I was just reading a story about a woman who went out with a man, in 2006, who told her that she wasn’t in touch with her femininity because she didn’t flirt or wear much make-up. Oh, honey. Hon. Ee. He would have been immediately put in touch with my masculinity as I kicked his stupid ass.
Gender is a social construct. While it may be true that men and women’s brains are different, it does not necessarily follow that women do this and men do that and never the twain shall meet. It might even be postulated that the difference is the result rather than the cause of gender norming. Possessing ovaries does not “naturally” cause me to wear make-up, flirt, wear dresses or cook. Nor does it give me a biological imperative toward doing laundry, housework, grocery shopping, sewing or knowing how to knot a man’s tie.
I don’t do hardly any of those things, which does not mean I’m not feminine or I’m not in touch with my inner girlie girl. In our culture, which is the only culture I have intimate knowledge of, we have two gender identities, male and female. (Cultures exist that recognize more than two.) Boy and girl, man and woman, masculine and feminine. The gender requirements of our society are everywhere and so insidious that we only notice them if they aren’t there. A baby dressed in yellow or green with no available hints confuses us. What is it? Well, it’s a baby, now, isn’t it? Yes, but… are we meant to say she’s pretty or comment on how big we think he’ll be when he grows up?
Transgendered or transvestite people tend to freak the more traditional among us right the fuck out. It’s not an apple, but it’s not an orange, so what is it? We don’t have a category for a pineapple. No, that wasn’t a fruit joke. Transgendered folks can be gay, straight, bi, asexual or any other kind of sexual the imagination can provide. The point is, gender cues are so ubiquitous that not having any gives us brain cramps. We have scripted ways of responding to people and we can’t think what to do if someone goes off script.
The real issue with the guy’s objection to the woman I was reading about not giving him visual cues as to her gender is not that he doesn’t know what she is. It’s that if her performance of gender is ambiguous, what should he do with his? It must really suck to be that rigid.
Gender norming starts pretty much at birth. We mark our children as one or the other by the ways in which we dress them, activities we encourage, the way we speak to them and treat them, our expectations whether clearly stated or implied, behaviors encouraged and discouraged and on and on. Children learn very early what behaviors are expected and rewarded and what are not, even when they have only the subconscious body language of the adults around them as a guide. Because they are treated differently, they experience life differently. The grow up in different worlds, if you will. In response to that they learn to behave differently.
Boys don’t cry, girls wear dresses, boys mow lawns, girls help in the kitchen and so on. This isn’t, thankfully, as rigid as it once was. Both sexes are now much more free to act according to their own individual inclinations, desires, interests and talents.
In having these expectations of what male and female behaviors should be, we make gender performative. If you are a girl, you do this, becomes if you do this, you are a girl. If you don’t do these girl things, you are highly suspect. Androgyny is frowned upon. Unless you’re a rock star; then it’s all good.
We tend to confuse sex with gender. In most cases, sex is either/or. You have an innie or an outtie and that’s that. Sex is not the same as gender, though. Genitalia does not determine behavior, in a general sense. Having an outtie doesn’t cause you to like sports and having an innie doesn’t cause you to prefer baking. If gender were determined by biology, then only hermaphrodites would be able to bend gender.
In gender, you are what you do. It’s learned behavior, strongly reinforced by schools, media, religion, politics and law. If a boy child does something we’ve assigned to girls, his friends will call him girly to shame him into knocking that shit off right now. Gawd forbid that a girl should try to join the boys’ football team. How well she plays is not even taken into account. This is guy stuff, period.
Thomas, the former woman now a man who gave birth to a child was such a clear and outstanding breach of gender roles that it warranted an appearance on Oprah. He was born XX, but he now performs the role of what we see as male. Except that now he’s had a baby, so what are we meant to do with that? Rhetorical question; my own take on it is that anyone has the freedom to decide which gender , or genders or none of the above, they will self-identify as and they are what they say they are.
The thing is, the Thomases of our world can’t just declare themselves male without conforming visibly to the male gender construct. He had to change, besides whatever physical surgery he had, his hair style, his clothing, his name. One assumes he wanted to change all of those things, but my point is that in order to be perceived as the gender your prefer, you must perform your gender construct of choice.
I don’t avoid cooking, sewing, wearing dresses, etc. because I am rebelling against the constraints of enforced gender performance. Okay, maybe a little. The main reason is that I have about as much desire to do those things as I have to dig ditches or collect garbage or have a high colonic. I have a strong aversion to all of those things. I don’t do the “feminine” things because I don’t want to. That doesn’t make me less feminine, less female, not a real woman or whatever. Nor does my wearing make-up and being very concerned with my hair make me any more feminine, female and so on.
I yam what I yam and I’m fine with that. I’m also fine with you being what you are.
Subvert the dominant gender paradigm all you like. The potential of each individual can only be realized by free expression of his or her or whomever’s talents, skills, abilities, interests and so on. The potential of each society can only be realized by the free expression of its individuals.
(All hail Judith Butler, who is a rock star in my eyes.)