The Dutch have a solid reputation for having some very strange kinds of foods in our culture. Kroketten, drop, hagelslag, stroopwafels, kruidnoten… you know the drill. Across the board, most of our strange foodstuffs that aren’t deep-fried are sweet. Sometimes sickly sweet. And one of those things is muisjes.
Muisjes (“little mice”), as seen in the image above, are traditionally eaten on beschuit (Dutch rusk). Usually with some butter to make sure they don’t fall off. And not only that, this tradition is widely associated with the birth of a child. “Beschuit met muisjes” has become firmly ingrained in our minds as a childbirth-related thing. So much even, that can use it to announce your pregnancy by saying that you’ll be serving beschuit met muisjes later that year.
The muisjes controversy
But however charming this little tradition sounds, it’s also fraught with controversy. Controversy over a sickly sweet rusk topping, you might ask? Absolutely.
You see, as with a lot of things in western culture, pink muisjes are associated with girls, and blue muisjes with boys. So if you have a girl, you serve pink-and-white muisjes, and if it’s a boy, blue-and-white muisjes. Expecting parents also use it to reveal to other people what gender your unborn baby is going to be, once you’ve found out at the OB/GYN.
Traditions aren’t sacred
To most, this probably sounds innocent enough. But now that our knowledge about sex and gender is expanding, it’s time to critically scrutinize this tradition. After all, traditions stem from the past, by definition. And since our perceptions of what’s normal and what’s ethical are continually progressing, that means that some traditions may end up seriously outdated.
After all, owning slaves was also a ‘tradition’ of sorts: something that was deemed normal, a part of the culture, and that was passed down through the generations. It was also a ‘tradition’ that women didn’t work but stayed home to take care of housekeeping and of the children.
Luckily, that has all changed, for the most part. But there are still some cultural revolutions in progress that aren’t well understood yet. And one of those is the concept of gender neutrality.
A short while ago, Dutch muisjes manufacturer De Ruijter announced that it doesn’t rule out the production of gender-neutral muisjes in the future. And as you can imagine, Facebook blew up.
Most of the comments were somewhere along the lines of ‘the world has gone mad’, or ‘why do we have to change everything for those snowflakes?’. And I understand that it might seem like a nonsensical, tiny thing, to create special gender-neutral muisjes. Who cares about the color of a sweet rusk topping, right? The baby isn’t even capable of noticing it anyway, right? And a baby doesn’t know what their gender is going to be, right?
Well… it’s a little more complicated than that. Let me explain.
Pink for girls, blue for boys?
In general terms, most people agree that pink is a girls’ color and blue is a boys’ color. We think of pink dresses and barbie dolls and hairbrushes, and blue toy cars and superhero suits and building blocks. But what came first, our association with pink for girls, or the assignment of pink as a girls’ color? It could be a chicken-and-egg story, but in this case, there’s an answer.
Already eight years ago, LiveScience published this blog post, examining why we associate these colors with these genders. As it turns out, there’s no real biological explanation for the assignment of these colors.
Cohen adds that […] all other evidence indicates that, today, we differentiate children by gender much more than we did 150 years ago, when babies of either gender were typically outfitted in white dresses. The recent strengthening of gender-color associations must be cultural, he argues, leaving little room for the notion that each sex has evolved its own color preference.
There were times when pink was advised for boys. That was mainly because its proximity to red made it a stronger and more aggressive color. Blue was more subdued, and considered more delicate and therefore more associated with girls.
But however it came to be, the fact remains that the only real reason we associate colors with gender is just because we do. That might sound like circular reasoning, but that’s because it is (see what I did there?). It displays how social constructs perpetuate themselves. We’ve gotten so used to seeing pink associated with girls, that we associate pink with girls. We don’t feel ‘boy’ when we see blue, and we don’t feel ‘girl’ when we see pink. So we buy and advertise pink stuff for girls, and blue stuff for boys. And since the girls now mostly have pink stuff and the boys have blue stuff, we associate pink with girls and blue with boys. And so the cycle continues.
Sex and gender
The assignment of a certain color to a certain gender is fairly arbitrary. Nevertheless, it’s accepted by almost everybody. But that’s problematic.
The problem is that we assign these colors to certain genders. We think that we assign them to sexes, but in reality we assign them to genders, not sexes. And this is a very important distinction to make. They’re still used interchangeably very often, but by having two separate words, we have the opportunity to separate two equally separate things.
