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17 October 2017 22:37 (South Africa)
Politics

Analysis: Of a genderless child, parents and Storm they are brewing

  • Richard Poplak
    HEADSHOT_Rich-Poplak_orange.jpg
    Richard Poplak

    Richard Poplak was born and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He trained as a filmmaker and fine artist at Montreal’s Concordia University and has produced and directed numerous short films, music videos and commercials. Now a full-time writer, Richard is a senior contributor at South Africa’s leading news site, Daily Maverick, and a frequent contributor to publications all over the world. He is a member of Deca Stories, the international long-form non-fiction collective.

    His first book was the highly acclaimed Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa (Penguin, 2007); his follow-up was entitled The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop-Culture in the Muslim World (Soft Skull, 2010). Poplak has also written the experimental journalistic graphic novel Kenk: A Graphic Portrait (Pop Sandbox, 2010). His election coverage from South Africa’s 2014 election, written under the nom de plume Hannibal Elector, was collected as Until Julius Comes: Adventures in the Political Jungle (Tafelberg, 2014).  Ja, No, Man was longlisted for the Alan Paton Non-Fiction prize, shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Literary Award and voted one of the Top-10 books of 2007 by Now Magazine. Richard has won South Africa’s Media-24 Best Feature Writing Award and a National Magazine Award in Canada.

    Since 2010, Poplak has been travelling across Africa, seeking out the catalysts and characters behind the continent’s 21stcentury metamorphosis. The coming book, co-authored with Kevin Bloom, is called The Shift

  • Politics
toronto

Two weeks ago, a North American newspaper published a story called “Footloose and gender free”. David Stocker and Kathy Witterick of Toronto, we learnt, were raising their four-month-old baby, Storm, as “gender neutral”, and had told almost no one whether the baby was a boy or a girl. The story went viral, and has become the only topic of conversation anywhere in a 3,000km radius of the city. RICHARD POPLAK wonders what has people so riled up?

About five months ago, in an old Victorian house in a steadily gentrifying part of Toronto called the Junction (crackheads and $4-lattes inhabiting the same five shabby blocks), a birth played out. Two doulas helped usher a baby from the womb, and into a birthing pool splashed Storm, so named for “whipped winds and dark rain clouds, because they are beautiful and transformative”. I pull this quote from a recent Toronto Star article, which has propelled Storm firmly into the zeitgeist, and has made it—third person neuter is tragically applicable here—the most famous kid in North America not belonging to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

Regarding the third person neuter: Storm’s parents, David Stocker (39) and Kathy Witterick (38), have told no one, besides their two boys Jazz (5) and Kio (2), whether Storm is a boy or a girl. Like the intersexed protagonist of Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex”, Storm was born twice: First in a Junction birth pool, and then as the Genderless Baby in the media sphere. It’s the second birth that counts: More than 40,000 comments, gazillions of Tweets, big mentions in the Drudge Report, NBC’s “Today Show”, CNN and so on. (“I don’t get it,” said Joy Behar on ABC’s “The View”, “It’s like, when the baby was born, they said, ‘Congratulations, it’s an it!’”) Stocker and Witterick—I cite them in this order for alphabetical symmetry, I promise—have their supporters, but they’ve mostly suffered the slings and arrows of an outraged public. They are all anyone talks about, and it is now a social norm to inform guests, prior to holding a dinner party, what your policy is regarding Genderless Baby chitchat.

Before we get to the nut, we must spend a moment with Stocker, Witterick and their brood. For the rugged individualists they claim to be, they are so firmly of the urban neo-hippy set they might as well be wearing a uniform, complete with a sandwich board declaring their caste. Stocker wears a nose ring and Lennon spectacles; Witterick’s wholesome pinkness speaks of a diet of organic root vegetables. (Baby Storm, on the other hand, looks like a chubby toddler Goebbels would have held aloft at a Bavarian rally—a perfect, radiant, ruddy Aryan.)

Ideologically speaking, Stocker and Witterick swing way left, and appear as purely dogmatic about their decision-making as it’s possible to be. Stocker is a stay-at-home dad; Witterick is employed at City View School, a tiny institution where “lessons are framed by social-justice issues around class, race and gender”. They vacation with the Zapatistas in Mexico and the commies in Cuba, and the clan “co-sleeps” on two mattresses in the master bedroom of their two-storey home. The kids are “un-schooled”, which is like home schooling without the syllabus, discipline or schooling. Jazz and Kio—note the perfect Swiss neutrality of their names—are encouraged to limn the edges of gender; both boys look fab in pink and purple, while Jazz rocks nail polish and braids his hair.

