Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Posts tagged ‘Gender roles’

Some thoughts on the intersections of class, femininity, and transgender

In preparing for class, I read a chapter of the book Formations of Class and Gender by Beverley Skeggs (chapter 6, ‘Ambivalent Femininities’). In it, she begins by giving some historical background where she argues that signs of femininity are always classed.

By this, Skeggs is referring to history. Being ‘feminine’ was, and is, constructed to be fragile, delicate, dainty, pretty, small, thin, submissive, and charming. Of course, this has been challenged, resisted and re-negotiated through feminism, but bear with me.

This traditional notion of femininity was and is “a projection of male fantasy”. It is assigned to those women who have ‘proved themselves’ through the way they interact with people and present themselves in the world. Such attribution has been tied not just to presentation and interaction, but also to work – think of the ‘respectable housewife’ image, the epitome of a 1950’s femininity.

Skeggs explains how “working class women were coded as inherently healthy, hardy, and robust (whilst also paradoxically as a source of infection and disease) against the physical frailty of middle-class women. They were also involved in forms of labour that prevented femininity from ever being a possibility.”

Let’s consider the experiences of transgender women. Trans women can experience pressure to ‘pass’ as female (that is, be socially read as if assigned female at birth through appearance, mannerisms, and behaviour). We can see how the same set of problematic norms that dictate what femininity traditionally is in relation to class can be used to exclude transgender womanhood. In this context, femininity is conflated and confused with ‘femaleness’. That is, in order to be viewed as a ‘real’ woman, one has to successfully perform a very constrained and normative interpretation of femininity. Again, this is quite fortunately being challenged, but those trans women who reject traditional/stereotypical femininity and gender roles can and do experience stigma because of it.

What about the intersection – what about working class transgender women? Cisgender working class women can, arguably, struggle to be recognised as feminine due to femininity’s class construction. Trans working class women thus can experience a double bind – exclusion from femininity for working class norms and practices instilled through environment and interaction throughout life, and a likely more difficult battle to perform a middle class femininity adequately in order to be taken seriously as a woman.

Also, putting in ‘too much effort’ can also lead to stigmatisation and be seen as a sign of deviancy! Think of the prevalent and toxic ideas policing women who ‘wear too much make-up’ or ‘try too hard’ – these narratives become connected to the notion of ‘deception’, which then strikes doubly hard for transgender women whose authenticity as women is already under question due to biologically essentialist transphobia (the idea that ‘being female’ is rooted in genitals, chromosomes, etc.)

This one particular example is, I would argue, representative of a systemic problem, whereby class dynamics and economic inequality undermine the fight for LGBTQ rights and gender equality. This also emphasises that any attempts to position feminism and transgender rights as somehow at odds with each other are at best, an erroneous relic. Trying to separate them out will only create an under-nuanced model of the society we desperately need to improve.

 

Book review: Gender Outlaws – The Next Generation by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman

Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation is a collection of essays submitted from a wide range of people with very different experiences of gender, and very different things to say.

This book is brilliantly original. Never before have I read a book that blurs the boundaries between academic discussion, activists talking about their causes, artists talking about their passions, and humans talking about their pain, love, and needs. This coupled with things like comics, recipes, and poetry mixed in, and the introduction formed entirely of an online conversation between Bornstein and Bergman themselves. The tone struck is witty, thoughtful, relaxed, and (certainly in my case) draws the reader in.

Obviously in a work with contributions from…*counts*…52 different authors, some styles and content will speak more to any individual than others. Despite this large heterogeneity, I found the ‘tone’ of the book remarkably cohesive. Not because what the different writers say is necessarily over-similar, but virtually all inspire a wonderful state of thoughtfulness.

Each submitted piece stands alone, and all are short (2-7 pages each). This makes it extremely easy to dip in and out of, but the organisation of the essays is such that one can read straight through and stay gripped. Even accounts that may be very abstract for some readers – for example, the negotiation of gendered experience whilst being in an all-women Roller Derby league – contain powerful insights into the treatment of other people, and I would suggest offer at least a wonderful set of alternate perspectives and empathy-inducing thought patterns.

