An example of why it’s so important to understand the power of language and how we use it, especially in books for children.
Prior to this blog series on language acquisition and gender, I haven’t written a blog for a whole year. The last one was titled My Gender Work Was Stolen in the Children’s Book Industry. In it I primarily focused on the facts related to two books: one was a workbook that consciously lifted my gender work, and another was a children’s book that co-opted and distorted my Gender Wheel.
Matthew and I recently saw that the name of the co-opted wheel has been changed to the Interactive Wheel as the publisher said it would be. But it is still the same shape. It also has the same language that we told both the author and her press was problematic, and why. We were ignored.
I’m glad this book and its language are no longer directly connected to The Gender Wheel, but it’s message continues to haunt me.
Especially, since this book is sometimes paired with our pronoun book and it’s been on lists in the children’s book industry, validating and uplifting its message.
I generally don’t speak to the problematic content in the workbook that columbused my work, but because I work in the children’s book industry, I have referenced issues in the children’s book in my gender presentations (usually without title).
But in February of this year I did something I hadn’t done before. I shared a brief post on a public media platform about what I consider to be one of the most damaging messages in Who Are You? The Kid’s Guide to Gender Identity.
Sadly it’s on the co—opted Wheel in the back of the book. Far more than the plagiarism, this is what broke me and Matthew’s hearts and enraged us. It can still be emotional to talk about, but I was told the information was helpful so I’m providing it for easier reference.
Matthew and I did a full documentation of the cissexism embedded in the language of both books. This gave us a greater understanding of what was going on and the ability to speak about it. It’s been a lot to digest, but I want to take a moment to make something clear.
This is not about books having to be perfect. Everyone is learning all the time. I know I am. And it’s not about just this book, or the two of them. It’s much, much bigger than that. Certainly bigger than me and my feelings.
This is about patterns and dynamics of power embedded in everything, particularly how we speak, the actions we take and how this contributes to maintaining oppressive systems.
I’m only going to address the pull out ‘Interactive Wheel’ in the back of
Who Are You? The Kid’s Guide to Gender Identity,
and only one sentence on one of the three concentric circles.
This problematic sentence is reflective of the rest of the book. The center circle that is referring to the body says, “I have…” with three choices, “a body that made adults guess ‘girl’ ; “a body that made adults guess ‘boy’ ; or “a body that made adults say ‘not sure.'”
Since we’ve explored the importance of language in the last 2 posts, I want to slow this down to really look at what is being communicated.
“I have a body that made adults…” Here a child claims for their self that their body made adults act, taking all the responsibility and placing it on their body for action upon it.
The sole responsibility for action on their body is their body. This leaves no option to question or consent to action on their body, especially in relation to someone with greater power, like an adult.
This dynamic is impacted by the fact that gender assignments are attached to sex assignments. There is now a message that says everything happening to them is their own fault, because of their body. This is how oppression becomes internalized.
This is a common set up for women, femmes, trans, nonbinary, genderfluid, and queer people to be harmed. “You’re body made me do it.” This is profoundly compounded by racism.
The other part of the phrase,
“guess ‘boy’ or ‘girl'” This can further isolate and disorient the child by removing responsibility or context of the oppressive system and the reality of how sex and gender are assigned, not assumed, in our current culture.
By extension, it erases the history of gender oppression and the colonization of the indigenous Americas and Two Spirit people.
So with this one sentence that a child is encouraged to say, “I have a body that made adults guess…”, all responsiblity is placed on their body and any other responsibility and context is removed. This effectively puts the full onus on the child for their own oppression.
Internalized oppression like body shame and blame must be negotiated by many adults from LBTQI2S+ communities, privately and out in the world, especially for those who are Indigenous or POC. That’s why our annual celebrations are called PRIDE! It takes a simple word to cut through a dense, oppressive cultural fog.
Even for those of us who are a part of the community, it can be challenging to understand the extent by which the dominant systems oppress us, especially with something as common and necessary as language. It takes work to say what you mean with a language shaped by the oppression of women, femmes and LGBTQI2S+ people.
I find it difficult to understand what the author of Who Are You? The Kid’s Guide to Gender Identity was consciously trying to teach with her Interactive Wheel and children’s book when these messages are embedded in her work.
For me, my experience with this book has stressed the power of language, the importance of lived experience and why it’s where we must begin to create real change and equity.
This is our opportunity to finally take the onus off our kids & the larger LGBTQI2S+ community and put in on the system where it belongs.
Language is where we can create real change and equity.
There’s no time to waste.
We must heal the song we sing to our children.
(Missed the first two parts? View the full 3 part series here)
Maya Gonzalez is a Chicanx, queer femme artist, progressive educator and award-winning children’s book illustrator and author. Her work addresses systemic inequity in relation to race/ethnicity, sexism and cissexism using children’s books as radical agents of change and healing, both personally and culturally. With her partner Matthew, she co-founded Reflection Press, a POC, queer and trans owned independent publishing house that uses holistic, nature-based, and anti-oppression frameworks in their books and materials for kids and grown-ups. She is also the creator of the Gender Wheel, a tool to express the dynamic, infinite and inclusive reality of gender, and provides lectures and workshops to educators, parents and caregivers. www.mayagonzalez.com | www.genderwheel.com | www.reflectionpress.com