The Fem Spot

Why “gender” must go

Posted in Feminist Theory, Pop Culture, queer theory by femspotter on November 21, 2009

November 21, 2009

I am speaking about gender as a distinct concept from sex: gender is masculine/feminine and sex is male/female.

The two weren’t originally distinct. As language evolved, as it continues to do, the concepts of male/female gender said to be “masculine”/”feminine” arose as adjectives inclusive of traits traditionally exhibited by either sex. But as the eras morphed and gave way to one another – and with women’s liberation advancing women’s choices in behavior – the concept of gender became archaic. While masculine and not feminine might originally have been thought to include athletic agility, certainly we have seen women accumulate a myriad of athletic achievements. And while feminine and not masculine might originally have encompassed all things, activities, attitudes and behaviors relating to the sphere of the home, we have seen men take over housework and child rearing in the absence of and occasionally as the preference to women. Ergo, gender as masculine/feminine doesn’t mean anything anymore, really…but we still use these words. For the purposes of this and all my essays, my use of the word gender will always refer to traditional masculinity or traditional femininity. (What is traditional? That’s my point.)

Because Americans are often inhibited by public mention of private, personal things – such as sex and other bodily functions like flatulence – we have learned to substitute the word “gender” for the word “sex.” We fear that we might confuse people with the word “sex,” making them think of the act of sexual intercourse rather than the differences between its heterosexual participants.

When making an academic argument about the members of one sex or the other and their inherent traits, we must remember to use the word “sex” and not the word “gender.” Be clear: are you talking about men and woman and their differences/similarities, or are you talking about the traditionally held attitudes toward what each sex’s sphere encompasses? If it’s the latter, feel free to utilize the term gender. For instance, my sex is female, but many of my traits are traditionally masculine: I have a job outside my home, I drive a car, I speak my mind, I wear pants, etc.

Actress Rachel McAdams was recently quoted by Entertainment Weekly (Nov. 27, 2009) as summing up her character Irene in the 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie by saying: “She’s not a typical woman of her time. (Portraying Irene) was a matter of balancing her femininity with what was masculine like being a weapons expert.”

McAdams is correct in this wielding of masculine/feminine concepts (gender) in referring to her 19th Century muse as a woman (sex) with traditionally male (sex) qualities. But until we get far enough away to look back on the period we inhabit now (2009), we can’t clearly distinguish the overlying characteristics attributed to either sex. In other words, we don’t know what gender is today because we can’t objectively examine all of its parts or predict what its outcome will mean for the next generation. McAdams is only correct in saying Irene was not typical because the women who came before and after Irene were not weapons experts as a general rule. That skill did not pervade our sex. Does it today or will it tomorrow? We don’t know yet. And someday, when men and women aren’t restricted by expectations of gender, it won’t matter.

“Gender,” when used as a verbal stand in for the collective of men or women, has got to go. We need the term to represent the collective traits long believed to be inclusive in groupings of people of the same sex. If we are specific with this language, then we will be able to examine how gender is really meaningless and detrimental. To believe that women (sex) are only as strong as our femininity (traditional gender) would limit our potential to advance ourselves in society. And to believe that men are all as stoic as traditionally masculine men would limit their potential to assume some of the roles traditionally undertaken by women, thus limiting our potential to advance in roles traditionally held by men. If my husband and I have children, and I am subsequently offered the career opportunity of a lifetime, I might choose to abandon the traditional wifely and motherly duties for a “male” career model leaving my husband to pick up the slack in the arenas of cooking, cleaning and child rearing. He would have to let go of his fear of being judged feminine by other men and women just as I would have to prepare to receive and shrug off any criticism about abandoning my children for long hours at the office. Working mothers often have guilty consciences because the world has long believed they are selfish for pursuing their dreams and leaving their children to be cared for by others.

In my utopia, gender is gone: both the word and what it really means. It is reductive and restrictive and…inaccurate in this day and age.