I know what you’re feeling right now, mostly because I sense it all the time when I’m in downtown Toronto, a furiously liberal enclave ringed by increasingly conservative old white and new immigrant suburban communities. The blood pressure rises, fists clench and an indefinable outrage builds in the gut and spreads, Ebola-like, from the innards into the consciousness. But we must ask: Where does this reflux fury come from, and why have people like Stocker and Witterick stoked vitriol since bohemians haunted the Montemarte, coughing up speckles of consumptive blood into tattered hankies? The knee-jerk assumption with bohemians and their cultural progeny is, of course, that they’re slumming it. Stocker and Witterick belong to a cohort of upper middle-class postmodern hyper-liberal gentry that is intrinsically appalling, mostly because they’re so inward looking, rigidly ideological and humourless.

But Stocker and Witterick have hit a particularly raw nerve, and in this, they deserve to be taken seriously. Gender, after all, matters. In South Africa, torrents of gender-related speechifying roared forth after the fall of the apartheid regime; gender is an abiding concern of the country’s constitutional bedrock. Embedded into the notion of “gender issues”—newspeak for the very real manifestation of gender disparities in the social and political sphere—is the essence of equality; we cannot talk of racial parity if we don’t discuss gender. While South Africa and North America shouldn’t be compared in terms of the specifics of their gender problems, there is no doubt that the 21st century Western post-feminist looks back on the last 50 years and wonders, “What the heck happened?” France and Italy are currently rocked by sex scandals, perpetrated by the members of the ruling political elite against a chambermaid and an underage hooker respectively. Last year, an Israeli ex-president was jailed on multiple rape convictions and Canada gloats for having recently voted in 20% fewer female members of parliament than South Africa did in 1994.

Meanwhile, on the airwaves, Lady Gaga’s bestselling album “Born This Way” provides a new iteration of post-feminism-as-product. We look to a waif in a string bikini and hair extensions to pump out sentiments like, “If you’re a strong woman, you don’t need permission,” or, on the album’s eponymous track, “Don’t hide yourself in regret, just love yourself and you’re set”. This is what it’s culminated in and one can forgive Stocker and Witterick for their exasperation. The question becomes, can they be forgiven for conducting what amounts to a social experiment on their infant, who doesn’t yet have much of a say in Lady Gaga vs. Madonna, clothing choice or any of the other aspects of our culture that so trouble its parents?

As I’ve suggested, much of the industrial-grade fury spewed at Stocker and Witterick is based on the following assumption: Their rejection of societal norms comes from a place of privilege. They have fashioned a way of life outside of the mainstream because they are able to do so; most of us don’t feel like we have that kind of choice. Their behaviour may seem especially spurious in a South African context—given the scope of the divide between rich and poor—but counter-culture movements have always been the spore spat up by the bourgeoisie. They are negotiated by people who should perhaps be making an honest living, but are instead experimenting with yeast cultures and patchouli drying. And genderless babies.

The attention and consideration Stocker and Witterick lavish on their brood presents as a luxury item that many of us cannot afford. This makes us very, very uneasy about our own parenting choices. It prods the wounds that still fester from our own childhoods—which we try to salve by raising our children in opposition to the norms of our parents’ generation. “Do toy trucks make boys?” we wonder. “Do dolls make girls?” Are our kids being streamed into consumer categories before they’re old enough to use a toilet, shaped by a capitalist hand that turns them into AAA batteries, denudes them of their individuality and crushes any hope they might have of a transcendental understanding of what it means to be human?

One muses on these things when one looks at a fresh infant, newly coaxed into a birthing pool by two of Toronto’s finest doulas. So one must extend a streak of empathy toward Stocker and Witterick, who want what we all want for our children: Something more. They are hamstrung, of course, by a rather terrifying fact: We know almost nothing about gender. While we understand that gender and sex are disparate phenomena, we very little about how they interact physiologically and socially. We know what a penis looks like, but we don’t properly comprehend how the self is defined by that appendage.

Since the Storm story broke, the mediasphere has dragged gender specialists out of their hidey-holes at MIT and the Mayo Clinic and elsewhere, and asked them to pronounce on the meaning of X and Y chromosomes, and whether we exit the womb with toy preferences based on our genitalia, or are nudged there by societal convention. Nature or nurture—the ancient, perhaps unanswerable, conundrum. We can expend all the broadband in the universe debating the issue, citing this study over that one and we will never be fully satisfied. At best, we understand the rearing of our young to be a combination of the two, a firm but gentle hand guiding a specific personality, with its own preferences and predilections, in the ways of the world.

What are little Storm’s preferences and predilections? Is she for trucks? Or is he for dolls. The kid is too young to consume solid food, so it’s no doubt hard to tell. Which brings us to another of the social problems at the heart of Stocker and Witterick’s gender neutrality gambit: The nuances of modern parenting. I’d wager that many people reading this article were raised by the shadowy hand of Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose mega-selling “Baby and Child Care” manual lined the bookshelves of most middle-class homes in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Spock himself revised his outlook constantly over the course of his career, and 65 years after that book was first published, new parents have literally thousands of other volumes to choose from, all catering to an increasingly narrow set of social preferences. How to raise a right-wing baby; How to raise a Catholic baby; How to raise a vegan baby; How to raise a baby that eats other babies and goes on to destroy the global financial system. Choices. We’ve never had more of them.

