The questions we should still be asking about gender

Oct 04 2010 Published by under From the Melodye Files

"...for the present enshrines the past – and in the past all history has been made by men." --Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

Last week, I wrote a short piece on my (stunning) failure to be socialized according to our culture's gender norms. As I pointed out, I spent much of my adolescence wearing my father's hand-me-downs and drinking cheap whiskey with the loud boys (the kind, you know, who wore cordovan wingtips and eyeliner to first period). We were a delightful lot of misfits. Anyhow, an old friend, reading this, sent me a link to a new collection by Dries Van Noten, as photographed by The Sartorialist, with the note "ahead of the times, eh?" But of course.

The Sartorialist writes : "The take away from this show? Steal your Dad's clothes, all your dad's clothes. His shirts, his jeans, his sportcoats are all fair game now."

Why, I wonder, did I ever learn to wear lipstick? And like it?

To be fair, menswear has long been a 'classic look' on women of my build (broad shoulders, long neck) and height (as tall as a man). In search of my style predecessors, I searched the Internets for some of my women-loves. I've posted a small gallery at the end of the post.

But before getting to that, I thought I would raise a number of questions on gender that still demand discussion :

On language
How does language shape our thoughts on gender? How do we use language - as a form of behavior and as an expression and extension of culture - to implicitly enforce gender norms?  And then -- secondarily -- If we think that language is shaping (or implicitly constraining) our thoughts and beliefs about gender, is it worthwhile to assess and try to change those values? Should we try to self-consciously change the way we speak?

On biology
In society, what role does biology play in propelling men (and not women) to the top? Are the traits of highly successful men (e.g., hyperfocus, ambition, hypomania) truly absent in women? In what way is the expression of these traits mediated by cultural norms and practice?

On sex
How does female sexuality play into all of this? What part does modern culture (pornography, fashion, etc) play in shaping our expectations of women? Must powerful, iconic women necessarily be de-sexualized, gay, or explicitly counter-culture?  What happens when women turn the tables and objectify men?  [Links are to the Martin Amis classic on pornography "Pussies are bullshit," the Dove ads scandal, and the Karen Owen sex-thesis (er, f*ck list), respectively.]

And finally, a provocative question from a conversation I was having this evening about Hemingway (who was often accused of misogyny) :

What does it mean to be a misogynist in an age (or society) where women are socialized to be powerless, subservient and inferior?  What does it mean to be a feminist?

In the days to come, I'll write a little on the research I've been doing on the differences in how we use gendered words (like "he" and "she" and "man" and "woman").  The differences are striking, and sometimes more than a little startling.  Here's a simple one you might not expect : when it comes to labeling people by their sexual orientation, we're far more interested in a man's preference than a woman's.  In fact, we label men by their orientation (gay, straight, bi) about ten times more often than we do women.  But that ratio nearly reverses when it comes to marital status.  We talk incessantly about whether women are "married," "single," or "divorced," but when it comes to the guys, we couldn't care less.  What does it all mean?  --I'll get to that bit shortly.

11 responses so far

  • Rob says:

    Baumeister addresses some of the issues pertaining to biology and sex in his recent book. You've both appeared on Bloggingheads: perhaps a diavlog on his book?

  • Asp says:

    Re: sex -- In today's culture it seems it is impossible to be a successful woman WITHOUT being overly sexualized. Look at actresses or singers -- the women with, really, extensive talent -- most of them took their clothes of for one magazine or another and some, like Lady Gaga, basically built their success on sexualizing their image as much as possible, without making actual porn. Famous men don't take their clothes off for women's magazines, but famous women routinely do so for men's magazines. Being sexualized is practically the norm for women in pop culture.

    As for the question of what it means to be a misogynist in a culture where women are socialized to be powerless -- well, to be a misogynist means to view that state of affairs as normal or unchangeable and do nothing to change or counteract it. You can either be a feminist, and work to change this, or you can be a misogynist by being complicit (or actively involved) in perpetuating the state of affairs. You can't merely be indifferent - to be indifferent is to be complicit in patriarchy.

    • melodye says:

      Asp -- I guess the reason I asked the question about being 'de-sexualized' is because outside pop culture, it seems to be the opposite.

