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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Defining Gender for an Androgynous Future I; The Expectations

gender title

I recently read an article in Time magazine titled Meet the New Generation of Gender-Creative Kids. It explores what life is like for a child in a summer camp designed only for children who are growing up in a household that encourages them to find their gender for themselves. I can’t help but think, how can you ‘find’ gender?

I must admit, my view of gender is itself a little skewed. I was raised in a house of women, one woman (my mother) filled the role of a classic matriarchal figure, teaching me love, compassion, care and sensitivity. The other was my older sister, a much more aggressive, dominant, overbearing and yet emotional, delicate and insecure person. Through their eyes, I saw the world around me, and they helped me define a niche of my own.

The classic ‘father’ roles of provider and protector both fell to my mother, and it was with her that I learned hiking, football and writing and countless other hobbies and skills. She encouraged my studies and yet gave me the freedom to be myself and grow on my own too. My sister taught me to shave, badly. But the point is, I was learning how to be a man from two women who had had their fair share of shitty men. They had an opportunity to craft a new man from their own experiences, without the worry of society’s moulds there to constrict me or damage me. I still played army, I still wanted to be a spy and travel, and I still wanted to be a hero. Are they masculine traits? I learned how to be sensitive to other’s emotions, how to talk to anyone for any period of time about anything (especially on the phone), and I was able to show compassion. Are these feminine traits? If I’m honest, I didn’t really notice the difference as a kid, as I was too busy just running around in the mud and trying to be a mad scientist or an astronaut. As an adult, years after I’ve left the company of my mother and sister, I’m in the world and I’ve had to learn certain traits so as to ‘fit in’. I’ve adapted, often unconsciously, only aware of it afterwards when I look back on things and think ‘man, I’ve changed’.

For survival and protection, I assume

For survival and protection, I assume

So, what is a man? After watching the recent Avengers film, The Age of Ultron, it’s tempting to want to say that a real man should be big and strong, and capable of protecting the world from invasion should such a reality take place. Perhaps a man is more than this though. To be honest, maybe the labels themselves are the issue. Let’s zoom out and look down on masculinity from above. Is it a construct or an innate character? Is it an assumed identity taught from birth, or is it the by-product of natural thirsts and impulses that drive most men toward a similar set of priorities?

Ok, so before we get bogged down thinking about the etymology of the words, allow me to define what we are talking about here. Sex is biological, and we are defined ‘biologically’ as boys or girls by the type of body we own. I am not here to discuss this, most often it is straight forward. As an adult, can you cross your legs comfortably? Yes, OK, you’re probably not a bloke.

Gender is how societies expectations of behaviour and action from boys and girls defines what we are able to do. For example, is it a social norm for young men to play with Barbie and not Action Man? No, on the most part this is still seen as a feminine behaviour, and so to play with a Barbie as a girl is adhering to your gender role, but to play with one as a boy is to flout your gender role.

Gender identity is how we feel inside about our role, and how that manifests in our appearance and actions. This is our reaction to gender roles, and often in teenage years you find a chance to experiment with your gender and your place within society. David Bowie was famous for utilising his naturally androgynous look to break down classic gender conformity expectations, especially in his Ziggie Stardust phase. Sometimes, when people feel their gender identity doesn’t fit with their biological sex, they identify as transgender.

Just because you're tall, doesn't mean you're a basketball player

Just because you’re tall, doesn’t mean you’re a basketball player

Gender Tags

So what is feminine, and what is masculine? These are the labels given to certain sets of behaviour that are identified with either being a woman or being a man. It’s important to note here that ItchQuill is not trying to tell you what is masculine and what is feminine, but instead explore what we as societies around the world are told is masculine and feminine.

To help with identifying what is seen as male and female, a quick Google search brings up a list of adjectives on PlannedParenthood.com’s article Gender & Gender Identity. They say that words often ascribed to femininity would be ‘passive, weak, emotional, dependent and nurturing’ to name but a few. For masculinity, some of the words were ‘aggressive, rebellious, hard, competitive and self-confident’. The list goes on, and it is not meant to act as a list of things to look for to describe the next woman or man you see, but more as a reflection of attributes that are often associated, rightly or wrongly, with either gender. Few could argue that these words are used in such a way, however.

“Man stuff”

Let’s look again at that masculinity list. Is it seen as ideal that men behave in these ways, or is it just expected? Let’s not forget, as masculinity and femininity is not defined by our biology but by our mentality, it has the potential to adapt and transform within different nations and cultures. These often get lost in stereotypes and can be part of a confusing and contradictory fabric of identity much larger than gender itself (such as the emotional Irish male stereotype, the dominant Latina female stereotype or the well-groomed and orderly British gent stereotype).

The question is; do we have an innate sense of masculinity, or is it learned? It is inescapable, the gender roles pumped at us from the news, our education, the media, advertising and such. We are constantly bombarded with messages on what we need to be, and how we need to behave to be seen as conforming to our gender roles and therefore ‘fitting in’. This stays with us for our whole lives, often influencing us in ways we are unaware of at the time.

“Lady things”

As Faulkner states in his book Doing Gender in Engineering Workplace Cultures,Cultural notions of “feminine” and “masculine” behavior are shaped in part by observations about what women and men do. This kind of “gender marking” tends to discourage women or men from entering “gender-inauthentic” occupations” (Faulkner, 2009).

In the next instalment, we will be looking further at the roles of gender in society, and how this is changing with our younger generations.

Work Cited: Faulkner, W. (2009). Doing Gender in Engineering Workplace Cultures: Part II—Gender In/Authenticity and the In/Visibility Paradox. Engineering Studies, 1 (3), 169-189.

Special thanks to hin255, marin, Praisaeng and stockimages @ FreeDigitalPhotos.net for use of their photos in this blog.

© Itchy Quill and ItchyQuill.WordPress.com, 2015