Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Femininity

Got an impromptu morning off today when my client ended up taking longer than expected at the doctor. While I waited for them to call and say they were home (didn't happen), I checked out my usual morning news and blog posts, and found this:

Dockers Ad '09
It's time to Wear the Pants, via Feelin' Feminine.

Let's first get this straight: I appreciate the efforts of anyone who is trying to make the world better. And I think Feelin' Feminine is a cool blog with a cool idea. I don't even mind the religious aspects, because they're respectfully submitted as part of a whole feminine process, not as the end of the argument on why women should wear skirts. But this ad struck a nerve, and I had to respond with more than a comment which may not be posted (all due respect to their moderation - if they decide my comment is inflammatory, it's their decision, and that's why I've got my own blog).

This ad is bad. It's a very good ad, as far as ads go. It's terribly effective in selling the Dockers brand of pants as Pants for MEN. I just happen to disagree with their definition of manhood, and think the ad is doing more harm to a population that is already struggling with gender identity. See, as I commented on Feelin' Feminine, I don't think gender roles are what's ruining society. And this society is absolutely not genderless. I challenge the guys who came up with this ad concept to prove me wrong.

First I'd like to address the difference between sex and gender, in case there is any confusion. Males = male sexual features (penis, lack of breasts, more body hair), Females = female sexual features (breasts, vagina, curves). No more (although if you want to indulge in a day's worth of reading, check Wikipedia's list of possible chromosomal anomalies and their results). The sex you're born with, unless you have surgery, is the sex you stay your whole life. Gender, which doesn't even come into play until after birth, is a LOT more fluid. This is why there's a difference between transsexuals (who have gender reassignment surgery) and transgenders, who fill the "opposite" gender role of their sex. Gender is the entire package - not only what bits you have in your pants (or skirt), but how you feel about those bits and how you fit into society's expectation of what people with your kind of bits are supposed to be doing. And that's where gender roles come in.

Historically, men and women have occupied a sort of dichotomy when it comes to gender roles - the expectation of what they should do in society. In a patriarchal group, males were providers for the family and ran the gov't (whether it was a tribal council or a feudal castle) while females kept the home and children clean, organized and well fed. Some societies were matriarchal, where women ran things and the men took a stronger provider role in the woods and gardens. Either way, western gender roles are historically seen as pretty rigid. Females didn't attend male-only wars and ceremonies, and men didn't act as midwives. The exceptions to this rule seem to have been select North American native groups who provided a third, "mixed" role for either men or women who were seen as embodying multiple genders (and in some cases, multiple spirits of multiple sexes in the same body). There is no single term for these groups' identifications of what we might call transgendered or "other-gendered" people, although anthropology likes the term "berdache". These people were usually seen as a natural part of a gender spectrum, rather than a bridge across a gender dichotomy, and in some cases were revered as closer to the creators because of their dual nature (Mother Earth/Father Sky).

Because gender roles have not had a single definition throughout history, but are dependent on culture, tradition, and values which have changed through the years, it's illogical to assume that the "normal" roles we assign (think 50's sitcom families) are the only appropriate gender roles, or even the ones best suited to us. People have a tendency to oversimplify the past. We would like to think that everyone during a certain time period fit the stereotype we have of that period - that most of the Victorians were prim and proper, for example. As a matter of fact the ideals of the times were rarely met, as is the case even today. Even in Victorian-era England, ladies farted in public, swore, and occasionally pinned their skirts up while doing chores. Their primary expected gender role might have been that of the prim and retiring young d├ębutante, but they filled other roles too - washerwoman, nursemaid, whore. Society can't thrive when it insists on filling one role too well, and the others not at all. And it would seem it falters equally when everyone insists on trying to fill every role.

Today there seems to be great fragmentation of gender roles, probably thanks in part to the feminist and suffragette movements. Women find themselves able to do work that was historically reserved for men as part of our armed forces, scientists, doctors, and lawyers, and are expected to fill the roles in those jobs just as well as men (or so the HR office insists). Still, we are being fed crap like this Dockers ad, which leaves us with the message that Men are somehow better at it all, and that women pushing into the traditional "world of men" is androgynizing (and therefore destroying) society. Logical failure: androgyny is not the right word for what's happened to our gender roles. Failure to balance is more like it. There are already plenty of people who hate these attitudes, so I won't go about systematically picking them apart here. Instead, let me point out a better source of blame for society's problems: responsibility.

