Monday, January 26, 2009

"Reborn" Female?

I foolishly clicked on the "don't click ..." link at this post by Auguste at Pandagon ... and slid into a world of "reborn babies." In case you want to live a little crazy, too, here's where not to click.

If you're more prudent than I, maybe it's enough to know that reborn babies are ultrarealistic dolls weighted to flop like a newborn baby. They're sold on ebay, among other venues, for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Some are sold to mothers who've suffered a stillbirth. It's easy to snark at these dolls, but it's not my place to judge any comfort a bereaved mother might find. However, most are marketed to women who'd like a baby but are too old to get pregnant or just don't want an infant that poops and burps and eventually talks back (according to this MSNBC feature).

About the reborn babies themselves I'm generally in agreement with Auguste. I, too, think they are uncanny. Freaky. Replicants among us. Then again, I'm spooked by clowns. Even as a little girl, I wouldn't play with baby dolls. I adored my stuffed animals. They were cuddly and didn't look like aliens.

But here's what surprised me when I explored the photo galleries at Nearly all of the dolls were female. I saw just two boys out of roughly forty dolls! Not every dollmaker has such a skewed sex ratio, but girls seem to predominate across the board. For instance, at Destinys Reborn Babies (no, they don't believe in apostrophes), the ratio of girls to boys is about two to one.

Now, I'm not willing to argue that the purchasers of reborn babies constitute a representative cross-section of the population. But their behavior merges with what I've observed anecdotally: the historical preference for a boy may have shifted toward girl babies in the modern West.

This is a remarkable transformation. Just a century ago, the rural German women whose birth experiences I've researched hoped and prayed for boy babies. Never mind their own innate preferences. If they failed to bear sons and heirs, no matter how modest their situation, they were considered failures as women. The whole community knew they were deficient. Their husbands and in-laws treated them with contempt. Mothers-in-law were particularly harsh. Not surprisingly, those women desperately desired boys.

The roots of this preference go back to ancient times. It was sustained by the importance of brute strength in the pre-industrial age, especially on farms. But probably more decisive were rural inheritance practices that resulted in daughters carrying off part of the family property as a dowry when they married, whereas sons inherited directly and continued to provide for their parents in old age.

Here's one example from a midwife in rural Bavaria circa 1920 or 1930, who attended a farm wife who'd borne three girls in a row. When the expectant mother went the hospital (due to the threat of complications) the farmer told her not to bother phoning if the baby was another girl. Predictably enough, it was a girl. The farmer neither visited his wife in the hospital nor picked her up to bring her home. The midwife said that husbands normally didn't even bother to look at a baby girl for the first couple of months - and they blamed the midwife, too, for the baby being the wrong sex.

While I'm very glad for the shift in attitudes (not to mention the modern awareness that the father's X or Y determines sex), I'm not at all convinced that a general preference for girls would be a real improvement. For one thing, reversing sexism wouldn't end it. It would only flip the terms of the inequality. This is structurally the same as the question of whether matriarchy would be superior to patriarchy. As long as one group is lording it over another, it's not fair or just ... not that we're in any danger of living in a matriarchal society, mind you!

For another thing I suspect that all kinds of rigid assumptions about girls are wrapped around the growing preference for them. Girls are thought to be easier to manage. They're imagined to be more docile. How is this progress from the tired old stereotypes of female passivity?

Objectively speaking, there are lots more cute clothes for little girls. If you've ever taken a look at the Land's End girls section, you know what I mean. I totally get the pleasure mothers have in dressing their daughters; I've envied it, to be honest, while pawing through drab piles of camoflage T-shirts. But what does it mean that we start sending the message from birth forward that a girl's appearance matters more than a boy's? And how can we then hope girls will resist the pressure to crave "sexy" styles before they even dream of puberty?

Finally, mothers may hope for a "mini-me," much as fathers have long hoped for a Junior to carry on the family name and their personal legacy. Such hopes can only be dashed. The burden of a legacy is a heavy one for any baby, whether a boy-child or a girl-child.

I actually always pictured myself as the mother of a daughter, so I may well be part of this new wave. Instead, I got two boys. I'm just wise enough to realize that quite possibly I would've made more mistakes with a girl, projected too much of myself onto her, assumed she'd be too much like me.

My boys remind me continually of how much greater the human potential is than the old straitjacket of gender roles would suggest. They're capable of great empathy and gentleness. (Okay, every once in a while the Tiger wallops the Bear, but that's rare these days.) They're creative and funny. They're definitely boys, but they're not imprisoned by the role.

