This wonderful story on the social construction of gender is a MUST-READ for everyone.
A Fabulous Child’s Story
by Lois Gould
Once upon a time, a baby named X was born. This baby was named X so that nobody could tell whether it was a boy or a girl. Its parents could tell, of course, but they couldn’t tell anybody else. They couldn’t even tell Baby X at first.
You see, it was all part of a very important Secret Scientific Xperiment, known officially as Project Baby X. The smartest scientists had set up this Xperiment at a cost of Xactly 23 billion dollars and 72 cents, which might seem like a lot for just one baby, even a very important Xperimental baby. But when you remember the prices of things like strained carrots and stuffed bunnies, and popcorn for the movies and booster shots for camp, let alone 28 shiny quarters from the tooth fairy, you begin to see how it adds up.
Also, long before Baby X was born, all those scientists had to be paid to work out the details of the Xperiment, and to write the Official Instruction Manual for Baby X’s parents and, most important of all, to find the right set of parents to bring up Baby X. These parents had to be selected very carefully. Thousands of volunteers had to take thousands of tests and answer thousands of tricky questions. Almost everybody failed because, it turned out, almost everybody really wanted either a baby boy or a baby girl, and not Baby X at all. Also, almost everybody was afraid that a Baby X would be a lot more trouble than a boy or a girl. (They were probably right, the scientists admitted, but Baby X needed parents who wouldn’t mind the Xtra trouble.)
There were families with grandparents named Milton and Agatha, who didn’t see why the baby couldn’t be named Milton or Agatha instead of X, even if it was an X. There were families with aunts who insisted on knitting tiny dresses and uncles who insisted on sending tiny baseball mitts. Worst of all, these were families that already had other children who couldn’t be trusted to keep the secret. Certainly not if they knew the secret was worth 23 billion dollars and 72 cents – and all you had to do was take one little peek at Baby X in the bathtub to know if it was a boy or girl.
But, finally, the scientists found the Joneses, who really wanted to raise an X more than any other kind of baby – no matter how much trouble it would be. Ms. and Mr. Jones had to promise they would take equal turns caring for X, and feeding it, and singing it lullabies. And they had to promise never to hire any baby-sitters. The government scientists knew perfectly well that a baby-sitter would probably peek at X in the bathtub, too.
The day the Joneses brought their baby home, lots of friends and relatives came over to see it. None of them knew about the secret Xperiment, though. So the first thing they asked was what kind of a baby X was. When the Joneses smiled and said, “It’s an X,” nobody knew what to say. They couldn’t say, “Look at her cute little dimples!” And they couldn’t say, “Look at his husky little biceps!” And they couldn’t even say just plain “kitchycoo”. In fact, they all thought the Joneses were playing some kind of rude joke.
But of course, the Joneses were not joking. “It’s an X” was absolutely all they would say. And that made the friends and relatives very angry. The relatives all felt embarrassed about having an X in the family. “People will think there’s something wrong with it!” some of them whispered. “There is something wrong with it!” others whispered back.
“Nonsense!” the Joneses told them all cheerfully. “What could possibly be wrong with this perfectly adorable X?”
Nobody could answer that, except Baby X, who had just finished its bottle. Baby X’s answer was a loud, satisfied BURP!
Clearly, nothing at all was wrong. Nevertheless, none of the relatives felt comfortable about buying a present for a Baby X. The cousins who sent the baby a tiny football helmet would not come and visit anymore. And the neighbours who sent a pink-flowered romper suit pulled their shades down when the Joneses passed their house. The Official Instruction Manual had warned the new parents that this would happen, so they didn’t fret about it. Besides, they were too busy with Baby X and the hundreds of different Xercises for treating it properly.
Ms. and Mr. Jones had to be Xtra careful about how they played with little X. They knew that if they kept bouncing it up in the air and saying how strong and active it was, they’d be treating it more like a boy than an X. But if all they did was cuddle it and kiss it and tell it how sweet and dainty it was, they’d be treating it more like a girl than an X.