Gender roles will always be fluid and one person will always fill many of them. Wife, sister, daughter, friend, co-worker, and teacher are just a few of my current roles. The important thing is that for every sister-role, the other sibling plays their role as well. What causes dysfunction is dropping the roles you said you'll play, and expecting someone else to fill a role regardless of their feelings toward said role. Relationships work best when roles are defined and filled, whether or not they are the stereotypical roles for the chosen sex. I am able to play the role of provider for my household just as well as my husband, and we are partners in paying the bills and cleaning the house. If one of us suddenly stopped showing up for work and asked the other one to take on the full burden of bill payment, just because it was the expected gender role to take, we'd be in trouble (not least because it's economically unfeasible to support a household on one paycheck these days). If my sister needs me for support after a hard break-up, I am expected to be responsible for my own 'sister' role and support her. When we fail to fill our roles, we are "bad" at them... so it's important to fill at least some of the roles expected of us (spouse, sibling, parent) - in any way we can.

But it's not important whether our fulfillment of that role is traditionally male, female, or something in between. What's important is that we do what we say we're going to. It's also important that we communicate our role expectations - to our friends, family and children. I'll admit there is a lot of gender confusion these days. The GLBTQ lobby has managed to open up discussion about gender roles. Feminists are doing the same thing from a different angle. Fundamental religious groups are growing ever louder in their demands for a return to "godly" ways and traditional roles. Kids are growing up in this wash of ideas, discussions and taboos, and lack the understanding or the guts to ask their parents "what roles am I expected to fill?". You can't simply tell children that they can be "anything they want" (read: fill any role they like), and then show them ads like this. It sends all kinds of mixed messages. So we need to make sure we answer that unspoken question.

We need to provide good role models through ourselves and our friends (if this is not possible, send your kids into responsible care and put your damn life in order already) so that they can see what we value and what roles we enjoy filling. We need to explain, if necessary, that playing with girl toys doesn't make you a girl (or even guarantee that you'll be familiar with your feminine side - how many boys "play" with Barbies by sending them to war and ripping off their heads?) and that mommy is perfectly capable of changing the oil in her car, even if someone else expects differently. We need to address traditional roles with our kids through discussion of media, play, and peer interaction, and then teach them skills to fill and accept a wide range of nontraditional roles as well. We need to tell our children that being "bad" has little to do with fitting into someone else's pigeonhole, and everything to do with avoiding responsibility for their own actions. I would care very little if my son wanted to wear bows in his hair. I would care a lot more if he lied to blame someone else for putting them there.

In some respects I agree with the ad. It is time to drop the complacency and DO SOMETHING. But why does it have to be men (and only the stereotypical, non-salad-eating, manly men at that?) who get to save the world?

1 comment:

  1. What on earth is this thing that men who eat salad are "less manly" than men who live off meat and potatoes? There's no degrees of "manliness". Degrees of stupid is more like it. If you're genetically male and have male genitalia, you're male; whether you eat tofu or steak. People need to stop propagating that awful cultural lie that men need to be carnal and base and eat steak and get their hands dirty (not that I don't mind some carnality and dirty hands from time to time.. ;)). Ugh!

    Great post, thanks for bringing my attention to that ad. Your point about genetic and endocrine anomalies resulting in mixed-sex people is right on. In my Endocrinology class last semester we touched on a lot of different disorders and things that can go "wrong" during fetal development that can result in having a "masculinized" or "feminized" brain, XX genotype but XY phenotype (genetically female but has a penis), or XY genotype with female sex organs. How can you even begin to determine sexual orientation (am I gay or straight?) if you can't even figure out your gender? All this goes to show that sex and gender are far more complex than one might assume. With all of these subtle differences, it makes far more sense to categorize people by their temperament and lifestyle choices than it does to lump them into groups based on outward appearance. I think society will ultimately transition this way as GLBTQ people get more "air time". Once we stop hating people irrationally for their gender identity and start to get to know them in our schools and workplaces, we'll realize that gender identity is just one small part of what makes a person who they are. I still have a tendency to think of people with that "Oh, that's my friend so-and-so, he's gay" mentality, so I understand why a lot of people don't formally come out. So much attention focused on one tiny, stupid thing!

    Anyway, enough of my ranting for now! Keep posting!

    <3 sis

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