      In general, there doesn't seem to be much of a model in our society of what it looks like to be at once culturally feminine, with all that entails, and successful. The only place this doesn't seem to be a paradox is -- as you rightly point out -- in show business, where, to the contrary, success is often predicated on how bankable the sexuality of the lead actress or pop starlet, which usually ties in with 'how feminine.' (Actually -- it's always with great pleasure that I discover actresses who are talented without being obviously feminine -- though they are hardly ever American -- Carey Mulligan, Kate Winslet and Judi Dench come immediately to mind; Hilary Swank may be the Yankee exception).

      Many of our top female businesswomen and politicians seem eunuchs, by contrast. Or maybe you disagree? -- I'm curious.

      • Asp says:

        No, I agree, outside pop culture women need to be desexualized, because business, politics, science etc are still overwhelmingly male dominated -- to be female in those environments is a disadvantage, and displaying feminine characteristics or tendencies is frequently detrimental to one's career.

        But that's "serious" business, and women don't do serious business as well as men, you know?

        Take literature, for example -- in the wake of the latest Franzen's novel being hailed as "the great American novel", women writers and critics are drawing attention to the fact how many fewer female authors are reviewed and how improbable it would be to find a novel by a female author being labelled as the great American novel (as well as to what extent reviewers would focus on the "domestic" themes more than the social ones if the author were a woman). We all know how many women writers of the 19th century thought it prudent to hide their gender to get published, but today that's still the best tactic for success if you're a woman writer. A few months ago, Tiger Beatdown ran a post on the importance of disguising one's female sex for success as a writer for theatre (or, more precisely, for a chance at success), and probably the most famous recent example is J.K Rowling whose publishers requested that she drops her first name in favour of initials because they thought her book wouldn't be appealing to readers if they knew she was a woman.

        This is true for almost every part of society except pop culture, where the prerequisite for a woman's success, instead of hiding her gender, is to excel in performing it. In sports, politics or business etc one gets attention because one performs well in sports, politics or business; in show business one gets attention for performing their gender. But that's show business, where one can be successful even if they don't produce absolutely anything of value (Paris Hilton comes to mind), or if they are, at best, mediocre at what they do (like Megan Fox who's really not a good actress). So much of show business revolves around images instead of performance or artistic value, so much so that even someone with real talent and skill has to present an appealing image to succeed.

        So yes, I agree with you, outside of pop culture women's success frequently demands that they be as un-feminine as possible, which is paradoxical when you consider how women are bombarded every day -- through show business, fashion, advertising etc -- by the message that they MUST be feminine in order to succeed/fulfil their role in society.

        • melodye says:

          For what it's worth, I would have been tempted to write under a male pseudonym if I had chosen to do write this blog anonymously; and for my fiction, I already do. (Is that wrong?) I think in the literary world, there are many female novelists that are commercially successful, but far, far fewer who are regarded by the establishment to be top.

          Fascinating about J.K. Rowling, by the way -- had no idea! I actually would have thought it might be different in the UK and in the domain of children's fiction, where there seem to rather more celebrated women writers. Have you ever read AL Kennedy, by the way? -- I think her writing is hysterical and it could hardly be called 'feminine.'

          • Beth says:

            After the recent UConn record for most games won, the coach (can't remember his name) complained that the media immediately turned the record into something it wasn't -- part of the gender wars. He complained that his team's record was compared to similar records in male sports.

            There was a media frenzy, of course, but not in the way you'd suppose. The media were up in arms pointing out that nobody had made any such comparison. A few days later, the coach admitted that he had made his complaint up out of thin air. Why? He said he did it because he wanted more news coverage! And it worked!

            Having worked my way past the glass ceiling, I'm not so sure that the issues are as simple as you and Asp are painting them.

            For example, do you really believe that merely the fact of being female is detrimental in the fields of business, politics and science? That strikes me as a throwback to an age before my time (and I bet I'm older than you or Asp!).

            Feminism needs to adapt to the times if we're going to continue to advance, and these silly black and white pictures -- playing the poor victim of society or portraying men as having a mile-long head start simply by being male -- aren't going to get us anywhere.

    • Snarkyxanf says:

      Late to the party, but:

      It strikes me that in pop music and acting, both male and female performers usually need to provide sexual appeal, but the way we construct the sexual roles of men allow male celebrities to simultaneously be virtuous, dignified, sexually attractive, and powerful, but female celebrities have a much more difficult set of choices to make.

    • AJ says:

      This business about women being sexualized and men not strikes me as hot air. I wonder whether you have any numbers or studies -- studies that would withstand critical scrutiny -- to back this up. I'm not even sure what you mean by being sexualized.

