Defining Gender for an Androgynous Future III; Uniform

title gender 3

In the last instalment, we discussed how the changing face of a society can help to alter how it is interpreted by the younger generation. There is a strong case that environment, especially one of concrete norms and ideals, can influence the younger generations to either do as they are told, or rebel entirely. If they are rebelling, they need the freedom to express themselves within that environment, or they will carve out that freedom for themselves.

How does that work in action? If we enforce a rule upon a teenager, are we asking them to conform for our benefit, or for theirs? The common misconception in my school days was that we had to follow the orders of social constructs, indoctrinated within these roles and expectations, purely to follow suit and prepare us for a ‘normal’ life. ‘Don’t be a freak’ was the catchphrase, and conformity did promise a life much freer from bullying and stigma. A friend of mine wore bright purple flares to a youth club meeting when we were 12 and faced a night of verbal barrage. Insults such as ‘gay’ and ‘girl’ were levied upon him, and yet as an adult I must ask; is calling someone gay really an insult? Equally, is calling someone a woman an insult either? My friend was not wrestling with a gender crisis, but was in fact more of a fashionista than many at the time realised. This was the nineties, bear in mind. Things were, different…

Yes... 'the 90s'

Yes… ‘the 90s’

So, where can we look for an environment today that will help to push us towards a more gender enlightened future? To be honest, the polarising of opinion on such a subject is far from surprising. The fact it can be tied into political, social, judicial, religious and cultural objections and praise is also interesting. If you are feeling ‘misgendered’, it must be your choice what gender you are and not anyone else’s? My generation were told they can be anything they want to be… except the opposite gender. Alas, it always has to about more than that.

Schools are notoriously the home of strict dress codes (with gender reinforcing uniforms), arguably one of the first encounters many of us may have with tight controls on our expression of our gender. When I was at school the boys wore shirts and ties with trousers, while the girls wore skirts (no trousers were allowed until my fourth year at secondary school), with blouses, or female cut shirts, and no ties. In summer, the girls would mock us for overheating in our lengthy trousers and constricting ties while they pranced about in their skirts in the warm breeze. Was this fair? As we were not allowed to wear shorts, should all the boys have donned skirts and been done with it? Hardly. As stated before, to do such an act would have been to invite untold ridicule and isolation. Only the bravest and most headstrong of teenagers are capable of such subversion. But why is that? Everybody enjoys dressing up from time to time.

Let's face it, kids like to dress up

Let’s face it, kids love to dress up

But what if the children themselves did start to accept themselves as what they are, and not what they are told to be? In The New York Times article Can a Boy Wear a Skirt to School, Jan Hofman reports:

“In September, a freshman girl at Rincon High School in Tucson who identifies as male was nominated for homecoming prince. Last May, a gay male student at a Los Angeles high school was crowned prom queen.”

So if the younger generation are already embracing the fluidity of gender, and the freedom to be neutral, unisex and carry a multi-faceted gender expression, who is perpetuating the aforementioned status quo?

“Adults… “become the gender police through dress codes” said “Diane Ehrensaft, an Oakland psychologist who writes about gender” when interviewed for the same New York Times article as above.

That’s right. This level of conformity, rightly or wrongly, is definitely being continued, at least in part, by the structures of identity inherited from our parents, and their parents, and theirs, all the way back to our cavemen selves. It does make me chuckle.But every generation puts its own twist on the gender identity.

When I see old photos of FDR in a dress, I am reminded of how fragile the modern idea of gender expression actually is. As Daniel Fromson writes in the article FDR Grew Up in a Dress: It Wasn’t Always Blue for Boys and Pink for Girls, appearing on theAtlantic.com:

“[FDR’s] unexpected childhood look is a reminder that our cultural norms about gender-specific clothing for children are a surprisingly recent historical development.”

Somehow, between various generations, we have managed to actually lose sight of this gender control to such an extent that we have gone full circle. Wearing a dress was normal for boys in the time of FDR’s childhood, and yet now for a boy to wear a dress is deemed to be inappropriate. Anyone else getting confused? You should be. The twisted logic of such demands of conformity are forcing individuals, with personal cares, affections and tastes, to fit into a uniform of gender, donning a costume so as to be able to pass though the journey of life and tick the boxes expected of us. By demonstrating the fragility of such a construct through the reappropriation of such a practice already, surely the validity of such measures can be seen to be pointless?

