Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Gender Confusion

Maverick pushed the door open with his nose, slunk into the room, then froze. He hadn't realized the lady from over the road was visiting. Before she could put out her hand for him to sniff, he'd shot back out the door.

"Wow," our neighbor said. "She's really shy, isn't she?"

"Actually, that's Maverick," I said. "Our tomcat."

She opened her mouth, then closed it. "Then why is he wearing a pink collar?"

"Because my daughters have a sense of humor. Before he chewed them off, that collar had pink feathers on it too." I didn't mention the fake pearls that had since turned grey.

Mitzi swanned into the room just then, wearing her dark blue collar with black studs. The neighbor frowned.

"So I guess this one is a girl, then."

"Yep."

She shook her head, clearly disapproving.

And yet Mitzi looks very fetching in her black and blue collar. She's not a girly sort of cat anyway. If she were a human, she'd be a tom-boy, scaling the highest trees, climbing the walls, ever curious and generally fearless.

Our neighbor's dog is black and his name is something like Midnight. When we had a white cat, she kept wondering why we didn't name her Snowflake.

"You shouldn't put a tomcat in a pink collar!" our neighbor protested. "Poor thing."

But the pink collar suits Maverick. He's a big cat, and the collar, which was probably intended for a small dog, gives him room to breathe. Plus, he keeps losing his collars, and it's only a matter of time before this one bites the dust too. At least his pink collar was cheap.

"I'm sure he doesn't care as long as we feed him," I said. "The collar shines in the dark and has his name and number on it. That's all he needs."

"What does it matter if people think he's a girl anyway?" my daughter said later.

And she should know.

Although she has since slimmed down, our youngest daughter was a fat, sturdy, spitfire of a toddler with an iron will. We used to imagine her as an adult, a tough, savvy woman who wouldn't take any nonsense. "Margaret Thatcher," one of her teachers said once, horrifying my husband, who is not a Thatcher fan. We dressed our rough-and-tumble baby Margaret Thatcher in easy-to-wash clothes she could get dirty in: dungarees, sturdy overalls, tee shirts in bright colors. When, against our explicit instructions, relatives sent her gifts of pink dresses with lace trim, we quietly gave them away. Nobody ever realized she was a girl, but it didn't really bother us.

When my daughter was almost two, she was at her noisiest, feistiest best. One day, we took a taxi together. The driver was most impressed with her.

"That's a fine looking boy you've got there!" he said, grinning. "He'll be a sportsman for sure!"

I smiled uneasily, praying my daughter wouldn't correct him. It was funny that he assumed she was a boy: she had on a pair of pink corduroy overalls of which she was inordinately proud. For that matter, she was proud of being a girl too; she probably wouldn't mind being called a boy, but she'd certainly set the record straight if she could. "Thank you," I said, wishing we were closer to home.

"You've got yourself a sumo wrestler there, no mistake about that!" the man went on, making my cheeks burn. My daughter would surely say something.

"You're going to be a wrestler, aren't you?" he said, shifting gears and grinning at us in the rear-view mirror.

"Actually," I put in quickly, "she's a girl. But for what it's worth, we think she'll be a wrestler too."

There was a long, embarrassed pause. The driver's face in the rear-view mirror was ashen.

"That's never a girl."

"No, she really is."

"Why is she dressed like a boy then?"

I did my best to explain even though it was hardly his business. When we got out, he mumbled something about dresses and patent leather shoes.

When our daughter was almost three, we borrowed a kimono and took her around the neighborhood one fine November day, as is the custom. In Japan, there is a special day for children known as shichi-go-san, or seven, five, three, when parents used to traditionally register their children at the local shrine at the ages of 3, 5, and 7. Nowadays, children are registered at birth, but the custom remains. People dress their children in their fanciest clothes and take them around the neighborhood to be admired and receive little presents of sweets and money.

Our daughter wasn't crazy about having to put on a kimono, but she liked all the attention as well as the assurances of candy. Once she was fully kitted out, she let us lead her around the neighborhood, teetering a bit in her fancy lacquer geta. There was a middle-aged policeman who lived down our street, a favorite of our daughter, who was in the habit of waving to him every time we passed his house. He was a rough, gruff sort of fellow, a body-builder who lived alone and liked guns. When we led our kimono-clad three-year-old past his house, his jaw dropped.

"Why've you got a boy dressed up in a girl's kimono?" he asked.

