In my childhood, I was a boy. Everything around me pointed to this fact. The fairy tales about the youngest son going on a quest, the football matches in the TV and in the streets, the future careers suggested by the adults. Like every child, I thought everything was about me: I was the youngest son, the next big football star, or the accomplished engineer, actor or writer the adults were talking about.
Like every child. Or maybe not? How much of this experience is influenced by the generation I belong to, or my own experiences and personality? In some way, these must have an impact. Growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s was different from growing up today: there was less variety in clothing, children’s tales, toys… parents, even if they wanted to, couldn’t raise boys and girls as differently as they are able to today. It would be interesting to examine these differences further, but this isn’t the time and place for that. My question is: how universal is the idea that in a patriarchal society, all children begin their lives as boys?
One of Simone de Beauvoir’s - the famous French feminist philosopher - most famous claim is this: one is not born but becomes a woman.
By this, she must have meant that as you grow out of the innocence of childhood, you realise that all the games and habits you’ve come to know are associated with boys, and the statements you thought were universal (“all children like playing with balls”) are not meant to apply to you.
In fact, all the rules you thought applied to you suddenly change. You realise there is some strange, alien, secret, unspoken set of rules that you are supposed to follow, but nobody has ever told you before what this means for you.
You keep growing up, and the pressure from society grows: the pressure to act like a girl, whatever that means. The stories are still all about Thorn Castles (Tutajosok) and Paul Street Boys (A Pál Utcai Fiúk) [popular Hungarian classics about the adventures of boys], and you still think defending your turf or exploring the reeds around Lake Balaton sound like great adventures. But suddenly, you are not allowed to think so? And yet, you are still expected to read stories like these, whether you want to or not. For me and for many others, both of these books were compulsory readings in elementary school. (And the situation isn’t very different today: children might read Winnie the Pooh or Finding Nemo instead of the classics, but boy stuff still gets the spotlight.)
The aim of this reminiscing is not only to illustrate that society revolves around men: that much we have already known, since men were the ones who built it. What’s more interesting to me is that in early childhood, there is a period when everyone is “neutral” enough to simply be a seemingly genderless “child”. But don’t be fooled: despite its seemingly gender-neutral appearance, this existence is still coded explicitly as “male”. If I am right about this early childhood period, then what follows is that it is an essential experience of girlhood to realise that your seemingly neutral childhood was in a way a “boyhood”. I would not restrict this theory to cis girls, but to everyone who has ever had this realisation: that is, everyone who isn’t a cis boy. Cis boys don’t have to realise anything: their existence has always been “universal”.
If you think back to your own childhood, can you find a moment where you realised that up until then, you were “allowed to be a boy”? Do you recognise the experience I described? Many of my friends, including cis and hetero girls have the same feeling of being chased out of Paradise (or in other words, the neutral childhood). So I ask you this question: how does anybody become a girl?
Is it possible that gender identity and sexual orientation is defined by the answer to this question - one that develops over years, or sometimes decades?
Translated by Alexa Sebők