Monday, April 30, 2012

Gender in the twenty-first century

A few months ago, I was reading this book.  Some people may be wondering why I was reading something on male sexuality, when I myself am not male.  So, I'll just say that I find sexuality to be a pretty fascinating topic in general.  I mean, that's the point, right?  Evolutionarily speaking, the point is to procreate, which requires some very specific sexual congress.  Which always makes me wonder why our urges are not more specifically pointed.  Which makes me think about alternative sexualities, or even, non-penis-in-vagina sexual acts, and why and how we all are so easily able to overcome this supposed program that we all want to create babies.

Anyway, that's not the point of this post.  That's just explaining why I was reading the book.  Despite the book being about male sexuality, it also dabbles in male gender identity.  I know for some people, these go hand in hand.  But, having interacted with both sexual and gender minorities, I can honestly say that for some people, it does not.

In this book, the author (Bader) suggests that males and females adopt different gender roles during the struggle to separate from their mothers.  He states that boys also have to separate on a gender basis, as well as personality-wise.  I have some problems with this idea, in that I don't believe that this is innate.  I believe instead that this is not a part of separating one's identity from one's mother, but rather a false dichotomy which is presented by the parent(s) and society at large.

What Bader also suggests is that one of the ways to achieve masculinity is to negate femininity.  While this may have had some truth in the past, I find it hard to believe that this works as well in the present.  As women have entered the workforce, especially the professional workforce, we have taken on qualities that are more typically considered to be "male".  For example, aggression and/or assertive behavior, the masking of emotions, and our dress (while still considered feminine) has become more in line with masculine types of dress.

I think that this has caused some of the trends of late, in which men do not always know what it means to be a man.  I've heard men complain that women are co-opting what it means to be a man, and that they don't like it.  Yet, if a woman acts in a stereotypically "womanly" way in a professional environment, they will complain about that as well.  Even more strongly will be the reaction to a transgendered woman, who acts in a stereotypically female way.  Aggression and anger towards this woman is considered to be a normal reaction.  The reaction to a trans man?  Why would you give up being something as attractive as a woman to become a man?

I think some of these issues are present because while the roles of women have filled with more options, the roles of men have not.  Male roles are typically as rigid as they ever have been in a professional environment.  From what I've witnessed, this is slowly becoming undone, but it's a *very* slow-going process.

I, myself, work in garage property management.  This gives me a unique opportunity to see several different levels of society, as far as the socioeconomic scale is concerned.  In my particular location, there are typically white males in management, women (of any race) as assistants, and both men and women in racial minorities as the hourly employees. Until recently, there were also a higher number of gay and bisexual people working in this location than one would expect (there still are, however, the numbers have fallen). There are exceptions to each of these categories, of course, but the tendencies are still there.

The reason I bring this up is that the gender roles seem to be more rigidly enforced amongst the managers and their assistants, and less so amongst the hourly employees.  I'm unsure of whether this is a class issue, or one of race.

In addition, as might be expected, gender roles seem less enforced amongst the sexual minorities.  Gay women are permitted to be more masculine, and gay men are permitted to be more feminine.  While I don't think that this applies to these communities at large (and my anecdotal evidence indicates otherwise), I nevertheless find it interesting that these stereotypes are prevalent in my workplace.  It's almost as if we have traveled back in time a of couple decades, when men wore shirts and ties, and women wore suits.  Except if you are a racial or sexual minority, then you get a pass.  This also applies to behavior, the female managers tend to be somewhat more emotional and passive than their male counterparts.

I find this an interesting phenomenon, in that many of the professional women I know are assertive and do not display their emotions at their workplace as much.  I believe that this was a common occurrence following the large amount of women entering the workplace in the 1970s, and continues to be so into the modern day.  However, my workplace seems to be an odd island in which gender expectations of yesteryear are prevalent.  Not enforced, but definitely a tendency. 

I think that those of us whose mothers entered the workforce in the 70s have, for the most part, been brought up by assertive women who do not express emotions as much.  As such, I believe that we are less likely to cling to the female gender identity of the past.  In fact, I believe it makes us more likely to feel ambivalent towards any sort of gender identity, that is not physical (make up, clothes, etc).  Whereas, with men, I believe that the gender role remains strong, but is being challenged.

I think this is why it's often easier for a woman to be able to empathize with a transgendered individual.  Men have a much more rigid code of behavior and dress than women do.  Because we have more experience with ambivalence towards our gender, we can more easily put ourselves in the mindset of being assigned the wrong gender.  (Not that I'm saying an cis individual can actually understand the trials and travails of being trans, any more than someone of a racial majority can fully understand the point of view of someone in a racial minority.  Just that it's easier for a cis woman to *attempt* to look at things from a transgendered perspective.)

I think that perhaps it's easier for gay and bisexual people to see things from a trans perspective, because gay and bisexual people will also occasionally question gender norms, and are seen as doing so by straight people, just by their choice in sex partner(s). 

So, what I wonder is, where will we go from here?  Will we, by the end of this century, be able to dispose of the idea that gender is a binary switch?  Will we be able to accept that gender roles are really arbitrary and only enforced by society, rather than innately configured by nature?  We're slowly starting to accept that sexuality is much more complex than gay/straight.  Not only is there an increasing acceptance for bisexuals and asexuals, but also people for whom gender does not matter due to some sort of non-gender oriented fetish.  Will we realize that this kind of abstract thought can apply to gender as well?

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