Calvin and Hobbes

by Belle Waring on January 12, 2012

I have been meaning to blog about this for ages, though it’s sort of a personal reflection which I might have put on my personal blog had it not gone into a hibernation pod until we reach Alpha Centauri on our photon sail ship. At some point, let’s see, must have been…August 2010 or so, our younger daughter Violet, then 6, decided she was actually Calvin, and therefore a boy. Thus, her precious special stuffed animal Saki, probably the single least tiger-like toy in the universe, was Hobbes. She was in a phase of reading—well, being read to—a LOT of Calvin and Hobbes, which constantly reduced her to paroxysms of laughter. She is one of the laughingest children ever, so this isn’t hard, but her love of Calvin and Hobbes was special.

So, she insisted we all call her Calvin, and call Saki “Hobbes.” And refused to wear any of her dresses or skirts or girly T-shirts. And then a few months later she insisted she needed a boy’s haircut, and a boy bathing suit, and also boy underwear. Our reaction was to say: OK, as you like. I cut my children’s hair anyway (and my own!), so that was no problem. Her schoolmates and teacher were very supportive, calling her Calvin; she turned in all her homework and tests as Calvin. She still had girl friends, though; when I asked her if she wanted to play with the boys at school or have them over she rolled her eyes and said, “Mom, they’re all morons.” She also still played with her dolls, but more with Lego, and more Super Mario (both Wii—Super Mario Galaxy!—and Nintendo hand-held).

When I cut her beautiful curls off I saved them, because I thought I might never see them again; that and the rows of lovely dresses in her closet did give me heart pangs from time to time (it will surprise none of you to know that I buy my children a lot of truly adorable clothes. Grosgrain ribbon trim! Gingham!). Also, Violet is an unusually beautiful little girl, so part of me felt it was a shame for her to be a boy.

Other parents, even my American, Yale alumna friend, were surprised at our willingness to go along with it. The Chinese parents were truly mystified, but game enough to send birthday invitations to “Calvin” for the most part. John and I talked about it, of course. We thought, maybe she’s a baby dyke, or a budding trans person, or just really loves Calvin and Hobbes, or something else. There didn’t seem any harm in it. It was clearly centered on Calvin the character, at least at first, but later seemed to be more generally that she was a boy.

We have a live-in maid here in Singapore also, who takes care of the children much of the time, and she clearly thought the whole thing was a terrible idea but was willing to call Violet “Calvin” if that’s what we wanted. Then, after about 8 months, our daughter just got up one day and told our maid Malou that she was Violet again. Snap. End of story. Hobbes also reverted to Saki, though Hobbes’ mama (an identical but bigger toy…that I sleep with but we’ll all just pretend I didn’t say that) remained “Mama Hobbes.” And that really was the end of it. Occasionally we’ll remind Violet, “hey, remember when you were Calvin?” and she’ll merely say “yes, what about it?”

Obviously this would have been much more difficult had she been a boy who wanted to be a girl. I think we might even have gotten push-back from the school, and I’m almost certain the other boys would have teased her. She’s a very popular child at school, so no one teased her at all, as it happened, but I don’t know if that would have been enough had she been a boy.

I have read recently about children who decide that they are “really” the opposite gender almost at once, and who may even get hormone therapy that (for example) blocks the onset of puberty in boys, so they never develop male secondary sex characteristics. I know there is debate over whether children can make an informed decision about these matters, and about whether they might not just be gay as adults rather than trans (certainly many of my queer friends strongly identified as the opposite gender when they were young). I explained to the girls about trans adults, and their main question, naturally enough I think is, how do they make a penis? (I said this was the most difficult part.)

In any case I feel happy with the way it worked out for our family. It is interesting that Calvin’s biggest supporter was her older sister, who began calling her Calvin immediately, and demanded that I buy her boy’s underwear the way she wanted, and so on. Violet is still very insistent that she never wants to develop breasts. (Her sister, at 11, is just barely beginning to do so.) I don’t know how she’ll feel when that starts to happen. Maybe she will go back to being Calvin; maybe not.

{ 98 comments }

1

Vance Maverick 01.12.12 at 4:36 am

How would Jean Calvin feel about all this? And was there feedback about the possible names Wesley or Luther? (And why are no American boys named Knox or Zwingli or Hus? But I digress.)

My own daughter, now 7, has not been much interested in acting like a boy. (One of her classmates has, and that has passed without much comment.) I keep waiting for her to bump up against one of the zombie prohibitions on women. Perhaps in classical music, which has no canonical female composers? I’m not sure what to say when we get there — perhaps, “Grazyna Bacewicz, though no Stravinsky, was at least as interesting as Nico Muhly (or whoever the flavor of the year may then be).” But I don’t plan to bring this up unprovoked.

2

Substance McGravitas 01.12.12 at 4:41 am

Take it from some pseudonymous idiot on the internet: you sound like excellent parents.

3

faustusnotes 01.12.12 at 4:45 am

Just out of interest, is Violet going to an international school or just the local school (Whatever that means in Singapore)? I get the impression it’s the former …? Maybe the reaction would have been different (regardless of gender) if it were the latter?

4

Belle Waring 01.12.12 at 4:56 am

Yes, she is going to an international school. Agreed the reaction might be different in a local school. My local friends were, on the whole, disapproving.

5

JRoth 01.12.12 at 5:00 am

My 3.5-y,o, son has had a pro-female bias for awhile. Despite being an absurdly stereotypical boy in many ways (trucks, dinosaurs, farts; impervious to pain), he’s also very sweet and empathetic, and he adores his big sister (as all kid brothers should), his mama, and his grammy. A couple months ago he developed an alter ego, “Sister Slug”. Bizarre, but there it is. He’s shown no clothes preferences wrt skirts or dresses, but he complains about clothes that aren’t “pretty” (colorful), and he asks for pink and purple. He occasionally says things indicating that he expects to become a girl/woman at some point.

All of which we’ve rolled with. Presumably it’s not permanent, but if it is, well, so be it. No need to cause him angst now that he’ll have to fight later. He’s little enough that everyone laughs off his sister slugness (Waldorf School doesn’t hurt – he’s too little for public pre-K, which I can’t marine being so accommodating), so there’s no social stress.

I’ll admit to being helped by that woman who wrote about her kid who wanted to be Velma (?) for Halloween – it’s always good to be reminded that people can be strong, which makes it easier to take mild stands. And, now, to being helped by Violet.

6

JRoth 01.12.12 at 5:03 am

Oh, and I was way past age 6 when C&H came out, but I liked to fancy my youthful self a sort of Calvin. I wasn’t nearly that inventive/delusional, but I did get in trouble for drawing in the margins of my tests.

7

faustusnotes 01.12.12 at 5:08 am

I’m guessing that local schools – being generally part of a monolithic system – will tend to be less flexible about things like this than international or private schools, regardless of local cultural mores. Also in Asia, I don’t know whether the level of disapproval for boys being girls vs. girls being boys would be so different. Certainly in Japan cross-dressing and trans behavior in public is treated very differently from (generally much, much more tolerantly than) the West.

Are international schools in Singapore any good? My experience of young adults trained in international schools in Japan is that they got a really bad education compared to a local school, especially in language at a higher level.

8

Belle Waring 01.12.12 at 5:14 am

They vary widely. This one is poorly managed but offers more full immersion Mandarin than any other, and imports all the teachers from Beijing so the children will develop a desirable accent. I’m not particularly worried about English-language instruction; I can teach them that in a pinch.

9

faustusnotes 01.12.12 at 5:20 am

I know a couple in rural Japan whose child, now just finished school, went to a local school and can speak perfect Japanese (including the local monstrous dialect) but can’t speak any English – until he returns to his home country, when he becomes fluent quickly. My concern for situations like this is that the higher levels of English learning (essay writing, literature studies, critical skills, etc.) can’t usually be taught at home and a lot of students at international schools end up having a grade 9 understanding of both languages (local and their parents’). I.e. fluent but uneducated.

