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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Farewell to The L Word: “this is the way that we live”

Posted in Feminist Theory, Film and Television, Pop Culture, queer theory, Sexuality by femspotter on March 12, 2009

March 12, 2009

I have many topics to rant about these days (misogyny in the Watchmen movie, the debate over castration of sex offenders in Europe, Campbell Brown’s ludicrous claim that her opinion-based “news” broadcast on CNN contains neither bias nor bull, the Rihanna scandal, etc.). Isn’t it a lovely time to be a woman! (It’s raining out and I’m entitled to be grumpy!)

After last Sunday’s broadcast of the final episode of The L Word, it got less lovely, I’m afraid.

The show’s creators claim to be astonished that so many straight women have feverishly tuned in to watch the lives of Los Angeles lesbians unfold over the past six seasons. Why? What other television programs do we have that are devoted entirely (and seriously) to women? Other shows about women often depict lives that revolve around men. Not The L Word.

True: the show does have its schmaltzy moments. It’s gone out with a bang: the “Who Killed Jenny Schecter?” bang. But it has also given us a lot to chew on over the years when it comes to the difficult challenges that face all (or many) women, gay and straight. I’d like to pause for a moment of silence in memoriam, and then tell you what this heterosexual woman learned from The L Word, and why she will miss it.

the-l-word-cast

The L Word gained notoriety early on rather than being swept under the rug owing to some pretty impressive star power. Many actors worry that “playing gay” will land them in typecasting hell. But once the beautiful – and surprisingly soft spoken despite the often harsh tones employed by her character – Jennifer Beals signed on to play Yale-educated, interracial art connoisseur Bette Porter, all of the rest of the chips fell into place. Beals – perhaps best known for the movie Flashdance (1983) – brought poise and intelligence to this keystone role. I love that the creators adapted some of her most interesting attributes for the character: Beals is a Yale graduate with interracial heritage.

Before long, actresses like Margot Kidder (iconic for her role as scrappy reporter Lois Lane in the Superman films) and Kelly Lynch – and even cultural heroines like Gloria Steinem – were making cameo appearances on the show. And by the end of its six seasons, controversial, full-figured  comedy actress Cybill Shepherd, out and proud lesbian funny lady Jane Lynch, and Oscar winner Marlee Matlin (playing the first deaf lesbian romantically involved with a hearing lesbian in television history) were regulars. Throughout, Bette, Tina, Shane, Alice, Tasha, Max, Helena and Jenny would meet and eat at The Planet, owned by Kit (Pam Grier – renowned tour de force black American actress). (If any of those descriptions sound insulting, I assure you that they are all reasons to be proud in my book!)

According to its before-the-finale special, The L Word challenged many of the stereotypes heterosexuals believe about lesbians: they hate men, they wear flannel shirts and Birkenstock sandals everyday, and they experience “lesbian bed death” the longer they sleep together. Because some of the sex scenes have been very explicit over the years, the show also lifted the veil over female same-sex sexuality. I confess that I often found the career and friendship exploits more enticing than the steamy love scenes, but it was definitely interesting to learn and understand the mechanics of a sexuality that I haven’t personally been privy to.

The L Word brought lesbians to a mainstream audience, and with “Les Girls” came some of the most important revelations for women in television history. I cried with Alice when her best friend Dana died from breast cancer. I looked with horror upon Dana’s amputated breast, clearly shown for all the world to see. We never get to look at breast cancer that way. We never get to see that butchery to women’s bodies.

Similarly, it’s also uncommon to spend time with a female character who identifies as a male and works toward transitioning from one sex to the other. Bravo to actress Daniela Sea (Moira/Max) for portraying this difficult life alteration with dignity and honesty. I cried for him every time he had to look in the mirror and see himself wearing a “costume,” the female body he was born with.

Kudos to the show for bringing smart alec Alice into our lives. I related to her desire to “figure out” the world we live in by creating “The (Sexual Connection) Chart,” forcing the issues, pushing people’s buttons and speaking her mind. Come to think of it, I need to get myself one of those “I Love Alice” tee shirts from the show’s online store so I can wear it with pride: gay pride and feminist pride. (That’s right! I’m a straight woman with lesbian pride.)

I cried with Bette and Tina when they took their daughter Angie to the hospital with a high fever and the receptionist demanded that they decide which parent would represent Angie because the receptionist couldn’t comprehend one child having two mommies. I sympathised with Jenny when she sliced open her skin on the bathroom floor (as she’s done since childhood) and Shane found and comforted her. I cheered for Kit when she and Helena bought back The Planet and threw that witch Dawn Denbo out on her butt! I’m cheering now even though I know it’s time to say “goodbye.”

But the most important moment I experienced while pondering The L Word was to finally understand the politics behind the lesbian identity. It used to bother me when people (children) would tease me for my feminist ideals saying, “You must be a lesbian!” Why must I be? Not all lesbians are feminists and not all feminists are lesbians.

In late 2007, while writing an MA English paper on warrior sex and gender in an epic poem, I realized that I actually am a lesbian: I am a metaphorical lesbian. It dawned on me that, just as lesbians fight to be taken seriously as individuals in a world that applauds beauty and simple-mindedness in women and validates strength only in women who stand behind their men, I too fight to be taken seriously as a woman: just me, not me in relation to my husband or father, not me in relation to femininity. I refuse to model myself after a feminine ideal that isn’t natural for me. As a queer theorist, I reject the notion that sex and gender must always go hand in hand.

I wrote:

The “metaphorical lesbian” has been established, first by Bonnie Zimmerman in her essay “Lesbians Like This and That: Some Notes on Lesbian Criticism for the Nineties,” and then again by Elizabeth LeBlanc in her essay “The Metaphorical Lesbian: Edna Pontellier in The Awakening.” There is a political component to lesbianism that hasn’t always existed for gays. Historically, gay sex has been acceptable for free men, so long as they were in the active role of penetrator. This active role is associated with masculinity, while passivity is associated with femininity. According to Freud, it “is clear that in Greece, where the most masculine men were numbered among the inverts, what excited a man’s love was not the masculine character of a boy, but his physical resemblance to a woman as well as his feminine mental qualities – his shyness, his modesty and his need for instruction and assistance” (10). Kirk Ormand refers to some women of Ovid’s poetry as “impossible lesbians” because, with two female and thus passive participants, sexuality is at best limited and at worst unachievable. Lesbians therefore have something to prove: they must proclaim their active and yes, masculine, nature, and furthermore, they must convince the world that this nature is acceptable or even “normal.” “Because ancient Rome perceived sex as essentially predicated on an asymmetry of power, one of the two parties must be active and, if a woman, therefore monstrous” (Ormand 85). Lesbianism, as a political force, is thus parallel to feminism because both movements seek to achieve acceptance for socially unacceptable women: the active/masculine woman or metaphorical lesbian.

I never could think about lesbians without stereotypes until I got hooked on The L Word, and thus I certainly could not think about myself in relation to them. If someone accused me of being a lesbian today, I’d tell them, “Yes, I am.” Like “political lesbians,” I refuse to be defined by my relationship to men: daughter, wife, etc. I refuse to be compared to the feminine ideal and found lacking. I am a masculine woman. I wear dresses and boots. I’m pretty and tough. I’m not afraid to stand up for people and animals who can’t stand up for themselves…just like Alice!

I’ll miss the girls. I really liked them all…except for Jenny…but everybody is missing her these days anyway.

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