Friday, April 20, 2012

A Defense of Gender

I didn't have to do a big study on gender, John and Stasi Eldredge figured things out already.  Men are wild and woman want to be beautiful, the object of a romance or something.  I'm not sure.  Anyway, I guess I agree with them, sort of.

I've got the view that gender might be the sort of thing that prohibits having a specific definition.  That is not however, reason to think that the terms masculine and feminine are meaningless.  There are other terms that defy specific definitions, like baldness or a heap.  How many hairs can you have on your head and still be bald?  How many grains of sand in a heap?  Just because we can't answer those questions precisely doesn't mean that the terms don't have a meaningful meaning.

One of the reasons I gave for why my quest to understand masculinity is important is because of the motivation it provides.  If asked if I'd rather be a good person or a good man the answer is incredibly easy.  The desire to be a good man motivates far more powerfully than the desire to be a good person.  My friend rebutted that that's because history has such strong literature about the ideal man but not about the ideal woman.  There aren't the same sort of famous models of what is entailed by being a "good woman" as compared to being a "good man".  I can't disagree with that.

I'm not a woman, but I recently read the following poem and thought that perhaps it bestows the same sort of glory on womanhood that countless philosophers and poets have bestowed upon manhood.  It's by Maya Angelou.

Phenomenal Woman

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size   
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,   
The stride of my step,   
The curl of my lips.   
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,   
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,   
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.   
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.   
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,   
And the flash of my teeth,   
The swing in my waist,   
And the joy in my feet.   
I’m a woman

Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered   
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,   
They say they still can’t see.   
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,   
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.   
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.   
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,   
The bend of my hair,   
the palm of my hand,   
The need for my care.   
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I'm not a woman but I feel like this poem may just speak to the desires of the feminine heart.  In any case, the woman in the poem is the sort of woman that I would like to meet.  It's curious though, because nowhere in the poem do we really see what it is that makes this woman so arresting, so alluring.  I don't think it's really the bend of her hair, the palm of her hand or all the rest.  

I think the reason we don't have a good description of gender is due to the fact that human language isn't capable of defining it.  That's why I like this poem so much though, because I think it, more than anything else I know, describes femininity.  I don't know what femininity is, but this poem invokes my understanding of it.  There are two things going on that I think make it so powerful.  One is that Angelou so boldly proclaims her womanhood.  "I'm a woman phenomenally.  Phenomenal woman, that's me."  There's the unapologetic pride in her self description that both affirms herself as a woman but also the fact that being a woman is something to be proud of.  

There seems to be two strongly held views with regards to gender: the traditional view of gender being easily definable, with the traditional descriptions being accurate descriptions and the rebelling view that traditional definitions fail as definitions and aren't meaningful.  I'd like to say that both are accurate statements.

I think that due to the inability of our language to define gender, we automatically and unconsciously revert to secondary descriptions.  A parallel would be the idea of a romantic dinner.  There are candles, white tablecloth, wine, soft music and whatever else but they are not romantic, but what facilitates romance.  In a similar way I think that John Eldredge mistook hunting, and hiking and shooting guns and all the other wild and manly pursuits that he discusses as being masculine rather than facilitators of masculinity.  However, the book speaks powerfully to many men because those are the exact things that speak to their own masculinity.  

If this is true it explains why the those who hold the traditional view of gender are so unwilling to give it up, because for them the traditional views fit and speak to them strongly and personally.  If however, we've mislabeled masculinity and femininity we can still keep traditional gender descriptions.  Thus the guy who loves hunting with his guy friends because it puts him in touch with his masculinity can truthfully say that hunting is a masculine pursuit while also acknowledging that many woman, who aren't at all manly, like to hunt.  It also allows guys who hate the idea of hunting to not feel like less of a man because of it.  The search for a true gender description then isn't about finding something that is necessarily consistent with the definitions of others.  It's about finding whatever speaks to you as being a part of your gender and claiming it.

Like the candlelit dinner being thought of as romantic, perhaps there are true generalizations.  Some people may not find these dinners to be romantic, but they are described as such because the majority of people find them to facilitate romance.  Maybe traditional ideas about gender have staying power because they speak to a large number of people.  That doesn't prove that they are the definitions of masculinity or femininity, but neither do those who don't agree with those definitions disprove the traditional ideas.

I think it boils down to affirmation.  People want to be affirmed for who they are and a large part of who we are is determined by gender.  Figuring out to what extent our ideas of gender are social and biological is perhaps an impossible task, but also irrelevant to our discussion.  We are who we are for various reasons, but regardless we need to be affirmed for who we feel ourselves to be.  That is why gender is important.  


Josh Barkey said...

Just so you can feel more sorry for me... that Angelou poem describes EXACTLY the woman I just lost.

Kellen Heide said...

Very succinct Ed. I think that you hit the nail on the head in regards to facilitators being commonly mislabeled as the facet itself. I also agree with you that although femininity and masculinity are not clearly definable terms, they still carry heavy meaning. It seems to be an increasing trend in our society, in pursuit of tolerance and acceptance, to throw away all labels of description for individuals- especially in relation to gender. This, I believe, is a terrible grievance. Without descriptors, the road to self-discovery becomes a next to impossible feat. While I ardently applaud the open acceptance policy of our society, I do think that our quest for its fulfilment has unintentionally contributed to the loss of meaning and purpose that our generation feels. The individual has lost pride in proclaiming who they believe themselves to be, for fear of causing public offence. Admittedly, I myself was taken back by Maya Angelou's poem. Her confident declaration of who she is as a woman came as a very refreshing read, as I am so tired of the long-lasting mantra bestowed upon women to "just shut up and look pretty." Our myth of the eternal feminine has discredited the purity and value of true femininity, and I believe that the same holds true for masculinity.

DiD said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DiD said...

Dear Ed,

I think you're a phenomenal woman, definitely, but I can't say if its your hips or your hair that define you as that ;-)

Not gonna lie, wasn't a fan of the poem...way too superficial and sounded like a purely physical definition written by a man (even though it wasn't). Always great to read your thoughts though!