Tuesday, July 5, 2011

"Your Mama's a Bulldagger!": Some Notes on Gender

Here are some quotations that have had a strong effect on how I think about gender. I was talking to a friend the other day and dug out some books I'd been meaning to look at again for a long time.

Phyllis Burke's third (and so far her last) book was Gender Shock: Exploding the Myths of Male & Female (Anchor/Doubleday, 1996). In the preface she tells about questions she was asked on the book tours for Family Values: Two Moms and Their Son (Random House, 1993).
... no matter where I went, the most impassioned and inevitable question was always: Who is going to teach him to be a man? I found myself telling the interviewers, in an apologetic tone, that there were men in his life. Yet the questioner would persist: Who would teach him to lay baseball, or football? I assured them that someone would, without telling them that a number of women had already taken care of that, but after a while, their questions began to dig inside of me. I began to wonder if there would be things that no woman would be able to do for Jesse [xv].
By the second book tour Burke was on the ropes, until she had "an experience of tough love from a very wise elder at a Unitarian church gathering."
An elderly gentleman stood and said that he felt there was a problem with not providing a man in the house for a boy. He had been to the home of a single woman friend, and the children were running wild. He explained that this would not happen with a man in the house, and furthermore, that the experience of the deep masculine, as dictated by the work of Robert Bly, would not be possible for my son. ... I nodded and assured the man that I would provide Jesse with men as the need arose, and that I appreciated his comments.

It was then that an elder of the congregation, a usually reserved woman well into her sixties, slammed her hand down upon the table and demanded of me from across the room, "What is wrong with you?" I braced myself. "When I was married," she said, "and I was married for fifteen years, I played housewife, and I did the roles I was expected to do. But when my husband died, I learned the hard way that there had never been a single thing that he did that I could not have done. I raised my sons, and there's nothing wrong with them, because I used all the parts of me to do it. What kind of a mother can you be, if you think because you are a woman that you are incapable of raising your own child?" The elderly gentleman challenged her: "What about Robert Bly? What about the deep masculine, and Iron John?" The woman looked him straight in the eye and said, "The heck with Iron John" [xvii]
I'd put it more strongly myself, and call me dirty-minded, but I can't help suspecting that that "elderly gentleman" would be all too willing to introduce the "deep masculine" deep into young men in private counseling sessions. But the elder was absolutely right.

Rereading this story the other day, though, it reminded me of something I'd read in William Pollack, Ph.D.'s Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood (Random House, 1998), a book that was attacked by right-wing feminist Christina Hoff Sommers, though for all the wrong reasons. Pollack, Ph.D. allowed that single mothers of sons mostly "have excellent instincts about what to say and do -- and about when to ask others for help -- to ensure that their sons will grow into healthy young men" (92-3), and gave this example of knowing when to ask others for help:

Olivia found there was really only one time she needed to call on her ex-husband for help with George, now fourteen years old:
"I remember calling my husband when George was still toilet-training and saying, 'When you're up here, can you show George how to stand over the toilet and pee? He's getting to the age when he can do that, but he's never seen a man naked, so how is he supposed to know how?'" [93]
I'd like to introduce Olivia to that Unitarian elder, who would probably have dope-slapped her a good one. I wonder how many boys with "intact" families, as they're so delicately called, learned to pee standing up from their fathers, especially in the good old days when Dad was away at work all day. Probably their moms taught them, as I suspect my mom did. ("Try to hold it till Daddy gets home from the office, dear" just doesn't work well with a two-year-old.) In fairness, though, Olivia appears to be rather a twit, as shown by her wish that when George was thirteen and needed That Talk, "I could have just gone off and made dinner and said, 'Dear, you handle this. You know how to handle boys.' But I couldn't," so she bit the bullet and "got through it" (ibid.).

Next story, from the chapter "Mama" in lesbian poet Minnie Bruce Pratt's wonderful book S/He (Firebrand, 1995):
When she comes for a visit, after I've moved to D.C., my dyke neighbors ask us over for dessert. I attend to how she gets through a social situation I'm sure she's never faced, an evening at home with an African-American butch and an Iraqi femme. As we four lean toward each other over hazelnut coffee, I wonder if she's ever sat down to eat in an interracial group. But my friends are interested in something else: "We expected a little white lady in gloves. You didn't tell us your mama's a bulldagger!"

She has been the woman who sat at the grey kitchen table with me and my father, her child and her husband. She was always the one next to the stove, within reach of the pot of field peas, more cornbread. I'm so used to this that I saw her hands simply as feminine, though they are huge, capable with iron mattock or steel knitting needles. I'm so used to her height and bulk, her sneakers and windbreaker, her taciturnity and her ease with women, that I've never noticed how much she looks like the white-headed coach of a women's softball team [54].
Which reminds me, it was my tiny mother who (years after I'd refused to learn to catch a ball from my poor father) played softball in the yard with me and my brothers after we'd moved to the country.

Last story, from the preface to Rebecca M. Jordan-Young's Brainstorm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences (Harvard, 2010).
For instance, when I talk to people about the idea that people are born with a male brain or a female brain, I almost always end up hearing about their experiences with children. A few people relate tales of unexpected flexibility or gender-bending, but most relay their experiences with boys who practically radiate "boyness" from some deep space within (interestingly, I hear many fewer stories about girls who are sugar and spice and everything nice). Recently, my mother happened to be present for one of these conversations, and she very matter-of-factly presented what is considered these days to be a radical idea. Before relaying her idea, let me explain that my mother is a lovely southern lady who has raised an impressive number of children: four boys and four girls of her own, in addition to playing a major role in raising some half dozen of her more than two score grandchildren and great-grandchildren (I think she's drawing the line at great-great-grandchildren). When my friend talked about her girl being so different from her younger brother, who is "all boy," my mother literally snorted. "That's because you have only two," she said. Mama went on to explain that with just a couple of children, gender looms large -- it's the most obvious explanation for every difference you see between them, and unless your children are really unusual, it's going to be easiest to see their personalities as "boy" versus "girl." But when you have a lot of children, you begin to notice that they all come with personalities of their own, and they are all quite different from one another. Gender recedes in importance [xiii].
"Of course," Jordan-Young continues, "that doesn't mean that gender isn't real." But it's a different kind of "real" than most people believe.