I really need to learn to stop arguing on the internet. It’s such a time suck. My friends last night were laughing at my troll-bait tendencies. But as Harry replied to my post and, I think, both misunderstood its purpose and misrepresented my position, there are a couple of things I really want to clarify before shutting up and doing real work.
Most importantly: gender is not a binary.
I keep saying this, but it keeps getting missed or misunderstood. Harry says:
“Erin, all or part of your cleavage has been visible in every profile pic I’ve seen of you. Those are tits you’ve got, and they’re quite nice, and you’re quite proud of them. Fantastic – but so long as you’re wearing them, it doesn’t matter what you think about how “gender isn’t binary” – you’re going to be a girl and you’re going to be treated that way until you get a sex change, and then you’ll just be treated as a transgender.”
Aside from the profile pic bit being untrue, (this was my profile pic for most of the last two years), You’re right Harry. I have boobs! I have boobs because I am of the female sex, not because I identify with the female gender. Because gender isn’t an inherent attribute, but a social construction. And before you go saying “oh, that’s just what you mean by gender”, this is actually the definition of gender. Here’s how the World Health Organisation defines it:
“Gender is used to describe those characteristics of women and men, which are socially constructed, while sex refers to those which are biologically determined. People are born female or male but learn to be girls and boys who grow into women and men. This learned behaviour makes up gender identity and determines gender roles
This is all about the difference between the female and the feminine, the male and the masculine. The male and female are sex categories. While understanding them as a binary is still complicated- it doesn’t, for example, give space for intersex individuals- the binary is more applicable here. The vast majority of us are born male or female. Hence my boobs.
But gender categories are more complicated. Gender is the social and cultural construction of masculine and feminine, and the attributes thereof. Often, it’s thought as a binary: of two circles that don’t intersect, one with traits thought to be masculine, and the other with traits understood to be feminine. Gender is culturally-specific, and constructed differently in different countries, cultures and time periods. Some societies have more than two commonly recognized gender categories. One might consider some of the following as common Western understandings of the attributes of each gender.
It’s pretty clear, to me at least, that these are not universalities. They are culturally-loaded understandings, rather than inherent biological attributes. The very fact different understandings of gender exist in different cultures is evidence of this.
When I say I refuse to act in a manner consistent with one prescribed gender identity, I’m not saying I’m not going to adopt or utilize some of the cultural signifiers that correspond with “female”. I can choose to wear a dress or be nurturing. It’s saying I don’t want to operate entirely within the sphere of what our society understands to be feminine, because it is limiting and, yes, oppressive. I absolutely identify as female, but my female is defined not in opposition to male, but as I choose to define it. It’s refusing a prescribed gender identity, and creating my own.
It is somewhat useful to think of gender not as a binary, but as a kind of continuum- there is the socially constructed understanding of masculine on one end, and the socially constructed understanding of feminine on the other. Most of us fall somewhere along the continuum, and few are at one end or the other and yes, many fall outside it (which is why it’s use is limited). But it does effectively explain why the idea that “men do this” and “women do that” is absurd. Most women and men fall at different places on the continuum. Their gender identity is a construction, often a subconscious one.
So when Harry, on his supposedly “gender liberated” flirting site, says to girls:
You can become a beacon, a shining light of positive power and feminine charm, confident, happy, and magnetic. You will attract people who are similarly impressive, and find the kind of man you’d relish waking up next to, feeling comfortable, secure and happy
And to guys:
With a bit of a talk and some engaging activities, you’ll get into the female mind and understand what makes women tick, what excites and engages them. You’ll be able work out what you can do to become the object of any woman’s affection.
He both treats genders as a binary, and perpetuates the myth of gender as two monoliths. He reduces the incredibly complex world of human interaction to be primarily determined by one’s sexual organs. Which is the opposite of liberated: it is oppressive.
Harry picked and chose Tweets that were part of a conversation to support his case. It was a disingenuous way of representing the conversation. For mine, a far more important part was this:
To which I replied:
Frankly, I consider singling out gender as the most important element in determining how people behave is just plain incorrect. The interaction of many, many personality traits, interests and yes, to some extent, adoption of cultural norms, are what make us who we are. It’s these things together. Which is why you can’t say “women want this” or “men like this” any more than you can say “Australians want this” or “people who are 5ft 6 want that”. There are sometimes patterns, yes, but there are not universalities.
Finally, I find the way he uses the term “cranky feminist” and “strident feminist”, which I get is trying to be funny, to be fairly indicative of his misunderstanding of feminism. Feminism is, at its core, about understanding power, and the way power relationships are influenced by biological sex-determiners and cultural gender-determiners.
While Harry may say operating within a system that I find fundamentally oppressive is liberating, personally I prefer to be able to identify the manner in which society tries to shape me, and consider whether assuming that role makes me happy. I’m not looking to change the world: I am looking to change my life. Which is why feminism is just one part of what is a far broader and more fundamental political and cultural philosophy for me: that is, people are best able to determine what will make them happy, and should be given as much free reign to do so as possible without causing physical harm to others.
Fundamentally, all this is not about feminism, but about freedom. About people being free to make the life they want. Telling people “you act this way because you have a penis” or “You should expect a woman to act this way because she has a vagina”, is not only wrong, it’s encouraging people to perpetuate myths that hurt them and hurt others.
Liberation is about freedom, and freedom is about being able to make choices. A “gender liberated” workshop that perpetuates myths which effectively limit our freedom or tells us our choices are predetermined by our anatomy is anything but liberated.