Friday, December 20, 2019

Forward Into the Past!

My Diversity Manager Facebook friend shared this meme the other day.
It annoyed me enormously, because it invokes 1950s sexist stereotypes as gender norms.  I commented to that effect.  My friend said he'd been inclined to agree at first, but then realized that it was about the fact that genitals don't define gender, and said I needed to remember the context.  What?

The more I thought about the meme, the worse it became.  Let's start with the final paragraph.  It assumes that dress, hair, and other visible details define gender, and also tell me whether a person is trans or not.  This fits with the widespread tendency to treat transgender as nonconforming gender presentation rather than subjective gender identity.  That is not only erroneous but harmful, because it favors and promulgates sexist stereotyping.

Consider my Diversity Manager friend himself.  For the three decades I've known him, he has had flowing shoulder-length hair, which in Barbie-and-Ken terms means his gender is female, which tells me that he's trans. He isn't, but that's what his gender presentation says.  In the early 60s when men began wearing their hair longer, they were frequently accused of looking like women, confusing the sexes, and so on, even when that long hair was the only gender-nonconforming trait they had.  And it didn't even have to be that long: when I look at the Beatles' early albums, for example, their hair doesn't seem long at all, yet it drove gender cops mad with anxiety and fury.

Along with their hair, many men in that era began changing their clothing styles, wearing brighter colors that were taboo for males in their parents' generation; some experimented with makeup, many began to pierce their ears and wear earrings.  Before long older men also adopted some of these modes, and soon after those young men became older themselves.  Often these fashions were defended and rationalized as a rejection of restrictive traditional masculinity, though that rejection was only partial.  It frequently coexisted with a very traditional male supremacy, misogyny, and predatory male sexuality.  As Dorothy Dinnerstein recounted in her important book The Mermaid and the Minotaur (Harper, 1976):
Men could assume sweetly open, uncertain postures, carry flowers, adorn their bodies in what their society at large regarded as outrageously feminine style, and still be masculine. But women who dominated meetings by sheer lung-power, or demanded that others type their leaflets and make them coffee, would have been unsexing themselves. A roomful of male students of mine during that period, decorative and gentle-looking, charmingly tentative in their style of speech, full of aphorisms of the “Kids are beautiful” and “Where you are is where it’s at” and “Like, you know, like, I had this feeling” genre, laughed explosively at the following riddle: “Why won’t [name some plain-spoken, forthright female head of state, or congressperson, or controversial author] wear a miniskirt? Because she’s afraid her balls will show!”
This clinging to masculine status and privilege helped to fuel second-wave feminism.  Effeminate gay men are often ferociously misogynist, as are many MTF transsexuals.  In his book on sex changes, Patrick Califia documented MTF transsexuals who criticized women for not being feminine enough: womanhood, they complained, was wasted on them, and should be reserved for those who appreciated and knew how to do it properly.  More recently, I've noticed that critics of so-called TERFs (women who refuse to accept the legitimacy of transgender identities) tend to fall back on misogynist abuse that reminds me of Gamergate in its monkeys-throwing-feces abandon.  But of that, more in another post.

During the same period, women appropriated styles that had been considered male property.  Even in the 50s, when I was a kid, there was criticism of women who wore trousers.  That seems to have pretty much faded away, and women can wear skirts or trousers as they find convenient: they can even change their "gender" from day to day. Women have also taken on jobs that men had previously monopolized.  Gender reactionaries who insist on the immutability of sexual difference have to forget that the current state of gender affairs should not, on their assumptions, exist: women and men have changed their behavior and presentation in areas that were claimed to be set in stone.  Better still (in my opinion), what replaced the 1950s gender order was not a new conformity but freedom.  At the university where I worked for four decades, students now wear a variety of hairstyles, costumes, uniforms, and they don't seem to view them as mandatory for all.

Perhaps, as I've suggested before, we'll never have equal proportions of men and women in some fields; no one knows.  But the thing to remember is that in the past, we were assured that there would never be any women scientists or CEOs or rabbis, because women were biologically unsuited to those jobs; and that no men at all would attend childbirth, or do early childcare.  If we're still at, say, a 70/30 ratio of men to women in math or physics, remember that in the Good Old Days, 99/1 was defended as God-ordained and biologically inevitable.  It took considerable thought control to ignore that in fact such unicorns already existed, but the eye of faith is generally blind.  (Remember: faith means knowing what you know isn't so.)

So we can see that gender presentation does not equal gender identity, and that we can't know whether people are trans or cis by the way they dress or carry themselves.  What the Sixties produced was a rejection of that assumption.  Gender stereotypes and norms didn't disappear altogether of course, partly through cultural inertia and partly because of conscious resistance to these changes, but overall, the boundaries have been moved much farther than their defenders said they could be, and there's much more variety and freedom in gender presentation than there was in the 1950s. That's why the equation of 1950s sex stereotypes with "gender" in the meme above annoyed me so much: I think it represents a rejection of the breakdown of gender stereotypes that I and many other people welcomed.  I didn't foresee that the progress we've made would have to be defended not only against religious fascists but against people who promote those stereotypes as an advance, even as liberation.  Well, you live and learn.

More on this soon.