Some of the writers speak to me more than others, and I mean this to mean how much I enjoy and respect what they’re saying and their style and clarity – rather than necessarily a direct resonance with personal experience. Indeed, many of the articles are so interesting because they can cause you to think about experiences you may never have considered – but this can then shape how you consider gender in your own life. I didn’t find terminology confusing despite much specific ‘gender language’ being used by lots of different people, but this could reflect my academic privilege. I imagine this is a book that will speak most loudly to people with either an active interest in gender or those who have experience of being a gender or sexuality minority – rather than as a present for grandma. Though I would love to be wrong about this. I would imagine that not that many straight and cis readers would pick this book up of their own accord, but that the world would be a better and cooler place if more did.

The wide range of topics covered does involve a range of areas that may be distressing for some readers. As one might expect, the submissions from writers often discuss some of the post poignant (and difficult) occurances in their own lives, which may be triggering for some readers – and unfortunately each chapter does not come with trigger warnings or particularly indicative titles. Eating disorders, gendered violence, experience of chronic illness, and racism are all themes that are touched on. Though despite this, the book didn’t leave me with a sense of heaviness. Many of the writers imbue their pieces with valuable humour.

A point that may cause some controversy and disagreement very early on in the book (which is a point raised by Bergman in the introduction) is their use of the word/slur ‘tranny’. I think they produce some valuable discourse around this important and sensitive topic, but at the same time you may not like it. If the following quote gets your brain fired up, then you will probably find the book stimulating.

S. Bear Bergman: I can see the argument for outlawing “it’s so gay” better. They’re trying to outlaw bullying, but “don’t be mean” isn’t – evidently – an enforceable school rule, so they list particular meannesses the young people are not permitted to engage in.

Kate Bornstein: But look at what happened a generation after people were damning the word queer. Now it’s something you can major in, in college.

SBB: The think I just thought is: people are who are super-protective to police the word tranny have no real confidence in the cultural power of transpeople. They police it because they fear that if not-trans-identified people get hold of it, their power will make it always and forever a bad word. And I, we, feel find about it because we have a lot of faith in the cultural power of transfolks – of trannies – to make and be change.

If this tickles your imagination, then bearing in mind some of the other essays are about:

  • The insights being trans gave one writer into corporate politics
  • A love affair with a non-binary bathroom
  • Christian anti-gay and anti-trans actions in Singapore and activism against this
  • The experience of being a Drag Queen having being Female Assigned at Birth
  • Queer sex as performance art

I would hazard you’ll be very stimulated indeed if you pick this book up.

A Study in Pink – The Great Toy Shop Divide

Well I think today’s topic can be summed up absolutely beautifully by a little girl called Riley, who seems to at 3 years old, really recognise (and feel frustrated by) the gendering present in toy shops. I thought I’d start by looking at some of the work that has actually been done to try and look at toy preferences in children. It’s a topic that has been looked at quite a lot by scientists, actually. A relatively accessible review crammed full of references can be found here, but the key stuff it basically says:

  • They found monkeys have sex differences in toy choice that looks similar to human kids – that is, boys liking trucks and girls liking dolls. They’re excited because some other people repeated the work and found the same thing.
  • This other work showed male monkeys liked ‘boy’s toys’ more than female monkeys, but didn’t show female monkeys preferring toys described as feminine. The writers think this is because plush toys were used to represent ‘feminine’ toys in the work, and they cite some work to back up the idea that “plush toys do not have substantially greater incentive value for girls than for boys”.
  • Importantly, they do bear in mind the huge role that socialization (that is, the explicit and implicit expectations of our environment) has on kid’s choices.
  • They also mention at one point that there’s some evidence that girls who have been exposed to high levels of androgen (hormones of which high levels are associated with male development) show more male-like patterns of toy choice.

So okay, it seems reasonable to me that there is reason to think that there may well be something in the idea that some of the objective differences in how sexual differentiation affect brain development may cause some general trends in behaviour. Yes, there are very much arguably issues with the work that should be looked at, like how they’re actually defining ‘male toys’ and ‘female toys’ without making assumptions which could affect the results they get, for example. But I’m more interested in when it comes to real life stuff. Like what people actually push in the direction of their kids, or say is okay, or not okay.

                          

Boy’s aisle. Girl’s aisle. It’s almost like they think all girls like the same thing. Wait…

We don’t need to consider the incidences with which children play with any given type of gendered toy, in order to understand that frowning upon, discouraging, or attempting to prevent any child from playing with whatever colour and style of toy they want is senseless.  By arranging their toys in the way that they do, shops send out a strong message to parents. They are saying ‘This is what you should buy the boys, and this is what you should buy the girls’. How painfully unfair to any child who has desires outside of this schema, and that’s before we even consider the sometimes painfully inflexible views of parents themselves, as the above link highlights.