We stared at him. "She's a girl," I finally said.

"No!" The man turned to my husband, incredulous.

My husband nodded his confirmation.

We left the man shaking his head, still obviously unconvinced. For the next four years, I could see him eyeing our daughter every time we walked by his house, his face tight with disapproval. He'd thought she was a great kid back when, for all he knew, she was a boy.

I'll bet he wouldn't have liked Maverick's pink collar either.

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23 comments:

Kim Ayres said...

I'm usually only mistaken for a female until people hear my voice or see my beard...

debra said...

Years ago, when my oldest daughter was born (1988, summer of drought--but that's another story), I proudly walked her through the neighborhood. She was sporting a pink hat and onesie. An elderly neighbor, with whom I had visited throughout my pregnancy, was sitting on his porch."So," he said, in heavily accented English,"you had the baby." "Yes," I beamed. "So," he said again,"you had the baby." I smiled. "Yes." This went on 3 or 4 more times. "What's the baby's name?" he asked. "Sarah," I replied. "Sarah?" he asked. "Yes." His face lit up. "Sarah! A little boy!."

Anne M Leone said...

Wow, I had no idea some people were concerned about gender confusion amongst cats! *sigh*

My mom always liked to tell the story about the waitress who told her I was a cute boy. "She's a girl," Mom said. "Why don't you dress her like one?" The waitress replied. Not sure if my mom answered her, or was too steamed at that point to bother. Regardless, I've turned out all right.

Falak said...

We had a similar experience when my brother was just a baby. He was born with long curly hair that only grew longer as he grew older, forcing my mom to tie it up so it wouldn't tumble all over his face until he was old enough for us to get his head shaved. A tailor who had his shop next door to us would see us whenever we'd go out and would wave and smile. One fine day he gave a gift for the 'baby' and we were quite touched by his unexpected gift. We went home and opened the bag he gave and out came a frock he had stitched himself. With the curly, long hair,chubby cheeks an rosy lips he thought my brother was a baby girl.
There's a picture somewhere of him in that frock.

Kit said...

I was frequently mistaken for a boy when I was a child, as I had short hair and wasn't into girly clothes. I actually didn't mind, until I was about 12 and had obvious boobs, but still short hair and I still got mistaken for a boy. Some people see through very thick glasses!
When my son was a baby I raided the charity shops for baby clothes and got a great haul for almost nothing. I bought pink along with the rest and dressed him in them. After all he didn't care. Some people thought I was scarring him for life, but really why shouldn't a baby look pretty in pink even if he is a boy?!

Vijaya said...

Funny about the cat collar. People can be so silly. My daughter went through a phase where she couldn't stand dresses (it only lasted a year, but when you're just 15 mo. old, you grow out of clothing pretty fast). She had these cute home-made dresses, but I ended up giving them all away. It didn't help that I gave her a buzz-cut like I do my son, but she was always getting food in her hair. Grandma had a fit. Even dressed in my son's old clothes and that bad haircut, she still looked like a girl. No gender confusion.

A year later, dresses were all she wanted. Until some kid teased her in the fourth grade ... Now she dresses up for Church anad that's about it.

Dale said...

It's interesting, we think of the Victorians as strait-jacketed by gender stereotypes, but they dressed boys and girls exactly alike up until age five or six, and cheerfully referred to a child as "it" if they didn't know its gender. Putting color-coded gender markers on infants and small children came remarkably late, in the 20s or 30s, I think. It would be fun to try to pinpoint when it became unacceptable to use "it" as a pronoun for a child, and see how closely it maps to the onset color-coding and gendered clothing.

When our kids were little I was impressed by how many people seemed to think we'd be devastated if they guessed our kids' genders wrong. What on earth did it matter?

Charles Gramlich said...

I don't think I've ever noticed the color of a dog or cat's collar.

Anonymous said...

I read somewhere that until quite late in the nineteenth century the colours were the opposite of what is considered "normal" today. Boys were in pink and girls were in blue. Something to do with blue being considered virginal. Check out religious pictures of Mary, always wearing blue isn't she ?

Marcia said...

My two sons both had very curly hair. (As adults, they both buzz it off.) How often I heard the comment, "Too bad those curls are wasted on a boy."

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- And I was one of them, remember? I quickly figured it out, though.

Debra -- How funny! Some people are convinced that dressing babies in pink or blue firmly establishes their gender. But I know from personal experience that there are people who will believe what they want to believe no matter what you do.

