This American Life had a story this week about a big Sicilian family with a grandmother known for her ability to speak directly to God. Over time, this ability morphed into a baby sex predictor for her offspring and grandchildren. She sewed a little pair of brown pants, a little pink dress. And whoever was pregnant would get either the pants or the dress in the mail, and thus learn the sex of their unborn child. Once the child was born (with the gender appropriately corresponding to the garment), the mother would sew her baby’s name into the garment, and when the next relative got pregnant, the holders of the dress or pants would mail along the “right” one for that pregnancy. Once, when someone couldn’t decide and sent along both, the pregnant woman ended up with twins – one boy and one girl.
I thought the story was fun and funny and charming. I even teared up at the end; the family was so happy and excited about the prospect of their new baby (boy). The family mythology, the belief in such intimate intercessions from God, the traditions of women…I related to a lot of it, and I really enjoyed hearing it.
But I can enjoy this story and think the family is sweet for connecting to this tradition AND want to poke a bit at the issues of sex and gender that the story brings up.
First, there’s the obvious fallacy of symbolism. Dark pants symbolize boy, pink dress symbolizes girl. That this family has agreed on this representation is not a problem and of course, not uncommon. The difficulty comes when anyone turns the symbol system around. A symbol is a directed vector, not an equals sign. If someone doesn’t realize that and instead of “pants indicate boy” we end up with “boy indicates pants”, well, that’s wrong. An easy mistake to make because sure, plenty of boys do wear pants. But not all boys. And not no girls.
So there’s that, which would be problematic even before we venture into the concept of trans* identity. I’m sure women in that family on TAL wear pants, even if no boys yet wear dresses. But you could argue that this pants = boy, dress = girl mistake is a holdover from a time when gendered dress was more segregated and regulated. Their grandmother was a seamstress after all. A man did mean pants to her, a woman did mean a dress. So you could say that in this family, these signifiers and their meaning are a family tradition – related to cultural tropes, but also in a way, unique to their family history.
What both interests and concerns me is how wedded to these historical meanings the women in this story were. A woman says “I really want to have a boy.” But what does that mean? Someone like his father, perhaps? Or like her father or brothers? A child who plays in certain ways that she associates with boyness, or wears clothes that she is used to seeing on boys? A child who physically develops into a man over time, with certain physical features that she likes or expects to see in men? Someone who does not do things she associates with the girls in her family?
But of course, you can want a boy and get a boy but the child might have female sex organs and you might assume that means this is a girl. Or you can want a boy and birth a child with a penis that you assume is a boy and treat as a boy, and the child may inform you that she identifies as a girl. Or it might be a boy who feels like a boy and also likes to wear dresses. Or. Or. Or…
TAL had statisticians go at it and they said this grandma’s rate of 21 out of 23 correct predictions was a 1 out of 10,000 shot. That’s insane. I can see how that could be interpreted as divine, and I have no evidence or inclination to believe that it isn’t (I believe in God, and in Italians). But twice, the pants got sent and female children were born. So does this family believe that God was wrong? Or that their grandmother was wrong? Or that the children who were born were wrong?
It seemed that the family just tried not to dwell on these “errors” much. The father of the two girls who were predicted to be boys, said he didn’t discuss it with the girls (adolescents now) because he didn’t want them to feel bad, like they had broken the chain of “correct” babies.
I wonder what those girls would say though. Would they care that they “should have” been boys? Do they feel something boyish inside them that would be explained by this? If you let them know and openly discuss with them that they are pants-girls, the ONLY ones in their family, maybe that could be special and not bad? Maybe the whole idea that pants = boy/boy = pants would destabilize in their family and require new meanings to be made. That would be great and progressive and beneficial for everyone’s gender expression and personal growth but also, just SO COOL. You can make meanings and change them! POWER! YAY!
As this family goes forward with this tradition, the likelihood that this will continues to be “correct” is kind of impossible. Because they don’t even know what the pants/dress is predicting – sex? Or gender? Did Grandma know the difference? Do they believe that God does? Will it always line up in this family? Spoiler alert: probably not.
I just think this little story is a great little kernel to pop open – it shows so clearly how sex gets conflated with gender and clothes get conflated with identity and how exactly how cultural memes get wrapped up in individual lives and after a while you’re charmed by the connections and so comfortable with them. But as cozy as those connections might feel for some, they aren’t indispensable, they aren’t obligatory, they aren’t a true thing. What they are is so much effort and so many interesting actions of language and belief. I don’t mean to disparage this family’s tradition either. I actually love that they made these pathways so explicit and taught me a lesson. I knew there was no essentialism to the idea of gender, but I guess I always thought of it as a broad cultural construct, not a family tradition. Of course it is both, but I really never thought of it that way until now.