One thing my boys don't do? Play dolls. But like the little-girl version of me, they cuddle and love their stuffed animals. That seems just about right.


Anonymous said...

I'd heard about this but hadn't read much--thanks for your thoughtful analysis, it's fascinating!

Sungold said...

Thanks for stopping by! This is all a bit half-baked, because I don't really have any hard data on sex preferences in the contemporary Western world. We've definitely come very far from the old patriarchal model of strongly preferring boy babies, but I'd like to be able to quantify how far the pendulum has swung in the other direction.

But hey, that's the fun of blogging - we can be a bit more speculative than I am when I'm wearing my purely academic hat.

Ashley said...

This is really interesting, especially as I'm expecting my first, a girl, in about 3 or 4 months.

I know that personally I had a VERY slight preference for a girl, largely because being a female I know what to expect with a girl. I know how to deal with the period, what to tell her about relationships, and what to do differently so she grows up more confident and self-assured. As I am female and don't have any experience as a male, I worried about how to raise a feminist boy, how to deal with penis issues without making it a big deal, and generally speaking all the boy-specific stuff about parenting that I just don't feel qualified in yet.

It's interesting the reaction I've gotten about gender. Most people ask me if I have a preference (like I said, VERY slight to a girl), and now that I've told people my fetus is a 'she' I've gotten lots of "oh, that's nice, that'll make becoming a parent easier," or "My girl was so much easier than my boys," or "they're not nearly as rambunctious as boys, you're lucky," or some other gender stereotype. So, talking with moms, gender stereotypes are still very very prevalent, though I'm haven't seen many women express a strong preference, though the one or two I have seen did have a strong preference for a girl.

What I find really interesting is the moms who insist that gender sterotypes prevail (boys=active, girls=passive) even when their own children patently manifest the opposite behaviors. The logical disconnect, it boggles the mind.

As for the mini-me thing, that is VERY true. My baby is very active, and in that way I think she takes after me, and I know that I'll groom her to be assertive, sarcastic, and hyper because frankly I think that's a lot of fun. But, I would do that for a boy as well :)

Just some thoughts from a soon to be new mom of a daughter.

Claire said...

I think that the surplus of girl-dolls to boy-dolls in these incredibly... creepy... ultra-realistic baby-dolls can only indicate, if anything, that very wealthy people (and/or people with very poor taste) statistically prefer girls. That said, if we get a boy, we're throwing him back.

Alara Rogers said...

I think that objectively, statistically, girls *are* easier to raise than boys. The only reason anyone would *ever* have a preference for boys is a patriarchal system that devalues women. Consider:

- Girls are less likely than boys to get in trouble with the law.
- Girls are less likely either to commit violence or to be the victim of violence.
- Girls are less likely to have learning disabilities.
- Girls are less likely to have ADHD or autism.
- Girls are more likely to assist their mothers in whatever tasks the mother does.
- In a society that does not break the tie between a woman and her parents when she marries, women will more reliably care for elderly parents.

Some of this is still the result of a sexist system (boys don't help you around the house and don't take care of you when you're old because boys are not expected to do anything with their lives except money, and god forbid they actually be helpful), but that doesn't mean that right now it isn't *true*. And it's actually much harder than you think to raise feminist boys who will actually do the dishes. Their friends tease them because they have "girl" chores and they push back against their parents with more resentment. They see their dads not doing this stuff, so they refuse to do it. It's very, very difficult for a feminist mom to raise feminist boys, and if mom is *not* a feminist the likelihood that the boys will be is almost zero.

Now an individual girl can of course be autistic, have ADHD, be a wild thing who gets into trouble with the law all the time, never do her chores, or hate her parents and never talk to them again as an adult, but *statistically* it is more likely that boys will behave this way. The biggest problem we tend to see with our girls is the knowledge that they must negotiate the minefield of love, sex and desire while at a severe disadvantage, and they are more vulnerable to sexual violence and violence from people they love than our boys are. This is a terrible fear, certainly, but for most I suspect it doesn't counterbalance the advantages, on average, that girls bring.

I have two of each. My oldest boy has ADD. The biggest problem my oldest girl has is that she wants attention all the time. I *think* the boys are more reluctant to do chores around the house because one has ADD and one is emulating his older brother, but I can't help but think that if it was just understood that men wash dishes and do laundry, I wouldn't be having such a hard time getting them to help out. The two year old baby girl helps more enthusiastically than the twelve year old boy.