- Sissies, Dolls, and Dancing:Children's Literature and Gender Deviance in the Seventies
During the late 1960s and the 1970s in the United States, discourses on gender were proliferating; creating a charged, unstable category that formed the center of much scientific, academic, and social inquiry. The nation's first "gender identity clinic" opened at Johns Hopkins in 1965 and the first sex reassignment surgery was completed in 1966 (Wexler). Second wave feminism—and its serious questioning of gender roles—increasingly influenced both society and academia (Duberman xi). The National Institute of Mental Health awarded funds to several institutions around the country to conduct various forms of research on childhood gender problems; the largest of these projects took place at the UCLA Gender Identity Research and Treatment Clinic (Burke 32–33). This federally funded scrutiny of children's gender behavior was a precursor to the institutional pathologization of gender deviance. In 1980 the American Psychiatric Association added a new diagnosis to its latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM III, 1980): "Gender Identity Disorder of Childhood."
The seventies were an era in which gender became a vibrant, contested domain that acted as a cultural battleground of competing ideologies. Interestingly, this era saw a large output of gender non-normative children's literature—literature that staked out a particular space in society's discourse on gender by presenting children's books that contested notions of traditional gender roles and identities. A Guide to Non-sexist Children's Books lists eighty-three early childhood books published between 1976 and 1980 that deal with characters of both sexes who do not conform to strict gender norms. This body of literature seems largely influenced by much feminist work of the era that maintained that gender roles do not flow naturally from one's biological sex, but instead that people are [End Page 60] taught to behave based on socially determined gender roles. In this essay I will examine two popular and widely taught works of early children's literature—William's Doll (1972) by Charlotte Zolotow and Oliver Button Is a Sissy (1979) by Tomie de Paola—and I will explore how these books conceptualize and comment on traditional gender roles by creating a space for gender non-normative boys. I will also examine how these books, while attempting to disrupt "appropriate" gender conformity, are often trapped in the very conventions they appear to be fighting.
William's Doll and Oliver Button Is a Sissy are the most widely read and taught of the many children's books of the era (including Tough Eddie and What's This about Pete?) that focus on male-bodied protagonists who possess various "feminine" traits. There is an equal, if not larger, body of children's literature in the seventies dealing with gender non-conforming female-bodied protagonists (Tomboy, The Boyhood of Grace Jones, Nice Little Girls, etc. However, I focus my paper primarily on male-bodied children because masculine gender norms are often more rigid (DSM III 71) and male peers are generally more hostile toward gender deviation, thus physically and verbally enforcing adherence to masculinity (Nodelman 8; Pollack 208; Green 267–68; Levine 156). Thus, young boys arguably experience more charged expectations of gender conformity and more immediate backlash for deviation not only from society, but also from parents as well as peers. Before specifically addressing these two influential children's books, I will first examine why society is so deeply invested in boys' gender conformity and how this investment actually leads to various forms of mental and physical control of young boys. I examine this social and psychological context in order to illuminate what is at stake in this literature and what specific role children's literature plays in this hotly contested gender discourse.
Society clearly has a stake in socializing children to behave in an "appropriate," socially accepted manner. Teaching children to act according to specific social standards theoretically keeps society running in a predictable, non-anarchistic manner. Within these social guidelines that are both implicitly and explicitly taught to children, the issue of gender is densely packed with an overabundance of, often unspoken, fears and anxieties. This gender panic...