We may as well surrender

We may as well surrender

The buzz word at the moment seems to be ‘fluidity’. It is impossible to escape the headlines about Caitlyn Jenner, and rightly so (more on that next week). Yet I worry that the media, in it’s unending quest to perpetuate conventions it deems integral to supporting the current, restrictive status quo, will often portray these cases with an element of ridicule. Their propensity for tongue in cheek, for mockery, shines through the journalism, and fails to fully tackle the nature of what is being expressed. The ridiculous nature of celebrity news notwithstanding, there will be little room for such a tentative issue — in need of serious academic debate and an open dialogue in society — to get the attention it deserves. It is a golden opportunity for a mainstream debate about the nature of gender identity, and yet I know that such a discussion is still a few years away. Still, it’s nice to see the world is at least talking about it, even if some of the comments on sites such as Twitter are derogatory or satirical.

To help us with the transition, the twitter account @she_not_he was set up by of The Washington Post. She wanted to politely remind people of the ‘misgendering’ that was happening at Caitlyn Jenner’s expense. Though, expectedly, it got a lot of stick from the Twittersphere, and many ignored it or retaliated with ‘whatevers’ or even silence, there were a few who took the comments on board, and offered promises of change. As Caitlin herself writes:

“…there were those few precious apologizers, the ones who said sorry, that they’d “get it right” next time. In some ways, their heartfelt responses to a dumb Twitter bot aren’t just surprising or gratifying. They’re kind of, sort of, revolutionary.”

“Come on Dave, say something indigo for heaven’s sake!”

And that is exactly the point. Such a dialogue, though messy and obtuse and even a little hard to even take seriously in a domain like Twitter, was still able to shift the mentality of a few. That few, hopefully, can walk away with lessons learned, the world a better place. With that happening, it shouldn’t be long (one hopes) before a critical mass is reached and the exponential growth of the kind of gender reclassification, the induction of fluidity and neutrality against the obstinate nature of traditionalists.

Ultimately, does it really matter? We should be free to be what we want to be. If nobody actually mentioned Caitlyn Jenner again, would any of our loves change? No, they wouldn’t. She could go on doing her thing, and we could go on doing ours. And that is the crux of all of this; why should someone else’s decisions about their life, their personality and their identity, matter to anyone else? If they are not harming anyone by expressing themself, then surely they are free to do as they please? You can choose to be offended by someone’s choices, that is your right as an individual. But forcing your rhetoric and beliefs upon them is not, as they are not forcing theirs upon you. Let each other be free to be what you want to be, and watch the world prosper from the celebration of individualism and of the self.

Next week we will be exploring further the idea of the uniform of gender, but with a greater focus on labels and the associated stigmas.

Special thanks to  @ FreeDigitalPhotos.net for use of their photos in this blog.

© Itchy Quill and ItchyQuill.WordPress.com, 2015

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✒Idi…ummmm; The history of some of our favourite idioms (and OK) ✏

Idioms logo

The English language; a diverse and ever-changing beast. As a teacher, I am often confronted with how perplexing our great language can be, and how some of the words that inhabit its planes of communication are far from the lands of sanity. As a mish-mash of various languages, English is very much a patchwork quilt of Latin, French, Germanic, Greek and Polynesian origins. And that is just the start. Trace the history far enough and you will find many more influences too.

Even in our contemporary world, English still insists on ‘loaning’ words when a better one doesn’t already exist in the language, such as Karaoke. New words find their way into our language too from popular culture and general life around us. Anyone who has ever seen The Thick of It will be familiar with Malcolm Tucker’s classic ‘omnishambles’. A word which is only as old as that show, invented to describe a “situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations” according to Oxforddictionaries.com.

This wonderful flexibility is arguably one of the reasons why English is such a popular language, and spoken so widely. But, don’t you ever wonder where some of the sayings come from?

Specifically, I like to look at the history of idioms. An idiom is a figure of speech used to mean something other than its literal meaning. In the English language it is estimated there are over 25,000 idioms in use!

That would be a seriously long-read if we tried to define them all! So, let’s start small. Here is the meaning for five famous idioms (and for one famous phrase that isn’t an idiom but has an interesting history).

“Mum, your flan was an omnishambles”
“Aaaargh!”

Always a bridesmaid, never a Bride

Lets start with an easy one, the meaning of which is exactly what it says; someone always being present at other people’s weddings but never having their own. It is often used by old, cruel mothers to mock their unwed female offspring… generally to make single women feel that they are unwanted or cannot find love 😦

It was first used in the Victorian dance hall song Why Am I Always a Bridesmaid by Fred W. Leigh. The phrase gained popularity after being used in a comedic Listerine advert. It shows a picture of a woman named ‘Edna’ under the slogan ‘always a  bridesmaid, never a bride’. She stares forlornly into the distance as she contemplates how her halitosis prevents her from finding love. The solution? Buy Listerine mouthwash and watch the suitors pile in!