That kid, btw, was the only foreigner in the village, as it were, and was very well treated – including all his idiosyncracies – by the local school. In fact he was a kind of bridge into local social life for his parents. I can imagine that shool being very supportive of Calvin-and-Hobbesism on his part in a way that a local school in Australia might not be. But in a bigger school in Tokyo …?

10

Meredith 01.12.12 at 5:51 am

Is this a story of how it will all work out if only we respond to one another not just with tolerance or forbearance (though either is a good start), but with curiosity and wonder? (And that old chestnut, love — aka, maybe, curiosity and wonder, plus investment — in a larger sense than clothing!) I suspect that “boys” and “girls” in many circumstances/times/places have long been given much more room for gender play than modern narratives often imagine, even if children haven’t usually shared their imaginative lives with the loving adults they know…. Still, we live amidst confining modern narratives. So bravo for for standing back and watching and waiting, in wonder and trust (another element of love I should have mentioned — well, maybe “investment” covered that). Warning: it’ll only get more challenging, as they enter their teens, their twenties, their thirties! (Does it settle down after that? I’m waiting to see.)
Violet, btw, is just a wonderful name.

11

Belle Waring 01.12.12 at 5:52 am

Thanks Meredith!

12

Belle Waring 01.12.12 at 6:06 am

Singapore is more conservative about male to female trans people than someplace like Vietnam or Thailand, even though it used to be famous for them. Bugis Street used to be an area famous for trans prostitutes, and they more or less literally paved it over in a “clean-up the city” moment. Now the trade has moved out to Geylang, where lots of the prostitutes are from Cambodia. (Prostitution is legal in Singapore but I still think there are sex slavery situations). There are quite a few male comedians/performers who dress as women, like Kumar, who recently shocked the city no one by coming out as gay. It was a big deal.

13

Jawbone 01.12.12 at 7:42 am

OMG this is too much for me, given I have a newborn. I am voting for Romney, sorry guys.

14

Torquil Macneil 01.12.12 at 9:44 am

Wow, that was a long stint, but I think this kind of intense, deeply immersive, childhood fantasy is quite common and you did the right thing by not overreacting to it. A friend of my daughter spent the best part of a school term as a dog a couple of years ago and the teachers were extremely sanguine about it all, and simply allowed her to be a dog until she decided e wasn’t. Questions like eating with knives and forks and walking on hind legs in muddy places had to be delicately negotiated though.

15

J. Otto Pohl 01.12.12 at 10:18 am

This strikes me as just weird.

16

Matt 01.12.12 at 12:19 pm

You know, I can totally see John getting into the role of Calvin’s dad. And, at least you had Calvin and Hobbes around for this to happen with. Just imagine how much more troubling it would have been if it had been 30 years ago and it was with Dennis the Menace or Richie Rich.

17

Lynne 01.12.12 at 12:57 pm

Belle, I love this story. Thank you for sharing. I am trying to imagine the reverse, a boy being a girl for eight months, and I think the social backlash might have been harsh even if the parents were able to roll with it as you did. Thanks again.

18

belle le triste 01.12.12 at 1:24 pm

Many people though not all agree with you about this, J.Otto Pohl. I have heard their remarks in such pubs as the Old Bull and Bush.

19

Guido Nius 01.12.12 at 1:30 pm

Weird is good. Scary is straight.

20

Neville Morley 01.12.12 at 1:50 pm

#18: Or Sam the Eagle in the classic edition of the Muppet Show with Alice Cooper: “Freakos 1, Civilisation 0.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vTUYJ53XHeo – at 2’43”.

21

Belle Waring 01.12.12 at 1:50 pm

John loved being Calvin’s dad! He got to make up ludicrous stuff all the time, which he enjoyed greatly.
Separately, I figured there would be a few disapproving CT commenters, but I doubt I would be able to guess them in advance. I would have pegged faustusnotes as anti and J. Otto Pohl as pro; just goes to show people don’t cleave very obviously along this line. I wondered about Violet’s privacy; she’s OK with me writing about it now but if in the future she wanted me to take the post down for whatever reason, I would. (Her attitude was more or less, “who would care?”)

22

Steven Hart 01.12.12 at 1:55 pm

At various times in my early childhood I wanted to be AstroBoy, Gigantor, and Godzilla. (All Japanese exports, of course, but we didn’t know from anime back then — no wonder I drive a Honda now.) Sounds like you fielded it perfectly, if you ask me.

23

Guido Nius 01.12.12 at 2:03 pm

I wanted to be an avenger. Luckily there weren’t any real guns around.

24

reason 01.12.12 at 2:05 pm

In my daughters is a boy who curiously is seen as an outsider by both genders, and as the class is mostly 13 this is getting to a potentially tricky stage. When he was younger he used to go to all the girl’s birthdays parties and hang out with the girls – but now that is being seen as a bit awkward. He doesn’t cross dress or anything – he just doesn’t seen to be interested in the things that normally interest boys. Will be interesting to watch.

25

politicalfootball 01.12.12 at 2:20 pm

Of course Belle is a great mother.

I have the other problem: Cinderella Ate My Daughter. I suppose she doesn’t take it too far, and she maintains a healthy interest in non-Cinderella activities. But still, it was a bit shocking to see it happen, and I’ve had to do some soul-searching about the degree to which I can take a laissez-faire attitude about the whole thing.

26

Jeff R. 01.12.12 at 2:20 pm

A couple of weeks back, the Boston Globe had an first page above the fold article about a set of identical twins, one of who preferred to be a girl:

http://www.boston.com/lifestyle/family/articles/2011/12/11/led_by_the_child_who_simply_knew/

I liked the part where the father described himself as a “former Republican.”

27

Kevin 01.12.12 at 2:29 pm

Yes. This is wonderfully weird. As the parent of a (now 15 year old) autistic boy, such weirdness is the fabric of daily life. Example: My son developed an affection for girls/women’s feet awhile back. His (generally pretty great) teachers were quite worried about this development (no doubt worried it was a developing fetish that might, if not controlled early, become stigmatizing). These worries were not lost on his parents, not at all, but we were determined not to let them determine our default response. (We generally try to provide some space for him to indulge his weirdness, within certain limits, and wanted to follow this policy in this particular case as well).

Luckily, most of our friends happily indulged our son’s requests to allow him to get down on the floor and stare close up at their toes for a minute or two, after which we’d say — Ok, time’s up! That would generally be the end of it, until the next time. (We were generally able to convince him to refrain from such requests in public, though not always. Of course, in these cases we had to step in; but even in these cases folks were remarkably nonchalant about the whole thing, aside from one uncomfortable incident involving an elderly Greek man on a bus.)

Our son also wanted, and received, nail polish treatments (feet only of course!) several times a week for a month or so; he often asked folks if they would compare toe nail polish jobs with him. At one point, the fixation moved from people feet to the feet of an old talking DW doll (for the uninitiated, DW is Arthur’s kid sister, from the Marc Brown books ). Pre-bed time routine involved under the covers activity involving who knows what exactly, but it didn’t seem to be overtly sexual in nature. In any case, it was nice for him to have someone who would repeatedly and enthusiastically ask him to touch her feet without complaint. After a few weeks, he simply lost interest in the whole thing. This particular weirdness seems to have passed for good.

One of the things I like about Belle’s story is that, in spite of differences in detail, they remind me that it’s pretty much a characteristic of being a human to be weird. In the case of kids, it’s very easy to predict outcomes formed out of habitual adult anxieties than by anything in the reality of kids’ lives. Curiosity and wonder are, as Meredith wisely points out, invaluable qualities for adults to be able to rely on here. Embracing these qualities doesn’t eliminate the inevitable discomfort that arises along the way; nor does it forestall the need for some judicious parental ‘limit-setting’ in certain cases. But it helps to remind me that such limits should be enabling rather than disabling.

