September 5, 2010
I am faced with the self-inflicted task of reviewing a new “gender” relationship guide for a sister site. Oy! Haven’t we seen this kind of thing many, many times before? Uh huh! (Read: Valspeak.)
The problem – aside from the misuse of the word “gender” in place of “sex” – is that, much like Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, that classic from the vault of self-improvement literature, this new guide makes use of rigid stereotypes. Hey, stereotypes come from somewhere! Far be it from me to contradict that notion. But as I began reading some of the scenarios in the text – “Couple 1: After the Party,” for instance, when a hetero couple has an argument about how the woman is upset about something and has been “pouty” without explaining the reason behind her mood, I realized that my husband and I are guilty of that exact conversation…in reverse.
How is that possible? I mean, the author of the text has a post graduate degree and decades of professional couples’ counseling experience under her belt. There must be something wrong with my gender. It doesn’t correspond to my sex. I am not behaving like other women, it appears; nor is my husband behaving 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 that men and women act with certain reliable patterns rather than claiming that feminine/masculine people do. Ergo, she is basing her advice on the assumption of gender on both sexes: women are feminine [passive-aggressive, nagging, oversensitive] and men are masculine [insensitive, daft, acquiescing] by default and consistently. She’s really talking about how one personality type relates to another, but claims to be talking about how one sex relates to the other.)
What is wrong with me? What is wrong with my husband? I’m the one who’s always asking him to explain his moods. I’m the one who usually says “whatever you want” when it comes to picking restaurants and movies. He’s the one who pouts and doesn’t explain himself. And, while I would describe myself as “oversensitive” – one who has feelers out in preemptive self-defense to pick up on signals that often aren’t even there to be read, he’s the one who often fails to alert me to the little insensitive things I’ve said along the marriage path: like when I tell him that his pants are too big and sloppy looking, or when I correct his attempts at yoga on the Wii Fit. He bottles them up and then gets cranky many days later. And I, like a puppy who just wet her bed, tilt my head to one side and genuinely think I understand what he’s upset about when really I’ve been listening to another language: the language spoken by a person who is frustrated with me for things I said many months ago.
Of course, I hold onto to some things too: I’ve never been able to let it slide completely that he has a longtime friend who invited my husband to his wedding but did not include me. (The couple was trying to save money, so they asked friends to come alone. But when it came time for dancing, there were tables of singles sitting around who didn’t feel comfortable dancing with people who weren’t their significant others.) So my husband flew across the country to a wedding without me. Tacky? Uh huh! Anyway…
The difference between my resentment and his is that mine rears its ugly head right away and relentlessly for several hours/days/weeks/months/years until it’s out of my system. But my husband will go the same period of time without telling me what’s bothering him and then explode one day with a laundry list of small insults, which usually culminate in one precise character flaw belonging to me: my expectations are too high.
What expectations are those?
- I’d like it if he’d organize his shoes. He has a half-dozen pairs. They can usually be found strewn all across the vestibule waiting to trip somebody.
- I have asked him repeatedly to use the word “well” as an adverb instead of the word “good.” (I mean, he is a literate person with a great career…he might run into somebody who’s a grammar nerd like me and offend them too.)
- He leaves drawers and cabinets open or ajar. This is a daily occurrence.
- His socks never match each other and many of his undershirts are ripped and stained, which he doesn’t notice or doesn’t mind.
- He says one thing but means another. He says: “I’ll do it first thing tomorrow.” Translation: “You’ll do it in three weeks when you get tired of reminding me.” He says: “I’ll be down in 10 minutes.” Translation: “I’ll be down in 45 to 50 minutes, or whenever I can tear myself away from work.” He says: “I’ll make dinner tonight.” Translation: “Would you like ketchup on your fish sticks?” or ” Do mashed potatoes count as a vegetable?” or “What toppings do you want on the pizza I’m ordering?”
