Babies and the Cultural Performance of Femininity

Babies. I recently birthed one. A boy, which surprised me far more than I thought it would, but nonetheless a welcome and planned little bundle.

On the whole, parenting a new baby has been pretty much exactly the way I thought it would be. And I’m growing to like his little self very well. He loves to laugh, loves to smile, loves to just sit back and watch the world and and he seems to find each and every moment and individual to be utterly delightful. He has no inhibitions.

But here’s the thing I’ve been thinking a lot about babies: boy or girl, babies “perform femininity” with ease. Think about it; the cultural performance of feminity involves conforming to and producing the following markers, among others:

  • hairlessness,
  • softness,
  • vulnerability,
  • lack of obvious muscularity,
  • helplessness,
  • higher voices,
  • emotional lability,
  • dependence,
  • confusion regarding complex issues,
  • physical weakness, and
  • to a certain extent, paleness of skin relative to other individuals of the same ethnic background (this is an intersection of performed femininity, racist assumptions re: beauty, and classism).

Babies are, according to our assumptions regarding what feminine is, remarkable feminine, and without even trying.

Now, on the one hand that says a lot about what women are expected to perform when they’re expected to perform femininity. Feminine performance is, to a certain extent, infantilizing for women.

But, on the other hand, it helps to explain to me why folks are so very caught up in making sure little baby boys are dressed up and recognizable as boys. Their essential  femininity must be masked.

This is absolutely essential for some folks, and I can’t help but wonder if the sheer obviousness of their femininity isn’t part of why it sometimes seems like people need to go so far in the violently oppressively masculine direction with boys – not just blue as a neutral and value-less identifier of gender, but blue with sharks (killers in the ocean), blue with depictions of violent sport (war games, with many real life injuries), camoflage for calling up images of war – people killing each other, with guns, often at close range, to be clear about what that imagery is about. On baby clothes.


  1. julybirthday said,

    July 15, 2009 @ 2:49 pm

    This post is dead-on. When strangers remarked that my baby boy was “beautiful,” and I agreed and said, “he is, isn’t he?” But they would be surprised, and would stumble over themselves to apologize and say Oh, No, He isn’t beautiful, he’s HANDOME. Like it matters. I felt like channeling Holly Hunter from “Raising Arizona” and crying, ALL BABIES ARE BEAUTIFUL!

  2. wondering said,

    July 15, 2009 @ 3:00 pm

    My sister is a single mom who just had her first child, a baby boy.

    I saw some cute baby jeans at a consignment store. They had embroidery on the leg – flowers and birds. I planned to buy them but when I mentioned them to my sister she said “Oh, his uncles won’t like that.”

    She then goes on to say that she has caught flak about dressing him in nighties (until she has explained that it is easier to change his diaper at night if she just has to lift the nightie) and about having him wear a little bonnet (blue, even!) because it looks “girlie” (until she explains it’s to keep him from getting too much sun).

    We start the gender normalizing very, very early. And I wouldn’t have thought that my brothers and b-i-l’s would be like this, but apparently they are.

    Oddly enough, none of them police my nieces in the same way. They are happy that she plays with tools. She wears a pink tutu and a cowboy hat will doing it (she’s 4) but her daddy is a welder and mechanic and she likes to get right in there with him.

  3. Metal Prophet said,

    February 17, 2010 @ 9:24 pm

    Any baby of mine, regardless of sex, will be dressed in green, to confuse people. No blue and no pink.

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