Catholics Do What?,  Culture of Death,  Evangelization,  Homosexuality,  JPII,  mental health,  Parenting,  relativism,  Theology of the Body

The beauty of gender: our differences aren’t scary, they’re beautiful (and essential)

Male and female created he them; and blessed them… – Genesis 5:2

This morning I was strolling a leisurely stroll on the treadmill and enjoying 45 minutes of toddler downtime (thanks, Brandy in kids club) when my eyes drifted to the newsfeed on the bottom of my tv screen where a “breaking news” alert was scrolling.

What constitutes breaking news in 2017? That’s a loaded question. But for this local ABC affiliate station, the answer was “Australia considering banning fairy tales from schools.” I rolled my eyes into my frontal lobe because probably it was offensive to real witches and living fairy godmothers, all that questionable detail Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, etc. go into about their lives and various motivations and ways of being.

But, no.

Apparently, it’s because fairy tales “encourage outdated gender norms” and that children “as young as four” are reportedly manifesting “gender biasing behaviors” in their play and make believe.

(Note: there are real, medical, biological examples of transgendered individuals born with chromosomal abnormalities and ambiguous genitalia. These are real medical conditions from which real people suffer and about which hard decisions and choices have to be made by doctors, parents, and the individuals themselves. What we’re talking about here today, however, is the growing cultural infatuation with what I’ll call “transgenderism by choice,” or the belief that gender is utterly divorced from biological sexual characteristics by desire, not by any design flaw, and that you could possibly have been born with ovaries and a uterus but a brain that “feels” male, and so you choose to discard – whether surgically or behaviorally – the “non-conforming” female part of your identity.

This is a point of real confusion and pain for a lot of people, and the present cultural climate of strangling political correctness makes civil discussion about any kind of gender dysphoria all but impossible. But we must persist for the sake of real human souls. We cannot shrink away from discussing what is fast becoming the defining issue of our age. End disclaimer).

First of all, kids as young as four display “gender biasing behaviors” because children as young as age four do, in fact, have genders.

Fetuses, it turns out, also have genders. Pull up a Youtube video of balloons popping out of giant cardboard boxes and you’ll see this is not a recent discovery. And gender – in parlance common up until just a few short years ago – was basically interchangeable with “sex” – and nobody was going to bat an eye or shred an admission form over it.

Children, like the rest of us, are male or female, and as such, they typically exhibit a few characteristic (but not exclusive) behaviors common to their gender. Boys, for example, as anyone who has ever birthed, raised, or even tangentially known one, are loud and they are intensely physical. Not all boys and not all the time, but overall, there is a certain exuberance that belongs to the male sex that is right and beautiful.

These boys will become men who lend their strong voices to the pursuit of truth and goodness. They will speak up for what is right, and they will take action to defy evil when they see it. Because that is what men are designed to do. Men are action-takers and pursuers of truth by nature. They image God in their strength, both physical and moral. And that is beautiful. (And does not, incidentally, exclude women from being action takers and pursuers of truth.)

So, about those differences. Let’s get into some generalizations here, because there are common features and universal truths that do, in fact, hold water. Not everything that we have collectively amassed over the course of human history needs to be jettisoned just because Mark Zuckerberg has a new global initiative of the month.

Ladies first. Girls are tender. Not all girls and certainly not all the time, but as a general rule, the female sex is superior at feeling and expressing feelings. Emotionally connected and deeply expressive, women possess a relational capacity that is unmatched in men. My daughter can yell down the entire minivan full of warring brothers and silence us all with a shriek of power, but she wears her heart on the outside, feeling the world deeply, and encountering things with her entire being.

This does not make her weak. (And this is not to say that my husband is not tender. That my boys do not feel sorrow for having hurt or disappointed someone, or shed tears of pain.)

Far from it, her depth of feeling and her capacity for emotion render her a force to be reckoned with beyond anything I have yet experienced in my 3 sons. We live in an era which has been captivated by the lie that the heart is somehow disconnected from and inferior to the mind. And that is a lie. The heart is essential. It is where we encounter God in His Holy Spirit, where we give and receive love. The heart is the source of human life, and it is from our hearts that our relationships with one another and with God take their roots. In a culture awash in isolation and alienation, between spouses and families and even within our very selves, it is evident that the price of disregarding and dismissing the heart is deadly high.

And then there are boys. Boys who will grow up to be strong men, and who desperately need to be affirmed in their abilities. They long for the affirmation – especially and essentially from their fathers – that they have what it takes.

A boy who is not mentored into manhood in this way will struggle in his adult life with feelings of unworthiness and shame. A man has to know that he can do it, that he has what it takes, and that there are people – his mom and dad first and foremost – who are cheering him on because they believe he can.

A boy who is denied these opportunities to prove himself is at risk of becoming a man who struggles with his identity and with his understanding of self worth.