On page 1654 of the Official Instruction Manual, the scientists prescribed: “plenty of bouncing and plenty of cuddling, both, X ought to be strong and sweet and active. Forget about dainty altogether”.
Meanwhile, the Joneses were worrying about other problems. Toys, for instance, and clothes. On his first shopping trip, Mr. Jones told the store clerk, “I need some clothes and toys for my new baby”. The clerk smiled and said, “Well now, is it a. boy or a girl”
“It’s an X”, Mr Jones said, smiling back. But the clerk got all red in the face and said huffily, “In that case, I’m afraid I can’t help you, sir”.
So Mr Jones wandered helplessly up and down the aisles trying to find out what X needed. But everything in the store was piled up in sections marked “Boys” or “Girls”.
There were “Boy’s’ Pyjamas” and “Girls’ Underwear” and “Boys’ Fire Engines” and “Girl’s Housekeeping Sets”. Mr. Jones went home without buying anything for X. That night he and Ms. Jones consulted page 2326 of the Official Instruction Manual. “Buy plenty of everything”, it said firmly.
So they bought plenty of sturdy blue pyjamas in the Boys’ Department and cheerful flowered underwear in the Girls’ Department. And they bought all kinds of toys. A boy doll that made pee-pee and cried, “Pa-pa”. And a girl doll that talked in three languages and said “I am the Pres-i-dent of Gen-er-al Mo-tors”. They also bought a story-book about a brave princess who rescued a handsome prince from his ivory tower, and another one about a sister and brother who grew up to be a baseball star and a ballet star, and you had to guess which was which.
The head scientists of Project Baby X checked all their purchases and told them to keep up the good work. They also reminded the Joneses to see page 4629 of the Manual, where it said: “Never make Baby X feel embarrassed or ashamed about what it wants to play with. And if X gets dirty climbing rocks, never say “Nice little Xes don’t get dirty climbing rocks.”
Likewise, it said: “If X falls down and cries, never say, “Brave little Xes don’t cry”. Because of course, nice little Xes do get dirty, and brave little Xes do cry. No matter how dirty X gets, or how hard it cries, don’t worry. It’s all part of the Xperiment.”
Whenever the Joneses pushed Baby X’s stroller in the park, smiling strangers would come over and coo: “Is that a boy or a girl?” The Joneses would smile back and say, “It’s an X”. The strangers would stop smiling then, and often snarl something nasty – as if the Joneses had snarled at them.
By the time X grew big enough to play with other children, the Jones’ troubles had grown bigger too. Once a little girl grabbed X’s shovel in the sandbox and zonked X on the head with it.
“Now, now, Tracy”, the little girl’s mother began to scold, “little girls mustn’t hit little -” and she turned to ask X, “Are you a little boy or a little girl, dear?”
Mr. Jones, who was sitting near the sandbox, held his breath and crossed his fingers.
X smiled politely at the lady, even though X’s head had never been zonked so hard in all its life. “I’m a little X”, X replied.
“You’re a what ?” the lady exclaimed angrily. “You’re a little B.R.A.T., you mean”.
“But little girls mustn’t hit little Xes, either!” said X, retrieving the shovel with another polite smile. “What good does hitting do, anyway?”
X’s father, who was still holding his breath, finally let it out, uncrossed his fingers and grinned back at X.
And at their next secret Project Baby X meeting, the scientists grinned too. Baby X was doing fine.
But then it was time for X to start school. The Joneses were really worried about this, because school was even more full of rules for boys and girls and there were no rules for Xes. The teachers would tell boys to form one line, and girls to form another line. There would be boys’ games and girls’ games and boys’ secrets and girls’ secrets. The school library would have a list of recommended books for girls and a different list of recommended books for boys. There would even be a bathroom marked BOYS and another marked GIRLS. Pretty soon boys and girls would hardly talk to each other. What would happen to poor little X!
The Joneses spent weeks consulting their Instruction Manual (there were 246 and 1/2 pages of advice under “First Day at School”), and attending urgent special conferences with the smart scientists of Project Baby X.