I would never make the assumption that all men, married or single, leave their shoes around; or don’t talk good; or fail to close things; or don’t take care of their clothes; or don’t say what they mean. Not every kitchen has a row of condiments against the back-splash that are easy to reach yet out of the way. So not every husband fails to put the PAM back when he’s done spraying a pan. Most of the time, that scenario plays out like this: I sigh and put the can back inline. Once, I mentioned it to him – I expect you to put things back where they belong, I said; and he told me he doesn’t even see the can left out. It’s not in his realm of consciousness.
Certainly, not every wife is a neat freak and every husband a slob. I know a couple that are engineered in the exact opposite way: she’s the terribly messy one. And opposites don’t always attract: there could be a pair of perfectly marvelous and affectionate slobs married and living just next door (probably the same people who have a very powerful sub-woofer, God love ’em!). Even though biology does dictate certain traits for each sex – male testosterone makes for physical strength in many cases and female estrogen can make for moodiness, being one or the other sex does not imply adherence to the socially accepted gender binary. Not every man is a well-intentioned simpleton and not every woman a lunatic shrew.
The title of this essay is “My wonderful/lazy/thoughtful/crazy husband.” Let me explain that despite his shortcomings, my husband is primarily wonderful. He doesn’t beat or rape me, which should be a given, but is not – so I mention it, even though it doesn’t earn him extra points. He often tells me how wonderful/loving/beautiful/smart/strong I am. He sometimes brings me flowers, which he thinks to pick up on his way home from a grueling day at the office. He remembers to say “I love you” every day, even if I’ve already removed my makeup. And, when at the supermarket, he always returns the grocery carriage to its nearest stall so that it doesn’t block traffic in the parking lot. In short: he is a lovely person!
At the end of the day, shouldn’t every relationship guide be about helping two different people get along rather than reducing people to the expectations of their respective sexes? Shouldn’t the book tell of scenarios between “Person One” and “Person Two” rather than “Man” and “Woman?” Because aren’t we all special…if not in the grand scheme of things, at least to the person(s) who love(s) us?
February 27, 2010
I love “The Daily Show!” (I love it apart from its inability to be embedded in my blog.) Thanks to Faemom, I was on the lookout for the following clip on February 3, 2010. Click below:
Every time I view this clip, I laugh out loud. If you watched it and you didn’t laugh, you might need professional psychiatric intervention. Seriously. Don’t operate any heavy machinery. You should probably stay away from sharp objects too.
To recap: “Men today are probably where women were in the late 50’s; we’re about a half century behind women in terms of being understood, in terms of having options,” declares author and sociologist Warren Farrell. Right. “He’s right,” Samantha Bee says. Oh? “Men run just 4…hundred and 85 of our Fortune 500 companies and only three branches of government.” I see, Samantha. Poor men. What am I thinking being a feminist?
According to Farrell, men have been shut out of pharmaceutical sales positions because they aren’t sexually attractive to the mostly heterosexual male population of doctors that form the pharmaceutical consumer base. By his logic, pharmaceutical sales is a more desirable job prospect than medicine and women dominate the former because they are physically attractive to the latter. So doctors are misunderstood and have few options while women must rely on their attractiveness to men to get ahead? And that’s progress for women because…we now can get ahead in our careers by being sex objects? Similarly, men are disadvantaged from an early age as football players because cheerleaders – long the rulers of the high school sports universe – don’t respect and compliment fallen football heroes. Yeah…those dominant cheerleaders and sexy pharmaceutical saleswomen are really a problem for men!
Enter the Better Men Organization: nothing wrong with this organization in principle – in fact, I think it’s a very good idea, but their complaint in this segment is that men today really aren’t getting what they need, which is social acceptance to gather. Right. It’s not socially acceptable for men to gather at bars, strip clubs or sports arenas. And men are never known to gather acceptably in the woods where they would certainly be restricted from complaining about their wives.
Let’s face it: the fact that any men in America are complaining about their overall subordination to powerful women is laughable. Sure, some men are oppressed in violent relationships or at jobs overseen by power-tripping female supervisors. And many men suffer in unhappiness or die violent, painful deaths. But after thousands of years of world domination, men as a collective have NOTHING to complain about. Even if women as a class were to take over ruling the world, it would simply be a taste of men’s own medicine spooned back to them.
