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What Little Girls and Boys Are Made Of : GENDER SHOCK: Exploding the Myths of Male & Female. By Phyllis Burke (Anchor Books: $23.95, 308 pp.)

August 18, 1996|Robert Dawidoff | Robert Dawidoff is the co-author with Michael Nava of "Created Equal: Why Gay Rights Matter to America." His collection "White Liberalism: Is There Any Other Kind? and Other Essays" will be published next year

Public discourse is rife with calls to return to traditional family values. These share the conviction that what has gone wrong with American moral life can be blamed on the feminists, who first sponsored the awareness that there really is a distinction between sex and gender. In response, such groups as the Promise Keepers, the Nation of Islam and the Christian Right and such New Age gurus as Marianne Williamson and Robert Bly call for a return to a social order that consistently reflects an absolute biological distinction between male and female.

Phyllis Burke's indispensable, smart and lucid "Gender Shock" presents a radically sensible alternative to these sexual reactionaries.

The problem, Burke argues, is not that our society has gone too far in understanding gender but that it has not gone far enough. She argues that masculine and feminine constitute a faulty dualism that ignores the evidence of nature, one that depends on suppressing all sorts of individual variations in the name of dangerous social goals.

As an argument and as a book, "Gender Shock" is a landmark. Its evidence and argument may disturb one's complacency, but it is a model of rational, careful and reasonable investigation. Burke also happens to be a terrific writer. The excellence and clarity of her prose have resulted in a book, unlike so many on the subject, that does not distract the reader from its momentous subject with bombast, pedantry or obscurity.

Burke became aware of the continuing difficulties of gender as the lesbian mother of a son. Worrying about what her gender/sexual orientation might mean to her son's healthy development forced her to confront how much of culture's gender stereotypes furnished even her mind. This concern led Burke to select the subject of gender complications in child-rearing as her focus.

Shrewdly, Burke saw that the ways in which society and its medical establishments treat children whose demeanor and behavior challenge our conventional wisdom of what little girls and boys are made of would make a revealing template of how society acts to establish and police gender borders. "Gender Shock" is divided into sections on "behavior" "appearance" and "science." "Behavior" is an unblinking report on how society defines gender identity disorder in children, repressing the spontaneity with which children violate our gender taboos. She examines several cases of children whose behavior was seen to indicate an inappropriate gender identity ("gender identity disorder") and some of the numerous and federally funded studies of these children. Her account of the medical professionals and behavioral scientists who work with them is riveting and horrifying.

As Burke says, all of us are taught in early childhood "that there is something we are able to do, but are forbidden, because of our sex. Every child has this experience, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. It is a moment when the mind stops, experiencing a break in time, as a crucial facet of our identity is socially decreed; our behavior, or gender role, is determined by our sex, or body. Although the assigned gender role is declared absolute, definite, permanent and immutable, most of us secretly do not believe in every aspect of the role."

Burke never raises her pitch to the rhetorical. She describes what our scientists have done to children in the name of gender conformity, amounting to a campaign of terror against selected girls and boys; she shows how disingenuous, unscientific and faulty these experiments, surveys and treatments are. "It is typical of this field that when the study does not have the expected results, the results are considered unreliable and the study is redesigned." She shames the participants into rambling and confusing self-justifications.

Burke does not shy away from the simple and pervasive source of this horror: the social need for an absolute bipolar heterosexual gender order. She shows how appearance is another means by which gender stereotyping is enforced, how attractiveness determines more about opportunity and good fortune in our society than we realize and how attractiveness is in its turn determined by rigid gender hierarchies. In order for boys and girls to grow up into men and women, it is necessary to terrorize those children whose individuality is more powerful than gender conventions. They must be sacrificed to the myth of simple gender differentiation.

Perhaps it is worth saying at this point that Burke believes in male and female; what she questions is the exclusivity of this bipolar understanding of sex and the insistence of some on constructing and enforcing masculine and feminine. Burke shows how irrational and inhumane the gender policing system is in its invasive pseudo-scientific attempts to persecute children whose deviance and mental illness amount to playing with the wrong toys or wearing the wrong clothes.

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