American Gender: A cultural myth

Michelle x

Listen closely to the conversations of men, and you will eventually hear how they feel about women. A conversation between men, almost always includes some comment concerning the feminine peculiarities that separate or define the fairer gender from the stronger, or their perception of it. “Did you see the game last night? Manning ran like a pussy,” one man tells the other. Pussy refers to the prevalent slang, a derogatory colloquialism for a feminine person, as opposed to a hound, dog or bear—considered more masculine animations. “Yeah, he cried like a little girl when he got sacked,” the other man sitting beside him responds, meaning that little girls apparently cry more than little boys—something every mother knows is not true, in fact most I know would be inclined to say that her son cried more than her daughters ever did—until she knocked it out of him suggesting he learned to be a boy through his nurturing and not necessarily his nature.

I am not suggesting that female children are tougher than male children, more masculine, or less feminine in their early formative years. Our gender is shaped by both nature and nurturing. My four year old granddaughter throws a temper tantrum when I try to dress her in any pair of old shorts to go to gymnastics class. She insists on wearing the ones with the frilly skirt sewn around them, or some other colorful clothing. She is all girl. She was born that way. However, I no longer believe that sex is the determinative factor. Something I wished that I had known when raising my own children.

My daughter Jacquelyn used to be able to invite one friend over to the house on her birthday. She always selected Chris—a beautiful blond—who happened to be a boy, and he came willingly with his mother. He played with her dolls, and marveled at the beautiful clothes she unwrapped. He was polite, kind, and a joy to have at the house, and he played with her new things afterward as any young girlfriend would have. Jackie remained close to him, called him on the phone from time to time, and considered him her best friend for many years. Then he stopped coming to her parties sometime after the sixth grade when we allowed her to have more than one friend. When I asked her what happened she said that they were still friends but the kids at school made fun of him, and she felt uncomfortable hanging around him when everyone else was around. I was glad that it was nothing her parents had done to influence her, but was still concerned by the influences of her peers on the decisions that my daughter made, particularly when choosing her associations. Chris was a good boy, a beautiful loving child who was kind, compassionate, intelligent, and fun, and the world rejected him. He was not tough, masculine, and liked to play with dolls instead of pulling their heads off. In short he was effeminate.

Women are a paradox. Mothers continue to raise their male children to be more stoic, and tougher than their female children. A little girl falls down, and she is immediately picked up and coddled. A boy slips, falls and cries, and his mother says, “stand up and be a man. That didn’t hurt, stop crying.” Society perpetrates the strong male and weak female myth as though ordained by God Himself, when it is God who made boys like Chris, and Girls like Leann.

Leann was a girl in school that climbed trees, wore pants, boy’s black sneakers, and never combed her hair. When the nuns complained that she must wear the same uniform as the girls’ and stop looking and acting like a boy to her mother, I watched the tears roll down Mrs. Gilemette’s cheeks the day she was expelled. “We’ve tried everything, she cried, but every time we put a dress on her, she tears it off and throws a temper tantrum.” Leanne was forced to leave private school, and enrolled in the public school where there was a more relaxed dress code. For Leann, dressing in pants, and acting in conformance to the way she felt inside was of paramount importance. To others, acceptance by their parents and friends were enough to make them dress and act according to their perceived gender.

Sometimes it’s hard to visualize for us, with all of the freedoms we have come to enjoy, and the variety of youth expression in schools today that at the time Leann was in school in the 1960s in most states it was illegal for females to wear pants, or for males to dress in any clothing assigned to the opposite gender. Growing up in the seventies, I never knew these laws existed. My mother never spoke of them, and even wore pants on occasion, and she dressed her girls in pants, but not the boys-except on Halloween. For the life of me, I can’t imagine why wearing anything would be illegal in America, or that someone could ever be arrested for wearing pants or a dress except that society has some vested interest in protecting the sanctity of gender roles. I guess it never occurred to me because it seemed that society itself was policing gender expression pretty well on its own, without the help from the law. Mothers continue to deride their male children and insist that boys be boys, while allowing their girls a little more range of gender expression, as earned after years of oppression.

