Tuesday, November 19, 2019

On Short Hair And Gender. Or Back To The 50s Gender Norms, With A Twist?

I have very very short hair, in a pixie cut.  I have worn two pairs of Converse All Stars to ground over the years, one black and one red pair, and I often buy jeans made for pre-teen boys because their cut suits me.  I spent much of my childhood playing cops and robbers and war with my boy cousins, though we also played house. 

If I asked the advice of Alex Marzano-Lesnevich on what this might mean in terms of my gender identity, they would probably suggest that I might be genderqueer.  This is because Marzano-Lesnevich  uses the above examples to explain their own road from girlhood through gayness to identifying as genderqueer in an opinion piece in this December's Harper's Bazaar.

Yet I am not genderqueer.  Indeed, I have no inner gender identity that would not be directly based on living inside this female body or on the way others have treated me because of that body (1).

To see the point where Marzano-Lesnevich's story clearly diverged from mine, read this quote about their childhood:

Soon after, I began to ignore the long hair that marked me so firmly as a girl, leaving it in the same ponytail for days on end, until it knotted into a solid, dark mass. All my friends were boys, and my dearest hours were spent playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the lawn with my twin brother and the neighbor boy. My room was blue, and my teddy bear was blue, and the turtle I wanted to be was Leonardo, not only because he was smart but because his color was blue. When my twin brother got something I didn’t—to go to the baseball game, though we were all fans; to camp with the Boy Scouts while my sisters and I were shuttled off to the ballet; to keep the porn mags I discovered in his bedroom—and the reason given was that he was a boy, rage choked me with tears. That was grief, I think now, the grief of being misunderstood.

My own childhood rage-and-grief experiences about gender roles and sexist stereotypes primed me for my later re-birth as a feminist. I saw the whole valuation system as arbitrary and rigged and I saw the little holes into which we were slotted, presumably based on our biological sex, as horribly wrong, stifling and the basis of sex-based social hierarchies.

Marzano-Lesnevich's  childhood rage-and-grief experiences primed them to accept the system of gender rules for most others but not for themselves.  They didn't see the gender slots wrong, only insufficient in numbers and not reflecting their own gender identity.

Who is to say which of our approaches, if either, would be more effective in changing the world?  Have the years I have toiled writing feminism trying to push an immovable mountain of misogyny aside been productively spent?

Given the rapid acceptance of the alternative approach, the type espoused by Marsano-Lesnevich and many others, I now harbor grave doubts about the value of my work (2).

The new gender theory approach (3), with its essentialist assumptions about  gender roles and norms and its frequent references to pink (for those who identify as girls) and blue (for those who identify as boys) brains sounds familiar yet also revolutionary (4).

It's familiar because it partly echoes the conservative views of gender roles and norms as rigid and permanently set by our biological sex (it's girls who play with dolls), even though it dispenses with the essentialism about biological sex and chooses to essentialize gender roles, norms and stereotypes directly (if you play with dolls then you are a girl) (5).

But it's also revolutionary.  It preserves the sex-based social hierarchies but allows individuals to leap frog them as long as they settle into one gender slot and act according to that slot's requirements.  You can be anything you wish as long as you are the right gender for that (6)!

But can this new system of defining gender produce, say, economic equality between both the two old genders and all new ones?  I don't see how it could, but I of course hope to be convinced otherwise.


(1)  According to the new essentialist gender theory, I should therefore identify as agender.

But nobody would stop treating me as a woman if I did that!  That's because large chunks of sexism and gender discrimination are not based on inner identities but on how others see us.  For others not to see our biological sex, body modifications through hormones or surgery are necessary for most.  That is a steep price to pay for gender equality.  And it would be a private solution of no help for the billions of other women who suffer from sex-based oppression in this world.

That I have no gender identity myself does not mean that I would not allow others to use the concept to define their own gender, mind you.  I also get that the reasons for transitioning are serious and painful ones and may have nothing to do with attempts to evade being a target for misogyny. For some trans women, at least, the transitioning leads into more oppression.

(2)  For instance, I have spent over a decade trying to show the errors in neurosexist research biased toward digging up innate sex differences between men and women.  This effort looks rather pointless in today's political climate where both the political right and much of the political left view traditional gender roles, norms and stereotypes as essentialist, not as at least partially culturally constructed ot as the way women's subjugation is actually maintained.

(3) I hasten to add that what I am writing in this post is not about the reasons why transgender people transition, in general, but about one particular "woke" story concerning a nonbinary gender identity and its not-so-woke shadow.

(4)  Familiar because of the popularity of the search for distinctly female (pink) and male (blue) brains in neurosexist research,  though in that they are still firmly linked to female and male bodies.  In the new gender theory that link is broken so that anyone can possess a pink brain, for example. 

(5)  Linked to footnote (3),  I stress that the above is a false (but common) popularized version of what it means to work with gender identities rather than with biological sex.  It's not the way psychologists identify transgender teens (or should identify them), for instance. But it's not a rare take on the issues in online writings.

(6)  Note that for some individuals to be nonbinary, it's necessary for most others to be regarded as firmly binary.

To be "genderqueer" (a gender which seems to be defined as consisting of breaking binary gender norms) requires the assumption that most others enforce those binary gender norms and roles.  To be a feminist doesn't require any such identification, yet, at least in my view, results in the exactly same breaking of gender norms, and, at least in theory, to the benefit of more people.