The Writing

09 June, 2011

He/She/It

 Once I had a discussion with a friend of mine about gender and sex. It went kinda like this:

"The first thing anyone sees is gender. All the rest comes after that--expectations, imaginings, everything."

"Hm. I don't know."

I tried to explain: we see a person, and we slot male/female. All judgments flow from there. We match clothing to secondary sexual characteristics. We match up voices and cadences and attitudes. We slot the person into imagined roles and qualities, based on what we've observed. We come up with words like tomboy and girlie man and slut and queer and pansy and butch. We say "pretty!" or "hot!" or whatever. When we talk to said person, we know whether to judge hir bad attitude "bitchy" or "dickly."

"Hm," my friend said again. "I don't know."

And at that point I gave up.

But no. Seriously. We (people, humans, those of us raised under patriarchy, I don't know if it's nature or nurture) get intensely uncomfortable if we don't know "what someone is." (The answer: a person. Full stop.) And we get twitchy if what we imagine doesn't match what we expect. Men are Y way. Women are X way. (ha! see what I did there?)

So then I see stories like this one about Andrej Pejic and how Barnes and Noble insisted that his image on a magazine cover be covered by opaque plastic because people might mistake him for a [nude] woman. And I think--well. A couple of things. One: Goddamn, he's beautiful. And I mean that in all senses. And then I think--why the fuck do we care? His name is Andrej, and we have topless men on the covers of magazines all the time. But of course the answer is obvious, right? He might be mistaken for a woman, and a young nude woman at that, and we can't have that. Because young nude women are, by US standards, indecent. They make us (as a society) uncomfortable in a way that half-naked men do not. But then, if we all knew the person was a she, not a he--that's a whole new batch of discomfort. This doesn't fit into our sex and gender roles! Cover it up!

Then there's the manufactured drama over Baby Storm, whose parents refuse to reveal hir sex. The child will be confused! the pearl-clutchers cry. The kid will be messed up! So explain to me, and use little words, how the kid will be messed up. Will s/he not know the proper behavior? Understand what colors s/he can wear? What fashions? If the hair should be long or short? Make-up? Because what I'm really seeing here is that people encountering the kid are upset, not the kid. They don't know how to respond to a child with no sexual cues. And they are going after the parents in all kinds of judgmentally bullshit ways, projecting their own freakout onto a little baby whose sex wouldn't be readily apparent anyway if it wasn't wearing the properly socially coded clothing.

And that's fucked up. Gods and little fish, that's fucked up.

And then I read this piece about pirates, princesses, and karate and thought--yeah. The author, Susan Schorn, says it better than I can. So I quote her here:
These kids don't find it at all unusual to put on a pirate outfit and then sit quietly at a table, gluing down sequins. They think nothing of hiking up their gowns and laying into a target like angry wallabies. It's all open to them right now, the whole big sex-and-gender-and-power puzzle is just one big fantasy, and they are free to try on any part of it they want.
Pretty soon, that will change. One set of ridiculous costumes will nudge the little girls toward one role, while another set of absurd uniforms will elbow the boys in the opposite direction. They'll move further and further apart, until the opposing camps of raging masculinity and bulging femininity are established, only meeting up at events like the UFC title fights, or, in more civilized dress, at royal weddings.
If I were a princess, I think, and I had a fairy godmother, and she granted me one wish, I'd wish that all of these kids, the boys and the girls, would find a way to hang onto their freedom. That they'd refuse be swayed by the big-screen TVs and the fashion columnists and the wait staff at the restaurants their parents bring them to, and carry on with their brilliant mash-ups of piracy, princesses, and punching bags. That all forms of power would seem equally plausible to them, and that all costumes would strike them as equally ridiculous,

I hope baby Storm has that fairy godmother. I hope the whole world gets one.