Gender neutral toys aren't evil: A response to Christina Hoff Sommers

Christina Hoff Sommers at the Atlantic has published a very long, very annoying article complaining about the existence of gender-neutral efforts in Sweeden:

 subterfuge and propaganda appear to be the order of the day in Sweden. In their efforts to free children from the constraints of gender, the Swedish reformers are imposing their own set of inviolate rules, standards, and taboos.

Sommers thinks it's very important to defend the position that it might be incredibly immoral, like, Orwell-level immoral, to pursue a non-gender-delineated society.  The subhed of her article is "The logistical and ethical problems with trying to make toys gender-neutral."  Yeah, thats right.  Ethical problems.  She's arguing that it's ethically wrong to raise kids in a nongender environment.

Her article extensively insists that "Boys and girls are different."  That quote comes from a statement put out by a Hasbro manager.  The whole article is obsessive about maintaining an impression of a gender binary, in a system that's explicitly denying it -- trying instead to insist, apparently, that Sweeden is attempting to manufacture a new gender to which they expect everyone to conform, rather than what they seem to actually be doing: removing the idea of a gender binary from the kids' self-identity, and encouraging them to value life skills outside the ones most valued by the gender they've been assigned at birth.

Children, with few exceptions, are powerfully drawn to sex-stereotyped play. David Geary, a developmental psychologist at the University of Missouri, told me in an email this week, "One of the largest and most persistent differences between the sexes are children's play preferences." The female preference for nurturing play and the male propensity for rough-and-tumble hold cross-culturally and even cross-species (with a few exceptions—female spotted hyenas seem to be at least as aggressive as males). Among our close relatives such as vervet and rhesus monkeys, researchers have found that females play with dolls far more than their brothers, who prefer balls and toy cars. It seems unlikely that the monkeys were indoctrinated by stereotypes in a Top-Toy catalog. Something else is going on.

(emphasis mine)

This section is just blatantly disingenuous.  Of course our close relatives among primates are influenced by the culture around them.  There are many well-known examples of monkeys modeling their behavior based on the behaviors of other monkeys, and enforcing social norms even without particular reasons.  The fact that they won't have gotten these impressions from a toy catalog doesn't mean they weren't influenced by their peers.

Sommers even tries to force people who don't identify with their assigned gender all into one category -- that of the other gender.

The Swedes are treating gender-conforming children the way we once treated gender-variant children. Formerly called "tomboy girls" and "sissy boys" in the medical literature, these kids are persistently attracted to the toys of the opposite sex. They will often remain fixated on the "wrong" toys despite relentless, often cruel pressure from parents, doctors, and peers.

No, it's not the same thing at all.  The Swedes are treating everyone like liking things and giving things a chance shouldn't be conditioned upon one's genitals.  What you're doing is saying everyone fits into one of two absolutist categories, and that the only non-traditional manifestation of these categories is when a kid of one sex identifies with the other gender.

Sommers's point overall seems to be that there's something morally wrong with discouraging children from aggressively gendering themselves and each other.  But we discourage children from plenty of needlessly harmful behavior that may come naturally to some of them.  What this sounds like to me is the panicked wailing of a cisgendered person struggling to find a way to avoid thinking about gender as being more complicated than a simple binary, and thinking about people not being constrained by particular conditions of their biology.

And if, at the end of all of this, upon the success of the Swedish nongendered schools, more people with penises than with vaginas still like trucks and arm wrestling, that doesn't mean the Swedes weren't right.  All it means is that there is a biological component to interests -- the existence of which does not validate proactively pouring massive civilization-scale resources into enforcing and reinforcing a much more restrictive and oppressive cultural component to interests.

Gender neutral Easy-Bake Oven petition

(via Boing Boing)

The above video implores viewers to sign a petition for Hasbro to push back against the ubiquitous assumption that women are the only people who want to learn to cook, or play with cooking toys.  Mckenna Pope recorded her brother explaining that he wants an Easy-Bake Oven for Christmas, but thinks "Only girls play with it."

From the Change.org petition:

Imagine my surprise when I walked into his room to find him "cooking" tortillas by placing them on top of his lamp's light bulb! Obviously, this is not a very safe way for him to be a chef, so when he asked Santa for his very own Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven, produced by the Hasbro company, for me to help him be the cook he's always wanted to be, my parents and I were immediately convinced it was the truly perfect present.

