Monday, May 30, 2011

Mythbusters : Feminist Edition, #2. Gender!

Today I'm going to discuss a little thing called gender. Ah, yes, gender. One of the first things a person learns is their gender identification, and it is something that each person is constantly reminded of throughout their entire lives. Babies and children have color-coded wardrobes and take a look at Toys R' Us sometime, it's basically color-coded. Etc.

Just to put it out there, I am cis-gendered and heterosexual. Cis-gender means that I act out my gender in an expected way. I'm a girl, I have skirts, I usually wear a little make up, I've never identified as anything other than a "girl." I like talking about gender, but at the same time, I always feel weird about criticizing the gender binary when I belong to it, so I just want to clear the air and put it out there that while I am both a part of the gender binary while being aware and critical of it.

Over spring break, I had dinner one night with my dad. Somehow we got onto the topic of gender theory, and I mentioned Judith Butler's theory that gender is a performance. This basically means that whatever gender you present as, that presentation is a performance. This idea did not jive so well with my dad.

So, the mythbusting topic of the day is... "Gender is natural and inherent and unmoving."

To ground some of the stuff I'm going to talk about, I'm going to define some things really quick:

Biological sex = In the social sciences and humanities, we usually look at biological sex as the sex organs a person was born with. These organs do not determine a person's gender, although they often correspond in an expected way (for example, a person with a vagina who identifies as a girl). There are a lot of variations on what we know as biological sex. Some of these are chromosomal, but all of these variations have an effect on what we perceive to be someone's sex.

Gender = Gender is a socially constructed category of identification. Most people are familiar and comfortable with male and female, but these are not the only gender identifications out there. Some people identify as neither, or genderqueer, or change their gender identity as they grow older.

Queer Theory = Queer Theory resists the common perceptions that gender is real, natural, and essential and works very closely with the idea that gender is performance. Queer Theory asserts that gender identities change, are not essential (look at gender perceptions in history, social contexts and across cultures... they're not all the same) that one cannot assume things about a person's gender identity or sexuality.

Sexuality: This is a person's sexual preference. This is not just heterosexuality or homosexuality, but it sexuality is often defined by the gender of the person or people you are attracted to. This gets tricky because sometimes that isn't so easily defined.

So the crux of my dad's argument was basically that he'd raised a boy and two girls and knows that there are essential differences between my brother and my sister and me. Sure. There are biological differences between the way male and female -identified people act that are natural. However, they aren't rules. My brother played sports at a competitive level through high school, but he also enjoyed watching To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar with me when I was a freshman in high school. My sister asked for a Hot Wheels set for Christmas when she was really young. And anyone who has ever spent any time with me can attest to the fact that I am not exactly a model for classic femininity. (Most often I get compared to drag queens or ten year old boys.)

My brother, my sister and I all fit into the cis-gender spectrum. But it's exactly that. A spectrum. What my sister experiences as femaleness is not the same as what I experience. And that is different from what other people experience. I was wearing a skirt that night so I explained that my wearing a skirt is part of my performing my female gender. Even if I weren't wearing a skit, other people would probably recognize me as a woman, but wearing a skirt is something that using my femaleness to portray and assert that femaleness for other people.

Kate Bornstein, transgender lesbian, writer, actress, playwright, and gender bender, in her fabulous book Gender Outlaws says, "Is there such a thing as a normal man or woman? I have this idea that there are only people who are fluidly-gendered, and that the norm is that most of these people continually struggle to maintain the illusion that they are one gender or another."

Even what we think about as "biological sex" exists on a highly socially constructed level. What about someone who is born with a penis and a vagina? Or a small penis? Or a large clitoris? Who gets to define what makes a man or a woman? When doctors decide a child's sex in situations like that, and even in cases of "normal" genitalia where doctors see a penis and say "Okay, that's a boy," this is socially constructing sex and gender. Earlier this year I watched and reviewed the Argentinian film XXY, which I think did a really good job at showing how sex/gender/sexuality aren't so fixed. "Normal" is a dangerous, violent, and strife-inducing concept for a lot of people. Would I identify as straight if I hadn't been raised to expect to be attracted to men?

Gender is pretty complicated. Judith Butler is the big name in queer theory scholarship and she's great (although kind of dense and requires a lot attention), but Gender Outlaw by Kate Bornstein and Gender Outlaws the New Generation edited by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman are great and really easy to read if you want to learn more about this, and are much better resources than I am. Check them out!

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