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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So what kind of feminist are you anyway?

Posted in Feminist Theory, Personal Essays, Politics, queer theory by femspotter on May 22, 2008

May 22, 2008 (revised September 16. 2009)

Someone asked me that in an English graduate seminar. He was rather caustic about the whole thing. I think it bothered him that he couldn’t put me in a category.

In my ignorance, I thought you could either be a feminist or not be a feminist. The question had me stumped.

I’m not like…say…oh…we’ll call her “Kara.” She’s a militant Marxist, or socialist, feminist who hates men, specifically the kind who marry…or rather she hates the institution of marriage and thinks it shackles females.

I’m also not a conservative feminist who would criticize women who adopt a “male model” of careerism and public achievement. That’s far too restrictive.

I’m not a liberal feminist. While I do support the notion that all humans are deserving of equal treatment under the law, I do not support the idea that all women can assert themselves and achieve without altering the social constructs we live in.

In much the same way, I am not a post-feminist. I don’t deny the existence of oppression. I do think there is need for change.

It would seem that there is one extreme left: radical feminism. I do not believe that female oppression is rampant – at least not in the United States – nor do I believe that all, or most, men are out to stifle us in order to boost their fragile egos. Misogyny is a big problem – globally, but I believe it can be combated by the elimination of gender stereotyping. In other words, out with “masculine” and “feminine” labels! These are social constructs that fluctuate. To be feminine in 1950 meant to be submissive and quaint: ask no questions and challenge no authority. Today, femininity is part and parcel with a certain predatory quality that signals an interest in sexuality, rather than an indifference to it. If we stop expecting women to be feminine and men to be masculine; if we accept public displays of emotion from men and the lack thereof from women; if we celebrate the institution of stay-at-home paternity in addition to its counterpart, etc. then we begin to raise the status of all women without hindering the status of men.

The man at the seminar scratched his head when I couldn’t entirely identify with one faction or the other. He wasn’t quite sure what use I was to the blanket feminist agenda: equality.

I think we saw this same reaction in politics as Hillary Clinton strove to win the Democratic nomination for President in 2008, even with very little hope left. Let’s humorously examine what all these different feminists might have been saying about Clinton’s tenacity.

Socialist: She should be running under her maiden name. It’s archaic to adopt a man’s last name when marrying. It’s really too bad she married at all. And while she’s at it, why doesn’t she give her millions to starving children in China instead of to her hopeless campaign?

Conservative: Those pantsuits are very unbecoming. She should adopt a softer tone. Instead of talking about the gas tax, she should be sharing baking tips.

Liberal: Barack Obama and Clinton are equal, damn it. They have the same levels of intelligence, experience and likeability. Also, their policies are very similar. Wait…now I can’t figure out which one to vote for.

Post-feminist: As naive as it sounds, I’m voting for a candidate who thinks he can change the way Washington does politics. That’s a man. Sue me!

Radical: The media consists of misogynist freaks who always say negative things about Clinton, even when there are perfectly nice things to say. It’s all a big conspiracy. I think an Obama sympathizer masqueraded as Clinton that day “she” talked about being under sniper fire. Think about it. It all makes perfect sense.

I don’t agree completely with any of these positions on the Clinton candidacy, but they each contain interesting points, which I hope will fuel discussion at many levels, from water cooler conversation to university discourse, for many years to come.

I wouldn’t tell Clinton what to do with her money – I’m a capitalist – but I myself made the conscious decision to keep my maiden name, at least in so far as my career is concerned. (I don’t get mad when people call me Mrs. M*****.)

And while I would never say that Clinton should behave in a way that is unnatural or uncomfortable for her, I do think that she should remember that she is a female and can be “feminine” if she likes. I embrace the differences between myself and my husband. But, hey…if I don’t want to bake, I DON’T BAKE!

I think that it’s important to talk about the candidates’ inequalities, and thus make informed decisions when voting for political figures. While I don’t feel qualified to judge intelligence, I do feel empowered to say that Clinton has always struck me as the more concise, realistic and decisive candidate. In these aspects of character, Obama and Clinton are not equal.

Finally, I think it is necessary to examine the role the media played during this primary season. CNN, for instance, had been declaring a victory for Clinton impossible since March, 2008, demonstrating that Obama is its favorite. On the other hand, Fox News headlines read more like news bites, showing less favoritism and more feigned indifference. That’s probably a function of how far left or right each network leans.

But it could be misogyny.

Misogyny can be difficult to prove, however. I think the largest problem for Clinton has been much like the problem I’m faced with when trying to declare my allegiance with one or the other types of feminism: I don’t fit many of the established “rules.”

There are some who look at Clinton and see a woman defying femininity, and others who look at the role she’s in and think she’s too feminine – they think that only a masculine man will do. Does she appease the first half with a show of tears? Does she cater to the others and refuse to weaken, not apologizing for her Iraq war vote in 2002, or drop out of presidential politics altogether? Either way, she’ll do it as a woman. But everybody seems to want to pinpoint what kind of woman she is.

Perhaps former vice-presidential and presidential candidate John Edwards said it best in his Obama endorsement speech: “There is one man who knows and understands that this is a time for bold leadership. There is one man that knows how to create the change, the lasting change that you have to build from the ground up. There is one man who knows in his heart there is time to create one America, not two… and that man is Barack Obama.”

He could have said “one person” or “one candidate,” but he said “one man” and thereby left the window ajar for mighty Clinton to throw open. The quote means to me that, while Obama might know these things, there may be a woman out there who knows them too. The question has always been a definitive one: will the U. S. elect a woman to our highest office?

While Clinton kept forging ahead in the primary campaign, speaking forcefully into microphone after microphone, other women on the trail did something different: Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain, wives of Obama and Republican presidential nominee John McCain respectively, posed for the camera. They appeared in issues of Vogue magazine. (Where’s Bill Clinton’s fashion spread, I wonder?)

Clinton is loud; she’s tough. Often, she comes across as a bit abrasive. But that’s probably because up against these other two, the one’s who’ve embraced the supportive, eye-candy wife archetype – as she once did, or at least tried to do – she can’t help but appear to be rough around the edges. Mrs. Obama is wearing pearls; Mrs. McCain’s golden locks are blowing in the breeze. Clinton, meanwhile, has thick legs and a cropped coif. However will she compete with this idealized version of femininity?

I guess I’m the kind of feminist who would say that she shouldn’t have to compete. I would say, “No rules!” I support the personal choice to be a housewife, househusband, female president or whatever-we-call-the-husband-of-the-female-president.

And who am I or Clinton to tell Obama or McCain that they shouldn’t model for magazines? I just hope that it makes them happy.

That school acquaintance of mine didn’t like it when I said there shouldn’t be any rules. He threw up his arms in protest saying, “Well, if women can do whatever they want…”

I’m glad he didn’t finish that sentence. I would have had to ask him, “Why can’t women do whatever they want?” And I don’t know how to win an argument with a feminist who has rules for women just like everybody who isn’t a feminist has rules for women.

THAT kind of feminism – the feminism with all the rules – just doesn’t sit well with me.

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