For some boys this might look like hunting and fishing trips. Camping and using pocket knives and jumping off of boulders and killing it on the soccer field and generally having the experience of doing the hard thing and coming through the other side with the knowledge that he has what it takes, that he is enough, that he is capable of leading, of providing, of greatness.

This has less to do with being out in the great outdoors, being naturally athletic, or being any particular good shot with a bow and arrow, but it has everything to do with testing himself against some opponent, whether it be the elements, an animal, or even his peers, and discovering for himself that yes, he measures up. He does not fall short.

This does not mean that girls aren’t outdoorsy! I can’t emphasize enough, the stupid stuff we fret over with “gender norming” our kids is so much less about colors and kinds of toys and neutral language and so much more about what is intrinsic to the nature of men and women.

Girls aren’t going to pick up dolls just because they’re silly and pink and soft and isn’t that just adorable how she’s trying to breastfeed her teddy bear? No. I have watched my 3 year old decapitate her brother’s snowman with a lightsaber and then pretend to nurse her stuffed kitty cat, within the span of fifteen minutes. She weeps and rocks her stuffed animals to sleep at night if they’ve had a bad dream. And then she stands on the edge of her bed literally roaring in defiance if anyone should dare trespass and remove one of her beloved “babies” from their positions.

She is not weak because she is drawn to mothering behaviors with her toys, for if she is called to motherhood, it will be the source of her greatest strength and ability. (It’s not for nothing we use the expression of “mama bear” to communicate deep, protective and don’t-you-dare-mess-with-it anger.)

This hysteria over neutral-colored Legos and removing all swords and tutus from toy boxes is missing the forest for the trees. A little boy is standing 12 inches from my elbow right now playing in a pink toy kitchen, stirring soup and preparing steaks to feed the cat. This doesn’t mean his gender is “confused.” It does mean he likes being involved in food prep and his chief enjoyment in the 4’oclock hour is chopping vegetables.

We are foolish when we typecast certain “behaviors” into rigid gender norms and then insist that our children refrain at all cost from manifesting them, should they match up in a way we are currently collectively frowning upon.

What good is there to be gained by discouraging a boy from expressing strength and courage on the playground, whether he is shouting down a bully or rallying his friends to the winning kickball run? And what good is served in correcting a girl who longs to be told that she is beautiful – who in fact has a profound and fundamentally good desire to be affirmed in her beauty on a soul-deep level – that she ought not be concerned with something so trivial or vain?

Conversely, if a boy enjoys cooking and art and a girl is an absolute terror on the lacrosse field, these, too, are good and beautiful manifestations of their particular individual giftedness. This does not indicate a confused or wrongly-assigned gender, but normal and healthy diversity in this thing that we call being human.

Being a mother is intractably a female role; being a hairdresser is not.

While the world frets on about the sexism of fairy tales, about girls dreaming of true love and affirmed beauty, and boys about vanquishing dragons and journeying into uncharted territories, I’ll be sitting here reading Cinderella and the Chronicles of Narnia to all of them, male and female alike. And they will perhaps get different things from the same story. They will perhaps encounter it with their male or female minds and focus on particular aspects which attract or repel them, and that will be fine. That will be good.

Our differences are our strengths, and denying the intricate design of the complementarity between the sexes is to deface the image of the Creator Himself.

(For further reading on the complimentary of the sexes and the essential goodness of gender, I highly recommend reading Dr. Mary Healy’s short, accessible book on JPII’s Theology of the Body, “Men and Women are from Eden.” I also like Dr. Edward Sri’s “Men, Women, and the Mystery of Love” and John and Stasi Eldredge’s books, “Captivating” and “Wild at Heart.” (I’m on a bit of John Eldredge kick myself at the moment, having just finished “Walking with God” and “Waking the Dead” and now about halfway into “Fathered by God.” The last title in particular is great for facilitating a deeper understanding of masculinity.)


  • Bernadette

    Beautifully said.

    I, too, wonder at the obsession in today’s world over the color and “gender” of toys, pieces of wood and plastic. I am sure that in the less gender-neutral/confused world of the 80s there were male baby dolls to be found in the toys stores (aside from little boys learning to father a doll …. surely there were some little girls who wanted “sons”!), and yet, in today’s “enlightened” culture, a boy baby has to be special-ordered online. I also don’t remember all kitchens and toy appliances being pink, because …. real kitchens are rarely pink. I’m not often in a Toys R Us, but I find it shocking the way the store is vividly divided between pink and blue. Even the concept that there need to be “girl” legos is so odd — is there any reason a girl can’t build with blocks that aren’t pink and purple?

    It seems ironic that, in a time when we are attempting to deny there are any differences between boys and girls, we are accentuating such a rigid difference between their toys!