      Men and women who are famous in fields like acting, singing, etc. are overtly sexualized regardless of gender. Recall the hype about Brad Pitt taking his shirt off in Troy. Flip through any magazine and take a look at the models. You'd have to be blind to think that the men aren't being sexualized, their bodies glorified as either hyperpumped up or stickskinny. Think of "The Situation" from Jersey Shore -- he made himself famous because of his brilliant abs (which aren't actually that brilliant). To be quite honest, I think you'd have to be an idealogue not to be able to see that the double standard you're TRYING to draw here just doesn't exist (patently doesn't exist, in fact).

      As for men and women famous in other fields, again, I'm confused by what you're saying. I don't think that it's the case that there's some double standard here that goes against women -- or that all, most or even generally speaking famous women are desexualized or treated as "eunuchs" (to quote from Melodye's response below).

      Maybe if you explained a bit about what you mean by "sexualized" and how exactly the double standard plays out (and had some numbers to back up your claim), your post would come off as more than man-hating hot air. But as it is, you seem simply to be ignoring the facts, which I suggest you get straight.

  • You have to live in the real world to do so may mean hiding your gender as female to be a successful writer. I think it depends on how much you want a thing and what you're willing to do to get it.
    That being said, I think it's important to 'stand out' by not worrying about what others think. When you are truly comfortable with yourself and not thinking constantly about what people will think of you by the way you look and act, freedom happens.
    Ha ha, I had to go back and change some I's to you's for continuity. I'll continue in the first person.
    I honestly don't think about looking mannish, and I do, all the time. I don't shave my legs, I wear mens clothes and I don't pluck, wax or torment my face in any way, except for using a trimmer on my top lip and chin. I grow face hair. It's understated compared to a mans, just like female features are in general. I think it's soft and nice just like women. I love being a woman and I think that because 'I'm' doing something it means it's 'feminine'.
    I don't think anything about stopping to smell a magnolia in my wingtips and suit. I'm just me and I'm happy. I honestly feel sorry for people who holler "dike", etc. because they are the ones playing gender roles. Rigid, inflexible and obviously painful ones at that. I let them keep their precious misery and go about my day.
    I smile a lot and look people, kindly, right in the eye when speaking. I almost always get a genuinely kind response in return.
    People like me because I'm authentic. What you see, IN MY EYES, is what you get and people like what they see there and that is how they ultimately judge me.
    I wasn't always this way. I felt awkward and miserable and people were not kind no matter what I wore. The ones that were, are the same banal ones that scream dike. Yeah, surrounded by *cringe*. So I tossed the dress and make up and razor and viola a happy human being.
    Never discount the power of eye contact. I may encounter a surly attitude at first but by maintaining eye contact and continuing my business as I want, they relent. It is an aggressive move and because I'm doing it, it's feminine.
    I've heard the "you just want to be a man" statement here and there. I have to laugh, that would be cutting myself in half. Why would I want to do that? I am of the feminine and the masculine, fe-male. I am a pretty pretty princess and if you don't treat me like it I'll punch you in the head.
    True feminists want equal pay for equal work and the freedom to work at what they choose. Our standing president is a feminist. The fathers who band together and demand that their daughters aught not play baseball on fields of dirt and glass, while other peoples sons play on manicured diamonds are real feminists. I've been spit on by women who declare I'm not a real feminist.
    I feel pity for them. They are of the same mind that let a woman stand up a speak in front of audiences to say that woman have no right to stand up and speak. They are vile and so are their actions. They need a good punch in the head. Ha ha ha.
    Never oppress yourself, there are already so many trying they don't need your help.

  • John says:

    "What happens when women turn the tables and objectify men?"

    There are many ways of objectifying people other than treating them as sex objects. Traditionally, when we talk about objectifying women, that's what we mean -- we mean treating them as sex objects. But there's a stereotypical way to objectify men, too. The stereotypical way to objectify a man is to treat him as a source of money and "gewgaws". There's even a name for someone who objectifies others in this way -- "gold-digger".

    There is nothing new about the thought of objectifying men. The "news value" in the stories you refer to in your links (e.g., the Owen "thesis") isn't in the fact of objectifying men but in the way in which men were objectified in these stories -- namely, not in the stereotypical way. (But not in a new or particularly interesting way, either. Just in a way that is not stereotypical. If it tells you anything, it is only about the prevailing assumptions in pop culture America.)

    It's a shame that you're thinking of this as "turning the tables". There are no tables to be turned. There are just people treating one another poorly. Misandry is not a good answer to misogyny.