..and they are. But on Sunday night's episode of the Duggar's reality show "19 kids and counting," it is Jill, one of the oldest children, who is acting as "mom" while her parents are at the hospital, preparing for baby #19.
Waiting for mom and dad to call from the hospital to announce the sex of their new sibling, the children gather anxiously in the family room, while the camera crew takes the opportunity to ask each of them what they think the "gender" of the baby will be. Though most of the kids answer either "i think it's going to be a boy" or "i think it's going to be a girl," one of the youngest, Johannah, responds "I think it's going to be a boy and a girl."
Intrigued, I hit "record" on my Tivo while asking my partner, "Did you hear that?!" Always the pessimist, she suggests Johannah meant that her mom was going to have twins, one boy and one girl, not a single child who identifies as "a boy and a girl."
But before I can draw her attention to Johannah's use of the word "it" to imply she's talking about a single child....or ask whether Johannah's intentions even matter because, regardless of what she meant, her statement "troubles" normative gender categories... for once, the Duggars give me exactly what I want.
The camera cuts to a computer screen, showing a video of the Duggar parents announcing the "gender" of the baby. It's a girl! The camera cuts again, and the crew interviews the children to find out their reaction. After a few predictable shots of the older children saying "I knew it was going to be a girl" and "yay! the girls are catching up!" they again turn to Johannah, who reiterates: "I think it's a boy and a girl."
Always trying to stir up "trouble," the cameraman persists. "Why do you think that?" he asks the 4 year old as she twirls a lock of her blonde hair between her fingers.
"It decided to be a boy and---"
Johannah is cut off my her 18-year-old sister Jill. Taking her sister's hand, Jill says, in an assertive voice, "They already announced what it was going to be. Did you hear that?"
Little Johannah nodds.
"So why do you still think it's going to be a boy?" Jill asks.
Johannah sighs, exasperated. "It's not. It's a boy AND a girl" she emphasizes.
Clearly, the little girl is not confused. She doesn't think her mom is having twins. She truly believes her new sibling is going to be a boy and a girl. Furthermore, she is not suggesting that the baby is simply going to be born that way, but that it will "decide" to be a boy and a girl. Thus, she is giving the baby agency, or the power to determine it's own gender. In fact, while I rolled my eyes when the cameraman asked what the "gender" of the baby was going to be, I have to give Johannah credit. She answered the question that was asked. She articulated, quite clearly, that the baby is going to "decide" to present itself as a "boy and a girl." I wonder, had she been asked about the baby's sex, whether she would have had a different response. Does she believe there is a difference between the baby's sex and it's gender? Unfortunately, this question was not asked.
Still, in the few lines of dialog we do have from Johannah, we have quite a lot. Unlike her older brothers and sisters, Johannah is able to think beyond an either/or gender dichotomy and select both as a viable option. Is it because, at age 4, the gender binary has not yet been socially ingrained? Or is she aware of gender conventions and intentionally choosing to subvert them? Does she know that she is "making trouble?" Does she want to make trouble? If so, what kind of trouble does she want to make? Is she confused, as her older sister seems to suggest, or is she expositing her own, nuanced kind of gender theory?
As bell hooks states in her chapter "Theory as Liberatory Practices," quoting from Terry Eagleton:
"Children make the best theorists, since they have not yet been educated into accepting our routine social practices as normal... they do not see why we might not do things differently" (59)
Still, Eagleton's use of the word "yet" is rather dooming. It suggests that, at some point, Johanna will give up on insisting that her new sibling is a "boy and a girl," acquiece to normative gender categories, and stop making trouble.
But, at least today, Johanna is still troubling the gender binary. And she is getting in trouble for doing it. While her sister Jill may not have disciplined the 4-year-old in the traditional sense, she did use her language to attempt to discipline the child's thoughts. By questioning Johanna's logic and trying to convince her that her new sibling is only a girl, Jill is desperately trying to put Johannah back in line--- to make her understand and accept binaristic gender categories. While this constant discipling of thought may eventually break her down, today it is Johanna 1, Jill 0. So far, the baby is still deciding to be a "boy and a girl."