No doubt that the second wave feminists of the 1960’s were largely responsible for the abandonment of these useless laws that appeared to be made to keep women in their place, in the home, and buying into fallacy of their role as the ‘happy homemaker.’ Betty Freidan’s book the Feminine Mystique described the perpetration of the myth by the male dominated media trying to create a niche in the marketplace for home bonded women, and although not happy most women bought into it. Even well into the seventies when I first attended college more than 60 percent of the coeds (that’s what they called girls who attended college for those of you who may not be familiar with that term) polled were there merely to find a good husband, one that could support them while they had babies, and ran the household. I can’t imagine girls of today wanting to go to school just to find a better male to marry them so she could enjoy a better lifestyle, but you never know.

Not all parents have raised their children like I had. My children were raised untraditionally but now appear to be trying a more subtle approach with their own. Jen and her husband coddle their little girl when she falls from the couch onto the carpet. Danielle is unhurt just scared. I used to feel a tug at my heart, fight my instincts, and hold myself from running to pick her mother up at the same age, even when she split open her lip, telling myself, if boys can get through it why not girls. Jen used to look up at me with tears welling in her big brown eyes wondering whether I was going to pick her up off the ground and hold her. When I told her to get up, she did, and then I acted like nothing happened. Jen would wipe off her lip and go back to playing. In eighth grade I watched boys fight to pick her on their team in a pick-up soccer match. My heart tugged again as I watched her stand outside the circle of excited boys, alone, silent and waiting for the picks to get done so she could play. By the time she was in high school she was not just the best female athlete in the entire city of 30,000 people but the most well known and sought after athlete in the granite town’s history. I recall one soccer game where she had come limping off the field. When I took off her shoe her sock was dripping with blood. She stuck her foot in my face and told me to rip off the rest of the toe nail on her big toe. I did. She put her shoe back on and went back into the game. By the time she was through her high school years, she filled two scrap books full of news clippings, and in her junior year West Point’s renowned Coach Ventriglia called her at school telling her she was selected to attend the U.S. Military Academy and he was looking forward to seeing her play with them.

What I did not realize then because of my own ignorance and gender bias was that I had taken a feminine person—not someone like Leann who was more masculine than most boys and who had wanted to play with the boys—but a feminine girl who adapted to become a good athlete because she wanted to please her parents, and later she stayed at West Point, to become a reluctant soldier. Now that she has her own daughters she raises them her way, and I watch, and realize to my chagrin that she is right. How wrong I had been. Both of her children are female yes, but more than that they are feminine—something I had forgotten to take into consideration when I raised her. The girls love wearing dresses, playing with dolls, and oddly, like Jen, they like climbing things, tumbling around with their father on occasion, and being tossed high into the air, a fearlessness often associated with masculinity.

I don’t beat up on myself too much except when my daughter turns to me and says that she has not many female friends, nor even male ones, because she never learned to socialize as other girls had, and that it’s my fault. She tries to console me later, tell me that she is in a good place, and that but for the way she was raised, she would not be married to Eric, and raising two beautiful little—feminine—girls. My misconception was to think that rearing was all there was to the difference between boys and girls, and opportunity would follow. I didn’t realize that nature played a large part in how a person felt inside, how they identified sexually, and gender wise. I now know, having lived long enough and thought deeply on the subject of gender that we should redefine gender differently. My children were female and feminine. At best I had only showed that a female could be reared to become a good athlete, better than the average boy, and achieve an independent attitude at a time when it was believed this was not possible; but not all girls are feminine, and not all boys are masculine, any casual observer of the human species can see this. We need to pamper the feminine child, let her express whatever nature she presents, and assist the masculine child to express himself as well, but not simply in conformity with the child’s anatomical sex. The line appears to be drawn not by sex but by gender, and where the child expresses both, we should not be ashamed or quick to chastise or curb the behavior.