28

CarsonA 01.12.12 at 2:38 pm

Applause for Belle! It probably would have been more difficult thing had it been a boy who claimed to be a girl, but not necessarily–I think it would depend on where you live and the crowd you hang around. This exact thing happened with my son when he was four, and it was decidedly trauma-free for all involved. He decided that he was a girl. We rolled with it (let him grow his hair, wear lots of pink and purple, skirts, ballerina Halloween costume) as did his preschool teachers at the local Jewish Community Center (referring to him as “she,” letting him go with the girls if they split up boy/girl) and his (and our) friends (at the time, most of his friends were girls anyway). Then after a while it ended, never to return, and now he is a teenage, very heterosexual boy. (I can’t say he’s a “typical boy,” though, because he’s the most gentle, sweet, caring boy I have ever met. And you should take my word for it, because as his mother, I can evaluate these things completely objectively.) At the time we lived in the U.S., in a large city on the East Coast.

29

reason 01.12.12 at 2:46 pm

Me at #24
Should be … in my daughter’s CLASS is a boy …

30

Marc 01.12.12 at 2:47 pm

I had a friend whose daughter did something very similar – although it wasn’t a cartoon character, just an alter ego. Dress like a boy, hair cut like a boy, the whole nine yards. Less than a year later it’s as if it didn’t happen. I thought of it an an extension of trying out a new name or a new persona. I’ve known a lot more girls than boys who did these sorts of acts – making themselves a new person and seeing what fits. But that may just be personal experience speaking. (In fairness, my son did spend a complete year dressed in black from head to toe…)

31

MPAVictoria 01.12.12 at 3:20 pm

“At various times in my early childhood I wanted to be AstroBoy, Gigantor, and Godzilla. (All Japanese exports, of course, but we didn’t know from anime back then—no wonder I drive a Honda now.) Sounds like you fielded it perfectly, if you ask me.”

Me too! Or really any superhero/action hero. Of course I never really grew out of it….
/ Wonderful story Belle. It sounds like your daughter has fantastic taste! Who doesn’t love Calvin and Hobbes?

32

kdog 01.12.12 at 3:37 pm

I’m with Torquil @14 – some amount of experimentation with gender roles, as I understand it, is quite common. My 4-yo daughter has been doing a mild version of this for 7-8 months now, and it doesn’t really seem weird to me at all. Actually it seems kind of logical given the complexities and contradictions she sees and experiences as she tries to understand gender. For a brief period she wanted to be referred to as “Tom.” (I was actually, inadvertently, responsible for this choice, having suggested it when I thought we were going to have a one-time play session. . . my first choice was Brady, but that was shot down.) But after trying that on for a few weeks she kind of dropped it. More frequently now she ask to be called “Superman.” That’s been going on a couple of months, but for some reason I suspect it won’t last. In the meantime, she insists on wearing boy-style clothes and fairly short hair. Our friends say she looks “rad.”

Honestly, of all the worries we normally have about her, this barely registers. But it has provided a focal point for us to think through how we feel about the various possibilities for her sexual identity when she grows up, and, even moreso, the messages we want to send her as she sorts through these things. Right now we are mostly just letting her know that we love her no matter what gender she chooses, but we’ve also taken extra care to affirm the notion of her being a girl, out of some concern that she was reacting to some negativity she has perceived towards femininity in her world (e.g., a boy in her class told her girls weren’t strong).

33

Elfine 01.12.12 at 3:51 pm

(sorry about the pseudonym…) As a trans parent of a comfortably cis daughter, we’re amused (and sometimes exasperated) by the occasional policing of her gender expression from other quarters; we fondly recall the “that’s not very ladylike” from an aged relative when she appeared at a family function wearing Dr Marten boots; and more recently as her teenage years advance, concern has been expressed that she might be lesbian or, worse, trans, because she wears boy clothes sometimes. A concern expressed by people who would certainly describe themselves as liberal and open-minded.

Kudos to you, Belle, and to yours!

34

twasher 01.12.12 at 3:51 pm

Did the international school have a uniform? This would have been a problem in local schools where girls typically have to wear pinafores or skirts.

Interestingly enough in many local girls’ secondary schools there’s a phenomenon where dressing or behaving in a masculine manner is seen as “cool”. However it’s decidedly not cool in JCs, which are co-ed, so I’ve seen many of my female friends go from being hyper-masculine to hyper-feminine in a short period of time.

35

Dave Maier 01.12.12 at 4:02 pm

At least she didn’t demand to be addressed as “Calvin the Bold”. And I can just see John getting into being Calvin’s dad. At least until the recall petitions begin.

36

JanieM 01.12.12 at 4:16 pm

he just doesn’t seen to be interested in the things that normally interest boys

I love the story in the OP and it’s great to see, in the comments, so much high regard for “curiosity and wonder” as important components of parenting. (Of living, actually.)

Having been deeply enmeshed in complexities and perplexities relating to gender since I begged for and got a Davy Crocket suit for Christmas when I was five, and then had to settle for my boy cousin’s ratty cast-off baseball glove (instead of a nice new one of my own) when I was eight: if I could make one request about gender it would be that people stop and think before ever using the word “normal” in relation to it.

“Statistically most common in a particular era and culture” is not the same as normal.

I hate that word.

37

marcel 01.12.12 at 4:18 pm

Stephen Hart @ 22 wrote:

At various times in my early childhood I wanted to be AstroBoy, Gigantor, and Godzilla. (All Japanese exports, of course, but we didn’t know from anime back then—no wonder I drive a Honda now.)

8 Man feels terribly slighted! (In my primary school days, I loved first AstroBoy and when he appeared 8 Man, but Gigantor always struck me as not really credible.)

Not gender play, but sometime before kindergarten, I was, so I am told, bitterly disappointed with my parents for not having named me Buffalo Bill. Not sure how long that lasted, but they offered to a partial accomodation by adding the prefix “Buffalo” to my actual name and that apparently mollified me somewhat.

38

Steve Williams 01.12.12 at 4:42 pm

Belle – I think you might get some enjoyment (and some validation that you did the right thing!) from this new movie from Céline Sciamma. I haven’t seen it yet myself, but all of the reviews I’ve read have been excellent.

39

politicalfootball 01.12.12 at 4:48 pm

and then had to settle for my boy cousin’s ratty cast-off baseball glove

Heh. I tried for awhile to talk my daughter into abandoning her old pretend baseball glove (really a toy for an infant) to get a usable glove. I only won that battle when she discovered that they make pink baseball gloves.

I feel conflicted about this, but at least the glove is of good quality.

40

piglet 01.12.12 at 5:11 pm

I wonder how a 6 year old appreciates Calvin and Hobbes humor. I never read Calvin as a child and I always regarded it as grown-up fare. Granted some pictures are funny even without the words.

41

Sebastian 01.12.12 at 5:14 pm

This sounds like a wonderful thing. The question might not really mean anything, but I wonder how much of this experience is ‘really’ gender identity anyway. It sounds like maybe Violet just really liked Calvin.

[on the other hand]

It certainly can lead to gender identity discussions about society (as opposed to Violet), in that depending on the society it might be ‘wrong’ for a girl to identify so strongly with a boy-character.

In any case it sounds like you dealt with it well.

42

Geoffrey Swenson 01.12.12 at 5:19 pm

I only wish my own parents were as open-minded about what I should be as Belle Waring is with her daughter. Whenever I was standing anywhere near my dad, I could never know that he was going to rap me hard on the head for various offenses, including “standing like a girl” with my legs crossed.

Yeah, I wasn’t exactly all that butch. But what in the heck was wrong with that?

