We Are All Disordered

41gkmvzpzwl-_sy344_bo1204203200_This month I started teaching AS Media Studies. What a treat. I’d forgotten the delights of delving into the signs and representations that we are bombarded with in daily life, and unpicking the institutions behind them, the messages they send us, and why. Of course, it can lead to a few rude awakenings. Poring over Lynx’s ‘ironic’ adverts depicting a scantily clad woman pulling a turkey out of the oven, it was clear that some of my students were already hyper-aware of the skewed views we are exposed to every day. Others, perhaps more worryingly, were not. For their coursework, they need to come up with a range of media products. One of the areas they need to research and analyse is representation. Keen to link into modern debates, I talked to them about black representation in the music industry, and the distorted view of mental health and its institutions in the film industry. From psychotic killers to psychiatrists who are just waiting to meet the right patient so they can marry them, Hollywood does very little to broach the myriad issues surrounding mental health and stigma.

To be honest, it seems that the system is frightening enough, without needing to be fictionalised. I’ve just finished reading The Last Time I Wore A Dress. It’s a memoir of the teenage years of Daphne (now Dylan) Scholinski. You’d be forgiven for thinking it told a series of events that happened in the fifties, back when electric shock therapy and lobotomies were still considered normal practice. Alas, no. We are in the relatively recent time of the early eighties. A time when Channel 4 arrived, mobile technology was in its infancy, and a young girl was hospitalised for three years for not fitting into socially accepted standards of what it meant to be a ‘girl.’

On reading this, perhaps its easy to forget how recent a more globally accepting culture has become. Gay characters on TV, transvestites hosting chat shows, it wasn’t that long ago that these people were used as freak value, rather than the very normal members of society they actually are. I also have to remember that, as a Londoner, I perhaps have a slightly unusual view of the world. But still, the book is heartbreaking. From an abusive and neglected childhood, a young Daphne enters into highly risky behaviour. She is deemed unmanageable by her parents and school, and turfed off to a mental hospital. What is most distressing is that, rather than take the time to develop trust, dig into her issues and help her, the doctors quickly slap an odd diagnosis on her, and spend the rest of her time incarcerated trying to get her to behave in a more ‘appropriately’ girly way.

The technical term, taken from the American Psychiatric Association, as recently as 1994, is ‘Gender Identity Disorder.’ Included in the diagnosis are references to clothing and play behaviour, that do not fit with the ‘gender identity’ of the individual. Excuse me? If that’s the case, then frankly, I was a disordered child. I wore jeans or dungarees for most of my childhood, was forever climbing trees, making bow and arrows, riding my bike, generally going against what is apparently my ‘gender identity.’ And don’t we all? My sister loved her chemistry set, while I had male friends who liked plaiting hair.

For most of us, this behaviour will lead to little more than social disengagement. Perhaps teasing, bullying, until we learn our lessons and revert to a more ‘acceptable’ way of behaving. For Daphne, she had to pretend to like makeup, show interest in boys and plaiting hair, in order to earn ‘points’ that allowed her to leave the confines of her ward, if only for a few minutes. It made me feel sick.

Why are we so obsessed with males and females acting in certain ways? And persistently suspicious of those who fail to meet our expectations? A recent study by Lancet has, not at all shockingly, found that the mental distress that many transgender people face is largely due to social reactions to them, not because being transgender is a ‘mental disorder.’ With so many deaths associated with this issue, it’s surprising that it has taken so long to challenge the WHO’s classification.

The signals young people get from all around them are not helpful. The media tells them to conform, the establishment tells them that variance is a mental illness. As someone who has received enough gender-biased issues solely based on being a woman, I cannot imagine the level of persecution that might get levelled at me if I didn’t fit with the gender binary. But you know what, I can, and should, have a go. Empathy is a powerful tool, and literature a brilliant way to create it. Through reading this book, and sharing in the writer’s experience, I can try to understand the world through a different lens.

Perhaps in years to come, Media students will look back on the programming, advertising and news media of our generation and be terribly amused at how limited it was. Until then, marginalised voices need to be amplified and celebrated, so another young girl is not subjected to the same tortuous treatment.

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