Right now, Luis’ favourite book at our house is The Rainbow Bear. My girls loved it too, and I took it out from the book bin just before Christmas because I though that Lou was ready for the sad story of a bear who just wanted to be colourful, and lived out the downside of trying to be something you’re not, learning that each of us is supposed to be exactly as we are for things to work right. Maybe that was in my mind, or maybe it’s the winter grey that’s getting to me, but this weekend I sat myself down, and made my impending grandson a pair of bootees. I’d saved the leftovers from a pair of Rainbow socks a while back, with this exactly in mind. (Well, bootees in mind, but not bootees for my grandson. He was a sparkle in his mother’s eye when I saved it.)
I was totally right about the book. Luis loves it, and I was knitting the bootees on the subway a few days ago, feeling cheerful and happy about the whole thing, when a very nice lady sat down beside me and asked what I was making. I told her my daughter was expecting a baby, and that I was making bootees. “Oh, it’s a girl!” she chirped, and I paused for a second, and then said that it was a boy.
She looked at me for a minute, and I could tell that we were entering a fragile moment, one that we were going to disagree on, and this being Canada we’re good at disagreeing politely in public, and so she said “Goodness. Aren’t those a little… girly, for a boy?”
Now, since we are good at disagreeing in public, I did tell her what I thought, and I was gentle. “No” I said. “I don’t think it matters.” She looked at me for a minute, and she said “You’re right. He’ll be tiny. It won’t matter.” I looked at her for a second, and I said “Oh, I think it’s fine in general” and then she said this. “Of course – though when he’s bigger, you won’t want someone taking him for a girl.”
We didn’t go any further than that, it was the subway, after all. Here’s the thing though – I think what happened there was pretty sexist. Not the overt sort of sexism that’s wound up with women having a significant pay gap, or men still owning most of the property and having most of the money (despite women having most of the education, but that’s a fight for another post.) I mean – and let me be perfectly, absolutely, fantastically clear… I think that if you’re worried about what would happen if a boy is taken for a girl, then you’re sexist. It means that you have a plan – whether you’re aware of it or not. It means that you treat boys one way, and girls another, and that you think you need to know if a baby is a boy or a girl, and that there would be consequences of some kind if you got it wrong.
When someone says “What if they were taken for a girl?” It tells me right that minute that you think that would be a problem. You can say all you like, lady on the subway, that you think boys and girls are equal, but you’ve just revealed that you don’t think the same systems apply – and I’ll ask you this… What if? What if someone took my grandson for a girl? What if they absolutely took a look at this wee human with his gorgeous rainbow feet, and got his gender wrong, and treated him like a girl? What would happen then? What were you planning on doing differently?
If the answer is nothing, my commuting compatriot, then why do you need to know? I understand that there are problems here. That there are things that we think of as manly, and things that are feminine, and that there’s a whole great big system at work and it’s complicated, and hard to buck against, and I’m not saying that there aren’t families and parents where boys have to wear boy clothes, and girls have to wear girl clothes (and live with the fact that there are no goddamn pockets in the garb of the latter) and I am totally copping to the fact that from time to time, I feel the pressures of all of those things, but here we speak of bootees. Tiny socks for a tiny person, and wouldn’t it be so nice if we could just begin their time on this earth truly thinking for one little minute that the sort of socks that they wear won’t have a huge impact on what happens, and how people treat them?
On the other hand, we live in a world where girls make less money (globally, 60-75% less) hold less power, do a disproportionate amount of caregiving, and have a 1 in 4 chance (and that’s in North America) of being sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, and where someone who is about to be the President of the United States can talk about grabbing women’s privates because he’s powerful – and it will be dismissed by enough people as unimportant (or the way that men talk) that he will still win. So maybe, if I’m being kind… maybe the lady on the subway was just trying to keep our little human safe, because there are very real consequences to being a girl.
I now return you to your regularly scheduled knitting, rather apologetically.