IF A GIRL HEARS THESE STORIES SHE WILL EXPLODE. FACT.

How difficult would it be to actually catalogue the toys in a manner that didn’t make the assumptions that every boy wants to fight monsters in a mud pit with his ray gun that is ON FIRE, and every girl wants to bake cupcakes for her dollies whilst riding ponies wearing ballgowns through a field made of kittens? I really wish I had an image to accompany that question. Instead, I will show you pictures of my two favourite toys when I was a little boy.

                 

I tended not to play with them at the same time. I don’t think the puppies would’ve done well in a firefight.

It would be unfair to imply that all parents are utterly stuck in perpetuating an unfair toy-divide. There have been a few cases (and here is one of them) of parents attempting to raise a ‘gender-neutral’ child, or more accurately as this article points out, parents attempting to reduce the amount to which their child is shaped by expectation rather than free choice. Likewise, progress has been made when big shops like Hamleys are revising their signage, for whatever reason. Also, not all the research being done is simply in terms of neurology, with a framework focussing on difference between two sexes. If you check out chapter six (‘Toy Choice’) of this book, you can read a little about the fascinating experiment done where a teapot was made spiky and army-esque, and a gun was made purple and covered in rhinestones to examine how this would impact the items desirability to children. It was concluded that:

Even when children are presented with familar objects, guns and teapots, whose “gender typing” they know well, they are more likely to base their decisions about whether the toys are for boys or for girls on what “boy stuff” and “girl stuff” looks like than on innate qualities of the objects themselves. These choices are learned and likely reflect the preferences of marketers and advertisers more than any basic gender differences.

Another experiment highlighted in the above book looked at how toy choice was impacted by a child’s perception of their parent’s views on them playing with toys ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ looking at kitchen sets and tool kits. Unsurprisingly little boys who felt their fathers might judge playing with girl’s toys to be a bad thing didn’t go anywhere near the kitchen set when it was labelled ‘for girls’. Toy shops don’t justify their shelving habits with research studies. They simply follow along with tired old stereotypes that for some reason, just haven’t yet been questioned or challenged in many many places. Maybe it isn’t seen as important? But this sort of progress helps add to a ‘social awareness’ that will just help us get to the point where the idea of judging a child on their toy choice would be regarded as ridiculous as it really is.

What Tinky Winky says about gender…

You may be familiar with the colourful, fuzzy little oddballs the Teletubbies, whose BAFTA winning performances entertained young children since 1997. For anyone who isn’t acquainted with this ambiguously alien quartet of characters, or for those who simply enjoy looking at bright colours, this is what they look like.

Come and play with us, forever…and ever…and ever…”

In the programme, each Teletubby had his or her own special item. For Po (the red one) it was a scooter, for Dipsy (the green one) it was a rather epic black-and-white mottled top hat. Laa Laa (the yellow one) had a massive orange ball, whilst Tinky Winky had:

“I keep a brick in here, do not cross me, bitch.”

The producers of the show refer to Tinky Winky’s bag as his magic bag, as the inside is bigger than the outside. Most people who saw it, particularly the media, immediately thought ‘handbag’. As Tinky Winky is voiced by, and recognised by the producers to be male, this actually managed to have a political reaction. And more than once! Oh social conservatives, you so crazy. The idea that a character designated (pretty arbitrarily) as male should carry a ‘social marker’ of femininity caused reactions from quite a few people.

As you might expect, the reliably morally outraged evangelical Christian right of America spewed its disapproval – in this instance out of the hatch of Jerry Falwell (who, to give a 60 second summary of his relevant social views, can be heard dishing out blame to abortionists, feminists, gay and lesbian folks for 9/11  here). To quote from a BBC news article from 1999 reporting on Falwell’s views:

In an article called Parents Alert: Tinky Winky Comes Out of the Closet, he says: “He is purple – the gay-pride colour; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle – the gay-pride symbol.” He said the “subtle depictions” of gay sexuality are intentional and later issued a statement that read: “As a Christian I feel that role modelling the gay lifestyle is damaging to the moral lives of children.”

