“Ellie, is your doll a boy?”
“Is your doll a girl?”
“Then what is your doll?”
This is a conversation I witnessed between my stepmother and my 2-year-old sister. The frustrated claims of a toddler best represent what gender theorists have been saying for years: you acquire gender and are not born with it.
In my sister’s eyes, babies are neither boys nor girls; they are androgynous. They have yet to learn the ritual dance that is gender. She sees me putting on my bra and immediately associates it with “Mommy” (i.e. women), but because she does not do so yet, she is exempt from both the title and the classification. I whip out my blue eyeliner and she’s quick to associate it with her babysitter, but not femininity as a whole. She has yet to subscribe to the prescribed patterns of daily life we are told to live by.
And this is just in the secular world! In Orthodoxy, the gender roles I perform daily are compounded by another set of laws that dictate how to perform gender religiously and in the eyes of God. According to halacha, my sister has another year before she begins to take on gender and even at the age of three, halacha permits that she only takes on gender in relation to and through the rituals performed by her male peers.
When he turns three, my sister’s playmate will have an Upsherin, a ritual haircut that will remove his waist-length blond locks so he will be distinguishable as a boy. He will no longer be one of the “babies” my sister refers to as androgynous; he will have a gender he can perform and, only by association, his female peers will too.
Because girls do not get a ritual initiation into gender, an Upsherin is yet another example of how girls are expected to express gender only through the dictates of male rituals. It is hard to find a gender-based ritual for girls by girls in halachic texts. Furthermore, these children do not decide their gender based on personal identity; they define gender based on accepted or rejected ritual practices.
What does this say about how we perform/deviate from gender? How does biological sex become gender at a certain age through a didactic religious practice? And why, oh why, must Jewish masculinity continue to serve as a benchmark for femininity?