The scientists had to make sure that X’s mother had taught X how to throw and catch a ball properly and that X’s father had been sure to teach X what to serve at a doll’s tea party. X had to know how to shoot marbles and how to jump rope, and most of all, what to say when the other children asked whether X was a boy or a girl.
Finally, X was ready.
The Joneses helped X button on a nice new pair of red-and-white checked overalls, and sharpened six pencils for X’s nice new pencil box and marked X’s name clearly on all the books in its nice new book bag. X brushed its teeth and combed its hair, which just about covered its ears and remembered to put a napkin in its lunchbox.
The Joneses had asked X’s teacher if the class could line up alphabetically, instead of forming separate lines for boys and girls. And they had asked if X could use the principal’s bathroom, because it wasn’t marked anything except “BATHROOM”. X’s teacher promised to take care of all those problems. But nobody could help X with the biggest problem of all – other children.
Nobody in X’s class had ever known an X before. What would they think? How would X make friends?
You couldn’t tell what X was by studying its clothes – overalls don’t even button right-to-l eft, like girls’ clothes or left-to-right, like boys’ clothes. And you couldn’t guess whether X lad a girls’ short haircut or a boy’s long haircut. And it was very hard to tell by the games X liked to play. Either X played ball very well for a girl, or else X played house very well for a boy.
Some of the children tried to find out by asking (tricky questions, like “Who’s your favourite sports star?” That was easy. X had two favourite sport stars: a girl jockey named Robyn Smith and a boy archery champion lamed Robin Hood. Then they asked, what’s your favourite television programme?” And hat was even easier. X’s favourite television programme was “lassie” which stars a girl dog played by a boy dog.
Then X said that its favourite toy was a doll, everyone decided that X must be a girl. But hen X said that the doll was really a robot, and that X had computerised it, and that it was programmed to bake fudge brownies and then clean up the kitchen. After X told them that, the Other Children gave up guessing what X was. All they knew was they’d sure like to see X’s doll.
After school, X wanted to play with the other children.
“How about shooting some baskets in the gym?” X asked all the girls. But all they did was make faces and giggle behind X’s back. “How about weaving some baskets in the arts and crafts room?” X asked the boys. But they all made faces and giggled behind X’s back, too.
That night, Ms. and Mr. Jones asked X how things had gone at school. X told them sadly that the lessons were okay, but otherwise school was a terrible place for an X. It seemed as if Other Children would never want an X for a friend.
Once more, the Joneses reached for their Instruction Manual. Under “Other Children”, they found the following message: “What did you Xpect? Other Children have to obey all the silly boy-girl rules, because their parents taught them to. Lucky X – you don’t have to stick to the rules at all! All you have to do is be yourself. We’re not saying if it be easy.”
X liked being itself. But X cried a lot that night, partly because it felt afraid. So X’s father held X tight and cuddled it and couldn’t help crying a little too. And X’s mother cheered them both up by reading an Xciting story about an enchanted prince called Sleeping Handsome, who woke up when Princess Charming kissed him.
The next morning, they all felt much better and little X went back to school with a brave smile and a clean pair of red-and-white checked overalls.
There was a seven-letter-word spelling bee in class that day. And a seven-lap boys’ relay race in the gym. And a seven-layer-cake baking contest in the girls’ kitchen corner. X won the spelling bee. X also won the relay race. And X almost won the baking contest, except it forgot to light the oven. Which only proves that nobody’s perfect.
One of the Other Children noticed something else, too. He said: “Winning or losing doesn’t seem to count to X. X seems to have fun being good at boys’ skills and girls’ skills”.
“Come to think of if, said another of the Other Children, “maybe X is having twice as much fun as we are.”
So after school that day, the girl who beat X at the baking contests gave X a big slice of her prizewinning cake. And the boy X beat in the relay race asked X to race him home.