Bravo, Samantha Bee! In light of the fact that so few women are working as writers and performers on late night comedy shows – and even if that weren’t the case, you are a beacon of humor and wisdom for feminists. While I don’t agree that sensitivity and soft-spoken qualities in men should be labeled with a designation that’s “puss-related” – simply because the reverse can also be inflicted on women with a condemnation when we aren’t sensitive and soft-spoken, I champion your ability to poke fun at these shortsighted, complaining men.
Well, except for that last statement you made: “Attention middle-aged vagina men: sack the fuck up! Seriously. You’re turning me into a lesbian.” While there’s nothing anti-feminist about Bee’s preference for traditionally masculine men, there is something irksome in her use of the term “vagina men.” Why? Because it is negatively wielded and implies that only those with vaginas (i.e. women) can be socially acceptable as sensitive and emotionally expressive; thus compounding one lament of the Better Men Organization. And furthermore, because this use of the word vagina, something uniquely female, is derogatory, it is thus derogatory to women even though not intended to insult anybody but the men in the talking stick circle.
Now, as I said before, I love “The Daily Show” and I really appreciate Samantha Bee’s refreshing perspective. But this use of female-identified words as derogatory designations for men has got to stop. Terms like “vagina men,” “douche,” “douchebag,” and “pussy,” or “pusswad” as Bee uses in the segment, are all related to female anatomy and imply, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that female anatomy is inferior to male anatomy and thus that females are inferior to males. Why don’t we keep sex-defining anatomy out of it? Instead of “douchebag,” why not use insults like “loser,” “idiot” or “jerk?” Instead of calling the Better Men Organization “vagina men,” couldn’t Bee have called them “weaklings,” “freaks” or “wimps?” That is what she meant, is it not?
We’ve grown accustom to using these genitalia-related words and have forgotten that they discriminate. Even calling somebody a “dick” implies aggression typically associated with men. Can you or would you call a woman a “dick?” Usually, the term for an aggressive female is “bitch,” which is also derogatory because it historically refers to female dogs. This verbiage keeps us entrenched in our gender binary: women are passive and subordinate, and men are active and dominant forces in the world. At least “asshole” refers to something everybody has. Ergo, use it freely.
Urban Dictionary provides modern connotations for many of these slang terms we use – submitted by the users of them, many of them rooted in misogyny:
- Vagina: female opening to the uterus and an insult as in “Man’gina,” which is an outwardly masculine, heterosexual male who fusses or whines about typically female things like hair care products or cramps
- Douche: product used to sanitize an unpleasant, dirty vagina and a word to describe an individual who has shown (himself) to be very brainless in one way or another, thus comparing (him) to the cleansing product for vaginas
- Douchebag: an item consisting of a rubber bag, tube and nozzle, used to clean a woman’s vagina and an individual who has an over-inflated sense of self worth, compounded by a low level of intelligence
- Pussy: a nice name for a cat, slang for women’s genitals and cowardly
- Pusswad: guy who is a vagina or pussy
I cringe every time I hear one of these terms being used because I know that they are based on the gender binary that I’d like to see dissolved. But it really irks me when I hear or read feminists using these terms. How can we? Don’t we at large know that they are based in the assumption that we and our woman parts are inferior to men and their man parts? You don’t hear people calling another a “bidet,” an “aftershave” or a “nose hair trimmer,” which are items typically used by men and might be wielded to refer to a traditionally masculine female in a tone rooted in misandry. So why do we feminists and others continue to use terminology that is rooted in misogyny: terminology that implies that our woman parts and thus ourselves are “whin(y),” “fuss(y),” “unpleasant,” “dirty,” “brainless,” “cowardly,” passive, subordinate and weak? Stop it, I say. Stop it right now.
I believe that our collective decision to do away with such terminology is one step toward doing away with gender and equalizing the sexes. The result: women can run more than 15 Fortune 500 companies and at least one branch of government without fear of being called “bitches.” And men can sit in circles and communicate their feelings to one another without fear of being labeled “vagina men,” or even “wimps.”
Don’t worry. There will still be plenty of ridiculous ignorance in the world for Samantha Bee to wittily poke fun at.
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.
