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.  

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Manly Question

If I were to smoke, I think I would smoke Marlboros, entirely because of the marketing.  (Is there really any other reason people smoke?)  The Marlboro Man is someone I'd like to emulate even though I know absolutely nothing about him.  What do I need to know really though, besides the fact that he emanates masculinity, which is something that I would like to do to.  The problem of course is that the price of cigarettes would make me ill, not to mention that I highly doubt that smoking Marlboros will automatically render me a "Marlboro Man".  As both Randy Jones, and more recently Ang Lee have shown us, being a cowboy is not necessarily what masculinity is.  If it's not the Marlboro man's cigarette nor his hat and rugged features, then what is it?  Or, more broadly, what are the differences between masculinity and femininity?  ("Great pun Ed!"  "Thanks, I was afraid you would miss it.")

That's a problem that has been in the back of my mind for what's likely close to two decades but more recently I've been giving it a lot of thought.  When I was young I liked to view the world in relatively simple terms.  The easiest way to see gender is male and female.  With two categories it makes for easy understanding.  Males are tough, physical, rational, strong, and aggressive.  Females are soft, emotional, compassionate, sensitive, nurturing and dependent.  The nice thing about this view is that it was easy enough to find corroboration in countless places.

There are of course cracks in the simplistic view.  At first with a bit of selective vision and selective interpretation, the view was defensible.  For example, everyone knows that only boys fight physically because they're aggressive and girls aren't.  Of course the occasional fight does break out between girls but that's because everyone knows that they're catty.  (Thank God I'm male and don't have my own friends stabbing me in the back.)

Unfortunately the view got harder to defend as more and more counterexamples appeared in my life.  As I had my view challenged I sought to find an explanation that could account for all the corroboration of my old gender views but allow for all of the exceptions.  I was unsuccessful so I sort of ignored the problem, or at least never looked at it head on.  I would affirm what I assumed to be truths about gender and then affirm other facts despite apparent contradictions.  If the contradiction were pointed out I would likely have affirmed it too.  The easiest solution to all the exceptions of the traditional male female gender roles is one that I was never willing to embrace: that gender traits are only social constructs and that is why they don't work.

The last little while I have been thinking a fair bit about what masculinity means and was also struck by an interesting entailment on my assumption that there is such a thing as masculinity, and that is there must be such a thing as femininity.  Not being able to figure that question out by introspection, I've asked several of my women friends what their thoughts on it are.

The question assumes that gender is a defining characteristic of people.  I think it's a defensible assumption and can argue why, but will forebear doing so because I assume that most are happy to allow for the assumption.  The question I asked was,  "What are some of the defining traits and characteristics of femininity that you relate to as a woman?"  I was not prepared to assume that there are certain traits that are exclusive to one gender while universal to another, but I thought that maybe there are some that are generally more common to, or more strongly embodied by one gender.

I received some good replies, though perhaps the most interesting was "why is this so important to you?"  Not the what is femininity question, but gender in general.  I think I stuttered out some sort of answer but the succinct reply was "I don't know."  I didn't know, but it caused me to think.

The website The Art of Manliness defines manliness as the not the opposite of femininity but rather the opposite of boyishness.  I think that this is perhaps part of the reason why the question has been important for me, especially of late.  As a student, though I'm in my late twenties there's not a lot that separates me from my adolescent life.  I don't have any of the stereotypical trappings of adulthood, career, family, or mortgage so how do I know I'm an adult?  Well I'm an adult if I'm a man so I need to know what it means to be a man.

That's just part of it though.  I remember as a young boy driving home with my dad.  I had the option of traveling with my mom in the other car but I remember that I really wanted to drive with my dad.  I don't remember anything except for the fact that I was very happy to be spending time with my dad, talking "man to man".  I felt that my masculinity was affirmed and that affirmation was very important to me.  Now as an adult I think I'm looking again for that same affirmation but I don't know where to look because I don't even know what masculinity is.  So I guess my answer is that the question is very important to me because it is important to me.

Anyway, I was really happy the other day because I think I've answered the question of what gender is.