Reflections on Gender
26 Tuesday Mar 2013
The issue of gender is a preoccupation of both the second and third waves of feminism. In the second wave, the distinction between biological sex (male/female) and socially constructed gender (man/woman) was unpicked, with the basic conclusion that gender – as a social construction – was damaging bullshit. The third wave has raised issues of transgender to the discussion as well as non-white gender structures, providing new ways of challenging the bullshit
Looking back to the 1970s, when men were men and women were pissed off about it; when gay was colourful and carefree and when “tranny” was more likely to be a reference to a small radio than a transphobic insult, outwith specialist academic and medical bodies few people considered gender to be anything other than the social presentation of sex – debates abounded about how much this was socially constructed and conditioned and how much was innate, but the idea of sex and gender not being fundamentally aligned was alien.
That is not to say that gender was uniform; there were different ways to “be a man” or “be a woman”, which although fitting in with cisnormativity, were still devient and transgressive. John Inman and Larry Graceson, epitomised “the camp” as a subset of the gender “man“. Still identifiable as men, they brought a body language and mannerisms which would more commonly be associated with women to the way that they performed their gender. “The camp” was popularly associated with homosexuality, however another popular character from that era, Frank Spencer, from “Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em” also played his gender in a distinctly effeminate manner – which was no small part of the comedy – but was actively identified with heterosexuality, his long-suffering wife Betty, playing a major part of the show.
The female counterpart to “the camp” was “the butch”. Again heavily associated with lesbianism, the butch, although identifiably a woman, had mannerisms and behavioural tendancies which were more commonly associated with men. In “Prisoner Cell Block H” for example, both Bea Smith and Joan Ferguson present as butch, while the latter is indeed associated with lesbianism, the former is written one who killed her adulterous husband, and goes on to have an affair with a man.
By the 1980s a new androgene was being born. David Bowie and Annie Lennox both reflected this by presenting in ways which were atypical for their gender, but not easily identifiable with the other. Boy George, caused genuine confusion when he hit the pop charts with many unclear about what his gender was, with tabloids alternately amused and outraged at this blatant display of genderbending. At the opposite end of the scale there is The macho and the high-femme. The macho as embodied by Arnold Schwarzenegger in films such as “Conan the Barbarian”" present an aggresssive hyper-masculinity, while Lola Ferrari presents in a hyper-feminine fashion. Action movies and princess culture depict high gendering, exaggerating the tropes which are associated with the sex of the object portrayed.
Thus within cissex, there have been a number of ways to “play gender”, to the extent that these can be seen as different and distinct genders, but still included within the overarching genders of “man” and “woman”
Transgender has only become prominent in public consciousness in the last twenty years or so. With Dana International winning the Eurovision song contest and Nadia Almada winning the popular television reality show, Big Brother, transgendered people have become far more visible in popular culture and consciousness. As with cis people, there are variety of ways in which trans people “play their gender”, from highly gendered, through androgenous to cross-gendered. There is pressure both from society and within the medical establishment for trans people to gender “appropriately” – for transwomen to wear dresses and make up and for transmen to adopt mannerism, such as sitting with their legs apart to “”pass” as their chosen gender, even where that does not come naturally to the person.
Gender is a social construction – it is an illusion that we all buy into, only part self-determined, although we use our choice of dress, mannerisms, etc to encourage others to gender us within the pre-defined classes of “man” and “woman” which are the only publicly acceptable genders. Our own unique gender, our particular way of positioning our identity and body in the world must fit into one of these predefined classes, it can vary from time to time within the spectrum of high gendering to cross gendering, but should it transition, it must be a one-off lifetime event.
Transwomen are our allies in the destruction of the man/woman binary, by decoupling gender from sex, they call us to question “What is a woman?” If it cannot be determined on the basis of sex, what then can it be determined on, can it be properly determined at all, why are we doing it and need we do so at all. The answer ultimately is to destroy gender completely, its unnecessary and harmful but the problem is that out there in the big bad world gender exists.
Others will gender you whether you want them to or not, and identifying or presenting with a gender which is associated with “woman” invites comparison to sexist tropes of what the essence of “a woman” is. Although both cis and trans people are presented as having a gender which is static and unchangable, beyond cis and trans, there are people who identify as genderfluid, who move between the genders of man and woman.
Where genderqueer steps in is in dispensing with the necessity for the ideas ‘man’ and ‘woman’ altogether. Instead, genderqueer politics envisage a society in which ‘man’ and ‘woman’ aren’t enforced on everyone, but are potential options for those who want them. Alone and in communities, genderqueer people open up gender so that people can choose to adopt mixtures of stereotypically or non-stereotypically feminine and masculine traits, dispense with them altogether, or move between them, alongside challenging them on feminist grounds.
Ray Filar, Questioning the Imperative to be Gendered
Looking beyond white culture where much of the discussion around gender, gender roles, transgender and gendernormativity takes place reveals that the Western heteropatriarchial norm of binary gender roles heavily associated with biological sex and sexual attraction are not universal. In a range of cultures there are people who do not identify with either gender, or who identify with both.
The destruction of cishet binary gender notions is a fight against misogyny in all its forms and indirectly a fight against the white supremacy which promotes them as “the natural order”. Gender is a complex interplay of your own presentation of your sex and sexuality, linking both your psychology and your body and presenting it out into a world which interprets it through established lenses – lenses established by a white heteropatriarchy, to maximise the exploitation of the reproducers of labour.