Thursday, August 8, 2013

On Gender

Gender is not a crime.

Feels a tad controversial to say so, as many nowadays consider gender roles oppressive, and condemn 'gender essentialism' in favor of some sort of neuter ideal. We humans do have a sordid record of forcing each other into restricted roles based upon gender, skin color and so on; I suppose our skittishness on the matter is understandable.

No one should be pressured to adhere to any rules of gender. We ought to all be free to express ourselves, gender-wise and otherwise, as we like. This seems an obvious platitude. And yet, we might remind ourselves how widely it applies, scolding not just icky misogynists with retro notions of femininity, but also Women's Studies majors who would denounce my tight jeans. Both, after all, implicitly impose their own gender ideas on others. My ass is mine to objectify as I please.

I love subversion of gender roles. I also love gender roles. If genderedness is taboo, we lose appreciation of both masculinity and femininity. Both of these value systems have good things to offer: masculinity contains lessons about strength, honor and stoic endurance; femininity contains lessons about compassion, nurturance and (controversially) beauty. Can't we all incorporate each into ourselves at whatever mixing rate feels natural? And be willing to call some traits masculine and others feminine?

Are both shoes allowed?
To insist that gender divergences are strictly born of culture is nuts. Culture does much to determine gender norms, but I reject the idea that two varieties of people whose bodies have different designs and whose hormone stews use different recipes are--apart from the titties and whatnot--basically the same.*

People of either gender can take pride in masculine or feminine qualities they possess. I like to compliment Tolstoy, for example, on his feminine novelistic eye. Most male novelists can't do the thing where you go inside a character's head and excavate like ten layers of conflicting motivation, but Tolstoy nailed those femininely astute psychological observations.

And there is a woman I see about Town--perhaps transitioning, but still using the ladies locker room at the gym--with a badass goatee and tattoos and rough, sagged jeans and a wallet chain and hella masculine swagger. She is so cool. Subversion of gender is its own bold expression of gender. 

*Fascinating research on the nature/nurture gender question has been done by Simon Baron-Cohen, who, as you might have hoped, is in fact the cousin of Sacha Baron Cohen.

Our noble drive to eradicate sexism in recent decades has sometimes pressured women to be masculine. Maybe at the dawn of the feminist era women had to act a bit masculine in order to be taken seriously. (Else why would Hillary Clinton ever have donned those dreadful suits?) But if women must act mannish, or adopt masculine values--power, aggression, productivity--sexism is clearly still at work. What's passing for gender neutral equality is actually masculinormative.*

*I thought I was inventing this word. Turns out: it exists!

Isn't it funny how "emasculate" and "effeminate" are both terms for loss of masculinity, both with negative connotations, both used mostly to describe men? What is the equivalent word for loss of femininity? 'Butch' means tough and undainty, but it is not an adjectival equivalent of 'emasculate'. It does not imply a feeling of thwartation in expressing one's natural female qualities.

I've had that feeling. For me it had much to do with the expectations of a male parent, one who (calling himself a feminist) forbade makeup and earrings, and wanted me to excel at sports and science when I was naturally drawn to dance and pretty words.

Contraband weapons of girlieness
I think many swaths of American society, alas particularly progressive enclaves like the one I now inhabit, tend to devalue femininity. A certain kind of earth-goddessy female quality, in flowy skirts, can be okay, but excess domesticity or sexiness are highly suspect. And hard though it is to believe, women who have quit 'real' jobs to do the exalted work of raising new humans are still, in our liberated age, likely to dread the "so what do you do?" question.

Or maybe it's gender as a whole being devalued, because, come to think of it, I sniff devaluation of masculinity in the Bay air as well. Heterosexual women of my ilk often feel obliged to select for (feminine) qualities like sensitivity and communication skill in men, rather than, say, strength (which comes in many forms). Obviously sensitivity and communicativeness are wonderful, but they don't really moisten the nether regions. Strength might work there, and hardness (which also comes in many forms).

Strength and hardness, by the way, are not inferior to sensitivity and communicativeness. They're really pretty awesome, especially when your spine doesn't work too well and a strapping man comes along for whom a 50-pound feed bag is but a feather. The hard, tough man is often condemned as a 'badboy,' delicious but wrong. Bang him if you must, we tell each other, but then steer clear.

We respect men who aren't threatened by strong women. What of the reverse? Are we purportedly strong, feminist women supposed to like soft, pliable, friable men? Yeah no thanks.

(I'm also developing a theory that if we subtly punish men for being masculine they will hobble along for a while, baking bread in seeming contentment, and then, without warning, explode in fits of rage. Just a fledgling theory.)

Apron crime
I have learned, confides a guy friend, that women want to have sex with a man. He refers to his dichotomous streets/sheets personalities: steeped in the arts of sensitivity and communication (raised by lesbians, no less), this wise fellow puts all that aside to become a ravaging beast when it's business time. I can give you his number.

There may be folk for whom any gender typing is a genuine turn-off. For the rest of us, though, whatever our sexuality, gender is tied to sexual desire. If it were not, concepts like homosexuality and heterosexuality could not even exist. Surely it is not only the genitalia but the whole masculine or feminine being that attracts us. So take heed: gender erasure may lead to bad sex.

A woman has
the right to wear cargo pants, chop her hair, eschew daintiness, fight wars, build bridges, coach football, marry another woman. She equally has the right to eyeliner, heels, aprons, craft fairs, prioritization of motherhood, celebration of cuteness, love of masculinity. Neither path, nor any of the infinite variations thereupon, ought to raise eyebrows or invite quiet censure.

Men and women can be equal, or achieve some precarious balance approaching equality, without being the same. Indeed it will be way more fun this way. Difference makes life interesting.