I spent the summer reflecting on the way our society rushes to meaning — our political dialogues are pre-constructed with two or three possible narratives and it often seems our only choice is to pick which one to espouse. We have no interest in nuance; we’re uncomfortable with paradox; and forget ambiguity! US public discourse often takes the form of a forced-choice exercise. As George W. Bush so famously said, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”)
The same holds true in other arenas as well. In the US, we want to know not only that something has meaning, but exactly what that meaning is.
For those of you familiar with the Enneagram, I am a type 4. Among other qualities, we 4s are the most attuned to symbolism and meaning of all the types. As a folklorist, I see humans as animals who tell stories to make meaning of their lives and world. With both these identities, sometimes it is quite challenging for me to write a blog that frequently advocates delaying assigning meaning, at least when it comes to gendered behavior.
I have a young son who loves to build things, has a real set of tools, wants to be an inventor, tears up the neighborhood on his Big Wheel, and does most of these things in pink, glittery shirts or dresses and leggings. Don’t get me wrong — every parent of a kid who crosses our incredibly strict cultural boundaries about gendered behavior would like to know “what it means.”
It’s hard for us to hold a huge space of possibility open for our children — being queer, transgender, straight with uncommon interests and tastes — without knowing what piece(s) of that space they may someday occupy. It’s hard to advocate for them with family, friends, schools, and religious organizations — some of whom are informed, enthusiastic supporters, some of whom are well-meaning but needing some education, and some of whom are convinced that shaming or hatred are the solution — without being able to answer their question, “What does it mean?”
It is particularly frustrating to find our children pushed toward particular “meanings” by groups we think of as being like-minded. Trans advocates who think we parents are in denial and preventing our children from successfully transitioning. Feminists who think little girls in hoodies and soccer cleats have internalized sexist beliefs about the relative values of men and women.
Here’s the problem — we have a bad habit of starting with the meanings we care about and then looking for subjects to inhabit those meanings. I always thought I would be an English professor until I took my first class in Literary Theory. In the class, we wrote every essay about the same novel, Wuthering Heights. One essay was from a Marxist perspective, one feminist, one Freudian, etc. It was fun play, and I was good at it. But I had always thought of literary theory as a tool to better understand a work of literature. I came to realize that modern literary theory uses written works as a tool to unpack, illuminate, or prove something about the theory itself. Literature’s complex, nuanced, elusive meanings are reduced to inhabiting the preset meanings of the theory at work.
This is what the sphere of public discourse does with conversations about gender as well. It is as if various groups have set up competing buckets at a carnival and they are all barking at me to throw my kid into theirs — “Over here! Over here! Boys in dresses should be encouraged to transition! Bring on the hormone blockers!” — “No, over here! Over here! Boys in dresses should be shamed back to normality! Uphold traditional gender roles!” — “Step right up! Over here! Why are you only talking about boys – what are you, anti-lesbian?”
Here’s the thing. My kid is not a tool. He’s a person – complex, nuanced, only partially known, even to himself, sometimes contradictory.
We can know that his personality and his life are rich with meaning, even if we don’t know what those meanings are yet. What we need to know is that it is not OUR role to assign his meanings to him.