Genderspecs – The Gendered Gaze

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Genderspecs – unpicking gender stereotypes, one blog at a time.

The Gendered Gaze

Come on, you’ve done it too, haven’t you? Described your mate Terry as a ‘man’s man’ or as ‘bloke,’ your mate Fiona as a ‘girly girl.’ These are broad brushstrokes we all recognise. Terry probably likes football, or some sort of sport, while I can bet that the canine following Fiona round the house is not a wolfhound. Gender is a nice simple set of rules we can assign to people. The problem is, it isn’t as simple as that. Not only this, but Terry and Fiona deserve better. We all do.

The most interesting conversation I have with my A Level students happens around the time we start to talk about feminist criticism and literature. I get them to write down ‘male’ and ‘female,’ then get them to think of as many things they associate with each one. What they never fail to do is write down a whole lot of words that are associated with gender, not sex. The problem is, we’ve spent so long assuming that sex (as in, the contents of your pants) and gender are the same thing, the reactions we have to people that move outside of our expectations can provoke deeply uncomfortable, or violent responses. But these are all things that we’ve created.

I cringe at my own female gaze. The times I size up a woman, assessing whether or not I think she can pull off her outfit, if I think someone that age be wearing that length of skirt. It’s some sort of triggered instinct that surges into my brain before I can stamp it down. Changing the way we see each other takes effort. Not because it’s wrong, but because we’ve been trained to think in these simplistic ways from the first time we were swathed in either a ‘Mummy’s Little Monster’ or ‘Daddy’s little Princess’ babygro. But we can do it.

And the view isn’t as rosy on the other side either. As Norah Vincent discovered in her research for the book Self-Made Man, where she lived as a man for eighteen months, entering the privileged land of the patriarchy has its own drawbacks. From pseudo-emotional drinking in a bowling team, to stifled feelings in a monastery, to downright misogyny in the door-to-door salesman trade, she discovered that the magic combination of white and male isn’t so great. It meant scaling back her listening skills, repressing her emotions, not being able to say what she wanted to say. She felt far more restricted in her clothes, too. While assessing the wardrobe is never an easy task, I do think that having the binary option of suit or jeans might get a teensy bit boring. If my other half wanted to chuck on a skirt or a stretchy top that showed off his lovely chest, why should I care?

Recently, I’ve become for more interested in not just those who challenge gender stereotypes, refuse to be coloured by the male or female gaze, but those who actually cross boundaries between the two. I distinctly remember a time on the bus, I was probably eight, and there was someone on the bus whose gender I just couldn’t figure out. And how I stared. Trying to find some hint; stubble, makeup, anything that would allow me to settle into comfortable recognition and go back to thinking about what to buy with my pocket money. Where does this obsession come from? It’s not surprising, really. When I was growing up (old lady alert) the projections of gender I experienced were very rigid, and growing up in the 90s didn’t do much to dissuade that (although thanks to Sarah Cox and Zoe Ball I may have ruined my liver in the quest to ‘be as good as a man’). In every glance, we’re looking to seek comfort from categorising people. If we find people who seem fluid, or are dressed or portraying an image of something other than what we see as their ‘real’ gender, it doesn’t fit with our pigeonholing. And why should it? I’ll be damned if I’m going to wear heels and a skirt every day simply because I have a uterus, so who am I to assign strict rules of visual presentation to others? I can’t imagine how it must feel to not have your body line up with your mental image of yourself. It’s bad enough when you feel like a gorgeous sex bomb (usually about three drinks in) and you catch yourself in the mirror and get a full view of your wrinkles and red eyes in the harsh lights of the pub toilets, but to look in the mirror and not see your true self, that must be dreadful. If altering your dress, your mannerisms, your body, to something you feel more represents you makes you happy, then we should be applauding it, not denigrating it.

So that’s what, in my own way, I’m trying to do. Reaching across the virtual landscape to offer support to anyone who feels stifled or judged by the gendered gaze. Joining my voice with all the others who believe that a person is just that: a person, before they are anything else.

