Thursday 21 June 2012

Children and Gender

I was out one day in a sunny park with my children. As young kids often do, they formed instant but evanescent friendships with some of the other children. My youngest daughter was playing with another little girl with dark hair tied in bunches.

I always try to keep some sort of eye on my kids when they are in public places, and I notice other parents naturally doing the same. I caught the eye of the mother of this little girl, as she and my daughter came over to show and share their toys. It's OK, I was trying to mentally say, I'm a parent too. You don't need to worry.

When it came time to leave, I asked my daughter to say goodbye to her little friend. "What's your friend's name?" I asked my daughter. "I don't know, daddy," she said (How can they play all day without knowing each other's names? But they can!). The mother had come over, and was standing a little way off, smiling. "What's your little girl's name?" I asked the mother. But then she frowned, offended. "He's not a little girl," she replied. "He's a little boy."

I boggled. The child was wearing a sparkly top and corduroy jeans, and gym shoes. He had dark hair tied in bunches in the manner of little girls. Nothing in his behaviour had given me any clue that he wasn't a girl, and clearly my daughter had taken him for a girl.

Speechless, I didn't know how to react. Why are you dressing your little boy like a girl? I wanted to ask. And assuming you know what you are doing, how can you possibly be angry when I don't recognise he is a boy? I am sure I am not the first person to make that mistake! I decided this might be one of the circumstances in which the Prime Directive applies. So we said a polite goodbye and left.

Later I mentioned these events to a colleague at work. "Was the mother Samoan?" he asked. I didn't know, but she did appear to be a Pacific Islander. "The child will be a Fa'afafine," he said. (Say it FAH-Fa-Fee-Nay, or at least he did). It turns out that it's culturally normal in Samoa to raise boys as if they were girls. But this wasn't in Samoa, but New Zealand.

I don't pretent to understand the cultural background or purpose to this behaviour. If she were really raising her boy as a girl, surely she should have accepted my reading of him as a girl and not protested? Unless in NZ it's illegal to overtly raise fa'afafine? It might well be, although I don't know. It might even be that the child isn't a fa'afafine, but just a boy whose mother likes sparkly tops and bunches.

According to Wikipedia, some fa'afafine resume the role of normal males in adolescence; some attempt to live as women in adulthood (and pursue sexual relationships with heterosexual men), while some seem caught in the middle, as a culturally-accepted third gender.

In May 2011, the Toronto Star reported the case of parents Kathy Witterick and David Stocker, who refused to reveal the gender of their third child, Storm. By the time I write this now, Storm will be about a year and a half old.
"If you really want to get to know someone, you don't ask what's between their legs," says Stocker. "What we noticed is that parents make so many choices for their children. It's obnoxious."
Stocker and Witterick are trying to allow Storm to make his or her own way in the world, unencumbered by the expectation that a chosen, binary gender imposes on him or her. (I know lots of people really well, and I must say I have never felt it necessary to ask what's between their legs!)
"Please can you just let Storm discover for him/herself what (s)he wants to be?!" writes Witterick.
The Toronto Star article provoked a storm of protest. If you've read my other blog posts, you will know that it looks like one of the biggest hurdles they will face raising Storm in this way will be their constant agony over which pronouns to use! Imagine how hard they must be trying not to give the game away with a careless use of a specific pronoun.

Both these parents and the woman I met in the park are taking an active decision to raise their children outwith normal gender roles. Though I respect their rights to raise their children as they see fit (the Prime Directive again!), I disagree with both points of view.

Third gender: Fa'afafine
In the case of the woman in the park, she is dressing her boy in such a way that he appears to be a girl. I don't know if she otherwise treats him like a boy, or whether he is expected to behave like a girl at home and is only given girly toys. I can't help feeling this is an extremely harmful thing to do. Kids have enough uncertainty in life, without wondering: why does my mum dress me like this instead of like the other boys in my kindergarten class?

For the parents of Storm, I understand the point they are making, and their need to make it forcefully by refusing to reveal Storm's gender to the world. On the other hand, children need some sort of structure: they can't simply choose the way the world works for them. As one mild example, my kids don't want to eat their vegetables, brush their teeth, learn their times-tables or even say please and thank-you. I regard these activities as more or less essential, but if I gave my children the choice, they would not do them. It doesn't trouble me one whit that Stocker thinks that's obnoxious! Likewise, I think I owe it to my kids to give them some sort of moral framework with which to interpret the world. As they get older they will (as I did) learn which parts of that framework to keep, and which parts to discard.

For what it's worth, we have always provided a mix of toys for our kids: they can play with the Lego and the trucks, or the toy kitchen and the dolls, whenever they want. In addition, we try to make sure that all our kids can come for a cuddle (or otherwise express vulnerability) whenever they want: they are never told to be "big brave soldiers" (as I was!).