I finally came out as Gay about four years after I left home. He succeeded in beating / teaching me into suppressing my feelings so thoroughly I never much thought about it. But I was deeply crazy by the time I came out in my late twenties.

My dad’s obsessive need for me to be something different from what I am wasted many years of my life. I have the utmost respect for Belle as she lets her daughter find her own identity.

43

Jeremy 01.12.12 at 5:37 pm

Yay for Belle! And yay for every parent who lets the truly harmless whims of a child run. Doing so is not harming the child, and might help other kids (and their parents) learn a little more, early on, about human diversity.

My son loved pink. And to get him to wear underwear instead of pullups, we let him wear girls’ underwear. It worked. He’s fine. Even though, once, he pulled his pants down in public to show off his panties.

Now, what made this easier, for me anyway, is that the behavior which might have led to stigmatizing went away before very long. Just as Calvin reverted to Violet, my son now prefers red and wears Phineas and Ferb briefs. (Odd to think of him passing gas through the face of his beloved Agent P, but I digress.) So I didn’t have to face the tougher question of how long, and how much, to support these preferences.

44

ben w 01.12.12 at 5:38 pm

At least until the recall petitions begin.

That would, of course, depend on how does in the polls.

45

Omega Centauri 01.12.12 at 5:48 pm

It wasn’t a gender thing, but its amazing how strongly attracted to some character a kid can be, then suddenly, they just decide “that was foolishly childlike”, and turn it off just like a light switch. One of my son’s absolutely adorned anything Thomas the Tank Engine, then suddenly he never wanted anything to do with it, it was below him.

46

MattF 01.12.12 at 6:25 pm

No doubt you know this song, but for the Internet-record, “When I Was A Boy”:

47

dbk 01.12.12 at 6:38 pm

Wonderful OP and comments, too – what a breath of fresh air at CT!

As the mother of 2 children who were raised in a bi-cultural and bi-lingual environment, both of whom (one a boy, the other a much younger girl) passed through nearly-continuous phases of weirdness while growing up, I was recalled of the years when they were little and I more or less let “anything go” (our friends in this SEE country just figured I was a weird American mother). Now that they’re adults and have both returned to the U.S. to study/work, one thing I’ve noted is how impervious they seem to be to many of the temptations/fads their peers have gone through – they both are really independent thinkers, and I hope that our parenting “weirdness” contributed to this (they think it did).

Ah, Calvin & Hobbes! My son’s absolute all-time favorite strip (he has nearly all of them memorized, and still recalls many, 20 years later), and in fact for a number of years studied comic art at the SVA …

Also the all-time favorite strip of his grandfather, now 102 years young. Really, the best strip ever.

48

ragweed 01.12.12 at 7:01 pm

Nice job and great story!

My son is “all boy” in many ways (trains, trucks, rocket ships, and now long discussions about dilithium crystals and the posibility of warp 100) but likes to paint his toenails in the summer and a few other non-traditional things. Two years ago he took a gymnastics class in the fall, and spent nearly an hour in the afternoon before the first class scraping the nail-polish off with a nail-file, out of fear that the other boys would make comments.

So I was very pleased this fall, when we moved from a cozy Waldorf school to public school* for 3rd grade, that he happily wore his sandals and painted nails to the “welcome” day and the first day of class. I heard a few of the other kids comment on it, but he took it all in stride and that was the end of it. Pretty gustsy way to start a new school.

John

*of course, it is an alternative public school in Seattle that has a social justice curriculum, an anti-racist library, and a holiday schedule grounded in Howard Zinn’s People’s History…, so it may have been an easier environment than some public schools.

49

Meredith 01.12.12 at 7:29 pm

Sebastian @39 raises a good question, I think: “…I wonder how much of this experience is ‘really’ gender identity anyway. It sounds like maybe Violet just really liked Calvin.” One of the reasons for not discouraging play like Violet’s, even joining in, is that we seldom know what any of these fantasies means for a particular child. We can only go along and see where it takes them.
Things may be changing (I hope so), but I tend to think that in most US families and communities, adults still are more comfortable with girls’ playing (what adults think of as) male roles (whether or not, in their own minds, the girls are identifying with a gender role or not, though I’m not sure how to talk about gender except in terms of role-playing — and in that concession maybe I’m contradicting what I suggested in my first paragraph about Sebastian’s question?), than they are with boys’ playing (what adults think of as) female roles. I’m thinking how “tomboy” isn’t (usually) used pejoratively; I can’t think of any corresponding term (except ones used pejoratively) for a boy who prefers, say, playing with dolls to climbing trees. I’m also thinking how it’s not just okay but expected of grown women that their boundaries of self be fluid, that they make multiple identifications and be skilled at adopting different perspectives on people and situations. These are not the expectations most people have of grown men. (I’m thinking Carol Gilligan-esquely here.) Which may lead many adults to discourage cross-gender fantasy/behavior in boys more than they do in girls.
In many ways, having this greater freedom to play puts girls and women at an advantage, if you ask me. (It’s sort of like being multi-lingual. Like being able to wear skirts and pants.) An advantage we want (or should want) to share with boys and men.

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Matt McIrvin 01.12.12 at 7:53 pm

It certainly can lead to gender identity discussions about society (as opposed to Violet), in that depending on the society it might be ‘wrong’ for a girl to identify so strongly with a boy-character.

And about why the prominent fictional characters who one might be directed to identify with are so much more often male than female, especially in older media.

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krippendorf 01.12.12 at 8:30 pm

Slightly tangential, but I miss the days when my son wanted to be a jack-o’-lantern when he grew up. (Now that he’s the ripe old age of 9, his occupational aspirations vacillate, in nearly perfect correlation with the season, between professional baseball player and professional basketball player.)

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JanieM 01.12.12 at 8:46 pm

Meredith @49 makes a good point: that a boy in a skirt is likely to have a much harder time than a girl in pants (at least in a lot of the US) … and that this is one bit of evidence that girls in this culture have more freedom and flexibility than boys to live/explore gender presentations and roles.

I agree with this, and have made the same point myself in discussions of gender. And I very much appreciate it, being a person in a female body who prefers (to put it mildly) not to wear dresses.

But the clothing that’s easily available in stores is still very gendered. I buy all my clothes except underwear and sometimes shoes in the unisex t-shirt bin or the men’s department (usually at LLBean). My conscious reason for doing this is that these are the clothes I’m most comfortable in, but I know there’s more to it than that.

Men’s and women’s clothes are not cut the same way, and it goes far beyond tailoring for different body proportions; gender cues/styles are deeply embedded in the styles for women vs. men. And don’t get me started on the clothes that are sold for little girls; luckily, my own little girl, who was an athlete, preferred to wear mostly gym shorts and t-shirts from the time she was eight until her late teen years, so we didn’t have a big issue about what she wore.

(Speaking of sports, this echoes Meredith’s original point: it’s taken for granted now that girls do all kinds of things that only boys did when I was growing up in the fifties. I don’t think the reverse is true. But that’s another whole thought train.)

My daughter and one of my good friends tried for a while to get me to buy clothes in the women’s department. This bothered me, especially the part where I wasn’t too clear on their motivations, but I do have a pretty good idea of my own motivations, the below-consciousness parts: I wear mostly men’s clothes because I feel like I’m a living contradiction of the idea that there are only two kinds of that thing we call “gender,” and clothing is the easiest and most obvious way to live that out on a daily basis.

I live in a female body and I’m happy with it; I’ve never wanted a different one. But I don’t feel like I belong in the bin labeled “woman” any more than I belong in the bin labeled “man.” Being obviously female but wearing clothes that in this culture are traditionally male is a small step in the direction of presenting myself as who I am instead of as who I’m supposed to be based on my anatomy.