I had a student called Salih whose name was pronounced exactly like 'Sally'. He was a sturdy fellow with a low voice and a heavy beard and just saying his name always made me smile.

Anne -- Crazy, isn't it? With people, I can almost understand. If you don't know somebody's gender, you don't know which pronouns to use. But who really cares about whether cats are boys or girls?

I looked like a boy myself up until I was about 16; I always had short hair and was slow to mature. And my mother, like yours, I'm guessing, didn't see the need to put me in pink dresses with frills. And yet somehow I turned out okay too, and was none the worse for being mistaken for a boy.

Falak -- That is a great story, and now you have to write about it in a little more detail! I'm particularly impressed with your family for actually dressing your brother in his handmade frock -- good for them. Plus, what great leverage they will have over him if he's ever a really difficult teenager! Tell your parents to keep the negatives of that photo in a safe place.

Kit -- I completely agree -- (and I also raided charity shops for my kids' clothes, thereby saving a bundle.) People who make a big fuss over babies' gender should save their concern for really important things. I dressed our girls in unisex clothes, and I would have happily dressed any boys in pink. Although personally, I wouldn't put ANY babies in lace-trimmed pink.

Vijaya -- Our daughter went through a phase of wanting nothing BUT dresses, but the nursery our girls attended sensibly discouraged parents from putting girls in dresses or skirts, arguing that they couldn't play properly if they were wearing skirts. When we moved to Scotland where girls are allowed to wear skirts or trousers to school, our daughter suddenly discovered that she no longer wanted to wear dresses or skirts. This was AFTER we had just bought her three skirts, of course.

No one would mistake my daughter for a boy now. I look at her now and can hardly believe she once resembled Winston Churchill.

Dale -- The Victorians certainly had that one right; it makes perfect sense to call babies 'it'; there is plenty of time for them to define their genders. I was never offended when people thought our kids were boys, just amused, and sometimes embarrassed, because I knew the people who had guessed wrong would mind. And yet some people really do get indignant -- "He's a BOY!" or "This is a GIRL!" -- even when it's impossible to tell.

Charles -- And I'll bet you wouldn't care who wore what color either, right?

Anonymous -- That is interesting. I don't believe I've ever seen the Virgin Mary wearing anything but blue or white; she'd look quite ridiculous in pink. It must have had something to do with what dyes were available then, I'm guessing, and with her status at the time.

Marcia -- I've heard people say that too, about curly hair and long eyelashes on boys. The only waste, as far as I'm concerned, is that your sons shave it off!

Kristen Lippert-Martin said...

That Margaret Thatcher line cracked me up.

I think people who make fundamental mistakes like that -- especially older people -- feel horribly embarrassed and worry that they're losing it. So they blame you for causing their confusion. "You didn't dress your child appropriately and thus caused me to make a foolish remark. Shame on you!"

To this, one can only say, "Oh, well."

Tie a pink bow on that boy cat. Who cares and perhaps he's just that way. Like Elton John.

Carole said...

I am worse than your neighbor. I think all cats are girls and dogs are boys. I automatically say she referring to a cat and he referring to a dog. I have no explanation for this and try my best not to assume, but still I can't get it quite right.

Bish Denham said...

And this, in the age when we are supposed to be more open-minded, more politically correct, less gender sensitive...

In a favorite picture of my sister she's wearing a dress and has roller skates on her feet. On her head is a cowboy hat, on her hips a pair of six-shooters. She was about 7 when it was taken.

inluvwithwords said...

Hilarious!
Isn't it funny (not really) how outspoken people can be about things that are absolutely none of their concern.
My daughter was born with a birthmark on her eyelid and I was forever getting remarks from people who assumed I had hit her. It happened so often that finally, I would see them looking and I would say "it's a birthmark" before they had the chance to say anything. They probably didn't believe me, anyway.

Lynne said...

my oldest daughter was/is like that. The funny thing when she turned 19 she decided she wanted to be a stripper. That worked out for maybe 4-6 months. She's had decided that all that girly-girl stuff isn't for her she's now back to wearing "boy" clothing, shoes and ~I even bet~ her fiancee draws when he's not around. I guess you could say it's a good thing they had a boy. LOL :-P

Anne Spollen said...

My middle guy had light blue eyes and long, black lashes as a baby. Everyone thought he was a girl - then the ensuing comment about how those eyes were "wasted" --

Great cat tale, Mary!

