“Playing Like a Girl” and Other Gender Identity Questions From the Playground

September 2, 2015

Would a girl like Scout fit in on the school playground, even today?

As my son turns eight months old, I’m learning a lot about him.

Over the summer, he and I spent many days together. We took field trips to parks or museums. He would ride in the carrier, strapped to my chest, while I pointed to things for him to look at. He learned to ride in the shopping cart at the grocery store, and to turn on the charm when strangers look at him or speak to him.

I’m learning a lot about my son.

I’ve learned that he loves to laugh. He loves to look out the window at passing cars. He jumps up and down on the couch whenever a car passes by our house. He loves to be swayed back and forth, to pretend “rough house,” to chase his mother and I around on the floor.

I’ve learned a lot of things about my son.

But I still don’t really know what kind of boy he is going to turn out to be.

And in our culture that is asking more and more questions about what it means to be “male” or “female,” I want my son to know that there are many kinds of boys, and whatever kind he turns out to be, I’ll be proud of him.

Playing Like a Girl

When our cultural conversation about gender identity was just beginning, I have to admit, I had a hard time understanding what it meant to not identify with the gender you were born into.

But after a while, I did start to understand.

I remembered being a little boy on the playground at school. And there were some games I wasn’t good at. As I grew older, I realized that the athletics gene had passed me by, and my artistic inclinations didn’t gain me the same respect from other boys as throwing or catching a ball would have.

“You play like a girl, Appling.”

Among boys, being labeled “like a girl” was a paramount insult, heaped liberally on boys who did not measure up to the rigorous playground standards of “boyness.” This advertising campaign featuring girls demonstrating what it means to “play like a girl” is brilliant. There are men and women who don’t understand what the fuss is because they were never left on the fringes of the playground as children, or had their gender insulted.

I never doubted that I was a boy, because such a thought had never been introduced to us – that boys might not really be boys.

But I at least once understood what it meant to not measure up to what other people think a boy ought to be.

Girls In Overalls

If you have Netflix, you might have seen To Kill a Mockingbird was just recently added, and hopefully, you’ve taken a couple of hours to rewatch it, like we did.

Did you notice how un-girl-like Scout is?

She hates wearing that dress to school. She’d rather be in overalls.

She picks fights on the playground. She’d rather be dirty and play rough with the boys.

And yet, there is never a question of Scout’s essential femaleness. She is just different from many of the girls in the neighborhood. She is clearly just a “tomboy,” although I don’t know if such a term is even politically correct anymore.

It never occurred to anyone in that era that a girl like Scout might not actually be a girl.

Have We Yet Made Room For All Kinds of Children?

The thing about our conversation on gender identity is that I think we are losing or forgetting or skipping over something important.

Girls like Scout might have been teased on the playground for not being “typical” girls. Just like boys who preferred to draw rather than play sports might have been teased.

But just as we started seeing formal social gender roles loosen, just as we saw Dads become more nurturing to kids and Moms have more chances to leave the house, the idea was introduced to us that a girl who doesn’t fit in with other girls might not actually be a girl, and a boy who doesn’t fit in with other boys might not actually be a boy.

Surely, there are people who truly do not feel that they were born in the right body.

But somewhere in our pursuit of understanding and inclusion, I am afraid we are also creating a negative permutation of gender identity that is regressive, that hearkens back to the old days of strict social norms. It says that if a boy doesn’t act like the boys around him or doesn’t make friends with other boys, or is made to feel like he is not much of a boy, then he might not actually be a boy.

If gender is just a social construct and not innate to us, then we have to look at the social forces that we were all exposed to on the playground, the forces that told us that we didn’t measure up, that we “played like a girl” or “acted like a boy” and made us question whether we really were what we thought we were.

I wonder what kind of counseling Scout Finch would receive if she were a child today. Do we still have room for boys and girls who don’t quite fit, or does our obsession with categorizing and labeling everyone demand that we all fit into a box?

That is why I just want my boy to know that there are many kinds of boys. If he doesn’t measure up to some other boys’ standards, it doesn’t make him any less “boy.” If I have a daughter who plays with trains and likes to get dirty, I want her to know that’s ok, and she doesn’t have to wear pink or worship princesses.

Children, you can be whatever kind of boy or girl God made you to be.

2 responses to “Playing Like a Girl” and Other Gender Identity Questions From the Playground

  1. Yes. Exactly. …and another reason to read “Why Gender Matters” by Dr. Sax [smile]. There are many different kinds of boys and many different expressions of femininity … and once we understand the differences between genders, we are free to help the diverse expressions of male and female do what God has called them to do.

    One of the guys I knew in high school had a higher voice and spoke with a lisp; as is typical for the world of public school, most of his classmates jeered him by calling him gay. I have no idea what his inner experience was, but it didn’t surprise me much when he “came out” a few years later … that social pressure has to go somewhere (or, perhaps, people were merely “calling a duck a duck” in the most mean, cruel, and miserable way possible — because “socialization” and stuff). Grace, my friends; may we all walk in grace and spread that to those around us.

    Luke Holzmann recently posted..Homeschooling Will Fail You If…

  2. I was a boy who didn’t fit in with other boys — unathletic, sensitive, relational — but I was absolutely a boy. I don’t mean to close the door on the idea that some people might feel like one sex while wearing the body of another. I know a woman in that situation. But I have to think that most people who don’t fit their gender’s stereotypes feel at home in the body they were assigned.

    I wish there had been more support in the 70s, when I was a boy, for being the kind of boy you were born to be, though. It was rough not being able to throw or catch a ball — indeed, not caring about throwing or catching. I’m glad the tide is turning today.
    Jim Grey recently posted..Signs along the Michigan Road Historic Byway in central Indiana