Two things, I think, will confound both sets of parents. First, the personalities of the children involved. I believe personality is innate and cannot be modified, not even by gender-non-normative parenting. We might find that Storm decides quite rapidly whether she wants to play with the trains or whether he wants to play with the dolls' house, and expresses that preference repeatedly. (And the minute this happens, s/he will immediately cease to be newsworthy in any way! Shock: Small boy plays with Nerf Guns!) Likewise, the child in the park might start to assert his masculinity more clearly than his mother wants, especially after he starts school and starts to meet more traditional boys. I do fear for both children how their peers will react: I hope they will react with acceptance (and we raise our children to be accepting of all their peers), but they may react with cruelty or ridicule. That's no laughing matter.

Secondly, whatever parenting does, it can't hold off adolescence. It might be quite hard for Storm to keep his place in the rugby team when his periods start, or her place in the netball team once her voice breaks and she starts sprouting a beard. And the child in the park will declare himself to be a man eventually. No amount of paternal wishful-thinking can overcome the inevitability of adolescence, or the tendency of almost the entire human race to see ourselves as having only two genders.

Further Reading

Georgia at BroadBlogs has blogged about Storm here. The article is interesting and has a different angle from my own, and I also refer you to the wonderful X: A Fabulous Child's Story.

For more about this topic, I have written a continuation post here.

Thursday 14 June 2012

Doctor, what are you wearing?

If, like me, you are a bit of a geek, then you must surely know that the longest-running science-fiction TV show in the world is Doctor Who. This quintessentially British TV show first took to the air in 1963, and chronicles the adventures of a time-travelling humanoid alien known only as The Doctor. The Doctor is a member of a species known as the Time Lords, a race so powerful they not only developed time travel, but appointed themselves guardians of the whole space-time continuum. The Doctor is a renegade Time Lord; he stole his time machine, the TARDIS, and fled his home world of Gallifrey. He travels through space and time meeting interesting and frequently hostile life forms. He almost always invites one companion (occasionally two or more) to travel with him.

Enigmatic: the Doctor
Time Lords appear human externally (although the Doctor has commented that it's really the other way round: humans look like Time Lords), but internally have different anatomy and physiology; for example, the Doctor has two hearts. When a Time Lord is fatally injured, instead of dying, he or she has the ability to regenerate into a new body. This provides the writers the ability to extend the longevity of the series by hiring a new actor to replace the previous one.

The TARDIS is a highly capable space travelling vehicle. It once had the ability to camouflage itself perfectly to its environment; subsequently the "chameleon circuit" was destroyed, leaving it in the configuration of a 1960's London police telephone box. Several storylines have dealt with the Doctor's inability or unwillingness to fix the chameleon circuit, so the blue box has become iconic (and its wonderful sound effect). The best thing about it is that the interior doesn't exist in the same dimensions as the outside; as a result it is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. In fact, the interior of the TARDIS is probably vast and labyrinthine, although we usually only see the control room with its six-sided console.

I watched Doctor Who as a child and fell in love with it. The Doctor is brilliant; funny and zany and fantastically clever and fearless. He is a geek, of course, as exemplified by this wonderful line from the third Doctor: "Are you some kind of scientist?" "Sir, I am every kind of scientist!" In addition, he is very British: Captain Kirk has his phaser, and Luke Skywalker his lightsabre, but the Doctor carries no weapons at all; in fact he uses them very infrequently, and defeats his enemies with his wits and finesse. His techno gadget is a device called a sonic screwdriver, an instrument of multiple but unspecified capabilities.

In 1989, after several decades, the BBC finally axed the show. In the couple of years before it was axed, its budget was severely cut and it suffered dreadfully from bad scriptwriting, ham acting and cheap special effects. Lately I bought some DVDs from its golden age, with my favourite Doctor, Tom Baker, and they were basically terrible, even though I had remembered them with enormous fondness. You can't cross the same river twice, it seems. (Though when I got my doctorate, I was secretly delighted that people would refer to me as "Doctor"!) Doctor Who was nonetheless kept alive by fans: books, audio plays and other media provided an ongoing source of stories about the errant Time Lord and his magic box.

But then, in 2005, the BBC brought back Doctor Who. This time they completely rebooted the whole series. Everything about it was immeasurably improved: powerful, compelling stories; beautiful special effects; cinematic music, and clever, more sophisticated characters. We see the vulnerability of the Doctor; the Time Lords have been wiped out and he is the last of his kind, fragile and lonely. This added depth and complexity serves to make him even more attractive as a character. The reboot has become some of the best television I have ever seen.

Best of all, they brought David Tennant to the role (the first rebooted actor was Christopher Eccleston, who left after just one series). Tennant is inexpressibly wonderful: he does the power and the brains and the quirky really well, but he also does the fragility, the loneliness and the pathos beautifully. He is, without doubt, the most fitting actor ever to walk out of the TARDIS.

In addition, he (like Eccleston) is young and sexy. Previously the Doctor was usually depicted as an older, scholarly, sometimes pompous or cantankerous man; not a sex symbol. Often his companions were young attractive women to provide the eye candy. Now, however, the Doctor himself is part of the eye candy. I am fine with this: times change, and in any case, brainy is the new sexy.

