Gender: We Made the Whole Thing Up
Today I want to share a fun follow up to the three-part series I wrote on sexism (1, 2 & 3) and how it makes healthy intimacy in relationships nearly impossible. Those posts were so heavy and necessary, but today I want to make things a little more lighthearted, because liberation can be fun! No, really, I promise.
First of all, how much thought have you given to your own gender expression? Your clothing, appearance, mannerisms, way of speaking, pastimes and so on. The accumulation of these choices may seem to you to be natural, fundamental, perhaps even immutable. Maybe it’s something you’ve never given much thought, because you’ve never questioned your expression, how it was presented to you, how it was enforced in your life or your own predilection for fulfilling certain gender stereotypes. If you’re comfortable with your gender (dare I say euphoric?) good for you! But I am going to invite you to give it some thought right now. You see the funny thing about gender expression is that while it is important and constantly present in our daily lives, it is totally arbitrary!
“We are born male or female, but not masculine or feminine. Femininity [and masculinity] is an artifice, an achievement, ‘a mode of enacting and reenacting received gender norms, which surface as so many styles of the flesh.” – Sandra Lee Bartky, Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression
Hopefully by the time you are done reading this it will become clear that you don’t need to have gender dysphoria, nor be a furious feminist, to appreciate that gender is a construct we as a society have all agreed to utilize. It’s akin to the way we as a society have agreed that colorful paper, metal coins or digital numbers in a bank account are called “money” and allow you to buy goods and services. Our economy can only be based on such imaginary value if we all agree to believe it does, or are forced to conform. No respectable establishment is going to sell you a milkshake without money. Get out of here with your homemade dollars or mountains of salt! Similarly, we have what you could call a “gender economy” that assigns social capital to certain behaviors or forms of expression when enacted by the correct type of person. Thereby, if you have a vagina and you identify as female and adhere to a very feminine gender expression, you get lots of imaginary gender-dollars (yay!), but if you don’t conform you don’t get any gender-dollars (boo!).
Really what I am trying to say is gender and money are actually a lot like Tinkerbell, they only exist because we believe they do. And some people get really upset and start clapping like maniacs when you suggest you don’t believe in them.
There are certain things in life that don’t require our participation or belief to exist: gravity will still work, biology will keep functioning and general “truths” about humans do exist. However, many parts of life are far more subjective and variable than we tend to acknowledge. Even biological sex is not as objective and clearly defined as we once assumed. So sure, if we all decided to stop believing in the existence of germs, microorganisms would go on killing us, but if we all decided to stop believing in gender life would go oooooon! Mark my words, throwing out the gender binary and strict gender roles would not cause the end of civilization – it might just make it a lot more fun.
Gender expression is about as arbitrary as fashion because, like the type of clothes we agree are cool, it’s a cultural construction. And similar to fashion, everything from gender roles/expectations, what has been coded as “feminine” or “masculine”, or what is seen as socially acceptable has varied widely throughout cultures, throughout the world, throughout time.
To drive home this point, here are some examples of various differences in gender expression throughout history:
- In Western society we have a stereotype that the color pink is for girls and blue is for boys. This has become so pervasive that pink is seen as the default “girly-est” color. There are more pink products marketed towards women than you can shake a stick at. But why? Not only are these color-to-gender associations arbitrary, it was not that long ago that they were completely flipped. Pink was seen as a more appropriate color for boys and blue for girls. So please, wear whatever colors you like and for goodness sake stop making all products for ladies pink. There is no good reason we need to start enforcing gender stereotypes on humans when they are still babies… or really ever.
“According to child development experts, children are just becoming conscious of their gender between ages 3 and 4, and they do not realize it’s permanent until age 6 or 7. At the same time, however, they are the subjects of sophisticated and pervasive advertising that tends to reinforce social conventions.” Jeanne Maglaty, Smithsonian.com
- Speaking of fashion and how greatly it can fluctuate… It is common and acceptable today to have your children wear “gender neutral” clothing when they are playing and generally being kids. However, the “gender neutral” clothing that are deemed acceptable are things like pants, t-shirts, rompers, etc. But it used to be very different. It used to be that all children regardless of their assigned sex or gender identity were dressed up in, well, dresses. Because they were easier to clean and allowed more freedom of movement. So what children used to wear wouldn’t be considered gender neutral now, it would be seen as feminine, and what we put our kids in now would have been seen as masculine and inconvenient back in the day.
- Continuing on with fashion… High heels started out as a men’s fashion, then became acceptable for all genders, and eventually became the female only shoe it is seen as today. The funniest part about the whole thing is women started wearing high-heels in the first place as “an effort to masculinise their outfits”.
- Knitting used to be considered a very “manly” craft.
- Cheerleading was originally an all male sport.
- In the earlier part of the 20th century women who were athletic “tomboys” were stigmatized as examples of “disreputable heterosexually deviant womanhood” (i.e. straight sluts) until eventually society flipped this on its head and decided they must be lesbians instead. Switching the stereotype from penis-lovers to penis-haters in a mind-mindbogglingly short and misogynistic amount of time. This is also a great example of how people often confuse gender expression for sexual orientation, or think they are inexorably linked when they are not.
- Beer brewing used to be a female dominated industry until about the time of the industrial revolution
- Crying used to be perceived not as a “soft”, “emotional” and “feminine” sign of weakness, but actually as a “masculine” demonstration of strength. Or once upon a time people understood and accepted that there were different kinds of crying in different contexts. The bottom line is the idea that “boys don’t cry” is a very recent invention. For most of history masculinity allowed for, or even encouraged, crying.
The examples go on and go, but I choose a few I found to be interesting and salient.
So how does this affect intimacy? Well, self-acceptance and self-esteem are a huge part of healthy intimacy. Be who you want to be, wear what you want to wear, participate in the activities you feel passionate about, express yourself as you want. Whenever someone tells you what you’re doing is feminine or masculine, as yourself, does that make sense? Are they conflating biology with gender? Why do they even care what you wear? Are they trying to force you into a box that makes them comfortable at the expense of your own comfort? What does it matter anyways what a person’s genitals might be and what hobbies they want to participate in? A person can have ovaries and want to brew beer. You can have testes and enjoy wearing eyeliner and nail polish. Not everything marketed towards women needs to be fucking Pepto Bismol pink. Not every man needs to smell like Old Spice. WHY DOES CLOTHING MADE FOR FEMALE BODIES NEVER HAVE POCKETS?!? I swear it is a conspiracy. Saying that pink is a girls’ color, that videogames are a boys’ activity, that men are rational and women are nurturing perpetuates stereotypes that simply are not true.
People who want to control you and your gender make me so mad. Seriously, fuck them, and not in the fun way. What society really needs is breathing room for everyone. The more you are comfortable with yourself, the clearer you are on what you want and why you want it, the more liberated you will feel and the more you will love yourself. These are all parts of being intimate with the most important companion you will ever have in your lifetime – yourself! And the better intimacy you have with yourself, the better you will be at developing it with others.
“The identity of men and women is developed by embracing the important human qualities that all people need to live well. There is more to the human identity of real men and women in being disciplined, just, wise and dedicated to our self improvement than the social dictates of fashion or socially defined gender based roles can ever give us through the incoherent fiction of gender identity.” – Max Maxwell, A Socratic Perspective on Gender Identity
Invest your time and energy into being a happy, healthy person rather than a socially acceptable womanly-woman or manly-man. Because while the former is actually attainable and will improve the quality of your life, the latter is an incoherent, social fantasy we all made up and will constantly reinvent.
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