Award-winning writer and artist Lochlann Jain tells all about how categories affect gender and sexuality in new book Things That Art: A Graphic Menagerie of Enchanting Curiosity (University of Toronto Press, available from 7 November)
Lochlann Jain is an award-winning writer, artist and professor of anthropology at Stanford University and Kings College London. As a bi-racial, non-binary, queer person living across the UK and USA, Lochlann Jain is constantly fighting the world’s everyday obsession of stereotypes and categorisation.
They explain: At birth, gender bequeaths a baby’s humanity, not vice versa. Is “it” a boy or a girl is the question that directs all others: Does he have his father’s nose? Does she have ten fingers? Knowing “Xavier is a boy” leads to asking “what kind of boy is Xavier”—not “what kind of person is Xavier.”
This sorting by sex and the ongoing project of “boying” and “girling” our children through intensive instruction is largely considered the most natural thing in the world. Induction into the social codes of masculinity and femininity teach us what to wear, how to spend time, our habits of posture—and most importantly, how to relate to others. Girls are girls and boys are boys, identities stuck on with the same enthusiasm—and good intention—we use to tape that oversized pink paisley bow to a bald baby’s head.
While the vast majority believe in a gender binary, many good liberal westerners, at least in theory, believe that girls should also have access to the things that until 5 minutes ago have been the exclusive rights of boys and men: to inherit, become doctors and engineers, defend their country, be paid equally, play football in public parks, become prime ministers and presidents. And similarly, that boys and men should get to unapologetically cry, parent, cook, and make close friends. In other words, that humans should have opportunities to physically and emotionally flourish.
Various strategies have made some strides in levelling the playing field, as it were: redistributing funding, mandating inclusion, improving educational opportunities and so on. But why, then, is it recent news that an all-female crew of astronauts conducted a space walk? How could that possibly have taken 50 years? Clearly, there are limits to such measures’ success.
In part, this is because unequally gendered access to public culture is not just about the here and now. Male access, lives, and accomplishments have been materially and intellectually cemented into everyday life. From street names to war memorials, from emperors to CEOs, from super heroes to sports heroes, when we learn about, and experience, how the world came to be, it is through the stories of men, by and large.
Roughly half our children tend to be “boyed” in infancy, in a process that encourages them to identify with representations of maleness generated through these myriad historical and fantastical figures. These youngsters may not become King Arthur or Maradona but they can code their behaviors and entitlements in line with them in ways that are straightforward and with little effort.
“Girled” children, on the other hand, can’t simply be Batman or Einstein with the ease and clarity that a boy can. Even the girls with the most progressive parents find themselves surrounded by ubiquitous and glorified boy-characters. It takes some mental gymnastics for someone told they are a girl—the opposite, the complement, the foil, or whatever, to a boy—to find kinship with the male characters that dominate the social world. When girls want to be engineers, kings, street names, or genius entrepreneurs, they have to first take one great leap across the invisible, internalized barrier of what is even possible, and then navigate the judgement (and sometimes outright scorn) reserved for the suspected ambitious girl, the tom-boy, the lesbian, or trans-boy.
It’s this history of representations, built and instantiated over generations, that is so intractable. It’s said that JK Rowling dreamed up Harry rather than Harriet Potter because, while girls will read anything and everything, boys will only read stories about boys. Possibly apocryphal, the story rings true. And since a culture geared to selling—whether it’s books, movies, or overpriced plastic wands—is unlikely to challenge this, and because all our other efforts toward equal pay, equal representation, and equal opportunities are less than triumphs, we need another strategy.
What’s left? Could we nip this in the delivery room, so to speak? What if we resisted boying and girling our children for a few months or years by not showing or telling them which gender they ought to identify with—at least not right away.
This would be a stretch for most people, no question. To make the effort to think around, rather than through, gender would take some linguistic heavy-lifting and ongoing work. It would be a significant ask of friends and family: it’s difficult to talk about a baby without using he or she pronouns. But it’s not impossible—after all, we are known to take care over our babies’ names. And from there, decisions would have to be made about clothes and toys. Would we move toward gender-neutral greens and yellows, or alternate between pink and blue?
This may feel deeply unsettling. That’s because we have been trained see a genderless baby as a rootless baby, an unmoored baby. How would the baby know how to slot themselves into the world? What games would they play? And later, which bathroom would they use? The bow and the bow-tie are the paths of least resistance for already exhausted parents.
On the other hand, a new generation is expanding feminist and queer movements in new ways, questioning or shunning gender binaries. Their giant leap of imagination is to be liberated from these exhausting codes, or at least to have some say in how they are re-written. Arguably, this model of gender-deferral offers a much less violent approach to the current practice of telling our girl-children that they can do anything boys can, while offering mostly male models for doing so, and thus requiring inhuman psychic contortions for them to merely conceive of the conditions for their own success.
Consider the opportunities for self-actualization available through this proposal. What if it turned out that once the stigma of changing diapers or being a nurse were removed, in fact a good portion of little people welcomed the role of caretaking, regardless of what was under their clothing? One imagines that a lot of people might be great at it, and some of those would advocate to give the history of care-taking a larger—even equivalent—role in institutions from actual hospitals to military museums. The history of care-taking would no longer be “women’s history” added as an afterthought among the vast halls of swords, chest-plates, and medals, but would take its rightful place as a fully-fledged component of human history.
To be sure, it’s not a solution, but at least it’s a thought experiment with the goal of unburdening future children from the trap of history. It’s worth considering why it’s so hard to wrap our heads around giving up gender; what we are afraid of; and what the real stakes are of reproducing the gendered roles and hierarchies that most consider to be, and many experience as, retrograde and diminishing. Assuaging our own fears may not warrant the stunning losses in cultural capital that they continue to produce.
Lochlann Jain’s Book: Things That Art: A Graphic Menagerie is now available to buy.