Of course, it can't fix everything

Of course, it can’t fix everything

Ride Shotgun

Who remembers their days as a kid/student/adult/parent, scrambling with your friends or siblings for the honour of riding in the passenger seat, next to the driver? Of course, “I called shotgun” is the way of letting all others know you have earned this mighty privilege without the need for bloodshed.

This saying comes from the ol’ Wild West, a time and place where life was much more dangerous than today. If you were sitting next to the driver you would be expected to wield a shotgun so as to defend the stagecoach (the transport of the day) from bandits and looters. More pressure than merely map reading!

“I’m just here for the free ride”

Basket Case

This is a phrase often used to describe someone who is mentally unhinged. It was also the name of a big hit for Pop-Punk trio Green Day in 1994.

This is supposedly a term from World War I, used to describe someone who has lost all their limbs. The first recorded use of the term in official use was by the US government in denial of this practice. In 1919 The US command on public information issued this statement:

“The Surgeon General of the Army … denies … that there is any foundation for the stories that have been circulated … of the existence of ‘basket cases’ in our hospitals.” according to all-that-is-interesting.com

“Yeah, none at all”

Hold Your Horses!

This means ‘wait a moment’, and is often used to calm someone who is showing overt keenness or exuberance.

It is believed to come from around 800BC. A line in book 23 of Homer’s Iliad is commonly translated as “Antilochus – you drive like a maniac! Hold your horses!” That is, apart from the original translation in 1598 that has it as “contain thy horses”. I’m not sure why I prefer if I’m honest. Either way, this Antilochus fellow sounds like a bit of a bad ass. Those horses though…

“Contain this!”

Close, But No Cigar

This is another way of saying that you only just missed out. It was a near miss!

There was a time, many moons ago, when cigars were the preferred choice by fairground stalls as their prizes instead of the large, fluffy plush toys you will find yourself winning these days. One can only imagine if the cigars would also be over-sized and cheaply made… That said, winning was much more impossible than it is now, with games often rigged to make them even harder! The first time it was written down was in a script for the film version of Annie Oakley in 1935,  appearing as “close Colonel, but no cigar” according to phrases.org

From then on it gained popularity and appeared in newspapers from 1949 onwards.

So, it comes from con artists, tricking you into playing a game you were destined to lose. Can you trust anyone?

“We’re out of snake oil, but why not enjoy some of this lovely air. Yours for only $99!”

OK

This, of course, is not an idiom, but it is an extremely popular expression that also has a rather random history.

Used initially in American, then global English, OK is now a staple in many different languages all across the world. It can mean ‘I understand’, or it can mean something is not very good, as in “the karate film was ok”. It can mean I am fine, and can even be a friendly way of saying hello, as in ‘Hey guys, you ok?”

So, onto its origins. There are myriad explanations for where this expression comes from: it could come from the Greek olla kalla, from German alles korrekt or Ober-Kommando, from Finnish oikea, from the Haitian port “Aux Cayes”, from Latin omnes korrecta, from Chocktaw okeh, from a Puerto Rican rum named “Aux Quais”, from Scotland och aye, from Louisiana French au quai, from Wolof waw kay, from Mandingo O ke. There are countless other stories too, increasing the legend of OK; initials on biscuits, branding on cattle, ‘Old Kinderhook’ being the nickname of president Martin Van Buren, ‘0 killed’ being the report of the night’s death toll in WWI or American Civil War, ‘Orl Korrect’ military reporting indicating that troops were in good order, or even ship builders marking wood for the ‘Outer Keel’.

The truth appears to be much more simple than any of that, however. In 1963 a famous etymologist named Professor Allen Walker Read published a book called American Speech. In it, he draws the conclusion that OK effectively started out as a prank.

On March 23rd, 1839, the editor of The Boston Morning Post published a humorous article about a ridiculous organisation named the Anti-Bell Ringing Association (ABRS). They were campaigning to have the laws of dinner bell ringing changed, and OK was used in this article as a shortened version of ‘Oll-Korrect’, or ‘all correct’. At the time it was not uncommon for abbreviations to change the spelling of words, such as ‘KG’ meaning no go (know go) and ‘OW’ meaning all right (Oll Write).

These witty abbreviations are essentially the old world’s LOL and BRB.

“ROFL!”

So, that’s us for this post. Any phrases you think have an interesting story but you didn’t see up here today? Or perhaps you have a phrase you would like us to look into? As always, feel free to leave a comment. Let’s keep the conversation going!

Thanks to mentalfloss.com, all-that-is-interesting.com and phrases.org.uk for the inspiration for this post.

Special thanks to David Castillo Dominici, imagerymajestic, num_skyman, olovedog, stockimages, Tina Phillips and Sira Anamwong @ FreeDigitalPhotos.net for use of their photos in this blog.

© Itchy Quill and ItchyQuill.WordPress.com, 2015