This is an after-the-fact realization coming from years of self-examination, not a political act, except insofar as claiming the right to be oneself is automatically a political act. I just mean that I don’t deliberately do it for political reasons, I do it so that I can feel comfortable in my clothes as well as in my skin.

Big topic, and this is just a very rough attempt to tackle it. Back to work for now, with thanks to Belle for bringing it up.

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David Moles 01.12.12 at 8:56 pm

@faustusnotes — I’m a mostly indifferent, occasionally ashamed graduate of the American School in Japan, Tokyo, and I can assure you that by and large we turned out fine. The top native Japanese speakers in my class had to settle for Harvard and Brown instead of Todai and Kyodai, but I think most of them got over it.

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Ingrid Robeyns 01.12.12 at 9:55 pm

this story made me smile, belle, so beautiful. Nothing compared with the pink-love of my oldest son, though I may nevertheless write about that one day.

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garymar 01.12.12 at 10:42 pm

Violet may have chosen Calvin because

Calvin Is One of the Old Gods!

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Uncle Kvetch 01.12.12 at 11:01 pm

girls in this culture have more freedom and flexibility than boys to live/explore gender presentations and roles.

It was in the first grade (age six) that I learned — the hard way — that “tomboy” and “sissy” were not simply mirror images of each other in terms of how they were viewed. One was harmless, cute, and endearing, the other, creepy, shameful, and vaguely sinister.

I’ve found great reassurance from Belle’s post and many of the comments here that real progress has been made in the ensuing 41 years.

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Matt 01.12.12 at 11:49 pm

Interesting. I read that NY Times Magazine article as well. The girl in the NYT article was presented as very very sure of her transgenderness. To avoid puberty though you need to start those drugs pretty early these days, probably 10-12. I wonder if by 10 years old one, as a parent, would be confident enough in the non-transience of a transgender like period like the one you describe to put the child on those puberty blocking drugs?

What would you do if a (relatively) more mature version of this episode had started when Violet was 10, right before she was going to start puberty? What if it lasted a whole year and she started insisting less that she was Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes but more that she really wanted to be a boy? Would you be comfortable blocking her puberty at that point?

I don’t have children yet but my wife and I are planning on starting next year. In a case like that from the NYT article where it was a constant and insistent thing since the child was 2 or 3 I’d be fairly comfortable with the drugs. But what if the child was just sort of generally multiple choice as far as gender stereotyped activities and behaviors until 9 or 10, then started identifying more strongly with the opposite sex. I’d be very worried that the child was just more androgynous and maybe bi-sexual or multigender or semi-transgender or whatever you want to call it but would in fact be happier in the end remaining biologically the same gender he/she was born as. Thoughts?

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Phil 01.12.12 at 11:56 pm

In many ways, having this greater freedom to play puts girls and women at an advantage, if you ask me. (It’s sort of like being multi-lingual. Like being able to wear skirts and pants.) An advantage we want (or should want) to share with boys and men.

Growing up with four sisters, I could never take an interest in men’s fashion. “Something big and swirly! Something with bold colours! Oh, come on… at least something with a bold colour lining! Something just a bit swirly with a lining that’s not actually black?” The whole “and sir will note that the cuff has no fewer than four buttons” men’s fashion thing – where you express your individuality and discernment by micro-managing tiny details that only other cognoscenti would even notice – passed me by completely.

So yes, I wish they had shared their total clothing rights ((c) E. Izzard) with me, as impractical as it might have been back then.

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Odin 01.13.12 at 12:03 am

I think I speak for all mankind when I say thanks for reading her Calvin and Hobbes and not Mein Kampf or American Psycho. The next time she overdoses on comedy, I suggest you sit her down and make her watch Carrot top or Dennis Miller to scare her straight.

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Phil 01.13.12 at 12:08 am

PS I feel a confession coming on.

Twice a year – when we’re putting up and taking down the Christmas decorations – I get hold of a heavy rope of tinsel and wrap it round my neck a couple of times, and wear it like a feather boa. It looks ridiculous – as my wife and children have intimated more than once – but I like the way it feels; I really like the way it feels.

(Of course, feather boas have little or nothing to do with the way women dress, but that’s drag for you. There’s a big difference between, on one hand, actually identifying as female while biologically male, and on the other the fun – and genuine fascination – of playing around with symbolic female-y-ness. Mutatis mutandis, maybe that’s what Violet was doing.)

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Phil 01.13.12 at 12:10 am

Final thought: playing around with symbolic female-y-ness can also be fun for girls – maybe you’ve got that to look forward to. Or maybe not.

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Steven Hart 01.13.12 at 12:25 am

marcel, this one’s for you.

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Cambridge Chuck 01.13.12 at 12:35 am

There is a photo in an album in a box, somewhere still in reach (I think) of me in the early 50s, 4 years or so of age, dressed in Calvin-typical striped T-shirt, shorts, and non-Calvin-typical (actually Mom’s) cloche with an illusion veil, handbag over one arm (almost to ground), and over-large high heels. Also, a huge grin on my face.

I have no memory of the moment, other than the artifact of the photo. That someone was easy enough to take it–and my parents easy enough to save it–suggests that even in the long time way back time there were parents enough like Belle and John to smooth the way for their child in an otherwise un-smooth time. Kudos to all those parents and their supporters.

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garymar 01.13.12 at 12:58 am

Forgot to add the Calvin Link. Second cartoon.

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Jacob 01.13.12 at 1:12 am

Just out of curiosity, Belle, what kind of toy is Saki, if she isn’t a tiger?

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Watson Ladd 01.13.12 at 1:38 am

@Matt: puberty blockers can be reversed by simply stopping the administration of the drugs. They are widely used to treat precocious puberty.

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Dr. Hilarius 01.13.12 at 2:12 am

Lovely post, Ms. Waring, and an adept handling of Calvin. There’s nothing like hysterical parents to freak out a child doing a bit of personal exploration. I’m also impressed that the school and teachers were cooperative.

Uncle Kvetch and others are correct, sissy and tomboy are not gender equivalents. I’ve seen fathers in particular lose all power of reason when confronted by a son who acts in a stereotypically feminine manner. I suspect that in the not-very-distant past, tomboys were not viewed as budding lesbians simply because lesbians were so unknown as to not exist in the minds of most parents, but fag, queer and pansy were in common use. The good Doctor, being skinny and bookish as a child, was often the target of the latter terms. I hate to recommend this tactic, but I found hitting my oppressor in the face ended the abuse even when I came out the overall loser. I hope non-jock boys have it better these days.

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Belle Waring 01.13.12 at 2:45 am

We solved the school uniform problem by her wearing the PE uniform (polo and shorts) every day rather then 2 days a week, or the PE shorts with the uniform top (sailor moon-esque little tie/peter pan collar, but in maroon on white). I was ready to buy her a boy’s uniform if she wanted, but it didn’t come up. I’m sure she must have worn her dress uniform sometimes…? It’s actually a stupid uniform because it’s a “skort” but the hem is so narrow that the girls can’t run full speed in them, because they can’t take a full stride. I keep meaning to correct this somehow.

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Belle Waring 01.13.12 at 2:51 am

I would feel uncomfortable giving powerful hormones to my kid based on a feeling of 8 months’ standing. If she had wanted to be a boy ever since she could talk I think I would consider it more seriously. But I do know from queer friends that lots of them identified really strongly as the opposite gender while young without it being the case that they had any interest in being trans once they got to adulthood; they were just re’glar ol’ gay. So it seems it would have been a mistake to prevent them from fully developing into the gay men/women they were going to be? But then, given the stigma against it, we’re sure to have underestimated the number of children who would like to grow up to be an adult of the opposite sex rather than overestimated. So I don’t know. When I read articles like the Boston Globe one (which I had read) it sounds as if the children in question were very sure from day one.

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JanieM 01.13.12 at 2:55 am

Here’s another story that starts when I was small and illustrates the effects of time passing, though how much it represents my own evolution and how much the changing of the culture I’m not sure. A lot of both, probably.