Then in 2007, the spokesperson for children’s rights in Poland, Ewa Sowinska, ordered psychologists to ‘investigate’ whether watching the programme might promote a ‘Homosexual Lifestyle’ (rumble of thunder) to children.

Other folks were also eager to out the purple…space baby thing, but with entirely different motivations. various LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) organisations believed and supported a gay interpretation of Tinky, and indeed specific claims of Tinky being transgender have also been raised.

Now, my point isn’t just ‘haters you suck, gay/trans Tinky is win’. The consideration of sexuality by Falwell and Sowinska is quite obviously backwards in being based on absolutist moralising about sin and delinquency – whilst the support from LGBT groups and people in relation to the interpretation of Tinky’s traits is also pretty easy to expect. But why do people feel the need to make these ascriptions of gender and sexuality in the first place?

If Falwell was really concerned that this asexual character aimed at entertaining those who’re 0-5 years old was a degenerative influence as indicated by his colour and shape, there’s probably plenty of other targets he also missed in trying to protect America’s youth.

“My my darling, the garden is looking very homosexual this morning…”

People like to see patterns in things. In the last post about defining biological sex, I mentioned some of the things people look for in everyone they meet in order to make the (socially coded, and enforced) judgement as to whether someone is male or female. This need has even extended to the non-human secondary-sexual-characteristic-less Teletubbies, as Tinky Winky and Dipsy are officially labelled as male, with Laa Laa and Po as female. There are none of the typical cues from their physical forms to see this however (nudges and winks about Dipsy’s aerial aside), but Tinky’s voice ‘reveals’ him to be ‘male’.

Now unless I missed the episode where Tinky Winky goes to a gay bar and hooks up with a trucker, the judgements on sexuality – whether from under-educated homophobes or from optimistic advocates – rests, in this case, entirely on stereotyping. Maybe without articulating it so barely, it’s clear that people have gone ‘male + female traits = you’ve got a gay/trans!’. The conflation of sexuality and gender identity has got a LOT of interesting background and historical precedent, but it also almost goes without saying – people viewed as ‘men’ exhibiting traits commonly viewed by most members of a society as ‘feminine’ are not necessarily gay or transgender. Likewise ‘men’ exhibiting masculine traits aren’t necessarily straight or cisgendered. ‘Women’ who are ‘masculine’ are not necessarily gay or trans, and ‘women’ who are ‘feminine’ aren’t always straight or cis.

The clichéd statements of ‘oh! I never would’ve guessed’ or ‘Yes, I’ve thought so for a while’ are things that many gay people may have heard one or the other of when coming out, depending on how their characteristics are judged by their peers. Traits that people commonly use to decide whether someone is masculine or feminine can be described as hegemonic. A hegemony is the dominance of one group by another, so for instance, ‘hegemonic masculinity’ – which could be described as big muscles, aggressive attitude, great physical strength, involvement with sports, etc. are all obvious things that could be referred to when someone casually describes someone as ‘masculine’. It’s the obvious, stereotypical understanding of having qualities associated with being male, rather than other experiences of masculinity, such as how some gay men may consider their experiences, or the experiences of men from different cultural backgrounds. Likewise preoccupation with fashion, make-up, and babies, a delicate and dainty physique, and an empathic, caring nature may all be described as ‘hegemonically feminine’.

Not hegemonically masculine, but does this make Tinky like Winky?

Judgement of people (or Teletubbies) in terms of these hegemonic understandings may often have correlation (plenty of men are involved in sports, plenty of women do like make-up, plenty of gay men do like fashion), but it is still hugely flawed, and never fair. The particularly sad thing is, is how much ‘policing’ of deviations from this so-called ‘normal gendered behaviour’ goes on. Whether it’s full-on verbal or physical abuse from strangers, or comments from friends like “why have you got that?”, a man (or someone judged to be a man by looking) can’t go out with a bag like Tinky Winky’s without strongly risking being questioned, and definitely will make people who see him question why, or question his sexuality to themselves. In the interests of true freedom of expression and personal growth, this ‘gendering’ of traits, behaviours, and activities is something I believe should be resisted. Let your little boys carry red bags and wear tutus, let your little girls play rugby, and don’t let these things inform whether you think they like other little boys or other little girls – or whether they are indeed, as you may have judged!

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