Thursday, April 14, 2016

Sexcraft; or, Which Came First, the Gender or the Sex?

Identity is not an essentialist nugget at the center of things.  It’s a category to put things in. You can’t think without categories; but you want categories that are complex enough that whatever is inside them is always questioning its own boundaries.
Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields wrote in their brilliant book Racecraft that even many anti-racist people accept "the objective reality of race":
Racism is not an emotion or state of mind, such as intolerance, bigotry, hatred, or malevolence.  If it were that, it would easily be overwhelmed; most people mean well, most of the time, and in any case are usually busy pursuing other purposes.  Racism is first and foremost a social practice, which means that it is an action and a rationale for actions, or both at once.  Racism always takes for granted the objectivity of race, as just defined, so it is important to register their distinctness.  The shorthand transforms racism, something an aggressor does, into race, something the target is, in a sleight of hand that is easy to miss.  Consider the statement "black Southerners were segregated because of their skin color" -- a perfectly natural sentence to the ears of most Americans, who tend to overlook its weird causality.  But in that sentence, segregation disappears as the doing of segregationists, and then, in a puff of smoke -- paff -- reappears as a trait of only one part of the segregated whole.  In similar fashion, enslavers disappear only to reappear, disguised, in stories that append physical traits defined as slave-like to those enslaved [17-18].
I began reading a book I'd checked out from the library, Gender Nonconformity, Race, and Sexuality: Charting the Connections, edited by Toni Lester, published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 2002.  In the introduction Lester begins by explaining that she asks her lecture audiences to name "traits that they think are innately female or male", which of course elicits the usual stereotypes.  She continues:
Some people believe that the masculine traits attributed to men and the feminine traits attributed to women listed above are biologically determined.  Others, including myself, believe that while biology may play a part in male and female behavior, society plays an equal or even stronger role in influencing the extent to which men and women adopt masculine or feminine characteristics.  Indeed, certain sites of social power, like the sciences, our legal system, the political sphere, and cultural institutions operate to create and enforce these sex-based norms.  Thus, contrary to what biological determinists think, gender roles are not so fixed.  Men do not own masculinity any more than women own femininity [3-4].
I stopped reading at this point -- not because I intended to stop altogether, but because I wanted to think some more about this passage.  First, though, I glanced at Peter Hegarty's contribution later in the book, "More Feminine than 999 Men out of 1,000': Measuring Sex Roles and Gender Nonconformity in Psychology."  Hegarty later wrote an excellent book, Gentlemen's Disagreement: Alfred Kinsey, Lewis Terman, and the Sexual Politics of Smart Men (Chicago, 2013), so I hoped his article would have the same intelligent take on gender.  A look at the opening paragraphs left me unsure, so I put it off till later.  For now I want to concentrate on Lester's remarks.

At the most obvious level, men do "own masculinity" and women "own femininity," depending of course on how one defines the various terms involved.  If you think of "masculinity" as some pre-existent Platonic idea that is totally independent of bodies, perhaps an autonomous spirit that possesses individuals and makes them hunt, weave, cook, fight, or rape (and many people evidently do), then it makes sense to say that men don't "own masculinity"; it's its own person, after all, you don't want to tie it down.

I go with the "woman-identified woman" I've quoted numerous times before, who declared that "whatever women wear is women's wear."*  This is an upsetting idea for many people who believe, on the contrary, that women do not "own femininity" or men, masculinity; it's actually the other way around. The individual must conform to the norms; if anything, masculinity and femininity own us.  Of course that begs the question of what a woman is.  For many, perhaps most people, a woman is a person who looks, dresses, and behaves as a woman is supposed to -- and anyone who looks, dresses, and behaves as a woman is supposed to is a woman.  Another curious point is that these traits, behaviors, etc. are stereotypes; yet people who claim to reject stereotypes will appeal to them in classifying people according to sex/gender, race, and class.  Which brings me back to the starting point -- except that there is no starting point. Which came first, the sex or the gender?

I think that in "the masculine traits attributed to men and the feminine traits attributed to women" Lester was just being sloppy, but that's an awful lot of sloppy for the first page of your book.  Those traits are "masculine" and "feminine" because of the sex they're attributed to.  Why are "aggressive, decisive, rational, domineering, ... strong" associated with males?  Why weren't some other, different traits associated with maleness, though they might be just as plausible?  "Lethargic couch potatoes who watch other males playing contact sports on television," say, instead of "aggressive"?  Of course there's often a gulf between the way people are supposed to act, on whatever assumptions, and the way they actually do act; and both folk and academic psychology stumble when they must try to account for that gulf.  Myself, I'm a lot more interested in that gulf than in collecting and fussing over the stereotypes.

Another very important thing to remember is that the same traits, the same behavior, will be named differently according to the sex/gender of the actor.  "Aggression" will be recognized as such in males, but called something else -- "bitchiness" or "bossiness", say -- in females.  This is actually recognized in some gender folklore: I grew up hearing jokes about how women "gossip," while men "discuss."  Humor is a way of defusing, warding off the recognition that men and women are not as different as they're supposed to be.

Then consider Lester's belief that "society plays an equal or even stronger role in influencing the extent to which men and women adopt masculine or feminine characteristics."  What is "society"?  It's made up of men and women, of course.  I'm certainly open to the possibility that groups of people might exhibit attitudes (would "emergent" be the right word?) that individual people don't hold and would disagree with.  But where do those attitudes and beliefs come from?  How does "society" decide which norms to "create and enforce"?  People often talk as though "society" were another independent autonomous force or spirit, the Great Other, separable and separate from themselves.  They seem to think of "society" as an Evil Villain, twirling its mustache and cackling gleefully as it watches us suffer at its hands. It might be that Lester will answer these questions later in the Introduction, but I doubt it, since she is setting forth her conclusions here, and it seems to me that she's every bit as much in thrall to stereotypical sex/gender norms as the people in her audiences.

As is often the case in social construction discourse, Lester confuses the classification of traits with the cause of traits.  In the case of "race," for example, skin color is a physical trait probably determined by genetic endowment, but "race" doesn't equal skin color.  (In many cultures darker skin is seen as low-class, undesirable.  "You can be dark and rich or you can be fair and poor, but you can't be dark and poor!" exclaims a Hindu woman discussing a girl's marriage chances in Mira Nair's 1991 film Mississippi Masala.)   So, for example, men are on average taller than women, and height is a physical trait determined partly by genetic endowment and partly by diet and other experiences.  Some of women's lesser average height may in part be due to deprivation, where boy children are fed more than girl children; but when a woman turns out to be tall anyway (and what counts as tall depends on how tall most people are in a given society), she'll have problems.  Heterosexual men are socially expected to be taller than their female mates, though not all of them worry about it.  So it doesn't matter what causes a trait, whether it is biologically acquired or learned; what matters is how it is evaluated and classified.

The trouble as I see it is that many people are determined to gender everything as much as they can; from my point of view, most traits and behaviors are not either male or female, masculine or feminine.  This post has been languishing in my Drafts folder long enough; I'll return to these issues soon.

*Quoted by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon in Lesbian/Woman (Bantam, 1972), page 81.