Interrogating Femmephobia As a Queer Parent

I always want to put an asterisk when I write the word “daughter.” My daughter, as far as I know. My daughter, but with as little as possible of the cultural weight that word implies. My child, who I hope will do and be everything, unhindered.

This isn’t as simple, however, as just letting her wear whatever colors she wants and calling it good. The world presses gender on us at every turn. If my daughter is wearing a dress and carrying a bag (she likes to travel with her toy stash), someone is always guaranteed to comment that she’s been on a shopping trip. She hears people tell me that my shoes are cute or I should smile more, things no one ever says to anyone they perceive as male.

It’s interesting that we only talk about gendering as an active process, a transitive verb, when it’s in the wrong direction – when it’s misgendering. We all get gendered every day. We gender each other. We gender ourselves. I am afraid to set the goal of protecting my daughter from these subtle or overt expressions of force, because I don’t think it’s possible that I would fully succeed.

But I want to give her the tools to relate to gender proactively and creatively. I want to give her the resilience to let being gendered bounce off her without doing too much damage. I want her to see gender as an open door. Or a blank book she gets to write in herself.

So we didn’t tell anyone her sex before she was born. We asked for gender-neutral baby presents, or at least a range of options from both sides of the store. As she gets older, we offer her choices from a whole spectrum of clothes and toys and media; we never describe anything as “for boys” or “for girls.” Because her other parent is genderqueer, our daughter is already growing familiar with the vocabulary of gender as mutable, movable, not necessarily coupled with any particular physical feature or emotional characteristic. If we’re not precisely raising her gender-neutral, we’re at least in the neighborhood.

So often, what we imagine as neutral simply reveals where our most ingrained assumptions lie. Our defaults aren’t without bias; they’re determined by what we see the most.

And in our society, that means masculinity. Femininity is so marked, so alternately fetishized and degraded, that it’s almost never considered neutral. The queer community has rejoiced in an androgynous fashion boom in recent years, but most of what brands like Gender Free World and Androgynous Fox offer is styles traditionally considered menswear for an expanded variety of bodies. Genderless clothing could mean comfy sweats or tailored suits, but it seldom means a tasteful pencil skirt.

Masculinity is a stand-in for neutrality – and femininity, by contrast, is hypervisible – from an early age. The colors we pick for baby clothes and gifts before we know the sex – yellow, green, gray –fit in just as well with a “baby boy” color palette. But a hint of pink or turquoise instantly renders anything feminine. Any baby can wear a sleeper with airplanes on it, but few parents dress their sons in florals.

If I try to raise my daughter gender-neutral, does that mean I’m subtly (or not so subtly) guiding her away from femininity? When I talk to other parents of young girls, and they bemoan the princess phase that my child has yet to enter, I feel, though I would never express it, a pang of relief – and even a bit of pride. My daughter, I happily note, is obsessed with dinosaurs.

Is it better in any objective way to be dinosaur-crazy than princess-crazy? Obviously not. A fascination with dinosaurs could lead to a lifelong interest in science – wonderful! But learning about princesses, which were my childhood preference by far, can open up the study of history, literature, mythology, geography, and probably countless other fields. Yet I still feel that my child’s predilections say something good about my parenting.

Perhaps I’m merely protecting my daughter from compulsory femininity, and that’s something to be proud of. I want her to have access to the whole human range of expressions, interests, and apparel, not be hemmed in by the “girls’ toys” section. But if I’m crossing my fingers and hoping that she’ll choose the pickup truck over the Barbie dream car, then I’m not being entirely fair to her or to myself.

It’s strange that I keep hoping my daughter will be a tomboy since I’m so far from one myself. I hate sports and love skirts, pink, and talking about my feelings. I’ll go to the mat any day to defend the artistic and cultural importance of romantic comedies, pop music, and chick lit. I know very well that the way we’ve coded everything from scents to food groups to career paths, and attached them to binary genders, is wildly arbitrary and has nothing to do with the innate value of any of those things.

But. But we live in an intensely femmephobic culture, in a world that derides anything linked to girlhood or womanhood as embarrassing, trivial, silly. And I’m sad to say that I’ve internalized a whole lot of that shit myself. I often feel like I have to defend my femininity: I might wear high heels sometimes, but don’t assume I can’t change a tire! (I mean I can’t, but that’s not why.) On some level, I still see my femininity as a little bit of a weakness, and I’m afraid of passing it on to my child. When she asked me to paint her fingernails last week, I laughed ruefully and told my partner “I’m sorry.”

Why? What in the world could possibly be wrong with a small child wanting to have bright colors on her hands? Why would I have even the fleeting impulse to apologize for that? I want to be proud of her for her love of color, of adornment, of the simple pleasure of something that looks pretty. I want her to find every joy available to her in this crushing world.

But I’m also afraid.

Gender expression for DFAB people is like one of those woven finger-trap toys from my childhood – whichever way you pull, you’re stuck. Femininity is required but derided. Masculinity is vaunted but off-limits.

The only way out of that trap was to proceed further inward, pushing your fingers together. Maybe the best way out of the gender trap is not to resist, but to embrace. To bring the opposing ends closer.

I want my daughter to respect all genders and expressions, without feeling beholden to anything beyond her own authentic desires. I want her gender to make room for everything she loves, not determine what she can and can’t have. I hope for her a wild amalgamation of plaid flannel and shimmering tulle, dinosaurs and princesses, floral-print construction trucks – but I also hope that she won’t bow to my preconceived notions any more than anyone else’s.

If there is such a thing as gender neutrality, it can’t be obtained by carefully splicing together bits of femininity and masculinity. Neutrality isn’t a mathematical average. Neutrality is a wilderness of gender, growing wherever it finds ground, flourishing, reaching for the sky.

Image via Getty

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