The following essay is one that I wrote as an example to show my English Composition students. The school wants me to teach from a textbook, and I do. Mostly. Sometimes. In reality, I think it’s hard to teach good writing without writing. Textbooks may offer good questions for writers to ask themselves and may present some good ideas about writing in general, but the harsh reality about language and written communication is that it’s a very fluid thing. My writing I hope will help my students see the value of self-examination, self-doubt and questioning, and how writing is more than simply getting information across, but also presenting a piece of yourself to the reader. And that is also why I share it here.
Ultimately, I believe we write, not just to convey ideas or even emotions, but also to feel more connected to other people. To feel less alone in the world, less insane. A good essay is both a shoulder to lean on, and also the head that leans on it.
“My Gender Story”
For the past several years I have been rather obsessed with gender. Not sex. Gender. I’ve listened to my share of standup comics trying and failing to “understand” their wives. I have watched my share of sitcoms where the man is portrayed as a mostly sex driven Neanderthal, and the woman is a sensitive, motherly figure. Not motherly in the old sense. Not motherly in the sense that she is a homemaker, childbearing, child rearing, epitome of feminine purpose. Women in sitcoms today are motherly in the sense that they are good at explaining things to their husbands and guiding them through a rather rough marriage. The man doesn’t get it, but if he would just listen to his wife, it would all be so much clearer.
I’m fed up with the sexual circus. I can’t watch or listen to it anymore. I’m not buying it. I’ve had enough of the male/female vision of the human condition. Being a whole person, I feel, can’t be limited to one gender or the other. It can’t be that simple. Personally, I often don’t exactly feel male. Or I don’t exactly understand what it means to “feel” male. But I don’t feel female either. I think I can safely say that I’m not gay, bisexual, transexual, or whatever. I’m attracted to women. But so are male lizards. Being human must mean more than sexual attraction. Humans feel. Certainly animals do to, but human emotion is complex, imaginative, at times apocalyptic, other times hopeful. We fall in love. We hate. And our feelings, at least within our social lives, are always defined in some way by gender. But my problem is, I don’t feel any particular gender. I feel . . . well I am just me.
At this point in my thinking I tend to heave a great sigh, slump lower into the chair, and wonder if I’m wasting my time thinking about gender at all. Eventually I get over my desperation and decide that, yes, I am male. I have a male body, which must mean that in some sense I must be male. In the past, this admission was enough to get me out of bed in the morning. I’d get dressed, make coffee, read the paper, and more or less find the motivation to participate in the daily redundancies of normal living. Recently, however, in light of the growing gay rights movement, and the more and more vocal feminist voices, I have come to a place in my understanding where I feel stuck. My understanding of gender just isn’t cutting it anymore. I feel that in order to have any meaningful discussion about gender — about the current events that involve gender — I need to know more. I need to read more. It’s time I did some research.
At first, a brief subject search through the library’s online journal database revealed a plethora of viewpoints, scientific studies, theories, and a great mass of information. I printed stuff off and began to read. But eventually, what stood out most to me wasn’t an article at all, but a book. It was the title itself that drew me to it: Gender Stories: Negotiating Identity in a Binary World. The title was intriguing because I like stories. I’m a poet with an education in every aspect of creative writing, so the idea of gender as a story was very appealing. But this was just the tip of the iceberg. When I picked the book out of the library and began reading I fell in love with the authors’ controlling argument. Sonja Foss, Mary Domenico, and Karen Foss, propose that gender is mostly, if not completely, a product of our social interactions; it is the culmination of the stories our lives are made up of. This applied, not only to my current understanding of masculinity or femininity, but also challenged my concept of physical bodies. “Culture,” they argue “through human interaction, determines what is meant not only by boy, girl, man, and woman but by words like penis, vagina, testosterone, and estrogen” (8). The idea that culture determines both the ideas of gender and also the very meaning we assign to our gendered bodies, is remarkable on its own. But the idea is even more striking when understood in the context of the women who wrote about it. All three of the authors are women; one of which appears to have no academic experience in gender studies but works as a freelance fashion designer. The other two teach communication and their experience with gender studies includes a large amount of feminist writing. Yet this book is hardly a feminist work.