What does sex mean?
Of course I’m not talking about that thing that (usually) happens in the bedroom. In this case, sex is the overarching term describing the biological differentiation between humans. That differentiation is mostly based on genetics, anatomy, and the type of gametes it produces.
Most of these differences are caused by sex chromosomes. A chromosome is a DNA molecule that holds your genetic information. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, so 46 in total, in each cell. Two of those 46, so one pair, are your sex chromosomes. There are two types of sex chromosomes: X and Y. And females have XX, and men have XY.
Those sex chromosomes determine the way parts of your body are going to develop. Usually, that ends up in women getting a womb and a vagina, and men getting a penis, a pair of testicles, and a prostate. In later life, hormones cause women to grow breasts, and men to grow a beard and chest hair.
But it’s not always so simple. By saying you’re either a boy or a girl at birth, you’re leaving out a lot of naturally occurring diversity.
Sometimes, errors in cell division during the creation of eggs and sperm cells can cause people to receive too many or too few X’s or Y’s. For example, people with Klinefelter syndrome have too many X’s next to their Y. People with Turner syndrome have only one X, and are either partially or completely missing a second X.
And sometimes, errors during development can cause changes in the physical development of the foetus. Abnormal influences of hormones and other chemicals can change the way the body or the brain develops in the womb.
And those are just a few of the causes of what we call intersexuality. And the birth of an intersex person occurs far more often than most people think.
The Intersex Campaign for Equality states that intersexuality occurs in an estimated 1.7% of the population. That’s roughly 1 in 59 people. According to these numbers, intersexuality is just about as common as having red hair (1-2%).
Around 1 in 2,000 to 5,000 children are born with ambiguous genitals. And these children are almost completely overlooked by society. While sex is still for the most part simple male or female, you can’t think of the human species as being truly sexually dimorphic.
Then what does gender mean?
And then there is gender. Gender is the societal and psychological part. That can include gender roles, characteristics or behavior perceived as masculine or feminine or anything in between, and gender identity. Gender isn’t black and white, or pink and blue for that matter. It actually exists on a spectrum.
It’s a complex concept, but in simple terms, you can think of sex as anything physical. Gender is anything psychological, such as gender identity, or socially constructed, such as gender roles. And sex and gender don’t necessarily have to conform.
That’s where it becomes complicated. A common expression of a gender identity that doesn’t conform to physical sex, is the transgender identity. That means that someone who was born in a body that was either biologically one sex or was assigned one sex, but psychologically doesn’t feel like or identify with the according gender.
Someone who was born in what we’d perceive as a man’s body, might feel more like a woman, and might identify more with being a woman than with being a man. And, accordingly, that person might choose to undergo a sex-change operation so they can live in the body that corresponds with how they feel.
Another term that we hear more often is ‘non-binary’. That refers to anyone who doesn’t identify with the exclusive gender binary. These can be genderfluid people, who might feel more like a woman one day and might feel more like a man the other day. They can also be people who don’t wish to have a gender at all, or any other flavor your can think of.
So what’s the problem with color assignment?
As you can see, there are a lot of different sexes and gender identities instead of just the two familiar ones. If you feel like it’s complicated, you’re right. It is. But humans are complicated, and can’t be defined by just fitting in either box A or box B. Hopefully, the concept of having only two colors to indicate someone’s sex or gender with has started sounding a little illogical. Or at least a little limited.
The assignment of blue for a boy generally persists throughout their childhood. In almost every clothing or toy store, there’s a clearly visible separation of colors. You can easily distinguish the items intended for girls, and those intended for boys.
There’s a number of toys that aren’t specifically gendered. But the remarkable thing is that, the older the child gets, the more marketing turns towards their expected gender roles. And that’s where it gets sticky.
Marketing towards gender roles
Boy products aren’t just often blue, they’re more often marketed as tough and cool, emphasizing strength and activity. For example monster trucks and superheroes.
Girl products are more often marketed towards being kind and caring. They emphasize what we see as a ‘softer’ inclination, and more often focus on looks and aesthetics. Girl products therefore often include dolls that you can fuss with and dress up.
There’s at least some grounding in biology here. From an evolutionary standpoint, men were more often the hunters, the fighters, the defenders, fueled by testosterone. Women more often those that cared for the home and for others, most importantly their offspring.
