How Fatherhood Changed the Way a Songwriter Looked at Gender

Questions about pink and blue inspired The Okee Dokee Brothers latest tune.

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My wife and I had Hap, a baby boy, about two years ago. I noticed we received a lot of blue-colored gifts when our baby arrived. We were very grateful, but it did get me thinking: Why do we have to wear our genders?

I remember as a kid, I liked to wear my sister’s pink jellies (remember jellies?). Not just sometimes, but all the time. My family and childhood friends still remind me of this. I also loved wearing my sister’s sparkly unitard, kissing Justin (my lifelong friend and now bandmate) goodbye after play dates, and making up interpretive dances to Lady In Red. Then, in Jr. High and High School, I started feeling pressure to wear football jerseys, give fist bumps, and listen to Kid Rock.

So, how did that fluid thinking 6-year-old turn into someone who identifies as a cisgender straight male? (cisgender: a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex.)

Was it just me? Was it my parents? Was it our culture at the time?

I think about these questions when rocking my son to sleep. It was in the dim quiet of his nursery that these words came to mind for a song on our new winter-themed album:

“Why do we roll up circles
Just to put them inside a square?
Showing them who they should be
By telling them what they can wear

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Our song isn’t really about people made of snow, it’s about our kids — how we listen to them and how their identities and personalities emerge naturally. The lyrics, written for children and families, add nuance for future generations who will have an opportunity to look at gender in very different ways than we do.

My bandmate, Justin, and I are cisgender men, so we admittedly don’t have much authority in the realm of gender fluidity. But we do believe that gender is something that impacts us all, not just those who identify as gender non-conforming, genderfluid, genderqueer, or non-binary. As male role models with a small but influential platform, we want to be examples of positive masculinity, and that means we must be open to new ways of talking about gender.

Knowing us, I’m sure Justin and I were probably looking for attention with those goodbye kisses I mentioned earlier. Our dads were the ones that put an end to that ritual. I don’t blame them for curbing the sensationalism, but telling us that, “men shake hands,” was probably not the best way to deliver the message. As a new dad, I’m not quite sure how I would respond yet. I’m still ruminating on this.

When it comes to new fads like gender-reveal parties that can highlight gender stereotypes instead of just announcing the biological sex of the baby, we should probably have some conversations. A song like “Snowpeople” can at least get people talking about gender differently than what our consumer culture perpetuates.

I was surprised when I found out that pink and blue color assignments are arbitrary and started in the 1940s as a fashion industry marketing strategy, and really only took hold in the 1970s. Don’t believe me? Look it up.

Now, I get it, in the whole scheme of things, how we dress our kids might seem a bit trivial, but it can affect how they see themselves. More importantly, how we dress our children is a reflection on how we, as adults, see gender. When we divide gender into two colors, we don’t allow for all the colors and genders in between.

Our producer Dean Jones, father of a non-binary child, keeps an ear out for gendered language. He just told us a story about his dog, “Did I tell you about the neighbor who was all excited to meet [our dog] Trooper? They started off, ‘Oh she’s so pretty. Such an adorable little doggie. What’s her name?’ I told them Trooper was male. Then came the change of tone, ‘Oh he’s so tough. What a big bruiser!’ That’s pretty telling. They’re projecting onto a dog. Imagine how it happens with humans.”

Seeing gender differently can be a step towards creating a more compassionate world. Though we don’t always succeed, my wife and I try to challenge black and white (pink and blue) thinking as much as we can; from the books, we read to the songs we listen to, to the clothes we choose to wear. We happily accept as many hand-me-downs as possible, which come in a wide array of styles and colors.

As musicians, Justin and I try to write songs that avoid binary thinking. But due to our limited perspectives and heteronormative experience, we still fail from time to time.

Sitting in that nursery with Hap, I’m still left with more questions than answers. How do we sidestep the gender sorting that our commercial culture sells us at the checkout counter? How do I, as a father, exemplify healthy masculinity, femininity, and gender-fluidity? How do we empower our kids to be their best selves?

I don’t have the answers, but maybe Hap will. Each generation can decide for itself what gender looks like. By not pressuring them to wear a certain color, we can allow kids to make that decision with a more open mind. So let’s listen to our kids, because they, like snowpeople, might have their own natural style.

Check out more from the Okee Dokee Brothers right here.