Between & Beyond: Gender

I drive an hour to work so I listen to a lot of radio. Recently, on the local NPR affiliate, I heard an interview with a mother who had been raising her son and allowing him to navigate his own gender identity without obstruction. He mostly gravitated to girls’ toys and clothing, but would practice a sort of self-censoring or self-limiting when going to school and reign it in a bit in order to escape some of the harshness of his peers. His older brother has been accepting from the start and remains a traditional boy, but also faced heavy persecution from his peers on behalf of his brother.

I found this whole story to be very interesting. When studying literature in college, especially at the grad level, it’s impossible to not study philosophy as well. The history of critical theory, how scholars analyze literature, is a history that involves an ever-increasing incorporation of philosophical lenses through which to view texts. So, we can take the basics of Freudian or Lacanian psychology, of Marxist theory, or Feminist theory and see how those tenants play out in characters of a novel therefore deciding if their presence speaks of the author, the time period, or universal human characteristics. One very interesting, more recent lens would be Queer theory. Queer theory is a large umbrella term that wrangles together many different thinkers with many different concerns, but like all the others, it seeks to explore the social/cultural assumptions inherent in texts focusing on sexuality and gender.

One part of Queer theory asks us to consider the following three aspects of identity: sex, gender, and orientation. The point of highlighting these aspects is to show how fluid they are. Our assumptions paint them otherwise and we create standards based on this supposed solidity. Sex refers to our biological sex, i.e. what bits you are born with. We might consider this to be the one that is most black and white, but when you consider hermaphroditism, gynecomastia, or even just the unique hormonal makeup of every individual, we see that nothing is actually guaranteed. Gender would be the social roles that are built upon our biological sex. We have already made great strides in loosening the restraints that these imposed and inherited roles place on us. The whole useless “boys play with trucks, girls play with dolls” paradigm seems harmless at first, but it is the very basis for the inequality that women have struggled to overcome for so long now. And finally, orientation is simply your sexuality; who you fancy in bed. The idea of separating these concepts is to create a sort of multilevel spectrum of possibility. Just because a biological male chooses to identify with a feminine gender does not mean he will automatically be homosexual in his orientation. You see? All possibilities are open.

I find a great deal of validity to this concept as I enjoy the freedom it allows us. Our way of life is in sore need of a recreation and a rearrangement, and I welcome anything that can offer us the ability to refine, redefine, and recreate the stories we tell ourselves since we have merely inherited them through accidents of history. The apt metaphor used by Terence McKenna and Douglas Rushkoff is the difference between hardware and software. What is static and what is malleable? To know the difference is half the battle.

Here’s the trouble, however. Marxism as a lens also gives us consideration for identity. Our social identity, according to Marx, cannot easily escape the economy under which it’s created. During the aforementioned interview, the mother kept explaining how many of her son’s decisions regarding identity were based heavily on what kind of clothes or toys he desired. She mentioned herself over the course of the interview that her son expressed a sort of relief in finding that toilet paper didn’t split down the typical gender lines in its marketing intentions. Everything else is made for either boys or girls.

This, to me, speaks to a deeper issue, one that affects all of us regardless of our gender, sex, or orientation. So much more deeply ingrained is our drive to consume our identity. We cobble together an identity as if it was a montage of material goods. When our sense of self depends so heavily on this destructive and wasteful way of life, the hope of transcending seems dim. Plastic pollution, debt, energy dependency, foreign policy, sweatshop labor: all of these issues arise from our consumer habits and our value system. Are gender issues seemingly more malleable now because we have an increasing sense of freedom? Or are young impressionable minds overloaded with hyper-stylized representations of gender and sexuality? Large-eyed cartoon characters with unreal proportions and ultra-feminine mannerism populate the landscape of children’s programing. Could these alter the psychological development of a child? And regardless, should we continue to teach children how to consume an identity regardless of whatever identity it is that they desire? I certainly would make sure my son was comfortable with himself, no matter what. But, I’d try my best to guide him to that place of comfort outside the path of materialism.