The year I was 5, 1955, brought me not only Davy Crockett but Mary Martin’s Peter Pan on TV. I was just dazzled by the idea that a woman was playing the role of a boy, and by the performance itself, and especially by her tomboyishness and the fact that it was actually being celebrated and not made fun of. It was really quite outlandishly unusual for the time and context in which I grew up (small town in the midwest, Italian-American Catholics and rural American Baptists on the 2 sides of my family), and for a 5-year-old in that context.

I saw Martin’s Peter Pan 2 or 3 times over the course of my childhood, and it remained for many years a favorite memory. Then there was a gap of maybe thirty years before I saw it again when my own kids were small (1989 or 1990). I was amazed to find that Mary Martin’s boy Peter now seemed to me to be more of a sissy (so to speak) than the glorious tomboy he/she had seemed when I was a child. I do think it was the world that shifted, not just me, so that what seemed unusual and daring in 1955 seemed pretty old-fashioned and meek by 1990. (And of course I don’t mean either “sissy” or “tomboy” pejoratively, just as shorthand ways of measuring how drastically my sense of the gender portrayal had changed.)

Also in 1990, I realized that Captain Hook’s effeminacy in Cyril Ritchard’s performance had totally passed me by when I was a kid.

Life is full of mysteries.

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marcel 01.13.12 at 3:04 am

Steve – thanks – but, but, it’s different than I remember from nearly a half century ago…

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bianca steele 01.13.12 at 3:10 am

The ultragirly-Cinderella thing shocked me about ten years ago when a younger relative told me something or other “was for boys.” I have to wonder whether there are still girls who would never have a T-ball set unless they came in pink. When I was in first grade, in the early 70s, my mother told me it was basically mandatory to wear a skirt to school, but I begged her to let me wear slacks after I got teased. It seems that era didn’t last long. Some things have stuck, and I have nothing against cute clothes[1], but the difference between what’s on the girls’ and boys’ side of the store is ridiculous.

[1] I’ve spent a long time preferring L.L. Bean and similar things, too, but as I’ve realized I’m no longer as young, thin, or urban, and don’t feel I can pull it off as easily. And it may be the circles I’m in but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a manager’s wife in a rugby shirt and turtleneck.

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bianca steele 01.13.12 at 3:34 am

Also, am I imagining that a girl could be called a “sissy,” either by other girls or by adults? (Is that TMI about the adults I grew up around? A neighbor once told me I looked like a “hippie,” too, because I was wearing a plaid poncho with fringe. I knew enough to know it wasn’t meant as a compliment.)

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dairy queen 01.13.12 at 4:11 am

My son, just shy of 11, had a female imaginary friend/alternate/imaginary identity for a number of years when he was quite young (2-4 years old), and we kind of miss her. He incorporated, and still does when dramatic needs demand, quite the elaborate skirt-based dress up in some of his imaginative play. He also restages the Battle of Trafalgar on a regular basis with an astonishing amount of lego carnage, bien sur.

Over the years he has definitely become sensitive to those non-immediate family members he will, and will not, allow to see him in full rig as a female imaginative character. But he came to that awareness and sensitivity on his own, we have always just provided the reasonably appreciative audience. Year before last he went to school on Halloween as a whirling dervish (he has an awesome fez, and his father made him a very cool tunic with full skirt and red sash, for very effective whirling). I think all of this fits very comfortably within a perfectly reasonable range of imaginitive play, but the reactions at various times of friends here in a very liberal coastal N. American urban area have been . . . interesting. Particularly among men.

More interesting to me has been observing his increasing immersion in his training as a classical ballet dancer – which he plunged into of his own choice, quite passionately, at age 4. We have neither pushed nor discouraged an interest that has grown even deeper and more committed. We have seen many other boy students actively discouraged by their families. My son just keeps on, with a training program that is extraordinarily rigorous. And as he approached 11, having acquired an astonishing level of fitness, coordination and strength, I look at his peers – he is easily the most athletically fit of any of them. And yet – still so young, still a boy’s body, and I see something like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XiSyKfMtiXY. And I think – really??? In 5 years he’ll be able to do that??? It seems incredible, impossible . . . of course, then I see how much he eats each day and how fast he grows – I start to imagine it may be possible!

Also – so interesting to see him growing up in this artistic tradition that the outside world perceives as effeminate for men, and yet from my perspective models male roles as the personification of strength . . .

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Meredith 01.13.12 at 6:50 am

JanieM, soulmate: “The year I was 5, 1955, brought me not only Davy Crockett but Mary Martin’s Peter Pan on TV.” Me, too! I was also 5 in 1955! And I treasured my Davy Crockett hat, and Mary Martin. (I mark in memory the beginning of my adolescence, whatever age I actually was, by my disdain for clapping for Tinkerbell, when my parents were eager to clap for her — god what a creep I must have been. I remember with some shame that moment — my parents clapping, my making point of clapping disdainfully.)
As the girl in a boy-heavy neighborhood for my general age-group in a NJ town — fortunately, I didn’t “throw like a girl,” tomboy that I sort of was, so I could be comfortably part of this throng, though I was plenty invested in dolls and playing teacher and such…. Well, I was also from the eccentric WASP family in the midst of all sorts of ethnic groups (yeah NJ of the 1950’s!). But my most intense play at age 5 to, say, 10, went on with my Italian American neighbor (god, I want to use his name, so dear is he to me in memory! I refrain). With other kids (lots — bigger families, then) we played baseball and kickball in the backyard, tag, all kinds of games we’d make up. We’d ride our bikes, endlessly. But he and I, just on our own, we’d “play cars” (little moulded cars, and we’d construct roads and neighborhoods — did I say suburban NJ?). And dolls and dress-ups. A favorite thing for him and me: to walk around the block in dress-ups, both of us in cast-off garb of the extravagantly female kind.
No one in his Neapolitan-American family ever showed any concern about his “gender-play,” even in its most public display (this confirmed by my own mother, years later), including his staunchly Italian grandmother, who spoke virtually no English but who terrified all of us children (and, in retrospect, I realize must have terrorized her daughter-in-law, my playmate’s mom).
Anyway, just to say that we aren’t necessarily creating whole new worlds when we just let our children play –well, no, we are (in a good way), but we also aren’t. The wisdom of the ancients, or something. Which can be reassuring. The parents of a very real and incalculably dear child want a better world for her or him, but don’t want this child to be an experimental subject, either. Well, don’t worry, that’s what I say. (I feel the nonna’s voice becoming mine.) Let them play.

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Belle Waring 01.13.12 at 7:33 am

Jacob: Saki is…um. OK, she is sort of a legless blob, with striped arms, all knitted, with a flower on her tummy and a knitted face with blue eyes, and then 4 knitted purple balls on the top of her head in a row, sort of vaguely alluding to a hairstyle little black girls have sometimes, or maybe just being balls. Seriously, it would not be possible to construct a toy which less resembled a tiger. That was what made it awesome. Sometimes she would have her sister help her stage getting attacked by Hobbes when she got home from school, so that I would find her splayed on the floor by the front door with her books scattered and Hobbes on her chest, due to her having been pounced on by a ferocious tiger.

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Phil 01.13.12 at 8:00 am

fortunately, I didn’t “throw like a girl”,

Not quite the same thing, but I remember struggling terribly to master straight-arm overarm bowling when we were first made to play cricket at school. A boy who was even further down the athlete list than me was permitted to throw under-arm when it was his turn; I thanked the Lord I hadn’t been reduced to that. The words “like a girl” weren’t actually used, but they were there in all our minds.