The impact of gendered marketing
But marketing products according to gender roles doesn’t leave room for those who don’t fit into that category. And don’t even get me started on the unrealistic ideals some of these products create for children (looking at you, Barbie!). But maybe more importantly: these kinds of toys perpetuate the gender role stereotypes.
Marketing products this way perpetuates the idea that boys should be tough and aggressive. It presupposes that girls should be caring and nurturing and should care about their appearance. And while the colors of the muisjes don’t specifically say anything about those things, they’re a small part of the bigger social construct. A construct of assigning rather fixed gender roles to someone with a certain sex.
There’s a reason this is a problem. It leaves little room for children to find their own preferred way of expressing themselves. They’re expected to play with toys that are associated with their sex, and to dress in appropriate colors. Luckily, wearing a pink shirt is steadily becoming more and more normal for businessmen. But a lot of schoolchildren are still harassed, made fun of, and bullied for doing or wearing things that are associated with girls.
The damage of sex and gender assignment
Boys that wear nail polish often have to endure a lot of scorn and bullying at school. Girls that cut their hair short, and run around playing in the mud with monster trucks, hear from society that it’s not how a girl should behave.
Women in the military are perceived as mannish. Men that earn less than their wives are sometimes still perceived as emasculated and weak. Bonus points if they stay home to care for the child while the mother is off to work.
These cultural perceptions of gender roles are all results of our persistant compulsion to think of sex and gender as purely binary things with very distinct characteristics.
There’s nothing wrong with identifying different sexes and genders in general. And there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging a broad set of characteristics that we generally see more often in one sex than in the other. That’s not the issue.
The issue is the way we force those ideas onto people who haven’t formed their own yet. The issue is that we expect these characteristics from someone purely based on their body parts.
Of course men are generally stronger than women. The strongest woman on the planet can beat all other women and most of the men, but the strongest man can beat every other person on the planet. Testosterone does a good job at that.
Of course women are often more nurturing and caring. Evolution has primed us to feel that way, to ensure that we take care of our offspring and therewith ensure the survival of our species. You can thank hormones for that too.
Expectations vs. reality
But what we’re doing now, is putting the cart before the horse. We’re putting expectations before reality. We see on the ultrasound that our baby is going to be a girl, so we paint the child’s bedroom pink and adorn it with frilly pillows and dolls and a toy kitchen.
That child is going to grow up in that stuff. But what if it turns out that their gender identity is male, and not female? What if it turns out that they don’t like baby dolls and pink dresses? That they would much rather wear cargo shorts and go skating?
You might think ‘no harm done, right?’, and oftentimes that’s true, but the child will also have lived in confusion for many years. Especially in families and environments where transsexuality isn’t discussed or isn’t viewed as normal.
Time and time again, children from these kinds of environments develop gender dysphoria. They fear to truly be their authentic selves. They’ll try to fit in that mold until they can’t take it anymore, often developing severe depression and anxiety. But growing up in a gender-neutral environment could prevent all of that.
The main problem is all those expectations. They set you up so that you either conform to those expectations, or you’re a deviant. Either you’re normal, or you’re an outlier. And it should no longer be normal that those expectations define what normal is.
Gender-neutral doesn’t mean genderless
Now, I want to be very clear about something.
Raising your child in a gender-neutral way absolutely does not mean that you call your child an ‘it’ and dress it in drab grey. It doesn’t mean you pretend that your child is non-binary. It doesn’t mean you raise your child without the concept of gender as if it doesn’t exist in the world.
Gender neutrality doesn’t mean that men and women no longer exist. It doesn’t mean that you can’t call anyone ‘he’ or ‘she’ anymore.
What gender neutrality really means
Gender neutrality means that everyone has access to both ‘he’ and ‘she’ and all other pronouns if they wish to. That everyone has access to whatever type of expression they want, regardless of whether society deems it feminine or masculine. It means that everyone has access to high heels and skirts and make-up, without fear of ridicule or harassment.
Gender neutrality only means that your child has equal access to any and all different gender identities and gendered concepts. It means that your child isn’t expected to play with dolls if they’re female. It means that your child doesn’t have to think they’re strange for wanting to wear hot pink nail polish if they’re male.