    • Sara

      I think you’re so right. It’s the same with clothing for babies – nowadays we obsess over the colors and styles we put on kids, because we dress them like miniature adults. But when clothes were harder to obtain, there were baby styles that both boy babies and girl babies wore. There’s a Little Golden Book called “Baby Listens” that was published in 1960 – it’s about a little boy and all the things that he hears. He’s wearing a dress, frills, flowers, pink, but there’s nothing “gendered” about it. It really is ironic that our culture is insisting that gender is unimportant and elective, when at the same time we’re obsessed with it and talk and think about it *way* more than we used to.

  • Mary @ Better Than Eden

    Yes!!! Thank you! I’m especially frustrated by the fact that the very same people infuriated over “projecting” false gender stereotypes and roles on children are very often the same ones who use those same stereotypes (or the rejection of them) as evidence that someone is the “incorrect” gender. The cognitive dissonance is stunning.

    We are big fans of the Eldredges. Reading Wild at Heart really changed my husband’s life and it helped me to understand him so much better. Love and War was really helpful for our marriage, too.

    • Jacob

      I’m especially frustrated by the fact that the very same people infuriated over “projecting” false gender stereotypes and roles on children are very often the same ones who use those same stereotypes (or the rejection of them) as evidence that someone is the “incorrect” gender

      So very true. Obvious, but I never thought of their standard of measure in relative terms. Thank you very much!

  • Jacob

    I really appreciate this article and I’m certainly going to steal some of the lines. I am a bit confused and just wanted to make sure that I wasn’t missing anything, I hope I am though so then I can go deeper!, but the last line just doesn’t make sense to me and I wanted to make sure that it is simply good rhetoric.

    Augustine and Aquinas are very clear on what the “image” of God is, namely our ability to be rational (to think in absolutes, simply speaking) and I’m not sure what male and female have to do with God’s image.
    As Aquinas points out, in one way the angels are made even more in God’s image than humans and they don’t have sex. I didn’t miss anything cool did I?

    • Jenny Uebbing

      Theology of the Body does a far better job conveying this than I could ever could, but yes, we image God in His self-giving generation of love: Father and Son eternally uniting and the Holy Spirit issuing forth from that communion of love. That’s why the Church is so stubbornly attached to marriage being both unitive and procreative – because that union of spousal love is so fruitful that it has the capacity to create an entirely new person. Human marriage is an imperfect (not in the sense of broken, but rather, incomplete) reflection of eternally fruitful union of the Trinity. Read Wojtyla’s “Love and Responsibility” if you haven’t already, it’ll blow your mind.

      • Jacob

        Perhaps one day, I’ll get to the modern writers, Augustine and Aquinas alone wrote so very much, but it sounds very much like you are saying that husband and wife bear fruit just as the Father and Son bear the Holy Spirit. How can this be though? as the Holy spirit is not a fruit of those two. A fruit is same in species yet different. Child is neither mother nor father, yet human. Holy Spirit is a distinct person, no difference at ALL, hence no fruit.
        Aquinas gives a simile of a tree flowering, not a tree “fruiting” as the flower comes from the form of the tree, distinct not different.
        I ‘m sure the word to be used is procession. “Proceeds from the Father and the Son”.
        I believe I understand now that “image” is being used equivocally, although for rhetoric’s sake I’m not sure it matters, but as to understanding the Genesis quote it should.
        Reproduction falls under “sensitive love” or “natural love”, but the love which gets us to heaven is “intellectual love”. Love which comes from the intellect does not require reproduction ie. Trinity, Mary and Joseph, etc.
        Of note, Aquinas in the First Part Q 96 Article 1 (Summa) very clearly proves that man is made in the image of God only in our rationality. All other imperfect likeness’ are what sometimes are translated as “trace”. They ‘trace’ back to God. FYI.
        Also pretty cool, “image” is a proper name to the second person, not the third.
        I do hope to get to read Wojtyla’s writings, I mean a Saint being hailed as a Great and all, but the Doctor’s wrote so very much, no time, no time, gotta make it to Heaven haha.

  • Vanessa

    And here I am. Literally every time you write something, I say to myself, “That is the BEST thing she has ever written!” How do you keep wow-ing me?? Seriously. Thank you for using your God-given talents to serve this world. Amen to everything you wrote here. God bless you, Jenny!

  • John S

    The benefit of “gender norming” is precisely in that we are a social species whose expression of sexual complementarity is not solely instinctual: that our free will allows us to choose forms of sexual expression that can be detrimental, even damaging to the function and design purpose of sex.

    In part, gender norming helps the vast majority of our children, most of the time, to avoid pitfalls that range from damaging, to those than can be fatal. Another benefit of it is that a culture can create a know set of default signals, where said signals default to guiding people into a proper expression of human sexuality, and thus lead to their flourishing. In short, the benefits are both personal, and cultural.

    One can certainly argue both the proper scope and appropriate degree of narrowness of such norms, but to discard them with no better replacement is a kind of vandalism; not just of the culture, but of the lives of those who live within that culture.

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