My daughter (aged 11) has just started at a single-sex school. A couple of weeks in, she told us she’d learnt how to “run like a girl”, and demonstrated (body upright, arms down, hands out horizontally; if you picture “run like a penguin” you won’t be far off). Part of it is tactical – running in the corridor is of course verboten, and running “like a girl” is much easier to switch out of than getting your head down and running properly*. But part of it is definitely “running like a girl”. I just hope she doesn’t get stuck like that.

*Around the same age, I addressed this problem by inventing my own speed-walking technique, which involved hunching down and leaning back slightly. My sister asked me if I’d watched a lot of Marx Brothers.

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SusanC 01.13.12 at 8:45 am

I think lots of children go through an “acting as the opposite gender” phase, and it’s different from some things it might superficially resemble, like:

* The childhood manifestation of what will become gay/lesbian identity later in adulthood

* Being transsexual

* A dissociative state caused by extreme trauma (e.g. in soldiers who have been in combat; or victims of child abuse)

The philosophically strange thing about it, is that as adults from a very empiricist/materialist culture, we have serious doubt about what’s “real” and what’s pretense. If Violet is acting in the way that boys are (conventionally) supposed to act, we can know that is what she’s doing: that’s empirical. But whether she really has the mind of a boy, or is just acting that way: how could we (as someone other than her, who cannot directly see her mental state) possibly know that?

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Torquil Macneil 01.13.12 at 9:14 am

“A boy who was even further down the athlete list than me was permitted to throw under-arm when it was his turn; I thanked the Lord I hadn’t been reduced to that. “

Which is ironic because overarm bowling was introduced into cricket for women players who were unable to bowl efficiently underarm because of their skirts.

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Z 01.13.12 at 9:57 am

Interestingly, this post and the following comments made me realized some of my unspoken preconceived ideas about accepting one’s identity. I would have absolutely no problem with either of my sons becoming gay, for instance, but I would have reacted with nowhere near the level of understanding you and John displayed to such an extended bout of role-playing. I think I would have very quickly (that is, in the timeframe of hours, not months) declared it delusional and (therefore) unacceptable.

So this post made me rethink my educational weltanschauung in a way that is quite rare. Thanks a lot.

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spyder 01.13.12 at 11:04 am

Way back in the last century, there was the rise of feminism during which Lois Gould wrote an awesome little short story (eventually made much bigger etc.). Here is a link to the story (it speaks volumes about this post).

http://www.sa.ucsb.edu/women/blog/file.axd?file=2011%2F4%2FBabyX.pdf

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Main Street Muse 01.13.12 at 12:21 pm

I have two 7 yr old girls (identical twins) and a 12 yr old boy. Frankly, if any of my children came home one day wanting to be a Disney Princess, I’d be more depressed than if my girls wanted to be Calvin. One of my girls labels herself as a ‘tomboy’ who cannot wear dresses. The other is much more of a girly-girl who loves pretty clothes.

How does the Singapore culture view women? Is her anti-girl stance perhaps a reaction to cultural views of women?

[I shudder to think what would have happened had your daughter been at the elementary school we just moved away from. There is no way they would have any child come in and change his/her name! Violet would have been called Violet, no matter what she wanted!]

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understudy 01.13.12 at 3:07 pm

Well, the calvin phase is pretty harmless, I’m sure you’ll have more trouble being supportive when she goes through her skinhead, racist, or republican phase …

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Phil 01.13.12 at 3:08 pm

Some hippie-ish friends of friends of ours named their daughter Ocean. On her first day at school, when asked her name, she said, “Mummy calls me Ocean, but my real name is Katie.” You go, Katie.

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Andreas Moser 01.13.12 at 5:58 pm

Calvin and Hobbes also have something to say about the economy: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2011/10/24/calvin-and-hobbes-explain-the-economy/

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Salient 01.13.12 at 6:49 pm

(Her attitude was more or less, “who would care?”)

…this was the sweetest part of the story; you know ‘ur doing it right’ when the kid is speaking from a position of confidence and comfort. Congratulations on sustaining a loving, respectful and assertive support role. I really don’t know if I would have been able to resist a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory reference at the turn-on-a-dime point of reversion (“Violet, you’re turning Violet?”)

Related – here’s a sweet story of a teacher’s reaction to a student’s gender non-conformity.

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JanieM 01.13.12 at 9:20 pm

Meredith @75 — fun to know there’s someone else in the Davy Crocket+Mary Martin fan club. And I too remember with a red face some of the things I did to prove to my parents that I was my own person…but I won’t go so far off topic as to tell any of those stories here. :)

Salient @86 — thanks for that link. It’s a great piece, starting with the title: “It’s Okay to be Neither.” Reminds me of my all-time favorite book title: Kate Bornstein’s “Gender Outlaw: Men, Women, and the Rest of Us.” The teacher who wrote the piece ought to be training teachers all over the country, but no, we have to get our textbook content out of Texas….

*****

Meanwhile, a couple more thoughts before this thread fades off.

One is an observation about the way kids’ movies (I’m thinking especially of Disney) changed and didn’t change between my childhood and my kids’ childhood. Ariel in The Little Mermaid is a lot spunkier than Sleeping Beauty or Snow White; that was a change for the better.

But all the plots still had marrying the handsome prince and living happily ever after as the end of the story. However spunky a girl might be, her destiny was still determined by a relationship, not by her own independent self.

Even beyond that, and sliding across the overlap between the topic of gender and the topic of relationships, the endlessly repeated plot framework teaches kids that the story ends with marriage. This is wildly unhelpful in relation to the reality that marriage is a beginning far more than an ending, and that it’s messy and difficult and challenging, bearing very little resemblance, a lot of the time, to “happily ever after.”

*****

Second thought: Lots of comments (e.g. Belle @69) have alluded to the overlap between gender questions and sexual orientation questions. Because I’m both gay and not very traditional genderwise, this has been an interesting topic for me to think about ever since I figured out I was gay during college (yes, it was late; see aforesaid Italian Catholic + Baptist 1950s upbringing).

My own unscientific sense of it is that there’s a lot of overlap — i.e. that a higher percentage of gay people than straight people are also “non-traditional” in their gender presentation and/or (like me) even their sense of what their gender is.

But underneath all of that — which is a rich topic for discussion, and libraries have no doubt been written about it, and careers made thinking about it — it seems to me that gay people, regardless of how they present or think about themselves gender-wise, do unanimously violate one of the most universal gender stereotypes, and that’s the gender of the person you’re supposed to fall in love with. We mostly don’t even think about that as a gender stereotype, but I think it is, and because of it, gayness is always tangled up with gender questions, even if a lot of gay people are perfectly traditional/stereotypical in their gender style.

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Sebastian(1) 01.14.12 at 8:07 pm

I’m surprised no one has mentioned this yet, but if my (not yet existent) daughter wanted to be like Calvin, gender identity wouldn’t be the biggest of my concerns. That would be the noodle incident…

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wj 01.14.12 at 8:16 pm

And then there was Shrek. where, be it noted, the handsome prince is definitely not being held up as an ideal. And Princess Fiona goes thru Robbing Hood and his Merry Men like a hot knife thru butter. She still ends up marrying someone, but she is hardly the “frail, fragile, flower of feminity” that the earlier Disney cartoons protrayed.

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J. L. Rowan 01.14.12 at 8:58 pm

However spunky a girl might be, her destiny was still determined by a relationship, not by her own independent self.

No, it wasn’t. Ariel chose her destiny. She chose to give up who she had been to become the person she wanted to be. The fact that who she wanted to be involved a relationship with someone else is irrelevant. It was still her choice.

All of life involves relationships in some form or fashion. No one lives in a vacuum. Relationships inform many, if not most, of the choices we make as humans.

Sometimes she would have her sister help her stage getting attacked by Hobbes when she got home from school, so that I would find her splayed on the floor by the front door with her books scattered and Hobbes on her chest, due to her having been pounced on by a ferocious tiger.

This is awesome.