In spite of this (or perhaps because of it) the book seems to contain a gender nonspecific voice. In fact, from the tone and word choice, I find myself imposing my own masculine identity onto the writing, even though the authors are clearly not male. It’s as if the authors have stripped themselves of their “femininity” and write as if from the perspective of a transvestite — individuals who could be male, female, or a combination of both. In some ways, whether intentional or not, the book’s asexual tone seems to suggest that the current inequality between the sexes isn’t a result of real differences, but a simple perpetuation of social beliefs. Gender exists, but “male” and “female,” both embodied and felt, are a result of our experiences within a certain society, a certain social context. Outside of that context, the authors appear to believe that gender specific words have little or no meaning.
Such a perspective is refreshing. In light of the media’s obsession with masculinity versus femininity, and considering the prevalence of male authority, it is wonderful to find a book that seems to call “bullshit” on the whole gender dichotomy. At the same time, the idea itself — that culture defines gender terms as well as assigns meaning to gendered bodies — is a difficult idea to get my head around. It is easy to understand how culture defines what is meant by “boy, girl, man, and woman”, but the idea that culture also affects the way we understand sexual body parts and hormones, is more difficult to grasp. A penis is a penis, right? You can be wealthy, poor, Mexican, ten years old or fifty-five; a penis is still a penis. Perhaps in coming to understand the authors’ meaning, we should start with the purpose of the book. Their purpose is not to biologically label human anatomy. Their purpose is to explore what is meant by the term “gender.” I have placed the word “meant” in italics because there is a large difference between assigning meaning to something and simply labeling it. What the authors are saying here, then, is that our social environment “determines what is meant” by sexual organs or our hormones. It determines how we understand them and not what they are physically.
This doesn’t really make the idea any easier to understand. I still find myself confused, because, simply put, I have never thought of assigning meaning to my penis. I’ve always thought of it as just a droopy thing. A mark that makes my physical body male. What possible meaning could I give to such a specialized tool, such a whimsical playboy? Except, looking back on that last sentence, it appears I have already given it meaning. I just called it a “tool” and accused it of being a “whimsical playboy,” terms that clearly give meaning to a part of my body, terms that are not biological labels but that reflect my personal understanding of their meaning. I have to admit, “whimsical playboy” isn’t accurate. I was just throwing things out there. I don’t actually feel that way about my penis. In fact I don’t really know what I think of it. I don’t know because talking about such a body part has been rather taboo throughout my life. The culture I have grown up in doesn’t like to use the word penis or vagina.
Thus, when connecting culture to sexual body parts, the authors’ may be suggesting that the culture we live in determines, first of all, whether or not we are allowed to even talk about sexual body parts, and second, assuming we can talk about them, our culture shapes the way we talk about them: as an object (a tool), or as something more connected to our identity (a whimsical playboy). In this sense, the correlation between culture and penis seems more clear. The “meaning” assigned to such a thing is not a definition sort of meaning, but the kind of meaning that allows each of us to understand what the authors refer to as our “gendered body.”
This is certainly a fascinating way of looking at gender, but it is also a little unsettling. If gender really is just a cultural invention, as the authors of this book seem to be suggesting, then my “maleness” is really just a creation of my particular cultural situation and has no real meaning. That is, it has no meaning apart from what society arbitrarily assigns it. This thought makes me cringe a little. In some ways it seems to suggest that those sitcoms that drive me so crazy, are really doing nothing more than what humans do naturally: assigning meaning to gender. But this “assigned” meaning is not really what I am looking for. I have a hard time accepting that gender can only be defined by our physical bodies and our sexual desires. There must be something fundamental about gender, something that allows for the nuances of human experience, but still helps define our gendered bodies. Take away sexual attraction, take away biological function, take away cultural gender expectations, and what are we left with? It seems we are left not with gender, but with something . . . something else. Perhaps we are simply left with a creature that feels and looks for love and safety and security. An intelligent thing that gets hungry and sleepy and imagines and creates and lives for a time and dies. We are left, without male or female, or any of the shades in between, but simply with a creature that has its own unique human story. Perhaps my own gender story isn’t a story of gender at all, but simply a story of a human being trying to navigate a wold obsessed, not with assigning meaning to gendered bodies, but with assigning gendered meaning to human bodies.