November 26, 2008
I was a kid in a candy store at my first screening of Pixar’s new miracle WALL-E. The film has generated quite a bit of Oscar buzz in that it might transcend the patronizing “Best Animated Feature” category and ascend to the higher realm of “Best Picture.” (As if animated movies require less vision or hard work on the part of their creators than do live action films!)
I fell in love with the little bot as he diligently hummed to and fro, compacting more than 700 years’ worth of human trash into orderly spires of stinking excess. As the sign says, he’s “working to dig (us) out.”
The darker message of the film is that we have destroyed our planet, making it so uninhabitable that we literally cannot inhabit it anymore. We relocate to a luxury spaceship cruise liner where – over those 700 elapsed years – we’ve managed to bulk up our body fat and trim down our bone mass. (Sounds like a terrific movie for children!)
Actually, it is a terrific movie for children. The lighter message is one of love: WALL-E and EVE will sacrifice everything – including their sacred directives – to spend time with each other. And what do they do together? Dance and hold hands. Isn’t that love…at least to a 4-year-old?
My husband – of the pantheon of men who tell their wives “No, I will not watch a love story with you!” – watched the film for a second time with me a few days ago. And just when I got up to go to the kitchen for a cup of tea, I heard a shout from the living room: “Babe, EVE has found WALL-E!” he yelled with glee.
Well, he did watch a love story with me after all…but that’s the secret genius of this film: it isn’t what it appears. To recap: WALL-E is at the same time a love story and a condemnation of our collective consumerism and ecological shortsightedness. But the film also proves a theory that I hold dear: gender (i.e. masculine or feminine) is almost entirely a social construct having very little to do with one’s given sex.
My brother the psychologist says that most children can identify their sex by the age of 3 or 4. And even if they have gay parents, they’re so inundated by examples of heterosexual coupling in the pop culture world around them that they begin to distinguish the differences between men and women – other than those differences they’ve exposed to each other on the playground. Before they even see the film, they identify WALL-E as a male character and EVE as a female character, even though these robots are not anatomically correct. The boy is boxier with square shoulders, my brother points out. EVE, the girl, is shiny and smooth. And if you hear their voices, you note that WALL-E’s voice is slightly deeper in tone than is EVE’s.
Magically, these characters’ genders do not correspond. WALL-E has spent 700 years alone on a deserted Earth…with no real company except for Cornelius Hackl and co. in the 1969 musical extravaganza Hello, Dolly! (And let’s face it: Michael Crawford is not the world’s most masculine hero!) Ergo, WALL-E spins and sputters in an earnest attempt at musicality. He picks up trash and shoves it in his vaginal-cave-of-a-stomach. And he’s emotionally moved by all of the little things rougher beings take for granted: a love song, the life of a lowly cockroach, etc. Like Princess Ariel in The Little Mermaid (1989), WALL-E collects precious (to him) things from the long gone human world and treasures them in his tiny, lackluster domicile.
EVE, on the other hand, has a great big weapon that shoots nuclear missiles in a split second. She’s slightly larger than WALL-E, and certainly more aggressive. She rescues him – the “damsel” in distress – and carries his broken body back to Earth in a desperate attempt to heal him and hold his hand. This is an empowering message for little girls, who are alternatively allowed princess role models or Bratz dolls (you know, the dolls who sport bare midriffs and the appearance that they’ve just emerged from botox injection therapy?).
Now, I know what you’re thinking: will WALL-E turn little boys into sissies if EVE is giving little girls another Joan of Arc? Certainly not! But there may be a silver lining in this film viewing experience for boys too: they might learn a little sensitivity…and one day they’ll be open to movies other than Rambo and Die Hard.
The bottom line is that until we’re told we have to behave in a certain way – for instance: our parents say so, our girlfriends do so, or magazines show so – we girls usually behave in a way that feels natural for us. Sometimes, we find ourselves seeking permission to behave differently than other little girls. There are standards out there. This is why little boys often find it difficult to cry…and probably why little girls often find it difficult not to. How quickly they learn the rules!
I’m excited to report that, while WALL-E and EVE might not change our children, they will enlighten them.