can go to the girls’ toilets.
F: Yea, they’ll just think we’re girls.
S: Let’s go use the girls’ toilets.
We took J for a speech assessment and the therapist showed her a series of pictures in which J was to name the image.
Therapist: What’s this?
J: It’s a people.
Therapist: Is it a boy or a girl?
J: (after a moment’s thought) Or non-binary?
Therapist: Can you say boy?
The stories I tell are largely about my kids embracing the flexible notion of gender that we’ve offered them. You can read about other genderqueer parenting efforts hereand here. It is harder to tell stories about them resisting more flexible conceptions of gender. This resistance is silent. It’s the norm. It’s slipping under the radar. J loves princesses and ballerinas. S loves dragons and dinosaurs. J plays mummies and babies. S plays lego and pretends he’s a ninja. J wears dresses. S wears trousers. Most of the time my kids participate in a rigid, essentialist, and binary conception of gender.
Is this conformity resistance, or is it protection? Are my kids’ gender choices expressions of conditional agency (Butler, 1997)? Do the current gendered power dynamics in society demand they resist the more flexible gender space I have offered? I would love to hear your thoughts on how we might challenge young children’s gender perceptions, and any things you may have tried that seemed to be effective. Please send me an email or find me on twitter (@lizziemaughan).