True Tales of Gender Essentialism at the Dog Park

Dudley looks like a girl.

That's what I am routinely told by people who refer to Dudley as "she," or "her." She's so pretty. What's her name? I never correct them—I don't care if they think Dudley is female, and neither does Dudley—but they assume that I care, and they care that they got it wrong, and, upon realizing their mistake when learning his name or spotting his male bits, they are deeply embarrassed. Sometimes, they apologize; always, they explain why they erred. He looks like a girl.

Dudley doesn't, actually, look like a female greyhound, to anyone who knows the breed—but that's not what they mean, anyway. What they mean is that Dudley is long and lithe and slender and graceful, that he has a narrow face and a frame that looks impossibly delicate considering its strength.

Dudley lies, long and lean, on the couch

And even more than that, what they mean is that Dudley has a gentle demeanor. What they mean is that he acts like a girl.

Of course, there is no such thing as a girl's disposition, or a girl's appearance. Girls—and women—come in all different shapes and sizes, their faces with an endless variety of bone structures, their personalities as unique and plentiful as there are girls and women in the world. But when someone tells me that Dudley looks like a girl, to explain their own assumption, they are not talking about any sort of real girl, or real woman; they are talking about stereotypes of girls and women, and they are speaking in the language of gender essentialism.

It was an interesting sociological experiment having a dog who "looks like a girl" even before we got a second dog—but now it has become more interesting still, because Zelda "looks like a boy."

He's so handsome. What's his name? … Oh, she looks like a boy.

What they mean is that Zelda is short and squat and powerful, that she has a strong jaw and a square stance, that she looks rugged and tough—a scrapper.

Zelda stands, short and square-framed, looking up at me

And even more than that, what they mean is that Zelda has an aggressive demeanor (some of which is projected onto her because of the prejudices about black dogs and aggression). What they mean is that she acts like a boy.

Like the stereotypes of boys of men.

These are human stereotypes, which are in conflict even with gender-based stereotypes about dogs, which posit that bitches (where do you think it comes from?) are more aggressive and difficult and willful than male dogs, who are supposed to be easier and sweeter and more compliant. But when we anthropomorphize dogs, we impose human gender-based stereotypes on them instead, superseding the dog gender-based stereotypes we created for them.

Thus does Dudley's passive nature mark him as girlish, and Zelda's boisterous nature mark her as boyish.

I mean, she is partly made of puppy dogs' tails, but this is mere coincidence.

Even to the most casual observer, Dudley can be seen to exhibit behaviors that are classically coded in humans as "male," too—but, just as humans do with one another, they ignore the behaviors that are marked as the opposing genders', in order to maintain the pretense of gender essentialism. Maude forbid we acquiesce that humans have a range of behaviors that are not actually gender-specific. Something like that comes perilously close to suggesting we are equal!

It's fascinating to watch this vigilant maintenance of rigid binary gender roles play out in people's interactions with my dogs. Girls behave like this. Boys behave like this. So much insecurity about their own gender conformity, spilling out as projected expectations onto two unsuspecting wee mutts.

Often, I haven't been sure what to say in these situations, trying to find some balance of reassuring a stranger they need not be embarrassed at misgendering my dog and doing a little subtle teaspooning about the oppressive reliance on gendered stereotypes. But recently, I noticed that Iain and I had basically ended up with dog avatars of ourselves. I pointed this out to him one evening: "A tall, white-and-ginger purebread male with a more passive personality, and a short, roundy, dark-haired female mutt with a more aggressive personality? Sound familiar?" He laughed. "Oh my god."

Well. That certainly made strangers' observations about our dogs' gender all the more interesting, as I considered every accusation that Iain does not "have balls" and every accusation that I do, because we share housework or consider one another equals. But it also gave me the words for which I had been searching, when someone observes, for example, that Zelda doesn't act "like a girl."

"She does, actually," I say. "She just takes after me."

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