However, we soon found it quite appalling that boys are not featured in  packaging or promotional materials for Easy Bake Ovens -- this toy my brother's always dreamed about. And the oven comes in gender-specific hues: purple and pink.

I feel that this sends a clear message: women cook, men work.

I have always been adamantly against anything that promotes specific roles in society for men and women, and having grown up with toys produced by the Hasbro corporation, it truly saddens me that such a successful business would resort to conforming to society's views on what boys do and what girls do.

I want my brother to know that it's not "wrong" for him to want to be a chef, that it's okay to go against what society believes to be appropriate.

Here: go sign.  I did.  They're only about 6,000 signatures away from the 35,000 signature goal.

Womens Menswear

This IndieGoGo campaign has already met their funding goal, but they deserve more money -- specifically, the money that comes from people patronizing their business. Krezubach 10 is a clothing label that makes menswear cut to fit women's bodies.  From their IndieGoGo page:

We don't like to say we make women's shirts, because that makes us sound like a lot of other labels who take a button up shirt, feminize it with girly colours  and patterns and maybe even add some frilly bits then still have the nerve to call it 'man style.'

That's not us.

Our shirts are designed to be straight up what you'd expect to find in the men's department; Primary colours, geometric patterns, no frills.

This is awesome -- I can't personally shop with them, being male-bodied, but I know a lot of female-bodied people who have wished they could find mens clothes that fit them.

Here's a link to their IndieGoGo campaign, for information, and here's their Facebook page, for future updates.  I will continue to update as I hear of new information about their progress.

Eagle Scouts turn in their badges in protest

Maggie Koerth-Baker at Boing Boing reports on Eagle Scouts, those who hold the highest honor available to a Boy Scout, returning their badges in protest of the Boy Scouts' repeated affirmation of their explicitly anti-gay policy. I was in the Boy Scouts when I was a teenager -- I quit when I was a second-class, for moral reasons (I didn't like the religious stuff or the gay thing, and I had philosophical quibbles with most of the specific moral affirmations) though if I'm being honest, I hate the outdoors too much to have ever made it to Eagle.

It's nice to see people who do believe in what the Scouts, at best, stand for doing something to try to push the organization in a less totally awful direction.

The DSM-V takes gender off the table

(via Upworthy on Tumblr) Like every other academic field, the claims made by psychology are constantly open to revision and rebuttal, and like every other academic field, psychology becomes less biased, stratified, and private as time passes and advances are made.

I'm reminded in particular of the history of geometry, which acquired non-Euclidean geometry over 2000 years after Euclidean geometry came up.

Unlike geometry, though, the impact of biases in psychology affect the individual lives of people every day.  Systems of oppression have been hung on bad psychology.  Social myths and prejudices are perpetuated by bad psychology.  Bad geometry can only hold up new creation, whereas bad psychology can do specific harm.

That is why I am thrilled to report that the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-V, the standard textbook from which individuals are diagnosed and medicines are prescribed, is eliminating Gender Identity Disorder.

Well, I say eliminating.  What they've done is switched Gender Identity Disorder (which describes the dissonance between one's assigned gender and experienced gender as unhealthy, and tends toward implicitly arguing that the assigned gender is the correct one) for Gender Dysphoria, which they describe as:

a marked incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender.

Why is this a good thing?  Starting from a purely semantic perspective, "Gender Identity Disorder" means the problem is with the individual's perception of their gender.  "Gender Dysphoria" means the individual is unhappy about the state of their experience of gender.

Under the new definition, especially within the context it's been changed, someone who was assigned male at birth but identified as female could seek therapy to help deal with the dissonance, medication that might either help with the depression or help her transition, and insurance-covered surgery to help resolve the incongruance between her body and her identity.

It wouldn't mean that she could be treated by the medical institution like she was a boy and just needed the right treatment to fix her.

The arguments that Advocate.com's article cites in favor of keeping Gender Identity Disorder are for purposes of medical standing for surgery and legal standing in discrimination cases.  But I don't think either of those issues are actually affected by the change.

The new definition still affirms that gender identity is a legitimate, medically valid source of stress and psychological pain.  It just doesn't insist that the problem is boys thinking they're girls and girls thinking they're boys. (And boys and girls thinking they're either or neither...  Does my statement need to be fully inclusive if it's a characterization of a bigoted opinion?  Let me know what you think in comments.)