Hmmm… Since Fandango posted his new ‘Provocative Question’ post the other day I’ve been thinking about how best to answer it. His question is:
‘If you could be the opposite sex for one day, what would you do?’
To be honest I’m really confused about how I want to answer – I mean, I could make it all jokey and flippant and fun, or I could actually give the question some serious consideration – it is supposed to be a provocative question, after all? And as my academic degree is in a cross-discipline blend of psychology and sociology, inevitably gender was a topic I studied at length and in-depth, therefore I do actually have some serious thoughts on the subject, whether right or wrong.
And then today I read Melanie’s post on Sparks From a Combustible Mind and thought about the following questions she has posed about gender:
Do we as a society have a tendency to HAVE to categorize people into genders?
Are mastectomies de-feminizing for the women who get them? Does one lose part of one’s identity because one has had one or both breasts removed or altered?
The men who lose their gonads (balls to those in the cheap seats) because of tumors or cancer…is it the same kind of reaction the woman has to losing her breast(s)?
Does our self image get so wrapped up in outward appearances, that we lose sight of the fact that we’re all PEOPLE, regardless of outward ‘markers’?
So I decided I’d think about Fandango’s question and Melanie’s questions together in the same post, and see where that took me…
Hmmm… well as thankfully this is not an academic paper, all I’m going to speak to is my own lived experience – which may come across as a bit controversial to some, but it is nevertheless how I see it. For a consideration of patriarchy in general, it’s usually taken as read that classification via gender is paramount in any familial, social and cultural hierarchy based on presumed male superiority. (And yes, classifications of race most definitely also come into this in most Western societies, but this is not the question here.)
As a British woman living in the UK but with an American husband (and so in-laws and extended family in the US) I’m always taken aback when I visit by what appears to me to be the absolute extremes in vocal gender markers in many Americans, in what sounds to me to be the deliberate affectation of unnaturally high-pitched sing-songy nasal-twang voices in many women and unnaturally low-pitched deep-down- in-their-boots voices in many men, regardless of physical body size and lung capacity. To my British ear it all seems somehow false, there’s just too much of a difference, with very little variation in-between…
Whereas here in the UK I tend to find we have much more variation in voices – many women may have naturally lower pitched voices and many men may have naturally higher pitched voices without it having any real significance to how we choose to speak (or how we are judged within society in general). But yet we also seem to understand subconsciously that historically, deeper voices always command more respect (for both male and female) so we can and do alter our pitch and tone accordingly as necessary – for example in job interviews or when speaking in public. So I suppose at heart we in the UK do still do the same vocal-gendered thing as America, but perhaps a little less obviously?
And when it comes to looks, although many people prefer presenting clearly masculine or feminine appearances, certainly lots of people I see on a daily basis here in London seem to be totally rocking the indeterminate androgynous look – straight men, straight women, gay men, gay women, transgender, non-binary – but unless there is a clear reason for requiring to know someone’s specific gender (for example, if you want to know immediately if you can make babies with them!) why should it matter? People are still people underneath it all, with thoughts and feelings and hopes and dreams, so what’s wrong with just taking someone as you find them?
I mean, if you already know someone, you already know their gender, and if you don’t know them, then frankly it’s none of your business! And if you feel that you need to know their gender in order to alter how you think of them, or to know how to treat them, then perhaps you have an inbuilt gender bias and you need to become aware of that. Most of us do to some extent or other, as it’s how we’ve all been socialised since birth – blue for boys, pink for girls, boys’ toys, girls’ toys all socialise us to move in demarcated gendered directions. But we do need to be aware of this inbuilt bias and consciously accommodate it in our ongoing judgements of others.
So it seems to me, on the surface being seen as clearly marked out as masculine or feminine is something that does seem to matter a lot to our easy acceptance and understanding of people in our particular patriarchal Western society, although perhaps it shouldn’t. And perhaps it matters even more in the US than here in the UK, because it does appear to be more blatantly obvious there – but then again I think we maybe just hide it better as a society, although underneath it all we’re just as gender-biased. Glass ceiling, anyone?
OK, so that’s Melanie’s questions 1 and 4 kind of answered – now on to questions 2 and 3… Hmmm… I think losing anything about us that we identify closely with inevitably affects the way we see ourselves in the world.
For example, I had my three children young – I gave birth at 18, 19, and 21 (look Fandango, I’ve used the Oxford comma there!) so inevitably much of my early adult identity was created around my budding fertility, on being a mum, and a young mum at that. Then in my mid-twenties I chose to have a tubal ligation to ensure no more babies would come along, and all went well with no issues, no regrets. Three decades on and my babies are all grown up now, two with babies of their own – the perfect scenario.
At least, all went well until I hit menopause recently, and now I find myself grieving my loss of fertility. How crazy is that? When I was choosing not to use it, when I was ‘in control’ of not conceiving any more, I felt fine about it. But now that nature has taken its course and effectively taken my fertility away from me once and for all, part of me feels devastated. The thing is, at my age with (not quite) six grandchildren, even on a practical level there’s just no way I want to actually be having any more babies now. But emotionally all I feel is a loss of identity, and that’s what hurts.
So if as women we identify with having breasts as an important marker of our femininity then yes, I guess losing them would create a similar emotional response to me with my fertility, however relieved we might be to still be alive. The thought of losing my womb, even though it is now entirely superfluous to requirements, would upset me too. And I imagine it’s pretty much the same for men feeling effectively emasculated by losing their main instantly recognisable emblem of man-hood.
Ok, so back to Fandango’s original question – I remember when I was a kid, sometimes I used to wish I was a boy. Oh, and I was a real tomboy. But I can see now that my wish was nothing to do with not feeling psychologically like a girl, but more to do with recognising the inherent unfairness in the society I grew up in long before the UK’s sex discrimination legislation came in, where women (and so by default, girls) were legally and socially treated as second class citizens and relegated to particular spheres and denied entry to others. I was unsurprisingly objecting to the societal unfairness of my female gender rather than professing a real a desire to be male.
So today I have no desire to be the opposite sex, even for a day, because I think it would make me feel somewhat unsettled to have to return to my female skin after having experienced the reality of living with male privilege. And for anyone who wants to deny its existence, I used to work with someone – a man at that time – who later became a woman. And much as she felt far more comfortable afterwards living as female, she was truly shocked at the resistance she encountered day to day in just going about her everyday life without any longer enjoying the (previously hidden to her) benefit of male privilege.
Well, that’s answered that provocative question with some potentially provocative answers! As a disclaimer to my post, please note I’m not expecting everyone to agree with my personal opinion and experience, so if anyone takes umbrage at anything I’ve written and wants to comment accordingly, please do be nice in your critique, as I’m quite happy to agree to disagree without us having to argue or fall out over it – thank you! 🙂