Gender and sexuality research, in all its myriad forms and specific subject matters, appears to uniformly circle around a core issue never defined, or unanswered due to the inherent difficulty of it; namely, the question of where innate gender behaviors begin and cultural influences end. Certainly, vast research supports that cultures play inestimable roles in shaping individual and collective concepts regarding gender and sexuality. More elusive, however, is distinguishing the imperatives behind these forces. Is the culture perhaps merely reflecting biological and genetic determinants, or its influence so pervasive, it virtually creates the gender and sexual roles known to it? Not unexpectedly, assessing differentiation at the earliest ages would seem to better uncover the realities, and two works do precisely this. Emily Kane’s The Gender Trap explores parental influences on molding gender identities in children from infancy on, while C. J. Pascoe’s Dude, You’re a Fag examines the complex structure of shaping – and assaulting – masculine identity in the pivotal years of adolescence. While neither work provides an answer as to culture being a reflective or ancillary and external power, each affirms the inescapable reality that social models have an incalculable and multifaceted effect on how children and adolescents assume distinct gender and sexual identities.
Initial “Training” in Differentiation
As Kane’s book makes abundantly clear, parents are the first and most potent providers of gender role information for their children, and on multiple levels. She is, moreover, empowered to affirm this foundation to her work by the limitless evidences well-known to society traditionally and still very much in play today. Female babies are referred to in traditionally “soft” terminology and treated, generally speaking, as more fragile; baby boys are from the start perceived as “little men,” with a host of masculine expectations attached and consequently promoted by a different mode of upbringing. This prompts Kane’s research, which seeks to examine the various ways in which parents negotiate gender identity for their children, and the author does not fail to differentiate herself between types of parenting emphasizing stronger beliefs in the importance of social conformity, or of biological determinants not fully known and often antithetical to cultural norms.
Based on extensive interviews, for example, Kane creates five models of parenting, ranging from the “naturalizers” who believe that social roles reflect biological imperatives, to the “innovators” who deliberately defy gender stereotypes in their parenting (Kane, 2012, pp. 11-12). Admirably, she notes distinctions and gradations within these parenting styles, including those parents who acknowledge social pressures and conform despite misgivings. Then, Kane appears highly supportive of those parents attempting to challenge stereotypical rearing patterns; both mothers and fathers in her research frequently espouse gender-neutral activities or intentionally defy conventions, as in giving sons dolls, and Kane seems to approve of these efforts. Nonetheless, she also consistently notes the pervasive power of heteronormativity: “Heterosexual fathers seem to play a central role in the enforcement of hegemonic masculinity” (p. 207). The author essentially moves from style to style, observing shifts in parental intent as well as in parental concerns regarding their children’s potential issues if norms are too blatantly discarded, particularly as affecting the child’s teen years.
Essentially, Kane’s work is enlightening and of great value, in that a modern appraisal of how and why parents shape their children’s gender identities is intrinsically revelatory, and helpful in comprehending adult behaviors. Nonetheless, the author pursues an agenda here, made evident from the start; namely, Kane’s impetus is to uncover how parents may be influential in promoting the gender roles which persist in denying women opportunity. This is her foundational concern: “The gender wage gap and the motherhood penalty foster women’s economic dependence on men” (Kane, 2012, p. 4). While important, it also deviates from a greater urgency, that of better understanding the normative behaviors as cyclically encouraged by parents or as norms biologically prompted, at least to some extent, and thus only reinforced by parents. Put another way, Kane is in effect only topically addressing her issue, as parents may well be acting under influences beyond their own control. This is not to suggest that genetics alone determine gender and sexual identity, and that boys and girls inevitably assume roles to be naturally encouraged by their parents. It is far more probable that a psychodynamic explanation, one in which environment and biology interact, is the dominant force, as the work of Lawrence Kohlberg asserts (Meyer, 2010, p. 42). Children learn gender from multiple sources, just as the parents influence the media and cultural presences among them, yet it seems unwise to discount potentials of biological factors. Ultimately, Kane focuses on a single and important component in how gender identity is shaped, but the issue remains of how valuable any such focus may be when her primary agents, the parents, may be acting in an interpretative, rather than authoritative, manner.
