Gender neutrality (adjective form: gender-neutral), also known as gender-neutralism or the gender neutrality movement, describes the idea that policies, language, and other social institutions should avoid distinguishing roles according to people's sex or gender, in order to avoid discrimination arising from the impression that there are social roles for which one gender is more suited than another.
Proponents of gender neutrality may support public policies designed to eliminate gender distinctions, such as gender-neutral bathrooms, with public restrooms being available without distinguishing the gender of the person using them. It has been observed that gender neutrality in the law has changed the nature of custody disputes, making it more likely that men will be awarded custody of their children in the event of a divorce.
The legal definition of gender has been a controversial topic particularly to transgender people; in some countries in order to be legally defined as a new sex people must first undergo sterilization.
Biological gray areas in gender
An issue related to gender neutrality is the gray areas that exist in gender. Trying to legally define the boundaries of gender has proven a difficult issue with the existence of people who identify or who are identified by others as intersex, third gender, transgender and more generally genderqueer or non-binary.
Someone who identifies as gender blind takes the perspective of gender neutrality in everyday life. Similar to pansexuality, where the person is not necessarily totally gender blind, but in their sexual preference they make no distinction between the gender of their sexual partners.
Gender-neutral language, gender-inclusive language, inclusive language or gender neutrality is a form of linguistic prescriptivism that aims to eliminate (or neutralize) reference to gender in terms that describe people. This can involve discouragement of the use of gender-specific job titles, such as policeman/policewoman, fireman, stewardess, and, arguably, chairman, in favour of corresponding gender-neutral terms such as police officer, firefighter, flight attendant and chairperson (or chair). Other gender-specific terms, such as actor and actress, may be replaced by the originally male term (actor used for either gender).
The pronouns he or she may be replaced with they when the gender of the person referred to is unknown. Some also advocate for a gender-neutral pronoun to be used even when the sex of a person is known, in an effort to remove the alleged subconscious effects of language in reinforcing gender and gender stereotypes. In addition, those who do not identify as either female or male may use a gender-neutral pronoun to refer to themselves or have others refer to them.
Relationship to feminism and masculism
Gender neutrality emphasizes the equal treatment of men and women legally with no discrimination whatsoever. This goal is in principle shared with both feminists and masculists. However, in gender neutralism, the emphasis is on transcending the perspective of gender altogether rather than focusing on the rights of specific genders.
Relationship to transhumanism
Advocates of postgenderism argue that the presence of gender roles, social stratification, and cogno-physical disparities and differences are generally to the detriment of individuals and society. Given the radical potential for advanced assistive reproductive options, postgenderists believe that sex for reproductive purposes will either become obsolete, or that all post-gendered humans will have the ability, if they so choose, to both carry a pregnancy to term and father a child, which, postgenderists believe, would have the effect of eliminating the need for definite genders in such a society.
Marketing is often focused on targeting specific demographics and creates products focused on specific genders. Public views on gender-specific marketing have gained media attention in recent years, for example a protest against a bic pen "Bic for her" that was targeted towards women by the posting of thousands of fake reviews of the pen mocking its female-specific advertising.
In the marketing of children's toys, gender-specific marketing has been very prevalent, however popularity of making toy advertising gender neutral has been increasing such as ads showing boys playing with baby dolls (a toy that has commonly been marketed towards girls only in the past).
Some schools focus on promoting gender neutrality within the classroom. Teachers may be asked to refer to students without the use of gender pronouns, referring to them by their first names only or using gender-neutral pronouns such as the Swedish hen. Other attempts to encourage gender neutrality in schools have involved:
- not separating toys in gender-specific areas
- not having gender-specific sports in physical education lessons
- allowing for gender-neutral prom and homecoming attendance and courts to accommodate same-sex-coupled and transgender participants
- designating gender-neutral bathrooms and on-campus housing
- establishing gender-neutral and co-ed fraternal student organizations
In 2005, University of California, Riverside became the first public university campus in the US to offer a gender-neutral housing option. A February 2014 Washington Post article noted that nearly 150 US schools now have gender-neutral housing programs.
In 2016, La Salle University students voted to have a gender-neutral housing option in their dormitories, which would make La Salle the first Catholic university in the United States to offer gender-neutral living. This student-led vote caused controversy in Catholic circles across the United States, since it is traditional for Catholic school residence halls to be completely separated by gender.
Gender Neutral Parenting (GNP) does not project any gender onto a child. This belief is often confused with androgyny. GNP is about giving children the exposure to a variety of gender-types and allowing them to explore. A child does not have to display gender-bending behaviors in order to evoke GNP practices. Children who align with the expectations of gender can gain their own form of expression without having examples that are either extremely masculine or feminine; they will also be granted exposure to gender roles and be able to think critically about them at a young age. GNP involves the breaking away from the gender binary.