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Cliff 01.14.12 at 11:00 pm

As you describe it, your situation is pretty much exactly matches my nephew’s experience, who was born a girl and decided that “she” was really a “he” very early on. Now a high schooler, he takes testosterone and had his top surgery last year, and is the happiest I’ve ever seen him.
The part in your story that makes me think that Violet may indeed be trans is her insistence that she doesn’t want to develop breasts; that was very important for my nephew too. Time will tell, of course.
I think it’s wonderful that you were so supportive of Violet/Calvin’s need to be in charge of her/his self-identity. The only part of your post that gave me pause was the following:
“I know there is debate over whether children can make an informed decision about these matters, and about whether they might not just be gay as adults rather than trans (certainly many of my queer friends strongly identified as the opposite gender when they were young).”
In my experience and belief, gender identification and sexual orientation are two completely independent aspects of the human psyche. There are plenty of gay men who express a “feminine side” who have no interest whatsoever in altering their genitals because they self-identify as male.
I’ve never heard of a person who started out thinking they were trans and then later decided they were gay. Gender identity is so basic to the human condition that it is usually felt/experienced way before the emergence of a sex drive and the self-realization of what a person’s sexual orientation is. I knew for a fact that my brain was wired as a male years before I knew that I was gay. (Some men claim to have been very precocious in their knowledge of their sexual orientation, though.)
In any case, keep up the great parenting!
Best,
Cliff

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FB 01.15.12 at 12:16 am

JanieM, I think you just gave me hope for the future. Your comments combined with this story seriously just did more good for my psyche than anything else I can possibly think of.

The mother here, Belle — you sound awesome. I don’t know what the right thing necessarily is to do in circumstances like this, but it seems you got it. I can tell you what’s wrong: what my parents did. When I was 6, and just starting out Catholic school in the great bareness of northern New England, I kept stealing my little brother’s clothes and wearing them, because I hated dresses and skirts. One of my clearest memories from that year is when I gave my brother (who was 4) scissors to cut my hair — because boys had short hair and girls had long hair and I thought that was the main difference between the two. I wanted to be a boy.
My mother came into the room when he was halfway through. Horrified, I remember she did what she could to “fix” it, and she and my father spent the next two years allowing me to only wear dresses and skirts, and I had to grow out my hair. Once it was long enough, I had to always have clips and girly things in it. I wasn’t supposed to have boys as friends, only girls.
This lasted most of my childhood. Instead of having female friends, I had no friends, and spent recess and lunch in the library. I would pull the clips and ties and things out of my hair as soon as I got to school, but I always had to put them back in when my father came to pick me up, or I’d be grounded for the next week.

The bright side of this was all the time spent in the library made me an excellent student, and I graduated high school early and went off, on scholarship, to an ivy league school. I didn’t have to worry about being screamed at for not being girly enough anymore.

I’m still not very comfortable in my body, and I think I feel like Janie explained — not really female, not really male, but why do we have to be one or the other? I might be super lucky that my coming of age has coincided with an androgynous movement. I dress in mostly gender-neutral clothing because that seems to me who I am.
While I might not be comfortable conforming to gender, I still like boys and not girls. Unfortunately, at a certain point, boys seem to want their girls to be very feminine, and I’m just not, so at 24 and in law school I’m surrounded by couples and I’ve never truly been part of one. I don’t know that I ever will be. I’d like to hope so, but in the mean time, there’s always the university library for me.

I don’t see my parents any more, I haven’t for years. My older sister sees me occasionally and bugs me to grow out my hair or wear heels. that works for her, but it’s kind of isolating for me.

the fact that supportive, wonderful families and people exist do give me hope though. maybe non-conforming people like me will be more accepted in coming years.

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JanieM 01.15.12 at 4:39 pm

FB — my family wasn’t quite that bad, but your story sounds pretty familiar. I just mostly conformed: Catholic school, uniforms (skirts/jumpers), dresses to school dances, etc. It was the 50s and not the 90s and 00s (?), but having brought my own kids up in rural Maine I can also imagine that it’s still easy to find people who say “girls can’t play baseball, they have to play softball” (etc.). (I went through that when my daughter declared that she was going to play baseball like her brother….)

If memory serves, the last time my mother mentioned that I would look “pretty” if I would just wear a little makeup, I was in my 40s. I guess I should be grateful that she finally did give up. I never broke contact with my family, but once I left for college I never went back except for short visits — not even summers. At the time, all I was conscious of was that my home town couldn’t hold my vast intellectual ambitions (ha ha), but as the years went by I gradually understood that there were other reasons as well (not all of them having to do with gender/sexuality).

I hope you keep looking for friends and possible relationships — and I’ll stop there, lest I start sounding like an advice columnist, which I most definitely am not; my own life is more than I know what to do with most of the time. But — good luck.

*****

I don’t see anything fruitful coming out of an attempt on my part to discuss Ariel further with J. L. Rowan, but here’s one more memory triggered by thinking about that time in my life.

From the time when she could first stick a tape in the VCR, my daughter was a movie buff (I am not) and a natural-born, if not politically declared, feminist. When she was about three she started to count the number of boys/girls in the kids’ movies and cartoons she watched, and she was not happy about the results. Sweet, then, in a way, that one of the speakers at her college graduation was Geena Davis, who was being awarded an honorary degree in appreciation for her work on gender in media, inspired partly by her own daughter’s experience in viewing kids’ programming…..

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Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 01.16.12 at 7:31 am

I remember, when I was very very young, when I realized the difference between boys and girls and feeling miffed that being a boy or girl wasn’t something we got to have a choice over. And thinking that if I was designing things, that we should have a chance to live for a day or two as the different gender and then be able to choose which we liked best.

I wonder whether some of the gender play of young kids is a version of this. Not necessarily an indication of a future trans, but just trying a gender on for size.

On another note, it’s interesting that “Finding Nemo” completely ignored the biology of clown fish in its story…

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JanieM 01.16.12 at 8:29 am

feeling miffed that being a boy or girl wasn’t something we got to have a choice over

This reminds me of my favorite children’s book: The Mountains of Tibet, by Mordecai Gerstein. “In a tiny village, in a valley, high in the mountains of Tibet, a little boy was born. He loved to fly kites….”

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Jon H 01.17.12 at 7:14 pm

When my nephew was about 3, there was a period in which he would insist his name wasn’t Ryan, it was Buttercup, as in the Powerpuff Girls.

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Judy Stephenson 01.17.12 at 7:55 pm

My 4 yr old boy has been happiest in a flowing hem and pretty frills since 13mths. Funny, I thought it would be harder if he were a girl! He wears the boys uniform at school, and, it’s sort of cooling off. I figure if I stop him it’ll bite me and him on the ass. If I let him be he’ll wrk out his own way… Be yourself everyone else is taken… You have no idea how much shit I have taken from my inlaws for refusing to tell him wearing a skirt is wrong. Once we told girls wearing trousers was.

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RobJ 01.18.12 at 6:32 am

Both of my boys were absolutely and fanatically devoted to Calvin & Hobbes and for that matter so was I, since Calvin reminded me of myself at his age. Reading those books with them at their early ages and the paroxyms of laughter is a very fond memory, and a good case for grandchildren, I suppose. I suspect this likely would have been the case if one or both were girls, since Calvin’s absolute repudiation of the adult perception of the world is exactly what makes him so attractive, although he admittedly has more appeal to boys than girls.
I would wait on far-reaching conclusions about gender identity and the like until your daughter (or son Calvin) gets older. I suspect it’s more the case that she realized that she can’t get away with Calvin-like behavior, often, at least until adulthood. That recognition hit me, I seem to recall, at age 7 or so, although my twin (my Hobbes) kept reminding me of it from the time we were 2 or 3.
Violet sounds charming, an inverted girl version of Christopher Robin.

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