“The Perfect Storm”: Adolescence and Masculinity
It is difficult to conceive of a more volatile field of study than that of how adolescents negotiate masculinity in high school settings. This is the task, however, Pascoe sets for herself, and she presents an analysis that is suitably complex. The important factor of race, for example, is interestingly observed by the author as creating different meanings within the adolescent male construction of masculinity. Black boys, it seems, are more prone to emphasize behaviors and modes of dress white boys view as feminine concerns, and because the black culture attaches a specific masculinity to dance and dressing in stylish ways Pascoe speculates that the cultural imposition or perception of black males as hypersexualized may partially account for this deviation of the male norm. At the same time, and in a fascinating sidebar, it is observed that black male youths are frequently more aggressive in intent when they themselves employ the “fag” epithet, implying that femininity, defined in a different way from white conceptions or otherwise, is a more heinous behavior (2007, p. 76). Throughout the entire work, also, Pascoe admirably employs that epithet as a defining instrument, much as do the adolescent boys of his research. It is, essentially, a primal component in how these males both create and negotiate sexual identities for themselves, and further reinforce the masculine roles seen as necessary for adulthood.
With regard to specific concepts of sexual identity as evolving in these arenas and reflecting shifts in “masculine” thinking, Pascoe’s work is revelatory in many ways. It appears, for example, that adolescent boys are virtually reshaping cultural definitions, as “fag” itself increasingly refers, not to homosexuality, but an unacceptable surrendering of maleness; is is effeminacy, not sexuality, that is the perceived offense (p. 59). There are as well myriad explorations or affirmations of behaviors not unknown, but perhaps more prevalent than is usually believed. For example, the boys interviewed involved in weight-lifting uniformly assert that being “big” is important because it affirms manliness, and this is necessary within an all-male collective (p. 179). Perhaps most interesting, however, is how “fag” carries with it multiple dimensions. It is insult, warning, affectionate teasing, and means of policing. Given the inherently turbulent nature of these years in terms of emerging sexuality, it is in effect the ideal tool enabling boys to continually assess the sexual identities of themselves and others.
The depth of the work notwithstanding, certain elements are absent, one of which reflects the lack in Kane’s work. Even as Pascoe laboriously documents the tribal ways in which adolescent males employ “fag,” she falls short in investigating any reasons for this beyond the immediately social. More exactly, the book strongly suggests that there may be gender imperatives by no means restricted to modern and/or Western cultures, as the behaviors of the boys reflects, again, seemingly tribal motivations. This would indicate some biological influence. Then, as revealed here, there is clearly a dread of effeminacy within the high school male population, yet it is more interesting that it is detached from homosexual activity as such. This appears to echo other societies in which homosexual activity is anticipated in adolescent boys, and as a “rite of passage” before assuming the adult, correct heterosexual roles (Bjorklund, Basli, 2011, p. 635).
The masculine identity, then, is distanced from orientation in both circumstances, and it is unfortunate that Pascoe does not view her subject in this broader context. Like Kane, she presents solid work on gender differentiation and identity development, but through a focus essentially too narrow to be satisfying.
Certainly, research into how gender role and sexual identities are shaped in children and adolescents will be ongoing. Then, it is unreasonable to fault research that explores specific aspects of the subject, as Kane’s and Pascoe’s does. It is inescapable that gender itself is so dimensional and crucial a factor in human life itself, new insights and theories must be developed and investigated. It is to be hoped that future work centers on efforts to uncover the more basic determinants, and better comprehend how culture both influences roles and is influenced by biological forces. Neither The Gender Trap nor Dude, You’re a Fag takes this course. Nonetheless, each has value, as each supports the reality that social models have an incalculable and multifaceted influence on how children and adolescents assume distinct gender and sexual identities.
Bjorklund, B. F., & Blasi, C. H. (2011). Child and Adolescent Development: An Integrated Approach. Belmont: Cengage Learning.
Kane, E. W. (2012). The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls. New York: New York University Press.
Meyer, E. :L. (2010). Gender and Sexual Diversity in Schools: An Introduction. New York: Springer.
Pascoe, C. J. (2007). ‘Dude, You’re a Fag’: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Berkeley: University of California Press.