In children's literature
Gender neutrality in children's literature refers to the idea that publishers, writers and illustrators should avoid marketing towards children through the basis of their sex or gender, and should instead focus on expanding content rather than reinforcing social and gender roles. Gender roles and stereotypes permeate our culture and are established through a variety of means such as visual culture or daily interactions with family and peers. Topics of gender neutrality and gender performativity have been discussed in a broader sense amongst scholars such as Judith Butler in Undoing Gender and Gender Trouble in relation to other aspects of society such as in the case of David Reimer. In relation to children's marketing, gender neutrality is a growing movement amongst parents, children and publishers. Although there are many homes to gender stereotypes, the books that children are encountering have both psychological and social uses during a time when children are constantly constructing ideas from information around them and assimilating new knowledge with previous knowledge. Organizations such as Let Toys Be Toys, Let Books Be Books and Pinkstinks have been gaining publicity for their work in favour of gender neutrality within children's literature and toys.
Representations of gender within picture books
With the emphasis placed on children's literature today, especially the genre of the picture book, parental and feminist groups have been increasingly vocal on the social implications of gender-specific marketing and the limitations they impose on children. Scholars in children's literature, such as Martin Salisbury, have stated the importance on the picture book for early child development, regarding it as the first literature most children experience; taking the form of the narrative combining both word and image. As Sheila Egoff has stated in Thursday's Child: Trends and Patterns in Contemporary Children's Literature, "…the picture book, which appears to be the coziest and most gentle of genres, actually produces the greatest social and aesthetic tensions in the whole field of children's literature." Barbara Bader has also reflected on the form of the picture book, "A picture book is text, illustrations, total design; an item of manufacture and a commercial product; a social, cultural, historical document: and foremost an experience for a child. As an art form it hinges on the interdependence of pictures and words, on the simultaneous display of two facing pages, and on the drama of the turning page." Bader's comment serves to reinforce the importance of the picture book as a cultural and developmental tool, not only for children learning about themselves but the world around them as well.
Studies at Provider-Parent Partnerships have shown that children begin forming their sense of gender identity at 2–3 years old and begin 'Gender typing' at ages 3–4. In a study surrounding Gender Perception in Adults, Dr. Kyle Pruett reported: "A defining moment came in gender difference research when a group of male babies were dressed in pink, and then handed to adults who were told they were girls. The adults responded with language and handling styles shown to be classically female-stereotypic: "adorable, cuddly, sweet, cute," etc. Female babies in blue were called "slugger, tough, strong, stubborn," etc. This is how we simply wind up reinforcing gender-stereotypic behaviors, rather than fostering individual growth and development."
The concept of a child developing their sense of self in formative years has been a topic of discussion amongst cultural theorists as well as in children's literature criticism. In The Pleasures of Children's Literature, Shulamith Shahar states, "Child raising practices and educational methods as well as parent-child relation are determined not solely by biological laws but are also culturally constructed".
Theorists such as Jacques Lacan and Judith Butler have contributed to this notion of the formation of an individual's subjectivity and sense of self. Lacan's concept of the mirror stage has contributed to modern understanding of subjectivity and has since been applied to Children's Literature Criticism and child development. The Mirror Stage refers to the process in which an infant recognizes itself in the mirror for the first time and, "the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image…" As Hamida Bosmajian has stated in Understanding Children's Literature, "The literary text, then, is an image of the unconscious structured like a language." Bosmajian proceeds to write, "When the [Mirror Stage] is given utterance in the reader-interpreter's language, [the meaning] is deferred."
Judith Butler's notion of gender performativity also forms correlations to gender-specific children's literature through analyzing the ways characters perform their gender and has been taken up in Children's literature criticism. Butler has defined gender performativity stating: "the production actually happens through a certain kind of repetition and recitation." Butler also relays that, "Performativity is the discursive mode by which ontological effects are installed." Although Butler's subject is the adult subject the concept of repetition transcends to themes of childhood as well. Both Butler and Lacan consider repetition as being an underlying factor in forming one's identity which can then be applied to children's literature through the act of children rereading books multiple times.