So here’s to the future, to change. To becoming more than visible. Personally, I hope that if I have kids, when they’re on the bus and they see someone who doesn’t fit with their ideas of a fixed gender, they don’t even bat an eyelid.

#TDOV #MoreThanVisibilty

It’s All About Perspective

One of the most powerful things in the world to experience is someone else’s perspective. It’s also one of the most frustrating. As anyone who’s encountered a view or opinion that they find utterly objectionable on social media, the TV, overheard in a bus (a broadcast of anything Donald Trump has ever said) the initial reaction is that they are wrong. Utterly, idiotically wrong. The interesting thing is, no-one thinks they’re ill-informed. No-one thinks they’re simply regurgitating biased news sources in place of an opinion. Everyone thinks they’re a nice person. Which is all the more reason we need to examine why these opinions exist, where they come from, and why the people who hold them think they’re so reasonable.

A fascinating and absorbing way to do this is though fiction. I would argue it’s the best way. In a first person narrative, even if you are infuriated with the character, you have no choice but to see the world through their eyes. You are forced, in some way, to empathise with them, even if you don’t agree with them.

Arguably, one of the most important times to be reading books like this is in your teens. All too often it seems like the world is revolving around your tiny little sphere of existence, and that no-one could possibly have it worse than you. Enter Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher, a young adult novel about a transexual MTF and the problems they have. But, interestingly enough, it isn’t told from the point of view of the trans character. It’s the teenage boy who meets her and how he copes with the discovery.

It’s a story of hormones and lust, coping with growing up and dealing with your feelings. In this sense, a pretty typical young adult story. Jason is an eighteen-year-old boy who has recently been dumped by his girlfriend, who refused to sleep with him. He’s reasonably clever but lives in a trailer with just his mother who works as a waitress. When Sage moves to town, he is immediately attracted to this mysterious new girl. In time, he discovers that she was born a male. Not before he’s had time to fall in love with her and kiss her. The prose is readable and the narrative interesting, it almost made me miss my stop a couple of times, which is a fair measure of the level of engagement.

I’ve read a lot of criticism of this book, based on the awful things Jason thinks and says when he finds out the truth about Sage. That the character is fundamentally shallow and unlikeable, and the addition of the new girl in his life is the only thing that makes him interesting. I would argue that this is exactly the point. By putting us in the shoes of a very narrow-minded young man from small-town Missouri (my US geography isn’t fantastic but I gather they’re not famed for being the most open-minded of states) we can experience the genuinely awful responses trans people can experience. First hand. And that’s important. We don’t like it, we certainly don’t agree with him, but it allows us to share his head, the ridiculous way he would do absolutely anything to not be considered ‘gay’ by his friends and family, and that he feels unable, emotionally, to open up to anyone around him. That in itself is just as much of an indictment of the hyper-masculinised ideals placed on lots of young men, as it is a criticism of how open-minded people are.

What this book allows then, is both the appreciation of how difficult growing up transgendered and going through a transition can be (yes the hormone therapy is a bit of a plot hole) and an appreciation of where the stigmatism and hateful attitudes come from. In order to make progress, we need to address both sides. To understand that people who are violent and cruel to trans people is based on skewed ideas of ‘manhood’ and lack of open conversation is just as important as understanding how traumatic it can be to feel you are born into the wrong body, with a family (or in this case, a father) who refuses to accept your true gender.

There was a fashion not long ago for perspectives of ‘monsters.’ Books like American Psycho that allowed us to see into the minds of truly disturbed characters. What seems to be happening now, is more books where there is less of a division. People acting hatefully but with their own stories behind it. Simplified ideas of us v them or monster v villain aren’t going to help educate and inform anyone because they oversimplify the myriad of issues and feelings behind the scenes. Books like this that lay bare all the feelings involved, both good and bad (and Jason is really a lot less of a judgmental idiot by the end) are what is necessary to move conversations forward, open up dialogue and discussion, rather than shutting them down by pretending they are too straightforward. And hey, it’s fantastic to have a trans character in mainstream young adult fiction.

There are a million quotes about why you should walk a mile in someone’s shoes, but I, as ever, tend to prefer Terry Pratchett: “They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it’s not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance.” Can’t say fairer than that.