I could list hundreds of examples of how gender restricts females from doing the things they want in life, but I’d like to turn the tables for a second and talk about one instance where males are being restricted: fashion. It is the privilege of my sex in America to wear ruffles, boas, elaborate costume jewelry, outrageous shoes, make-up and hair accessories. Of course, this isn’t a universal privilege. Some men get away with it right here in the New York City metro area where I live. And certainly, women are restricted from the fun of dressing as they please in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. Plus, I also must mention that women do painful often terrible things to their bodies sometimes to feel worthy of the adornments I hereby champion including but not limited to surgery and eating disorders. But for the purposes of this argument, we can hopefully agree that some females in Houston, Texas and Atlanta, Georgia are having fun with fashion, basking in the soft and colorful feminine decorations that males are not allowed.

We must agree that there is a privilege of our sex in these locales because we are allowed to beautify ourselves in ways that males are not, and this can be an enjoyable activity. Earlier this month, Houston’s O’Rhonde Chapman, a 17 year-old high school senior, wore a long wig and stiletto heels to school because they make him feel good. But the school’s dress code restricts males from growing their hair past their shirt collars or wearing wigs to conceal an unruly hair length. Females are not subject to the same hair length restriction. A video interview with Chapman is available online.

Boo hoo, right? Well, dress is a form of self-expression, whether it includes wearing sparkly barrettes in your hair or the name of your favorite sports team across your chest. Males should no more be restricted from expressing themselves in this way than females. The New York Times featured an interesting article about cross dressing rules for high school students and what it means to both sexes on Nov. 8 in the “Sunday Styles” section. This situation of restricting dress based on sex is unsettling at an all-male college in Georgia that has banned, according to CNN, “the wearing of women’s clothes, makeup, high heels and purses as part of a new crackdown on what the institution calls inappropriate attire.”

Oh my god… Does a messenger bag count as a purse? Does zit concealer count as make-up? What’s the reasoning behind this? “We are talking about five students who are living a gay lifestyle that is leading them to dress a way we do not expect in Morehouse men,” said Morehouse College’s Dr. William Bynum, vice president for Student Services.

Basically, what Bynum is saying is that the rest of the men at Morehouse College are homophobic and uncomfortable with men who exhibit other than masculine characteristics. The school’s resident gay organization supported the ban by a majority vote, presumably to protect its individual members from further ridicule, hatred or fear.

But why should this animosity exist? It exists because of gender, the concept that men should exhibit only a masculine demeanor and women only a feminine demeanor. And before anybody goes accusing men of being the sole perpetrators of this distinction, I’d like to point out that many women, including and embarrassingly myself, prefer to be feminine and look for largely masculine qualities in their partners. I believe this tendency is somewhat natural, and somewhat compounded by its constant reinforcement in the media. Either way, it’s a yearning of both sexes and neither sex can be exempted from its implications. (I’d like to point out here as an aside that, after rereading some of my older posts, I find it interesting that I used to write these essays for people who were unaware of a feminist perspective on choice issues; but now, after spending time with some radical feminists, I find myself writing these essays with them in mind, defending my “lesser” feminism that holds women partially responsible for our decreasingly subordinate position.)

For the minority of males who want the freedom and yes, privilege to dress with color and flair, I offer you some suggestions. You don’t have to wear women’s clothes to feel…er…feminine. Just adorn one of these outfits for men from other eras and varying cultures:

In case you don’t recognize them, these are depictions of Italy’s Julius Caesar (b. 100 BC, d. 44 BC), Mongolia’s Genghis Kahn (c. 1162, d. 1227), England’s Henry (Tudor) the VIII (b. 1491, d. 1547), France’s Louis (de Bourbon) XIV (b.1648, d. 1715) and America’s Sitting Bull (c.1831, d. 1890) respectively. Each of these men was a ruler or warrior in in his time and each is wearing a traditional “masculine” garb of that time. (You really do know what culture you’re in by checking out what people are wearing.) Yes, those are tights, feathers, ruffles, velvet and gold lame’. But those are men, right? Yes. Yes they are.

So have fun, you cross dressing men! Wearing these outfits, you really aren’t breaking any rules, but you might be able to achieve the femininity (by today’s standards) that you deserve. Don’t complain; get creative!

