Yes, there's a lot of talk about gender at the moment, but are we ready to join the conversation?
The only two choices for women; witch and sexy kitten.
Oh, you just said a mouthful there, sister.
- Sex and the City
I decided that a discussion on the topic of gender could be used to complement last week's post, with the open questions regarding what it means to be a woman paving the way for this discussion. Being 'suddenly' 40 has impressed on me the feeling of being much more out of touch than I ever perceived I would be. Young people with whom I come in contact are using terms like 'non-binary' with an ease and naturalness that puts me to shame. If you're like me and Google is your secret best friend at these times, keep in mind that it is primarily the language around gender that has changed in recent years. The conversation around gender has been taking place for hundreds of years.
And, this conversation has been full of binaries, not only with the idea of the polar genders of male and female, but in the ways that masculine and feminine traits, behaviours and expectations have been viewed and expressed. At last we are acknowledging that so-called masculine and feminine elements exist in all people, that they exist in varying degrees in every person, and that they can be expressed in as many ways as there are people who exist. People have always pushed the boundaries of the accepted gender behaviours and expressions of their time because they felt that they didn't reflect their true selves or allow them to live in the ways they preferred. Because we have failed to recognise the complexity of gender behaviour and expression, reactions to expectations have often gone to extremes. For example, children who did not want to be seen as being ''like other girls'' opted to reject traditional feminine expressions for periods of time, identifying themselves as tomboys.
Gender roles have always been restrictive and so has gender expression. Allowing them to be challenged has been a very long time in coming, and the fact that we are even surprised at the upending of traditional notions of femininity and masculinity is the most surprising thing about this. Expectations for behaviour were usually extremely specific, and so were expectations of dress. In many historical periods, women were encumbered by "frills and furbelows", as Oscar Wilde wrote in his Philosophy of Dress in 1885. As he said, "they are curious things to look at, but entirely unfit for use". Women wanted to do things, so it was inevitable that they would have to change their attire. It wasn't always women who were decked out in decorative fashions, either. Louis the 14th and the men of his court were arrayed in curls, fur and flounces in the 17th Century.
In my research for this discussion, I became aware of the many stereotypical depictions of gender that are perpetuated by the media, television and movies. These can be identified as 'tropes'.
A trope is a storytelling device or convention, a shortcut for describing situations the storyteller can reasonably assume the audience will recognize. Tropes are the means by which a story is told by anyone who has a story to tell...They are not bad, they are not good; tropes are tools that the creator of a work of art uses to express their ideas to the audience. It's pretty much impossible to create a story without tropes - TV Tropes, 2021
Growing up with these tropes that we begin to see as normal representations of particular genders, it's natural that we might start to emulate them. Not one of the women I grew up with, however, expressed her feminine or masculine traits in the same way that I did. Not one of us completely embodied any of these tropes. So, because we don't see representations of people that are close to encapsulating the complex balance of who we are, it is natural that we might grow up thinking that we're not quite right. For example, I always considered myself the girliest type of girl. I never went through even the tiniest hint of a tomboy phase. As a child, I had no interest in typical 'masculine' activities and I still can't think of a single one that interests me. This will sound overly precious, but finding sensible shoes to wear to work was a nightmare. If they didn't have an element of feminine detailing on them I would feel physically ill at the thought of wearing them. I'm afraid to say that nothing has changed. I just can't do unisex.
Despite good-natured teasing from my friends and family, I grew up in the privileged position of being comfortable with my version of femininity, so I didn't feel the need to behave or express myself differently. I still didn't see myself represented anywhere, however. I didn't see myself in any of those typically-feminine tropes.
I was not cutesy.
I was not a fashionista.
I was not materialistic.
I was most definitely not a bombshell or a femme fatale.
I didn't really fit in anywhere, even in the girly-girl tropes. I always just thought I was a boring feminine type. My real-world femininity was a bit more mixed up than the fictional versions that I was familiar with. Inwardly, I was the Jo in Little Women, but outwardly, I was more like the Meg. Although, inwardly, I was the dreamy, poetic Anne of Green Gables, outwardly, I was the reserved and ladylike Diana. In fact (with all due humility), I'm probably a kind of a Princess Diana type, or a Grace Kelly or Olivia de Havilland type - nothing that I can think of that exists today, or in my neck of the woods - but, in addition to these external expressions, I see myself as a modern woman with a strong leaning towards feminism and challenging societal norms and traditions.
Although the conversations around gender appear to be progressing faster than people over a certain age - I mean me - might feel we can keep pace with, there is still ground to be broken here.
I would like to share this beautifully written response to my last post, from a friend;
In my personal situation of raising a little girl and raising a little boy 12 months younger, it has been surprisingly obvious to see how different influences and expectations for each gender are put on little ones from such an early age and how impacting this can be on how they think and feel...colours, toys, fairy tales and levels of 'appropriate' affection come quickly to mind as having differing standards for each gender and that are imposed on kids right from the beginning...and I've been surprised by the shame that can be there (and from such a young age!!) when my kids become aware they are deviating from 'expectation'.
I think you only have to compare cultures to see that many of these expectations needn't be defined nor influenced by gender at all (i.e. blue in china is a feminine colour?!..I just learned!)...At this point, my intention for my kids is to promote diversity and to celebrate unharmful difference so they are embodied with the feeling they can do and be whatever they want to be without feeling they have to conform to being a particular way...but I didn't expect the current cultural mainstream influences (that I perceive may limit this intention) to be so strong, so frequent and so easy to infiltrate my own code of parenting....and to have this occur so soon in their little lives! I guess I'll just continue to try and enable a range of experiences, ideas and role models to combat this...the best I can :)
I can't read this without crying. There is no shame in expressing behaviours that are true to who you are, regardless of gender. Every part of ourselves, our minds and our bodies, consist of complex variations of yin and yang, and masculine and feminine. In spiritual terms, this is the divine feminine and the divine masculine. Creating a balanced state is about embracing both. But, the degree to which we nurture each of the many feminine and masculine aspects of ourselves will match how aligned they are to who we are and who we want to be. There is no shame in behaving or expressing ourselves in ways that defy gender norms. Neither is there shame in behaving or expressing ourselves in traditionally masculine or feminine ways. We don't need to go to great lengths to prove that we are not "like those other" girls or boys, or men or women. We can be vulnerable and strong and sexy and sporty and smart and everything else mixed up together. We are not tropes. We are multifaceted people. There are no rules for self-expression. Society changes when we change. For the wellbeing of every person who exists in our world and every beautiful child who will be born into this hothouse of expectations, let's change it!
Last Week's Post, 'How lovely to be a woman', can be accessed here: https://www.pennymuller.com/post/how-lovely-to-be-a-woman
Green, A. (2015). How Louis 14th invented high fashion. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/68105/how-louis-xiv-invented-high-fashion
Oxford Scholarly Editions. (1885). Philosophy of dress - Oscar Wilde. https://www.oxfordscholarlyeditions.com/view/10.1093/actrade/9780198119630.book.1/actrade-9780198119630-div1-94
TV Tropes. (2021). Tropes.
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