Pat said...

I wonder if your daughter went pink and fluffy - so to speak - in her teens?
Even tough guy John Wayne was called Marion.

Lily Cate said...

I never really understood anyone being offended by getting a baby's (or a pet's!)gender "wrong". When my son was six months old, he got called "she" as often as "he", especially when he was wearing this certain shearling coat with the hood up. Either way, he was adorable.
I was a corduroys and baseball shirt kid myself, although as a grown up, I like to wear dresses more in the summer - it's much more comfortable :)

Adrienne said...

I love the images of your tomcat in pink, and your neighbor's shock at seeing your little one in her kimono! All I can say is I chose correctly when I purchased a blue collar for our dog - she is the most unladylike animal I've ever known.

Medeia Sharif said...

I've put a pink collar on my boy cats. They look so cute...anyway, it serves a purpose, so the color doesn't matter.

I've encountered this confusion with children. I notice it the most in regards to hair length, with long-haired boys and short-haired girls being confused for the wrong gender.

Robin said...

I never minded if people guessed the boys' gender wrong when they were babies. Let's face it - with clothes on, there's no way to tell. I felt bad if they were embarrassed and was quick to say, "Oh, don't worry! He does look like a girl! We're considering having him castrated, and then you'll be right!" That never seemed to soothe them. In fact, I was shunned in our old neighborhood.

Mary Witzl said...

Kristen -- I've made false assumptions about baby gender myself, and when I see that the parents are offended, I'm always sorry, and a little embarrassed. But I really didn't mind when my girls were mistaken for boys, and it always seems funny to me that people get worked up by it.

If Maverick were human, he wouldn't be a beer and footaball sort, he'd be the foreign film and long conversation sort, who could wear a pink shirt without feeling it undermined his maleness. So I think he'll keep his pink collar.

Carole -- Our nextdoor neighbors have a poodle who is a he, but I'm constantly referring to him as 'she'. I've been (gently) reminded that he's not a she on numerous occasions, but damned if I can get it right. So you may be onto something there.

Bish -- What a wonderful picture that must be. Your sister sounds like a great character, prepared for any contingency. My sisters and I aspired to the same level of eclectic unisex nonconformity when we were growing up.

InLuv -- An Indian couple I once knew living in the States had their 9-month-old baby taken away from them for a week because their (American) nurse had never seen a Mongolian spot before and refused to accept that it was not evidence of beating. When we were living in Japan, I had a very hard time convincing my daughter's nursery school teacher that her mosquito bites were not something more sinister. The dermatologist had to write her a letter explaining that my daughter's Caucasian skin reacted differently to mosquito bites than Asian skin. It gets so tiring, doesn't it?

Lynne -- I'm glad your daughter got tired of being a stripper! As I write this now, I've got boy underwear hanging out in my backyard. My daughter thinks boy briefs are more comfortable than girl underpants. One day I'll test that theory myself.

AnneS -- I'm sure your son doesn't think his eyes are 'wasted'. In nature, it's often the boys who get all the pretty stuff: lions, peacocks, pheasants. I'd be tempted to tell that to the people who lament your son's superfluous eyelashes.

Pat -- Before we came to the U.K., my daughter went through a period of wanting to wear only dresses to school, but this was because the girls weren't allowed to wear dresses at our daughters' nursery school; it had nothing to do with girliness. At their school in Scotland, both skirts and trousers were acceptable, and our daughter refused to wear the skirts we bought her.

Lily -- When I was growing up, girls weren't allowed to wear trousers to school. Because of that, I went through a period of resenting skirts and dresses. But in the summer, dresses are far more comfortable than trousers.

It's just great to have the choice, and in that respect, western women have it easier than men (I don't know how women who have to wear burquas cope in the heat). I wonder if kilts will ever catch on outside of Scotland?

Adrienne -- Good for you. I'll be sure not to refer to your dog as 'he' if I ever meet her!

Medeia -- I had very short hair as a girl, and I was awkward, and late to mature. Whenever I wore trousers in public, I had to endure whispered comments about my gender -- "Oh look, you were right, that's a girl!"

Fortunately, my daughters (and cats) don't seem to mind comments like that.

Robin -- We could have traded stories when our kids were babies. You have no idea how many weird looks I've gotten from people I've made this sort of comment to, or how many times I've had to say, "It's a JOKE!" Umm...having written that, I think you must have a very good idea...