Gender roles and bullshit

I’ve been thinking recently about gender differences, roles, and how they affect our lives. There is, after all, a lesson I’ve tried to communicate to children a number of times: Different men behave differently; different women behave differently; there are no absolute, gendered behavioral norms. And there are no inherent bounds saying that only men or women can do some particular activity. I mean, okay, I grant that there are some little biological and psychological differences caused by, oh, the XX or XY chromosomal difference leading to outpourings of certain quantities of certain hormones, causing a few changes in neural structures and, yeah, the genitals, too. But other than that, who’s to say that shopping is for girls and fighting is for boys?

There are all these ridiculous assumptions that are so widely accepted; that have dictated laws and standards of behavior for much of history. When, well, what’s the basis, really? “This is how it’s always been”? Girls have weak nerves and are all fickle, while guys are steadfast and direct? It’s all bullshit, more or less, and I for one am sick of it. It constrains so many lives, restricts so much behavior, puts a damper on so many dreams.

And it causes a lot of other bullshit, too: for example, in my Japanese Cinema class last term, a girl responded to a guy’s dislike of a certain movie (maybe Hula Girls) by describing it as a “chick flick.” And I, naturally, retorted, “I don’t think that good or bad movies have any gender boundaries.” And I don’t. I think that a good movie is good and a bad movie is bad, regardless of whether you’re male, female, or a hermaphrodite. I remember reading in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Movies as Politics an essay about Sleepless in Seattle where he talks about how characters constantly refer to An Affair to Remember (1957) as a chick flick; Rosenbaum then points out that he and a number of other male friends love the latter film and that he can never get through it without crying. So basically, these artificial boxes of gender appeal are less than worthless when trying to accurately talk about a movie. They also tend to bring about worsening extremes of trends dreamed up to appeal more to specific genders: e.g., guys like car chases, guns, and scantily clad women; women like hot guys, steamy romance, and sappy bullshit. So why not make movies focusing solely on one set of characteristics, in order to get plenty of business from the target demographic, dismissing such concerns as an intelligent script or a point to get across? And so we hear tell of girlfriends being “dragged along” to action movies and boyfriends being forced to go to chick flicks.

As a random example of these trends, let’s take the two top-grossing movies in the nation, neither of which I’ve seen, and broadly apply these criteria. G.I. Joe: the Rise of the Cobra: action? Guns? Loud noises? Check. Julie & Julia: cooking? Emotions? Meryl Streep? Check. I think it’s pretty clear which genders these movies are for. (The third-most-popular, G-Force, must be for those sexless little subhumans called “children”.) I’d go so far as to say that these pointless gender divisions serve the interests of those faceless corporate giants I was talking about the other day. Why else have TV channels “for men” and “for women”? So they can pander their gender-specific products to the right markets, of course.

Billy Tipton, gender fugitive of the musical worldJames Barry, Victorian surgeon (and lifelong transvestite)

Of course this brings up lots of difficult little questions about what gender differences mean or what they’re worth, if they shouldn’t restrict behavior or opportunities. How can we turn these borderlines into advantages for all involved instead of walls that cordon off our lives? Instead of answering these really hard questions, I’ll veer off into another, related topic that’s fascinated me for a long time: gender ambiguity. Take, for example, two fairly notorious cases of women masquerading as men: Billy Tipton and James Barry. Both of them dressed as men both for professional advancement and in their private lives, keeping their secrets from almost the entire worlds until their deaths. Tipton dressed as a man in order to work as a jazz musician, and ended up carrying on “heterosexual” relationships with a number of women, even going on to adopt 3 children. Barry crossdressed so as to become a surgeon in 19th century Scotland and ended up travelling the world receiving many medical accolades. In both cases, their “true” gender was only discovered when they died.

So, the questions are many: how do cases like these fit into this dichotomized world we’ve constructed, where we have the pronouns “him” and “her,” where we align the word “masculine” with a collection of attributes and behaviors, and its opposite, “feminine,” with a totally distinct set? A fascinating book called Vested Interests by Marjorie Garber has directed me to a 1620 pamphlet called “Hic Mulier” (Latin for “This Woman,” but using the masculine word for “this,” hic), which condemns women who behave or dress in a masculine manner as base deformities, and worse. It’s just amusing to see how shocked and offended people get when the frameworks, however inaccurate, they have set up for perceiving the world get violated by a real-life example. Hell, I’ve personally been attacked, jokingly or otherwise, a number of times throughout my life for not fitting well enough into the established ideas about how a man should look, think, and act. I’m reminded of the comics masterpiece Fun Home when Alison Bechdel talks about Proust’s theories of homosexuals as gender “inverts” – basically, that gay men are actually women in male bodies and vice versa. It’s a belief that, in less sophisticated or meaningful manifestations, is pretty wide-spread, even turning up in the particularly insane Jack Chick tract “Wounded Children.”

Jack Chick's bizarre take on homosexuality

Earlier in the same tract, the inconsistent, self-defeating devil tells David, “You are really a little girl inside a boy.” Man, Chick has an ear for dialogue. But this inane association and confusion of homosexuality, transgender, and just behavior outside of gender norms is pretty pervasive. Hence, kids in high school who don’t like sports are gay, or sissies, or maybe even “girly,” “like a girl,” feminine, etc. You know. And they’re probably accused of having boyfriends, and insist that no, no, they’re not gay, they’d never want to be saddled with a label like that. Incidentally, if you want to see a very funny interrogation of gender roles and sexuality in high school, check out But I’m a Cheerleader from queer filmmaker Jamie Babbit. It’s a flawed movie, as Ashley and I discussed while watching it, but it does a great job of taking on issues like homophobia and the very real insanity of conversion therapy, and it has a great cast including John Waters regular Mink Stole and RuPaul dressed as a man.

Speaking of movies and gender roles, I also just wanted to mention Young Man with a Horn (1950) starring Kirk Douglas. I watched it last night, largely because I was curious to see Lauren Bacall being noticeably bisexual. And she was (having a pretty obvious dalliance with a pretty female painter), though interestingly Doris Day’s character constantly refers to her as sick, mixed-up, disturbed, etc., etc., and warns Douglas, the young trumpeter, away from her. This is pretty consistent with the tendency, at the time, to regard homosexuality as a problem, a sign of a very confused mind, and bisexuality? Well, there’s a trope for that (and one given new life by Sharon Stone in the early ’90s). It just seems interesting, odd, and illogical to me to associate attraction to a certain gender (or both) with corruption and sinfulness. I mean, heterosexual males commit a vast majority of the world’s rapes, so why isn’t there a “violent, disturbed heterosexual” stereotype?

These are a lot of difficult questions, but they’re ones we need to keep in mind. They affect us everyday, and we often don’t even realize it because these norms and expectations are so deeply ingrained into the way we think. Gender differences exist, but it’s about time we stopped plowing ahead with all our assumptions and stereotypes, and instead stopped to reconsider: is it really a “guy” or “girl” thing? Is this really something only girls have to deal with, and guys should have no interest in? Men are not from Mars; women are not from Venus (fuck you, John Gray). We’re all pretty clearly from the planet earth, we’re all the same species, and maybe some of us love the same sex, or like wearing nightgowns or having long hair or playing with dolls, dammit. Or wearing trousers, or driving trucks, or doing other stereotypically masculine shit. Each of us lives a different life and the options are not black and white, or pink and blue. I think it’s about time we’re allowed to live whatever shade we want to.

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Filed under Body, Cinema, Media, Politics, Sexuality

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