Untethered: The Designated Girl-Son

I came across the concept of the “designated son” on TikTok. It’s apparently a gender that girls and women can have in addition to “girl” or “woman.” As I love to say, cis people can ALSO have a relationship with and explore their gender.

So what’s a “designated son”? Usually, the setup is that a family’shad only “girls” (or one child who they think of as a “girl”). A presumably cishet father will designate one of the daughters as a “son” who is then, in addition to being socialized as a girl, also socialized to a certain extent as a boy through being taught stereotypically masculine manual labor. Important to this phenomenon is that the mother in the scenario does not engage in this “masculine” labor and the other sister or sisters won’t do it either. That was the driest ass explanation of a TikTok trend I might have ever uttered, by the way.

But it fucking resonated! I was like “wait a second…” It didn’t take me long in the comment section of the post to find someone who quipped something like “I was the designated son until I transitioned and now I’m the actual son.” Below each comment from a trans person was a series of “me too’s!” and “same dude’s.”

I asked my sister about it and was like “wait, so does Dad expect you to learn how to do something or does he just do things for you?” And she replied “He does it for me! Of course I can’t do these things myself.” This is tongue-in-cheek, but also, true. When I was a kid, my dad put a sledge hammer in my hands, or a drill, or told me to mow the lawn, or — notably — when he was deployed to Iraq, taught me to pump gas at the age of thirteen because I would “need to do it for my mother” who did not pump her own gas at the time. (They’re divorced and she does now.) There was a blurring of the lines of gender, and while the phenomenon maybe isn’t always gender affirming for cis girls, it was for me.

This continued into adulthood through various threads. And then I got together with my butch ex. She was handy, yes, but I think we all know queer relationships often blur the lines when it comes to who is responsible for what labor. Enter my dad visiting us for the first time in years, and despite the fact that I was the one who took out the garbage, who cut the grass, who shoveled the snow (off all our front steps), who carried heavy things, who helped with house projects and who had taught myself some electric wiring basics — my dad turned his focus to my ex when helping us with a house project. He spoke over me and to her.

I was infuriated! I was like EXCUSE ME I AM THE SON I AM RIGHT HERE. But, no, apparently if you’re designated and then you bring someone else into the fold who is perceived as more of a son, you can get booted from this gender role. My ex and I discussed it later, because of course he reacted that way to her butchness. It’s kind of par for the course when it comes to people interacting with a butch/femme(ish) couple.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that one of the joys of being on my own is my ability to take on whatever labor I choose, and the fact that no one can decide what is or isn’t mine to do. The space created by being solo, living on my own, managing my own ongoing DIY home reno has led to opportunities for affirmation I haven’t fully allowed myself to explore before.

Because there are limits to being the Designated “Girl” Son. Sure, I got to watch action movies or occasionally do something that just screamed masculine hubris (like the time my dad and I decided to “explore” by balancing on a reinforcement on the outside of a wall of an old fort… in winter… while over a cliff over a freezing river… until we realized we were in danger after a good five minutes). But, at the same time, I was either outright forbidden or kept at bay by my mom’s ridicule when it came to enjoying stereotypically “boy” games or toys. Beyond my Fisher Price tool set and a toy sword from a pirate costume, I was relegated to the usual stuffed animals and She-Ra knock-off’s. While I had an Easy Bake Oven (mmm hot plastic), I longed for the Creepy Crawlers Workshop. It wasn’t affirming enough to get burned by the Easy Bake oven or to take a Sky Dancer to the eye, I wanted those molten plastic bugs okay? I wanted to be a little 90’s boy with a butt cut freaking out girls in class with icky, wiggly creatures.

Banned toys and complicated relationships with dads aside, as I’ve branched out, met more people, started to build community following my breakup, I’ve found people who are ready to affirm me, in all the tiny little ways that matter a lot. I came out as whatever the hell is going on with me — genderqueer / genderfluid / nonbinary — during the pandemic, and so, of course, encounters with new people were rarer for a while. But I’ll never forget a fellow queer casually calling me “dude” and the way it startled me out of my skin and tickled the back of my neck because that was not something that happened within the confines of my home or any of my then-relationships.

Now, I’m greeted with dude by friends or addressed as “bro” at volunteer meetings or — AHEM — called “good boy” in other contexts. At a date’s recent birthday party at Dave & Buster’s (somehow my life choices led me to microdosing shrooms at a Dave & Buster’s this past weekend, so that’s where we are now), I joined a gaggle of friends and metamours who were going to find the shooting games. Sometimes you just want a dude to tell you that the Walking Dead shooter is pretty cool.

And in what has to be the silliest way I’ve sought out feelings of gender euphoria lately, I came across and purchased a very particular knife at a flea market. A friend and I had gone out in search of clown items and similarly themed decorations ahead of my Clown Town birthday party, where, yes, everyone dressed as a clown. This knife is absurd. It has Wizard Painted on the Side of a Van Energy, which is, honestly, a kind of energy I feel deliriously at home in. I looked it up, and this sicknasty stabber is from something called the Knightstone Collection and the painting on it is by Boris Vallejo. Anyway, I’m now the proud owner of a blunt fantasy knife with a half-naked fantasy lady painted on it, and it was kind of a gift for my inner boy-child, which is a new kind of healing I didn’t realize I could access. Also, it’s so silly.

a knife with a very 80's looking painting by boris vallejo of a fantasy woman whose hair is red and made of fire, against a firey backdrop

I showed this knife to both a lover and my therapist and they both said it was REALLY COOL okay?

