I'm at an age where scrolling through Instagram involves seeing a whole bunch of babies. To be clear, I definitely do not take issue with that. Kids are cute (well, some of them) and it can be fun and even life-affirming to see people I've known throughout my life — as friends, classmates, coworkers, and family members — navigating parenthood, even if it's only from a perspective that's curated specifically for social media. What I do struggle with, though, is not related to the photos, but rather to the captions, or actually the hashtags, and specifically the pervasive use of #BoyMum and #GirlDad.
At a glance, these hashtags seem to be stating simple facts: I am the mother of a boy, or I am the dad of a girl. But, look a little deeper and it's more insidious than that: it's an insistence on gender, both for parent and child that feels odd and forced. It's hard not to be baffled by the fact that so many people have an incessant need to gender children through hashtags. I may live in a bit of a Brooklyn bubble, but I really thought most of us had moved beyond this utter fixation on the gender binary. Apparently not.
"More often than not, parents, doctors, friends, family members, and strangers begin the process of gendering while the fetus is still in utero — 'gender reveal' parties are a great example," Dr. Jessica N. Pabón-Colón, associate professor of women's, gender, and sexuality studies at SUNY New Paltz, tells me. "The gendering process then continues through quite literally every aspect of that child's life: the pink or blue newborn hospital beanie, the princess or football player clothing gifted at the baby shower, the jungle or fairyland nursery room decor, and of course, the toy trucks or baby dolls."
This performance of gender as it pertains to parenting is supplemented by the fact that many of us feel compelled to share a lot of our lives online, making our experiences with parenthood — and its attendant cultural preoccupation with gender — show up on our feeds, too. "It follows that this gendering would extend to the practice of how parents document their parenting and then organise and categorise their experiences with hashtags on social media," Dr. Pabón-Colón explains.
Because I don't have children, I can admit that I may have underestimated just how intense the pressure remains to fit kids into the gender binary. Still, I do know a lot of young parents, and many of them seem to actively work to subvert gender norms for their kids. They choose the colour for their nursery based on personal preference, they don't sweat it if their boys want to play with dolls, and they openly complain about how weird and even inappropriate the phrases on children's clothing often are. (Really, no kid should ever be forced to wear a T-shirt that says “stud muffin.”) And yet, even among many seemingly progressive parents, these gendered hashtags keep popping up. But, why? And what are they really saying?
It's important to note that these hashtags don't just identify the genders of the child and parent, but they emphasize a child's gender in opposition to that of the parent — which is to say, I honestly don't think I've ever seen #BoyDad. While I suspect that some people who use #GirlDad or #BoyMum might be doing it because they think it's somehow bucking gender stereotypes, but all it really does is reinforce them. Dr. Pabón-Colón agrees that this rationale doesn't make the hashtag any less problematic. "The #GirlDad hashtag is announcing the 'masculine' father's ability to parent a child whose 'feminine' gender is different from his, just as the #BoyMum hashtag announces the 'feminine' mother's ability to parent a child whose 'masculine' gender is different from hers. Both seem to suggest that the parents are going out of their way to parent a child with a different gender and are proud of it, which seems innocent but can be cumulatively harmful," she shares. "The hashtag #GirlDad in particular, I think, is used in part to express pride over parenting a girl — a declaration only necessary in a patriarchal society that values girls less than boys." It's true, #GirlDad, in particular, seems like a way to pat men on the back for spending time with their daughters, when in reality, that's kind of the bare minimum for being a parent, regardless of gender.
Another possibility is that parents use #GirlDad or #BoyMum as a way to confront gendered stereotypes head-on, and show that they're raising sensitive, respectful boys or strong girls. Again, though, this only serves to emphasize and acknowledge the gender binary and traditional gender norms, both of which are rooted in a problematic ideal. "Gendering children in contrast to the parents' gender/s is at least partially based on ideas about caretaking framed by the 'Standard [white] North American Family,'" Dr. Pabón-Colón says. "In this cissexist and heterosexist limited line of thinking, cismen are needed and the most 'appropriate' to raise masculine sons and women are needed to raise, well, everyone — but especially feminine daughters."
Dr. Pabón-Colón thinks there are ways parents could actually topple gender norms and offer "a counternarrative to this #BoyMum #GirlDad social media phenomenon," but only in specific cases. "Using the hashtag to demonstrate genderqueer, gender-bending, gender-expansive, and gender-fluid ways of being has the potential to be subversive if we articulate it as such. For example, if my kid was a transgirl maybe using #GirlMum would affirm their gender at the same time as it takes power away from cissexist notions of girlhood that don't include trans girls," she says. Still, as we know, even with the best of intentions, complexities often get lost when communicated through Instagram captions, let alone two-word hashtags. "That's the issue with social media sharing — you never know how it will be received, in what context it will be understood (almost always out of context), or if your intention was visible or not," Dr. Pabón-Colón says.
When it comes to how I receive these hashtags, which, typically, I run across at least once a day, I vacillate between being a bit puzzled and thinking they're eye-rollingly stupid. Dr. Pabón-Colón, though, points out that they can also be damaging. Her child, for example, does not identify as either gender, so she says, using #BoyMum or #GirlMum would "cause harm to their sense of self." While queer kids, especially those who identify as non-binary or trans, are the most obvious victims of our society’s obsession with gender and how that's manifested online, Dr. Pabón-Colón explains that it's actually harmful to all kids. "Every semester, when we discuss body image, my undergraduate students who identify as women describe the negative effects of social media on their self-worth," she shares. "They realise that the constant flow of imagery teaches them how to 'be women' in a patriarchal culture." Even if #GirlDad is used with the well-meaning intention to show that girls can play soccer or play dress-up with their fathers, it's still categorising the child — and the parent — and setting some kind of expectation based on or in opposition to gender norms.
Aside from its potentially harmful nature though, what do these hashtags really tell us about a child or parent and the relationship they have? Nothing! As Dr. Pabón-Colón puts it, "the label 'boy' cannot possibly contain [a child's] personality traits." There's so much more to any one person than their sex or gender. "I am not arguing that there are not differences between body parts, but having a vulva does not explain a child's desire to have a tea party with their dad any more than having a penis explains a child's desire to climb a tree with their mother," she insists. "In other words, labelling a behaviour a 'boy' thing just doesn't make sense as there are not strictly 'boy' things and 'girl' things." It seems like most parents of my generation grasp that pretty basic concept, so perhaps it's time to take these hashtags out of our rotation.
If that does happen, it won't mean the end of parents overusing hashtags, of course. They'll just use something different. And, Dr. Pabón-Colón has a great alternative for parents who still want to share anecdotes about and photos of their kids on social media. "Why not use hashtags based on the child's personality (#ExtrovertParent), astrology (#SagittariusParent), or activity (#ParkourParent) instead of gender?" she asks. Which, yes: I couldn't care less what it's like to raise a boy, but raising a Scorpio? Now, that's interesting.