Critiquing Gender Constancy as Practice and as Model

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Critiquing Gender Constancy as Practice and as Model


"What is REAL?" asked the rabbit one day..."It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

A current debate in Developmental Psychology centers around when gender labeling, identity, and stereotyping first occur in children, and how the timing of these events correlates with a moment in every child's life where they reach what is called "gender constancy." Gender constancy, briefly, is the knowledge that the mechanical sex one has been assigned will always be his or her sex, but also the knowledge that he or she will always be a girl or boy, and the characteristics that go along with that gender are a part of his or her permanent future identity. Before the age of around three or four, children state that they believe that they can grow up to be a different gender than they are now, and they can change genders based on how they dress or cut their hair.

I guess fortunately slower than many children, I struggled with this concept of gender constancy long after mastering that rabbit-hat illusion, and it never really caused me a great deal of pain or confusion until the end of high school. The fact that I never really liked girls, but that I was a girl never really occurred to me as a problem. Looking back now, I was such a contradiction because I did so many "girl" things, but I didn't think I respected "girl" things. I could easily observe and then decide not wear make up or high heels and my protests of "girl" were obvious, but I was quiet and polite in my way of acting and speaking I didn't have gender constancy when I was 3 or 4; I was 18 when I finally realized, "I'm a girl", and despite my respect for "boy" things, I was never going to be a boy, and although I could do as many "boy" things as I wanted, society would always treat me differently.. But now that I had gender constancy, I realized my problem: I had so much disrespect for these women who were like me, just playing their societal parts, doing what was asked, expected, and reinforced by society. My disgust with them was also a disgust with myself because my quiet personality although I embraced intelligence and challenge, showed that I too had been socialized, and I was being stigmatized unfairly for it. I no longer felt real or legitimate, and I was angry. From now on, everything I did I would have to analyze. As Samuel Delany sighs in his piece Aversion / Perversion / Diversion concerning the way the subordinate societal members must always analyze their own actions, and try to strip them of society to compare them to "reality", he says, "Gay Identity like the joys of Gay Pride Day, weekends on Fire Island, and the delight of tickets to the opera is an object of the context, not of the self which means, like the rest of the context, it requires analysis, understanding, interrogation, even sympathy, but never an easy and uncritical acceptance" (142).

Looking at how the gender constancy theory as worked (or not worked) throughout my life for me, highlights the naivety of the theory, and how using rigid terms and concepts like gender constancy for studying psychology or history or society stifle the imagination and creativity necessary for acceptance in young children, and radical change in society at large. Rediscovering this pivotal point for me, and taking Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Gender and Sexuality, where I really looked at trying to define the word gender, I find I hate the concept of "gender constancy." I realize that even though the term gender constancy is used to study the origins of gender stereotyping so that we can learn more about them and how to fix them, the term itself is not scientific or objective mastering reality, it's about mastering the constructed reality that reinforces the gender and sexuality hierarchy. "Gender constancy" in young children is really the knowledge that the physical sex you have been given is attached to certain toys, but also certain characteristics, and eventually certain roles that you will be defined by and in relation to for your entire existence. This realization is a process that you learn more about throughout your life, not something you have the ability to comprehend in any way at three or four. How are we supposed to learn anything about changing the origins of gender stereotyping, if we are using terms that are so naive, unscientific, and unrealistic. How can we really expect children or anyone to come to terms with their "gender constancy", and isn't that feeding into the dominant culture's fantasy. Clarifying the definition of gender constancy in terms of the role society gives you rather than the role you feel a part of, unless you are a genius, means it probably doesn't happen at the age of three or four. Perhaps it happens most saliently at socially defined important moments like puberty, marriage, decisions to have children. But in some ways gender constancy can perhaps never really happen, at least not for the subordinate members of society.

We were asked one day in the same psychology class to come up with a way to get children to "override their gender stereotypes" based on our readings. We thought of lots of ideas, but as we kept going back to the readings, the scientific data was not encouraging. After reaching their definition of "gender constancy", Children were influenced somewhat by gender labeling, but children were more significantly and consistently influenced by modeling, and even more discouraging, they were influenced by stereotypes more than realities. Never mind that their mom drove them to school everyday, and their dad only drove once a year on family trips, "men were drivers." We could change the gender labels we gave toys and activities, we could even bring in women police officers or male nannies, but how could we change stereotypes children were getting outside the classroom, from home, from media, and from our own inability as adults to think outside stereotypes. After mulling in the impossibility of this for a while, I wondered to myself how teachers convinced their female students to try male professions when the stereotypes were more than commonalities, but absolute-isms. How did young girls thirty years ago ever decide they wanted to be anything other than teachers or mothers or nurses? The evidence of influence was important, but in the end it seemed limiting, and stifling of our creativity. How did those first teachers manage to override the evidence, and turn what their students knew about the world inside out? What did those girls discover that no one else knew? As Foucault in his "The Order of Things" asks, "But what is it impossible to think, and what kind of impossibility are we faced with here?" (xv).