Between drinking beer with friends dressed as clowns in a basement while listening to Black Sabbath, thrifted gems and friends who are gems — the past two weeks, while never easy, have unlocked something like a new level of understanding of myself that I’m excited to keep exploring. Cheers to getting older, and maybe to some of that mid-30’s wisdom being about finding our way back to the selves we always knew we were as kids.

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Nico Hall

Nico Hall is Autostraddle's A+ and Fundraising Director, and has been fundraising and working in the arts and nonprofit sector for over a decade. They write nonfiction and personal essays and are currently at work on a queer fiction novel and podcasts. They live in Pittsburgh. Nico is also haunted. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram as @nknhall.

Nico has written 216 articles for us.

10 Comments

  1. Designated girl-son is a great term! I think I was/am this in my family, too. I have two sisters, but I’m the only one our dad ever taught how to fix a flat tire on a bicycle and the one he most often asked to mow the lawn and other “boy tasks” when us three girls were still living with our parents (we’ve all moved out by now).

    I’m also cis (as far as I know?), so the designated son thing wasn’t really about gender exploration for me. But I’m happy for the “I was the designated son, then transitioned and became the actual son” crowd :-)

  2. I love this for you, Nico! For myself, I am happily a cis woman, and my favorite present ever was a pair of cordless drills and a bag of tools from my mother. I love showing my kids that I can fix so many of the things, and that power tools don’t have to be gendered!

  3. I was NOT the “designated son” because there was an actual son in my family, but I’m always amused, looking back, by how flexible gender roles could be when it suited my parents’ purposes to make them flexible. I got praised for “working harder than the boys” when I was helping my dad lay block and roof, but also criticized for not being feminine or submissive enough in my dress and manner outside of that. Praise for being “better” than a girl in some contexts, cut down for not girling well enough in others.

    I’m very at peace with my femininity now, but boy did that fuck me up for a long while, lol.

    • It just shows how societally-based gender roles are, especially when it comes to raising kids! And, yes, this is especially about household labor and like…who is doing what. And I think we all know that anyone can do anything, but it’s funny how it’s split along gender lines unless suddenly a parent needs help 🤣

  4. This was a super article that I can definitely relate to! I was the only child of my mother’s second marriage & my dad happily included me in all his outdoorsy activities & handyman projects without a second thought & I cheerily tagged along, with my childhood nicknames of “Chip” (as in chip off the old block), & “Splinters”, because I tended to get splinters in my hands from helping out with woodwork projects & gardening. So here I am five decades later & I still have the little hammer he gave me as a kid & a collection of vintage tools which I regularly use. Of course I will add that when you’re a visual artist being handy is pretty much a given. Making art is a hands on career so of course you’ll know how to build stuff & figure out practical solutions to creative problems.
    My mother was very femme & had pretty strictly gendered roles about who did what activities around the house, fairly typical for her generation (born 1934).
    Her other children (my older half siblings – two sisters & one brother) were pretty much uninvolved with her in her later years. Because I was competent, logical, & practical (autistic artist talking here) then I got to do all kinds of work around her house from regular housework & chores to fixing stuff & heavy gardening, all of which I enjoyed. I remember after I fixed something one day she said to me “You’re like having a son & daughter all at once”. Additionally, even though I presented somewhat differently in those days, I felt perfectly comfortable in that ambiguous son/daughter space. I also strongly resemble my late father so I think she also enjoyed having me around as much as possible as various aspects of both my personality & appearance kept his memory alive for her after he died in 2003. As well as the fact I could get shit done!
    When I came out as transmasc non binary in 2017 aged 44, just a few months before she died, it was not a problem – “I always knew you were different,” was her response. As long as I was there to take care of business in my no nonsense way, it didn’t matter how I identified or looked.
    Interestingly, my father honestly seemed to be “gender – blind”, which was pretty unusual. I never ever heard him make any sexist remarks & he treated me as an equal – my opinion & abilities were respected. As a kid I wasn’t a typical “tomboy” but not exactly a high femme either. Probably more a very lazy femme if anything. I discovered the concept of androgyny via 80s pop music & that became my ultimate goal but I think I was probably drawn to it because that’s my nature anyway. A lack of interest/agreement with strict, binary gender roles is not uncommon among autistic folks.
    For me, my close relationship with my father brings me pleasant memories even though a lot of other aspects of my childhood were crap. I got to learn about all kinds of practical skills which was perfect for how my brain works & useful to my vocation as well as everyday life.

  5. Yup, was definitely the designated girl son even though I had a brother. Maybe because I’m the oldest? My dad even gave me a boy nickname (Charlie), which he used in lieu of my name until the day he died. I was taught to do manual labour, play sports, fix cars and how to fight.

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