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…
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.
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?
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 byof 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.”
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