A pre-school in Sweden is going to achieve gender equality. The idea is to remove any stimulation that might give the kids an idea of whether they’re boys or girls, according to society’s definition of these. Gendered toys will be available, but they’ll be “placed side by side to encourage a child to play with whatever he or she chooses.” That’s just the description for the popular media, because at the school, gendered pronouns like ‘he’ and ‘she’ will be replaced by “ ‘hen’ – a genderless pronoun borrowed from Finnish.” And Dick and Jane will make way for “a book about giraffes who find an abandoned baby crocodile and adopt it.”
Given the persistent inequalities in fancy, emancipated OECD countries, this is an understandable impulse, and considering the cruel discrimination in patriarchies like Afghanistan, the Sudan and Rome, it could be a blessing.
The idea is clearly to spare children the social domination that goes along with selecting a gender identity from society’s à la carte menu of mutually exclusive choices or the conflict that comes with deviating from that menu. It should also inoculate the kiddies against cooties. A noble motive indeed. But is this for the kids’ sake? Cui bono? The kids are surely going to notice in the bathtub whether they’re equipped with a wee-wee or a hoo-ha. They’re bound to notice that moms all look pretty similar in their basic features, as are dads. Before long, the cat will be out of the bag, so to speak.
So the factual knowledge of sex is inevitable, but they might still be sheltered from having to fight for recognition as a 6 year-old with gender confusion by dodging the question. Tractors are for kids who like tractors, and Barbies are for kids who like brand-name dolls, regardless of how everyone looks at bath time. But what happens when they want to join a soccer/hockey/synchronized swimming team? Which is the right locker room at the pool? What does little Storm or Pop answer when the school bully calls them “fag”, “wuss” or “butch”,“tomboy”? What if the Sage Jr. really identifies with Optimus Prime, wants to be a roughneck when he grows up, and desperately wants to change his name to ‘Bud’ or ‘Rambo’? Sooner or later, when they leave this pre-school at the latest, they’re going to face such conflicts and have to deal with them.
So the kids aren’t spared the conflict, they’re just dropped in the deep end a little later without preparation. But the parents neither have to respond to their kids’ gender-bending tendencies, nor do they have to help the kid deal with others’ expectations and reactions. Instead of giving the kids tools and space to deal with bullies, the parents get to pretend bullies don’t exist. Kumbaya, my non-gendered Deity, kumbaya.
There’s a technical term for a massive body without the capacity to fight back. (Hint: it starts with “punching” and ends with “bag”.)
But of course, this is old po-mo hat, and it’s a response to a lot of miserable modernity. Time was, folks like Herbert Spencer ranked civilizations on his ideas of merit, and Rudyard Kipling spoke of ‘the White Man’s Burden’. Millions of dead people with dark skin, dozens of wars of independence and a smidge of genocide later, we know better: diversity rules! Ditto ideology. After the War to End all Wars and its unexpected cliff-hanger sequel, you can have any colour you want, so long as it’s social democracy/some form of welfare state. Both might be improvements on their predecessors, but that doesn’t imply that everyone will agree on that point, and you’re not doing anyone any favours by imposing a regime of Truth on them that is supposed to transcend justification or reason. As some socialist biddy once said, “True freedom is the freedom of the guy/gal/hen who thinks otherwise.”
High-falutin’ theories of communicative action and discourse aside, might the genderless pre-school still fulfill its promise of sparing the kids grief? Might little Willow or Sparrow one day grow up and be able to engage in a gendered activity, say sports, and sidestep the slings and arrows of a gendered society? Caster Semanya tried. She annihilated the competition in every event she completed at the track & field world championships in 2009. She never expressed any doubts about her (genetically decisive) identity, but the folks at home weren’t so sure, and some of her opponents on the track were sour grapes. She was doubly rewarded: 1) the standard medals and prize money, and 2) the unique privilege of having the world’s sports reporters and a legion of foreign doctors, including an endocrinologist, a gynaecologist, an internal medicine expert, an expert on gender and a psychologist, examining and discussing the status of her hoo-ha. Congratulations to hen!