Gender neutrality means freedom from expectations. Freedom from the thought of having a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ way to express yourself. A freedom that means there isn’t anything you should or should not do or like based on your gender.
It means that your child can just walk into the toy store, and pick the toy they want to play with, without fear of scrutiny when a boy walks into the doll section. It means that they can grow up and do, wear, and play with whatever they want.
Gender neutrality means that masculinity is no longer exclusively thought of as a guy thing. That femininity is no longer exclusively thought of as a girl thing.
The concepts of masculinity and femininity will still exist, but everyone has equal access to them. And that access will depend solely on what they feel like, and no longer on what society expects of them.
Gender neutrality means that people of any sex or gender can do what feels good to them. That they don’t have to conform to the gender role that society expects of them.
It means that talking about your emotions is no longer a ‘girl thing’. That men are no longer expected to be macho. It means that men no longer have to feel weak when they’re suffering from depression because they think they should be strong.
The benefits of gender neutrality
Decreased suicide rates
First of all: decreased suicide rates among men. I kid you not. Because society so often expects men to be strong and tough, many men feel they can’t open up about their feelings, leading to many men suffering from depression in silence.
Men are more likely than women to be unable to recognize their feelings, or to push them away, often subconsciously. Because society particulary doesn’t pay enough attention to emotional skills in men, a lot of men are poorly equipped to deal with their feelings in a healthy way.
Men are four times more likely to commit suicide than women, mostly because signs of depression go unnoticed for too long, and because men don’t seek help as early or as easily as others.
And of course: decreased suicide rates among people who are transgender, intersex, non-binary, gender-nonconforming etc. Gender dysphoria leads to suicidal ideation in almost half of all cases, and suicide attempts in almost one in four of them. Confusion over who they are, where they belong, or what they are supposed to do with themselves is a big contributor.
But not only that: a large part is societal stigmatization and discrimination against anyone who doesn’t conform to the standard binary norm. If depression is already hard to talk about as a man because it’s deemed too feminine, how hard would someone’s life be if they feel like a woman in a man’s body? Or don’t even feel like either a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’? Combine that with the lack of support and safe places to express themselves, and you have a recipe for depression and suicide.
More gender equality
Gender neutrality also contributes to equal opportunities and possibilities in careers. Luckily, we no longer think it strange that women have full-time jobs. But society is still more likely to expect the man to earn more and work harder, and the woman to stay at home more and take care of housekeeping, cooking, and caring for the children.
And on top of that, women are still structurally paid less than men. But if we stop differentiating between the two in places where it really isn’t called for, that might disappear too.
More personal freedom
If all the world was open to you, instead of just those things that suit your gender, you would have far more freedom. More freedom to be who you really want to be, regardless of the body you were born in. Because gender neutrality offers everyone equal access, you have more freedom of expression.
More possibilities for hobbies and personal interests. It will be easier for women to get into martial arts, and for men to get into dance. Men can be ballerina’s if they want to, and women can play the male roles if they want to.
Nowadays, there’s a certain schism between the male and female worlds. The prevalence of gender jokes in sitcoms shows that it’s still too common for men and women to misunderstand each other’s perception and experience.
But of course, if you come into contact with things from the other gender’s side more often, it’ll be easier to understand all of that. If you rarely come into contact with sports because your culture sees it as a predominantly male thing, you won’t learn that much about it.
Growing up in a gender-neutral environment greatly decreases the amount of bias you’ll have in later life towards others. Especially if others in your environment grow up that way too.
By comparison, if you grow up in a sexuality-neutral environment, you like won’t be as biased towards gays and bisexuals as others who grew up in a predominantly heteronormative environment.
Society still has a consistently binary view of gender, aside from often confusing it with biological sex, which also turns out not to be purely binary. It’s human nature that anything that isn’t deemed ‘normal’ is bullied into conformity or otherwise shunned and rejected. These behaviors stem from times long gone by when our ancestors still lived in tribes, and they might have contributed to our continued existence.
But now it’s time we move forward from that history, and recognize that the human race comprises of a colorful spectrum of all kinds of different configurations. From sex and gender to sexuality and from neurodivergence to skin color, they all exist on a spectrum.
We’re learning more about the human experience every day, so it’s only fair that we adjust our views and preconceptions accordingly. And producing muisjes in only pink and blue therefore becomes a thing of the past.