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by Emily W. Kane
NYU Press, 2012
Review by Hennie Weiss on Jan 15th 2013

The Gender Trap

In The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls Emily W. Kane uses interviews with parents to examine how they "…navigate the complex task of managing their children's gender" (p. vii). In doing so Kane focuses on parents of children between the ages of three to five (pre-school age). Kane starts out with asking parents if they had a preference in wanting a girl or a boy, finding that gendered anticipation are linked to assumptions of gender. For example, most men prefer to have a son, since they want their son to carry on the family name (patriarchal traditions), take part in masculine activities, such as playing sports, and engaging in outdoor activities, and because many men feel that having a son is fundamental to manhood.

Kane describes two essential beliefs about gender that parents often use when reinforcing or contesting traditional gender behavior: biological essentialism and social constructionism. These views lay the foundation for the five categories that Kane develops dependent on parental gendered beliefs. Even though Kane acknowledges that these categories are not mutually exclusive, the assumptions of gender are based much on one view, the other, or on both.

The Naturalizers are the most prone to explain gender as the outcome of biological determinism, such as hormones, genes and "hard wiring". The Naturalizers are then the most likely to support and believe that differences are essential to gender and sex, and encourage a gendered upbringing. The Cultivators on the other hand are more likely to believe that gender is socially shaped and based much on parental influence. At the same time, Cultivators are more likely to express support for nontraditional gendered behaviors in daughters than sons. Cultivators therefore still adhere to certain traditional notions of gender, such as focusing on being masculine for boys and pretty for girls. The Refiners are the group most likely to believe in equal parts biology and society. A parent's personal preference in terms of the display of gender (traditional or non-traditional) is therefore an important factor for the Refiners. In some ways they support traditional notions of gender, and in other ways they resist them. The Refiners often state that they want their child to be "well-rounded" and therefore try to follow a middle-road. The Innovators are the parents who believe in biology the least, and are also more likely to try to raise their child/children in a less gendered way. Perhaps not surprising, the Innovators are also less likely to be concerned with accountability to others in terms of what other people might think about their child/children, child-rearing or parenting skills. Fighting for gender neutrality is common among these parents. The last group of parents is the Resisters. Similarly to the Innovators, the Resisters are more likely to focus on social forces, but they emphasize institutional factors and power much more. The Resisters feel the need to protect their children from restrictive notions of gender, but feel anxious about accountability to others. Overall, the five types of parents encompass beliefs about gender that stretch from biological determinism to social constructionism.

What I found interesting that Kane does not elaborate on very much is the notion that the Naturalizers, who are identified as the group most likely to believe in biological essentialism and who have the highest level of personal preference for traditionally gendered outcomes are also still very likely to steer their child in a gendered path. That is, they encourage traditional gender behavior while discouraging behavior that they do not believe fit with their child's gender. It is interesting that parents who believe that gender is biologically determined also spend much time and effort reinforcing traditional gender through behavior, toys and clothes. If gender is based on biology, then these parents would not have to "worry" about toy and color preferences. It is also interesting to note that in all five parental categories, parents reported that their son wanted to play with traditionally female gendered toys, such as Barbie's. The response given by parents varied based on their beliefs about gender, but in all groups an inclination for boys to play with "opposite gender" toys was reported. Again, the Naturalizers most often reported telling their child that such a toy was for girls, but they rarely elaborated on how "opposite gender" toy preference contradicted their beliefs about biological determinism. At the same time, Kane points out that no group is completely "either or", but since the Naturalizers believe that biology is the foremost governing influence, their beliefs puts them at odds with their actual behavior in terms of managing gender.

Kane writes in a manner that is easily understood yet expressive. The quotes and interviews with parents lend further understanding to how parents try to manage and influence gender. The intended audience is parents of children, but the book is also a contribution to the ongoing discussions and research concerning social constructionism and biological essentialism. As Kane is a Professor of Sociology, the book is essential to areas in Sociology that focus on family, gender, inequality, as well as theory (social constructionism). At the same time, The Gender Trap can be used in Gender studies, Queer studies, Psychology, and in Women's studies as Kane touches on the subjects of class, race, sexual orientation and more when discussing notions of gender.


© 2013 Hennie Weiss


Hennie Weiss has a Master's degree in Sociology from California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.


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