It’s all so simple. Boys wear blue; girls wear pink. Few consider switching the colours about – men especially – and when we do, it’s often with a sense of snide crossdressing. Yet many women wear pants (specifically made for women) and blouses (with buttons sewed onto the opposite side as those on men’s shirts). And men wear kilts (not to be confused with skirts, thank you very much).
There are rules, unwritten, but deeply ingrained.
As always, it’s easiest to see in other cultures. Deborah Ellis’ children’s novel The Breadwinner (2001, in the Lennoxville Library at C-224), is set under Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Women are forbidden from public places unless chaperoned, and the sudden brutal arrest of a father leaves his family – wife, daughters and toddler son – on the verge of starvation. Until, in desperation, the girl-child is taught to behave like a boy, and sent out in disguise to make enough money to feed them all. She’s young enough to pass, old enough to be trusted.
“As a boy you’ll be able to move in and out of the market, buy what we need, and no one will stop you, Mother said.
Parvana stared at the three of them. It was as though they were speaking a foreign language, and she didn’t have a clue what they were saying.
“It won’t work,” she said. “I don’t look like a boy. I have long hair.”
Not for long.
Or consider Virginia Woolf’s classic 1928 novel, Orlando, presented as a biography and set hundreds of years in the past, in the UK. For the first third of the novel, Orlando is a man, a rich man, a favorite of Queen Elizabeth (who came to power in 1558).
Orlando is eventually dumped by the woman he loves. He becomes depressed, choosing a life of literature and solitude, the sort of man who worships poets (and who respond in turn with nothing but contempt for this deluded dilettante).
Magically, Orlando becomes a woman (and lives for centuries). She feels no different, acts no differently, but everything changes. Her property is confiscated (women cannot own property), her movements restricted. And of course, men treat her differently. Through Orlando, Woolf argued that both men and women are the same, but culture forces us into different behaviors.
Yet the novel is not a painful wallop over the head with a hammer; it’s a fun read, well written and consistently interesting (and available online, free, at Gutenberg.org).
Of course, not everyone sees gender the way Woolf does.
Author Kathleen Winter’s multiple award-winning novel, Annabel (2010, filed in Adult Fiction at the Lennoxville Library) offers the story of a child born in 1968 Labrador, in the isolated community of Croyden Harbour, where “human life came second to the life of the big land, and no one seemed to mind. No one minded being an extra in the land’s story.”
The child is neither male nor female; it’s visibly both. Mother Jacinta doesn’t care; father Treadway wants a boy, and demands a surgeon fix little Wayne to fit. And Wayne will have to pop hormones for the rest of his life.
But what if Wayne grows up feeling differently? Not “male”? What if there’s more to identity than the physical bits?
As Winter considers, we live in a society which demands a clear identity. Be male, or be female; you must pick one. Even if that means surgery within days for a newborn.
Annabel is filled with beautiful writing and fantastic questions. (Toronto filmmaker Deepa Mehta has announced she’ll adapt the novel onto the big screen.)
Author Jeffrey Eugenides’s writing is far more brash – even, dare I say, American. Eugenides won a Pulitzer for the family saga Middlesex (2002, in Adult Fiction in the Lennoxville Library), which stars the Greek-become-savvy-American Calliope Stephanides. Callie was also born intersex (what we used to call hermaphroditism), and this is the tale of Callie and her family. It’s about the American Dream, and about a teenaged girl who grows up to become a man. As our narrator begins: “Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome!”
Boys on one side, girls on the other.
Still, the pink and blue colour rule is actually relatively new. The Smithsonian magazine (published by the American museum and institute of the same name) has profiled the scholarship of historian Jo B. Paoletti, who concludes that pink and blue only became the “it” kid colours in the early 1900s. Here’s a trade magazine’s suggestion, dated 1918: “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”
Yes, that’s right. The colours got switched. It happened in the 1940s, “as a result of Americans’ preferences as interpreted by manufacturers and retailers.
“It could have gone the other way.” Suddenly, blue was for boys; pink for girls.
Perhaps that’s why a young male rabbit by the name of Rosebud appears in shockingly bright, solid pink in the 1942 children’s book, Rosebud (reprinted in 1993 and available via interlibrary loan). Apparently the new colour memo hadn’t yet made it into the hands of author Ludwig Bemelmans.
Rosebud reads about ferocious lions, tough camels, and strong elephants. Rabbits, however, are portrayed as “shy and hysterical.”
This is very annoying to Rosebud. In fact “he got madder and madder and madder.”
And so Rosebud sets out to prove that, while not as strong as an elephant, while unable to survive many days without water, while not as growly as a leopard… he is a rabbit to be reckoned with. He is Rosebud, and he is very, very smart.
Is Rosebud normal? Should he calm down, or is he doing the right thing?
What is normal, anyway? Even to be “intersex” is complicated to define; do you count the invisible insides, if everything else is “regular”? An organization called the Intersex Society of North America (admittedly, a lobby group), says one in 100 births differs “from standard male or female.” That’s… a lot of babies.
So what’s “normal”? Is “normal”, in the end, simply what we decide it is?
— Eleanor Brown, January 22, 2016