The biology that is sex and the romance that is gender are no longer always compatible, for either sex. We need to get rid of gender, but first we need to understand it and wield its meaning correctly so that one day we can let it go, celebrate the biological differences that exist between men and women yet not reduce either sex to the sum of his or her parts.

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8 Responses

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  1. Mom said, on November 22, 2009 at 7:56 am

    This is a great post! Thanks for providing clarification of these often confusing terms. I admit to having been confused about them for a long time.
    There is much thought and discussion provoking material here.

    • femspotter said, on November 22, 2009 at 9:30 am

      Thanks, Mom! “Gender” is everywhere “sex” used to be: on applications for loans, school, credit cards, etc. Even my PhD. application form for Yale asked me for my gender. I toyed with the idea of telling Yale that I am a masculine female, but I didn’t. It’s just inaccurate, that’s all. But words change: gay used to mean happy, didn’t it? :)

      • Mom said, on November 22, 2009 at 11:18 am

        I remember once when I went fabric shopping with my grandmother, your namesake, being amused when she commented on what a gay piece of fabric such and such was. She was thoroughly disgusted when I told her what the “new” definition meant! It’s all about the times isn’t it? Linguists will tell you that languages that can’t be responsive to changing times don’t survive….Latin? Now that opens up a whole other subject, doesn’t it? the Church!

  2. faemom said, on November 27, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    Give me a sec, I’m a little blown away that my hometown being progressive.
    Ok. The funny thing is when it comes to gender-bending dressing, it’s the men (or teenage boys) most comfortable in their sexuality that did it. I spent my teenage years surrounded by drama boys, who weren’t afraid to cross-dress, wear tights or kilts to school. And yet, all these boys had girlfriends and were quite typical boys, checking out girls, making those sexual jokes amongst themselves, rooting for their favorite sports teams. I worry about what gender typing does to people, especially to boys. Years ago, boys weren’t suppose to know how to cook and girls weren’t suppose to fix cars. And yet, if you know how to do both well, you can save yourself a lot of money and time. Now I know more men who can cook but can’t fix a car. Gender is fluid. But the problem it can create a lot of pain for people who don’t feel they fit their gender. That is wrong.

    • femspotter said, on November 28, 2009 at 10:36 am

      I have always had a major crush on David Bowie. Why can’t more men dress like Ziggy Stardust and wear cool make-up? They are afraid of the social intolerance. They are afraid it will alienate women. Women won’t know they’re out for hetero relations and other men will tease them, they worry. I think it’s great that more and more teens are forcing the issue on this! It means they’re one generation closer to the annihilation of gender expectations.

  3. April said, on February 16, 2010 at 9:59 pm

    This is a great post!

    (I’d like to point out here as an aside that, after rereading some of my older posts, I find it interesting that I used to write these essays for people who were unaware of a feminist perspective on choice issues; but now, after spending time with some radical feminists, I find myself writing these essays with them in mind, defending my “lesser” feminism that holds women partially responsible for our decreasingly subordinate position.)

    Agreed. The way I see it is that, while I wouldn’t agree a couple decades ago, enough time has passed since monumental achievements in women’s liberation that, while we may not be done, we have an increasing personal responsibility to not only make sure we do all we can to rise from a subordinate position, but also to avoid dumbing ourselves down and policing “gender” on others, as well. We (the collective we) need to educate ourselves and not be ashamed of that education. I’m pretty obsessive about this particular issue…

    • femspotter said, on February 17, 2010 at 9:31 am

      Hey, April! This thing I do – holding women accountable – has been a controversy on other blogs. And you’re right that the responsibility factor is in the now. We NOW have power and need to use it.

      Some people say that gender is entirely a male construct…I don’t know if I agree or disagree, or even fully comprehend that, but I do think that both sexes need to be comfortable with natural emotions and displays of such emotions and sexualities and displays of both through dress and demeanor, etc.

      I second the need to educate and not be ashamed! And we also need to not fear disagreeing with each other once we do educate ourselves and form opinions. Out of some disagreements can arise a call to action, which is the necessary next step after education and discussion. Thanks for this comment!

  4. […] like other men. We are therefore not feminine and masculine respectively, but have switched roles. (For clarification, the book is about relations between the sexes and not the genders because the author is claiming […]


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