But David Tennant's TV acting debut wasn't playing a brilliant time travelling alien; it was playing a transvestite barmaid. I remember seeing this when it aired for the first time. And you may have been wondering what all this has to do with crossdressing! The humour isn't particularly subtle, and the dialogue is very Scottish. Tennant is himself Scottish; he plays the Doctor with a posh English accent.

Fast forward a few years from these inauspicious beginnings, and Tennant has driven Doctor Who to be the hottest property on British TV. One of my favourite things about him is that he doesn't take himself too seriously, and is happy to laugh at himself. In interviews, he seems to be a genuinely nice bloke, and I would be thrilled to meet him. Here, he appears with the wonderful Justin Lee Collins, who looks marginally less excited than I would be to walk out of the door of the actual TARDIS:

But it wasn't to last. A couple of years ago I was crushed to hear that Tennant was leaving Doctor Who, just at the point where it was the best it had ever been. It will never be the same without him. His successor in the role is Matt Smith, who, if this shot is anything to go by, has a bit of work to do on his attractive feminine appearance:
Unconvincing: Smith

David Tennant isn't (so far as I know) a crossdresser; just a beautiful man who happens to look good (and quite enjoy appearing) dressed as a woman, albeit for comic effect. When the Ninth Doctor visits the Sybilline Sisterhood in The Fires of Pompeii, the Sisterhood refuse to allow the Doctor entry to their inner sanctum, and he responds: "Just us girls together", which seems to be as far as they take it.

Time Lords only have 13 regenerations, and Matt is the 11th, so there can only be two more actors to play the role before the scriptwriters devise some sort of ret-con to make it OK to carry on regenerating. I understand that one of the narrative paths the scriptwriters once considered (and still muse over from time to time) was for the Doctor to regenerate into a woman's body. I think the character is too entrenched to turn into a woman, although I think the scriptwriters have had fun providing clever, sassy and powerful women to play his foil; the best of these is Professor River Song, an archaeologist, criminal mastermind and irresistable party girl, who shows herself to be every bit his equal.

Apart from this tenuous connection, there is nothing to link Doctor Who with crossdressing or transgendered behaviour in any way. But David Tennant... those legs! Far to good to pass up the chance to write a blog about!

Perhaps something more academic next time? With love from the Doctor!


Addendum 17th August 2013

Doctor Who is brilliant, of course, but once or twice every season you get an episode which just makes your spine tingle. In season 6, that episode is called The Doctor's Wife. In it, the Doctor receives an ancient message from an old friend, a fellow Time Lord called the Corsair. It is expressly stated that the Corsair has regenerated into a female from time to time. The Doctor has been friends with the Corsair over several incarnations, and points out that the Corsair always has a tattoo of the Ouroboros symbol. In his female incarnations, the Doctor comments wryly that the Corsair was "a bad girl".

This is the first time it has been made "official" that Time Lords can change gender during reincarnation. However, we don't know if they can choose their gender at will. In any case, we already know that the next actor to play the Doctor will be a man, Peter Capaldi.

Addendum 25th November 2013

Well, if you thought that was cool, you should try this. Doctor Who has just turned 50 years old, and to celebrate, the Beeb produced a wonderful, feature-length episode called The Day of the Doctor. To whet viewers' appetites, a 7-minute prequel film, The Night of the Doctor, was released in advance, showing the Eighth Doctor visiting the Sisterhood Of Karn.

The Sisterhood has developed a series of potions which can guide the regeneration process, allowing the Doctor, for the first time, to choose the form of his regeneration. Among the choices are "Man or Woman". What does the Doctor choose? If you can spare seven minutes of your life. you can find out here.

Addendum 7th October 2018

The Doctor will see you now: Whittaker.
It's finally happened! This doesn't especially surprise me, given all the hints above, but the Doctor has finally regenerated into a woman, played by the fabulous Jodie Whittaker.

It must be very difficult to keep Doctor Who fresh and interesting without telling the same stories over and over. I can see that making the Doctor regenerate into a woman is one way to take the show in a new direction without sacrificing too much of what the fans love.

I've watched the whole of the Eleventh series, with Whittaker in the lead role.

I do really think it’s a positive thing that the Doctor can become a woman—and yet still remain brilliant and quirky and funny, and take charge of every situation and come up with clever solutions to the scrapes that arise inevitably in the show.

I think Whittaker looks great in the role and acts really well. I especially like that they haven’t tried to sex her up: the costume is perfect right now. It would be awful if they had given her a Spandex leotard and combat stilettoes. I like the stripes on her top, which clearly call to mind the colours of the Fourth Doctor's iconic scarf.

But I do think that, while this show hit some definite high notes, it fell a bit flat for me personally. I'm not a fan of the new Tardis interior (though I do love the dispenser of custard creams). The filming is utterly lavish and beautiful, and clearly the BBC has spent a lot of money on locations and special effects. But some of the plots just didn't hit the mark. Perhaps a rewatch will help me to enjoy it a bit more.