From then on, some really funny things began to happen. Susie, who sat next to X in class, suddenly refused to wear pink dresses to school any more. She insisted on wearing red-and-white checked overalls – just like X’s overalls, she told her parents, were much better for climbing monkey bars.
Then Jim, the class football nut, started wheeling his little sister’s doll carriage around the football field. He’d put on his entire football uniform, except for the helmet. Then he put the helmet in the carriage, lovingly tucked under an old set of shoulder pads. Then he started jogging around the field, pushing the carriage and singing “Rock a bye Baby” to his football helmet. He told his family that X did the same thing, so it must be okay. After all, X was now the team’s star quarter-back.
Susie’s parents were horrified by her behaviour, and Jim’s parents were worried sick about his. But the worst came when the twins, Joe and Peggy, decided to share everything with each other. Peggy used Joe’s hockey skates, and his microscope, and took half his newspaper route. Joe used Peggy’s needlepoint kit, Peggy started running the lawn mower and Joe started running the vacuum cleaner.
Their parents weren’t one bit pleased with Peggy’s wonderful biology experiments, or with Joe’s terrific needlepoint pillows. They didn’t care that Peggy mowed the lawn better, and that Joe vacuumed the carpet better. In fact they were furious.
It’s all that little X’s fault, they agreed. Just because X doesn’t know what it is, or what it’s supposed to be, it wants to get everybody else mixed up, too! Peggy and Joe were forbidden to play with X anymore. So was Susie, and then Jim, and then all the Other Children. But it was too late; the Other Children stayed mixed up and happy and free, and refused to go back to the way they’d been before X.
Finally, Joe and Peggy’s parents decided to call an emergency meeting of the school’s Parents’ Association, to discuss “The X Problem”. They sent a report to the principal stating that X was a “disruptive influence”.
They demanded immediate action. The Joneses, they said, should be forced to tell whether X was a boy or a girl. And then X should be forced to behave like whichever it was. If the Joneses refused to tell, the Parents’ Association said, then X must take an Xaminiation. The school Psychiatrist must Xamine it physically and mentally and issue a full report. If X’s test showed it was a boy, it would have to obey all the boys’ rules. If it proved to be a girl, X would have to obey all the girls’ rules, and if X turned out to be some kind of mixed up misfit, then X should be Xpelled from the school. Immediately!
The Principal was very upset. Disruptive influence? Mixed-up misfit? But X was an Xcellent student. All the teachers said it was a delight to have X in their classes. X was President of the student council. X had won First prize in the talent show and second prize in the art show and honourable mention in the science fair and six athletic events on field day, including the potato race.
Nevertheless, insisted the Parents’ Association, X is a Problem Child. X is the Biggest Problem Child we have ever seen!
So the Principal reluctantly notified X’s parents that numerous complaints about X’s behaviour had come to the school’s attention. And that after the Psychiatrist’s Xaminiation, the school would decide what to do about X.
The Joneses reported this at once to the scientists, who referred them to page 85759 of the I nstruction Manual. “Sooner or later,” it said, “X will have to be Xamined by a Psychiatrist. This may be the only way any of us will know for sure whether X is mixed up or whether everyone else is”.
The night before X was to be Xamined, the Joneses tried not to let X see how worried they were.
“What if” Mr. Jones would say. And Ms. Jones would reply, “No use worrying”.
Then a few minutes later, Ms. Jones would say, “What if” and Mr. Jones would reply, “No use worrying”.
X just smiled at them both, and hugged them hard and didn’t say much of anything. X was thinking, What if? And then X thought: No use worrying.
At Xactly 9 o’clock the next day, X reported to the school Psychiatrist’s office. The Principal, along with a committee from the Parents’ Association, X’s teacher, X’s classmates and Ms. and Mr. Jones waited in the hall outside. Nobody knew the details of the tests X was to be given, but everybody knew they’d be very hard, and that they’d reveal Xactly what everyone wanted to know about X, but was afraid to ask.
