The Casual Privilege of Conforming to Expectations

I first started thinking about conforming as a form of privilege when I was writing The Importance of Not Defining Normal for Other Children and realized how much easier it is, in many ways, to have a child who doesn’t push gender boundaries.

In very specific circles, having kids who buck gender norms is something that is desirable, even celebrated. But places where one feels like something of a failure for having kids who pretty much conform to their presumed gender norms are really not nearly as common as it can start to seem, living in a liberal enclave and cultivating a progressive parenting Facebook feed. Most places and most times, kids are highly rewarded for meeting people’s expectations based on their appearance, and are decidedly not rewarded, even punished, for failing to live up to those expectations. (I should note, for the record and relatively early on, here, that when I talk about “gender conforming” vs non, I am speaking of kids who are currently cis-gender – that is, they identify as the gender commonly associated with their biological sex, not kids who do not feel as if those traits match up. Nor do I think that simply not playing with toys that are commonly associated with their perceived gender makes kids anything other than (hopefully) happy. I would hope that last bit went without saying, but just in case.)

Those kids who do live up to expectations, be it boys who like sports (playing or watching) and dislike pink and purple and teal or girls who like to wear pink dresses and play with dolls and dislike watching (if not necessarily playing sports), just for a few examples, do experience a kind of social privilege that we don’t often think about. Being able to get an otherwise neutral toy, like say a push bike or a soccer ball in your favorite color is fun. Let’s face it, kids – like most people, really – like to have their preferences and tastes reinforced. Part of this is certainly socially reinforced, but that doesn’t make it less real in day-to-day life. It’s a lot easier for a girl who loves dolls and princesses (or at least rainbows and owls) than it is for one who loves trucks and baseball. And it’s certainly a lot easier for that first girl than it is for a boy who likes those same things.

That’s what privilege is – those things that make life a little, or a lot, easier. These privileges intersect, so a totally gender conforming kid might have other more salient ways in which they are so profoundly not privileged as to make that conformity largely irrelevant. For that matter, unlike most other things we think of as privilege, conformity is a moving target. The same preferences that might make a child’s (or their parents’) life easier in some situations, might not in others. Likewise, girls in particular, face double standards in which they are both rewarded and punished for conforming to what society tells them they should be. Heck, we can start with the idea that the very interests and preferences that they are told to love are then categorized as not normal and not globally desirable. Conform all you want, it’s still marginalizing to all women and girls when our culture defines the baseline for normal or neutral as inherently not-girly. In a culture where anything coded as remotely feminine or girly is considered lesser and undesirable for men and boys, while things coded masculine are generally considered fine, even desirable (if not actually available) for everyone, we do not have the kind of equality that allows for true neutrality. Removing pink and flowers in the interests of neutrality doesn’t cut it, yet, if ever. Because there’s nothing inherently wrong with pink or flowers or glitter or rainbows. In fact, most of those things – in a vacuum – are pretty cool.

At any rate, I’ve tried to be conscious, having had this revelation of conformity as privilege, of not pushing the cause of my relatively gender conforming children too strongly. It’s a fairly complicated notion, at its root, but I do feel like I’m engaging in a certain amount of #notallprincessgirls sometimes, certainly as I look critically at things like #nogenderdecember and wonder if it’s this casual privilege talking as much as my more logical reasonable side. In the end, I continue to think that this is in many ways all the same battle. Most children will fall in love with a little bit of everything, provided that we give them the option in their toy box. It is our job as parents to provide them with those options, no matter what color those toys are, and step back and let them play.

Emily Sexton

Writer of incomplete novels, entertainment lawyer, mom of two with a wide age spread, blogger here and elsewhere, wannabe vocalist and v/o actress, atheist, weirdo. That last bit went without saying. Find Em on twitter @emandink and maybe she'll use it more.

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