I think this moment of frustration in the evidence in my psychology class captures the flaw in the argument for constancy. Foucault highlights this dramatically in his article "The Order of Things". This obsession we have with keeping things constant, keeping the boundaries, not ever crossing them, and then believing and explaining that this order and organization is responsible for the progression of a society. Gender constancy for example, is in young children a mark of intelligence, something highly regarded in today's society. Intelligence and acceptance seems to keep things in order and in this way keep people happy. Foucault in "The Order of Things" requests a wake-up call from history's attempted cause and effect view that there is an order, and if that order is changed, there is a method to the change. But after examining "the suddenness and thoroughness with which certain sciences were sometimes reorganized; and the fact that at the same time similar changes occurred in apparently very different disciplines," (xii) Foucault argues that in fact, change can and has come at random times, and this volatility is a reality that will endure. By even saying and believing that there is an order to things in history and in time, we make the white heterosexual male even more comfortable with his status by promising permanence. If we noted more the often abrupt and mysteriousness of some past moments of radical change in society, perhaps those with status would not feel so confident, and those in subordinate positions would not feel the limitations of a gender or sexual constancy. In the same way by noting the stubbornness children's stereotypes, we challenge teachers and scientists to come up with new ways of changing children, but we also discourage them and sometimes stifle their creativity to imagine a world outside of societal contraints.

I think Foucault would describe Gender constancy as a construction of order in society that is created by society, and is part of that order, but not necessarily a part of the reality of what people do or think in private. Even without or before the overall societal revolution, there is always a place in the here and now for subordinate people to feel, exist, and live as "real." Bell Hooks writes in Black Looks, about the film Paris is Burning, notes that "Much of the individual testimony makes it appear that the characters are estranged from any community beyond themselves." When I watched this film, I assumed that this was true, that they had been estranged from "any community beyond themselves." But, then I realized that Hooks is talking not of the community of large, but of the relative community of people we surround ourselves with that understand us. Of course for some, the places and people are more comfortable and easy to find than others, but at least they exist, and they exist for not a resistance of the way society perceives us, but a resistance of allowing that perception to affect us in a certain place with certain people. Our minds look for places where they can thrive no matter how hidden those places are.

Even in my fantasy world of a women's college, in the classroom I feel the effects of society, and I feel this is unfair because as a young girl I was given the same kind of reinforcement for playing my role that boys were given for playing theirs (praise, candy, allowance etc), but in my new college environment, being polite and raising my hand gets me labeled as weak. Where is my classroom rebelliousness you ask? I think I lost it somewhere in kindergarten. Bryn Mawr allows me to imagine that my female constructed ness is really just a part of my reality, and at the same time allows me to imagine a world where gender constancy is not something I will ever have to deal with. Places like Bryn Mawr although in society's context are a "fantasy" are important because they generate creativity in both the self and in ideas of society; here we imagine what a different kind of world might look like with an honor code and women playing the dominant roles.

Children before the ages of around three or four still believe in magic. They believe in Santa Clause, rabbits popping out of hats, and that though today they are a girl, tomorrow, if they wanted to, (or a fairy godmother said so, or if they cut their hair short enough) they could be a boy. Then, when they are "intelligent enough", they learn constancy. They begin to understand that the amount of liquid you have in your cup doesn't change despite the container you place it in, magic is really only optical illusions, and you will have their same body for the rest of your life, it will only grow and get older. Actual gender constancy, however, I believe, only really exists for the dominant group, because only they can truly match the ability to act as an agent or a subject with how they are viewed in society. Everyone else still lives in a fantasy world where magical things don't, but nonetheless, can happen. Accepting your gender is not an intellectual progression, but rather an acceptance of inferiority which stifles creativity, and it is not a description of one's personal reality. Society and science have some strange fear that change is disastrous, but in fact Foucault points out that change is a part of nature, a part of the human creative mind, and something we must learn to live with, promote, and propagate. Instead of obtaining gender or any kind of "constancy', more of us should follow Foucault's lead in "attempting to uncover the deepest strata of Western culture" and "restoring to our silent and apparently immobile soil its rifts, its instability, its flaws; and it is the same ground that is once more stirring under our feet" (xxiv).

Works Cited:

Delany, Samuel. "Aversion / Perversion / Diversion." Longer Views: Extended Essays. Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1996. 119-143.

Foucault, Michel. "Preface and Forward." The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage, 1973. ix-xxiv.

Hooks, Bell, "Is Paris Burning?" Black Looks: Race and Representation, Boston: South End Press, 1992.

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