It was terribly quiet in the hall. Almost spooky! Once in a while, they would hear a strange noise inside the room. There were buzzes. And a beep or two, and several bells. An occasional light would flash under the door. The Joneses thought it was a white light, but the Principal thought it was blue. Two or three children swore it was either yellow or green. And the Parents’ Committee missed it completely.
Through it all, you could hear the Psychiatrist’s low voice, asking hundreds of questions, and X’s higher voice, answering hundreds of answers. The whole thing took so long that everyone knew it must be the most complete Xaminiation anyone had ever had to take. Poor X, the Joneses thought Serves X right, the Parents’ Committee thought! Wouldn’t like to be in X’s overalls right now, the children thought.
At last, the door opened. Everyone crowded around to hear the results. X didn’t look any different; in fact, X was smiling. But the Psychiatrist looked terrible. He looked as if he was crying!
“What happened?” everyone began shouting. Had X done something disgraceful? “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised!” muttered Peggy and Joe’s parents.
“Did X flunk the whole test?” cried Susie’s parents. “Or just the most important part?” yelled Jim’s parents. “Oh, dear”, sighed Mr Jones. “Oh, dear”, sighed Ms. Jones. “Sssh”, sssshed the Principal. “The Psychiatrist is trying to speak”.
Wiping his eyes and clearing his throat, the psychiatrist began in a hoarse whisper.
“In my opinion”, he whispered – you could tell he must be very upset – “in my opinion, young X here -”
“Yes? Yes” shouted a parent impatiently. “Sssssh!” sssshed the Principal.
“Young Ssssshhh here, I mean, young X” said the doctor, frowning, “is just about … “. “Just about WHAT? Let’s have it!” shouted another parent. “Just about the least mixed-up child I’ve ever Xamined” said the Psychiatrist. “Yah for X,” yelled one of the children. And then the others began yelling, too. Clapping and cheering and jumping up and down. “SSSSSHH!” Ssshed the Principal, but nobody did.
The Parents’ Committee was angry and bewildered. How COULD X have passed the whole Xamination? Didn’t X have an identity problem? Wasn’t X mixed up at ALL? Wasn’t X any kind of misfit? How could it NOT be, when it didn’t even KNOW what it was? And why was the Psychiatrist crying?
Actually, he had stopped crying and was smiling politely through his tears. “Don’t you see?” he said, “I’m crying because it’s wonderful! X has absolutely no identity problem! X isn’t one bit mixed up! As for being a misfit – ridiculous! X knows perfectly well what it is! Don’t you, X? the doctor winked. X winked back.
“But what IS X?” Shrieked Peggy and Joe’s parents. “We still want to know what it is!” “Ah, yes”, said the doctor winking again. “Well, don’t worry. You’ll all know one of these days. And you won’t need me to tell you.” “What? What does he mean?” some of the parents grumbled suspiciously.
Susie and Peggy and Joe all answered all at once. “He means that by the time X’s sex matters, it won’t be a secret anymore!”
With that, the doctor began to push through the crowd towards X’s parents. “How do you do?” he said, somewhat stiffly. And then he reached out to hug them both. “If I ever have an X of my own,” he whispered, “I sure hope you’ll lend me your instruction manual”.
Needless to say, the Joneses were very happy. The Project Baby X scientists were rather pleased too. So were Susie, Jim, Peggy, Joe, and all the Other Children. The Parents’ Association wasn’t, but they had promised to accept the Psychiatrist’s report and not make any more trouble. They even invited Ms. and Mr. Jones to become honorary members, which they did.
Later that day, X’s friends put on their red-and-white-checked overalls and went over to see X. They found X in the back yard, playing with a very tiny baby that none of them had even seen before. The baby was wearing very tiny red-and-white-checked overalls.
“How do you like our new baby?” X asked the Other Children proudly. “It’s got cute dimples,” said Jim. “It’s got husky biceps, too”, said Susie. “What kind of baby is it?” asked Joe and Peggy.
X frowned at them. “Can’t you tell?” Then X broke into a big, mischievous grin, “It’s a Y!”