Studies in representation in children's literature
Gender imbalances have continued to appear in children's literature through the lack of diverse representations. In the 2011 issue of Gender & Society, the study "Gender in Twentieth-Century Children's Books" discovered large disparities. Through looking at almost 6,000 children's books published between 1900 and 2000, the study, led by Janice McCabe, a professor of sociology at Florida State University, found that males are central characters in 57% of children's books published each year, with just 31% having female central characters. Male animals are central characters in 23% of books per year, the study found, while female animals star in only 7.5%. In putting forth these narrow representations of characters, it becomes difficult for a child to identify themselves within gender binaries and roles. In an earlier study in 1971, out of fifty-eight books, twenty-five had a picture of a woman somewhere in them, yet only four did not having a woman (or animal representing a woman) wearing an apron. Many parents read their own childhood favourites to their children, through an endearing plot, or through beautiful illustrations. Although the adult may recognize that the stereotypes may be outdated, the children may lack that criticality in reading these stories. Furthering this portrayal of gender in children's books the ways in which each gender is portrayed is very different. Female characters are much more likely to take on passive and supportive roles whereas male characters fulfill a self-sufficient, strong and active role. This discriminatory portrayal takes place in many children's books and runs the risk of leading children toward a misrepresented and misguided realization of their true potential in their expanding world.
Not only are these inequalities present within the books, but gender disparities also exist amongst those creating children's books. In the 2013 Vida: Women in Literary Arts count, male authors and illustrators drastically outnumbered those who were female (64:21).
In children's literature in the media
In March 2014, the British organization, Let Toys Be Toys, expanded to include a children's book specific category, Let Books Be Books. This expansion specifically addressed gender specific titles on books such as The Beautiful Girl's Colouring Book and The Brilliant Boys Colouring Book and the limitations in which these titles impose upon children. As Katy Guest stated in an article for the Independent in March 2014, after Let Books Be Books launched, "What we are doing by pigeon-holing children is badly letting them down. And books, above all things, should be available to any child who is interested in them." As the organization Let Toys Be Toys states, "Just like labelling toys 'for girls' or 'for boys' these books send out very limiting messages to children about what kinds of things are appropriate for girls or for boys."
The organization quickly gained momentum and almost immediately acquired over 3000 signatures for their petition causing publishers Parragon and Usborne to lend their support and stop publishing gender specific children's books. In November 2014, publishers of Peter and Jane Books, Ladybird Books agreed to make titles gender neutral stating: 'At Ladybird, we certainly don't want to be seen to be limiting children in any way."
Publishers such as Igloo Books and Buster Books continue to publish gender-specific children's books. In an interview in March 2014 Buster Editor Michael O'Mara stated: "The proof is in the pudding. Our two best children books ever are The Boys' Book and The Girls' Book. The boys' one included things like how to make a bow and arrow and how to play certain sports and you'd get things about style and how to look cool in the girls' book. 2,000 people signed this petition [in the first day], but we sold 500,000 copies of The Girls' Book. These statistics tell me I'm going in the right direction."
In a letter in response to this interview Let Books Be Books expressed the following concerns to Michael O'Mara: "We have been contacted by many parents, teachers and supporters who have serious concerns about several of the titles currently on your website and being marketed in shops across the UK. They believe, as we do, that labelling books by gender narrows children's choices and imaginations by telling them what they 'should' be reading, instead of letting them choose books that interest them."
List of gender neutral children's literature
Although there are many examples of gender neutral children's literature, the following list contains a few notable examples.
- John Dough and the Cherub – L. Frank Baum
- Black Dog – Levi Pinfold
- How To – Julie Morstad
- How to Heal a Broken Wing – Bob Graham
- Little You – Richard Van Camp & ill. Julie Flett
- One Night, Far From Here – Julia Wauters
- Once Upon a Northern Night – Jean E. Pendziwol & ill. Isabelle Arsenault
- Ruby's School Walk – Kathryn White & ill. Miriam Latimer
- Samuel's Baby – Mark Elkin & ill. Amy Wummer
- Spork – Kyo Maclear & ill. Isabelle Arsenault
- Super Daisy – Kes Gray & ill. Nick Sharratt
- The Big Brother – Stephanie Dagg & ill. Alan Clarke
- The King & the Seed – Eric Maddern & ill. Paul Hess
- The Sunflower Sword – Mark Sperring & ill. Mirian Latimer
- We Go Together!: A Curious Selection of Affectionate Verse – Calef Brown
- Wild – Emily Hughes
- Call Me Tree – Maya Christina González
In 2006 the National Student Genderblind Campaign was created as a collaborative grassroots organization intended to educate college students, administrators, and others throughout the United States. The NSGC advocates for the implementation of gender-inclusive dorm room and bathroom options.
Twin sisters Emma Moore and Abi Moore founded a campaign, Pinkstinks, in London in May 2008 to raise awareness of the damage caused by gender stereotyping of children. Pinkstinks claims that the marketing of gender-specific products to young children encourages girls to limit their ambitions later in life.
In February 2014, a former catering worker Valeria Jones sued their employer Bon Appetit Management Co. in Oregon for US$518,000 after co-workers repeatedly referred to Jones as female. Jones identified as "not a female or a male and that the term was unwelcome."
- Gender binary
- Gender-specific and gender-neutral pronouns
- Unisex public toilet
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