And Stocker and Witterick have made a few. In their studied parental aloofness—in the very independence they claim to be fostering in their children—there is an implicit management that speaks to their own, very sharp anxieties. In dumping their gender concerns on their children, and in making those concerns the guiding theme of their childhoods, they seem like the mirror image of Amy Chua, the Ameri-Asian “Tiger Mom” who foisted insane levels of Chinese immigrant work ethic on her kids, and wrote a bestselling book about it. (No play dates! Three hours daily piano practice! What television?) We want our children to be successful, and we want them to be independent free thinkers who are able to navigate, and rise above, the stream of everyday society. But we do not know how to steer them there. By going to the extreme—by trying to protect Storm from narrow gender assignations—Stocker and Witterick are attempting to free their kid of a host of societal shackles.

Rather, they’ve imposed a very defined and rigid choice upon little Storm—the pretence of being neither/nor. In Toronto, the kid will hardly be hamstrung if it decides to be a drag queen, or walk at the front of the enormous Gay Pride Parade should that turn out to be its preference. It can apply for state money to make a movie about its exploration of gender identity and can apply for a different stack of state money to write books about it. This is less about Storm, and more about Stocker and Witterick, who clearly have problems with how their children are defined in a culture that tattoos upon you a role, expects you to abide by it and asks you to consume appropriately. They experiment with the anti-definition, which is no less a definition at all.

In making gender an obsession in their home, Stocker and Witterick’s kids—if I know humans—will likely be saddled with lifelong resentment toward their parents for screwing them up so royally. (Jazz scribbles in his journal under a pseudonym “Gender Explorer” and, according to the Toronto Star story, has chosen not to go to school because he doesn’t like explaining his sartorial choices. I remind you—he’s five.) Will Storm have his/her own special identity—a pronoun Witterick has coined as “Z”—or will he/she be defined and bedevilled by this question for life? “One will find out,” says Ken Zucker, a “world specialist of gender identity” at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Meanwhile, he benefits from some free field research.

There is, of course, a tragedy at the kernel of this story. The world has changed so rapidly that we have not been able to parent in step with it. We lose our children as soon as we bring them into the world; they are sucked into a vortex of a society that scrubs them of their essences and instead assigns them a place based on gender, class, race and so on. We want to protect them, but we don’t have the tools, mostly because we can’t imagine a way out of the conventions. The Western middle-class, long having raised their children with a set of core values, can no longer identify or agree on what those core values are. Parenting has become a consumer choice, a way of reinforcing one’s own identity. We know it’s wrong, but we don’t know how to correct it. Which is why David Stocker and Kathy Witterick, and the genderless—but gender-shackled—baby they brought into the world have become a nuclear-powered meme. For now, Storm is free from “the tyranny of pronouns” (Witterick’s words). But this charade has a lifespan, and it ends when Storm leaves their co-sleep nest, and enters a world that operates on definitions. DM


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Photo: A full moon makes its way over the Toronto skyline, September 16, 1986 as the lights from buildings reflect off Lake Ontario. The photograph was made by first shooting the moon with a 600mm lens and then taking a time exposure of the city, both on the same frame of the film.

  • Richard Poplak
    HEADSHOT_Rich-Poplak_orange.jpg
    Richard Poplak

    Richard Poplak was born and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He trained as a filmmaker and fine artist at Montreal’s Concordia University and has produced and directed numerous short films, music videos and commercials. Now a full-time writer, Richard is a senior contributor at South Africa’s leading news site, Daily Maverick, and a frequent contributor to publications all over the world. He is a member of Deca Stories, the international long-form non-fiction collective.

    His first book was the highly acclaimed Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa (Penguin, 2007); his follow-up was entitled The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop-Culture in the Muslim World (Soft Skull, 2010). Poplak has also written the experimental journalistic graphic novel Kenk: A Graphic Portrait (Pop Sandbox, 2010). His election coverage from South Africa’s 2014 election, written under the nom de plume Hannibal Elector, was collected as Until Julius Comes: Adventures in the Political Jungle (Tafelberg, 2014).  Ja, No, Man was longlisted for the Alan Paton Non-Fiction prize, shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Literary Award and voted one of the Top-10 books of 2007 by Now Magazine. Richard has won South Africa’s Media-24 Best Feature Writing Award and a National Magazine Award in Canada.

    Since 2010, Poplak has been travelling across Africa, seeking out the catalysts and characters behind the continent’s 21stcentury metamorphosis. The coming book, co-authored with Kevin Bloom, is called The Shift

  • Politics

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