Perhaps it’s because I’m in the middle of writing a master’s thesis on 1970s counter-cultural education, but I feel that the Seventies gets a bad rap in our collective memory. We tend to remember “the Sixties” as the radical period of social and political unrest, while “the Seventies” conjures up visions of the oil embargo and recession, students’ post-Kent State retreat from activism, widespread political disillusionment, and the rise of a more self-absorbed culture. Yet the decade between 1970-1979 saw a lot of radical social and political experimentation. It was a decade in which communal experiments in living, feminist activism and agitation for queer rights really picked up steam as the New Left organizations of the 1960s imploded with internal disagreements and lack of coherent political strategy.
While many historians and observers have interpreted these more personal forms of social change (i.e. starting a commune with your friends, re-negotiating the terms of your marriage, exploring non-Christian theologies) as a retreat from the political sphere, I think it’s a mistake to see inward-looking change as any less radical than marching in the streets … though obviously both types of action (outward as well as inward) are needed to fundamentally alter the structure of our society. I find the hubris of the 1970s counter-cultural creativity enchanting. Flawed and simplistic though much of it is, seen from the perspective of forty years on (did they really think gendered expectations would be that easy to uproot!? how charming!), there’s nevertheless something refreshing about that naiveté. It calls us to step away from our fatigue and frustration, imagining instead what it would be like if society were wholesale behind supporting a more “free to be you and me” approach to gender and sexuality.
Which brings me to the story of Baby X, written by one of the creators of Free to Be …You and Me, Lois Gould in 1972 and published in a volume of children’s stories called Stories for Free Children (New York: McGraw Hill, 1982). It was Hanna who recently brought Baby X to my attention during a conversation we were having with a friend. I tracked a copy of the book down through our local public library network and read “The Story of X” for myself (you can access a PDF version through Delta College here and an HTML transcription through etransgender here).
Baby X is the (fictional) story of a child who is born and raised in a gender-neutral environment. The tale begins
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.
… the scientists [running the experiment] 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 “kitchy-coo.” In fact, they all thought the Joneses were playing some kind of rude joke.
The problems only multiply when the child attends school and the other children are threatened by the idea of a child that is not easily categorized as a boy or girl — and who refuses to conform to the expectations of gendered play. X is shunned by other children and held in suspicion by other parents, which of course isn’t easy for the child.
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.
There is a happily-ever-after when the family finally meets another family as interested in egalitarian, gender-neutral parenting as they are.
The story is definitely dated in its understanding of sex and gender — consider, for example, that while the child is raised in a gender-neutral fashion, the underlying assumption is that the scientists and parents do know the sex of their child — something that can be determined through a “peek at X in the bathtub.” A similar story, today, would likely (hopefully!) not assume that any such determination of sex could be made just by a quick glance at someone’s genitalia. Likewise, we’ve been humbled since the 1970s by the realization that gendered socialization is much more deeply ingrained than we imagined (see, for example, Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender for a useful survey of the research). The idea that parents, however well-intentioned, could raise their child in an environment devoid of gender cues and gender expectations now seems hopelessly optimistic. But I, for one, am warmed by the knowledge that this optimism existed at one point — and while it definitely needs tweaking in order to fit with our current understandings of sex and gender identity, I don’t think the underlying sentiment is misplaced: the belief that our society would be better served if children were all given permission to be “X” as long as they wanted, without having to fit into pre-determined identity categories. And it makes me sad, sometimes, to think about how these messages faded from the mainstream for decades. They’ve started to re-emerge now, partly because of the increasing visibility of trans issues within both activist and popular culture circles. We’re starting to see more sensitivity towards children who, for example, are assigned male at birth but want to wear feminine clothing to preschool, or children who wish to use the restrooms designated for the opposite gender from that which they were assigned. But sometimes when I read 70s-era children’s stories, I mourn the headway we’ve failed to make … and sometimes the ground we’ve actually lost … since then in the momentum toward greater equality.
Do any of you have other examples of 70s-era children’s fiction or other media that explored issues of gender and sex identity in more open, hopeful ways than we do today? Share in comments!