Feminine boys like Chris and masculine girls like Leann have value in this society. They advance our culture as well as any child raised in the traditional paradigm. Leann became a soldier, and served her country well during the first gulf war. Chris went into acting. He and his partner, another male, a successful architect, have adopted a little girl and are raising the child together in this modern—less homophobic—world. They tell Jackie that they want her to grow up to be just like her, a military officer assigned to the pentagon. So I guess I didn’t raise them all that bad—but I still have regrets. These independent daughters have paid a dear price for my ideals, and commitment to feminism. Jacquelyn, tall beauty that she was, and often compared to the actress Julia Roberts in the days she played her role in Pretty Woman, is aloof and although she has many friends both male and female, no one can really get close to her. She selected a role that was unknown to women growing up in my day. She is a military officer, and keeps her distance. She drives a Ford F150 pick-up truck with four on the floor, and occasionally wears dresses when the mood hits her, and she wants to impress her boyfriend, another military officer.

I can still remember in school when people used to say “your mother wears army boots” they were trying to be cruel. It was a derogatory statement. Now women are dying in battles during peace time, oddly enough in non-combatant roles, and no one laughs at them.

That brings me to the point of my blog, the irritation that made me write this essay. I heard a female and male announcer talking on the radio about the breakup of the marriage between Bruce Jenner, and his famous wife. The female said that he looked a bit too feminine for her tastes, and that she had heard he wanted to be a woman. The male announcer said he hopes their divorce is quick so Bruce can get a new dress for the next Governor’s Ball. Everyone at the station laughed and some people in the car I was riding in, other women. I was appalled. They were perpetrating the myth again, still subjugating feminine behavior or a person’s desire to be more feminine than masculine in our society. Women will always be kept down until they realize that attitudes like these are wrong. These jokes show us how society feels about women. Why is it funny? Would it been less funny if he were a woman who wanted to be a man? It evades me that women can find it amusing when a male comes out and says he is feminine and wants to join their ranks. Do we think being a woman is something less than being a man? Would it shock our patriarchal conscience that one of the greatest athletes in the modern world was not masculine but feminine?

Why not question the binary gender system like we did other tenets of our culture that seemed set in stone. It’s as solid as those teachings of the past that everyone took for granted like black men are not fully human, that the color of one’s skin determines intelligence, that the female of the species is weaker, and subject to loss of emotional and mental control to the extent that they cannot be trusted to sit on a jury, or become judges or president of the United States, or that if you sail too far west you will fall off the edge of the earth. Is the binary gender system, where we assign a gender to a person at birth based strictly upon their anatomical genitalia, another myth waiting to be uncovered?

Perhaps it’s nothing more than fear. People laugh when something shocks them. If a male can be a woman, or a female can be a man, then what does that say about our own sexual identity? What happens to all of those things one learned from our parents and teachers, impliedly, that the lack of a penis meant you were destined for a life of servitude in years past, serving your husband, tending to his needs, desires, and raising his children, or if unfortunate to have had children out of wed lock struggling to feed your own. If you look around, even inside of you, you will have to admit that anatomical sex has little to do with gender. Every person has a presentation of their gender that they can’t hide, although some go to great lengths to fit into the culture that they were born into.

Literature often defines a culture. Writers predict the future, record the past, and venerate the present. The prevailing mood, or spirit of the times is often captured in words on a page, the dialogue of immortal characters spewing out their desires, goals and feelings for the world to see, and adopt as their own. Virginia Woolf stated in her memoir Orlando, that gender is nothing more than one part of a person’s personality, a multitude of feelings that when realized will result in an epiphany, an understanding of who you really are. If anyone were to look at a Pat Conroy novel today, they will see references to the author’s disgust for the present gender roles of males and females in this society. In the Prince of Tides, his most popular novel, he expressly challenged prevailing notions of masculinity.

Tom Wingo, Conroy’s alter ego character as a young boy is throttled by his father Henry Wingo for crying after being struck by his sister Savanah. He proclaims from that day forward he wanted to emulate his mother, not his father. He even hated the fact that he was male. In the Great Santini, the boy becomes a man after rejecting his father’s ideals of manhood, adopting a more compassionate, and forgiving nature, feelings that were more associated with the feminine side than the male machismo prevalent during the 1960s American war-time culture. In the Lords of Discipline, Conroy uses his characters to show the destructive side of male role models in society, and the hypocrisy of male machismo. Will McClean shows a sensitivity, and vulnerability unknown in males or exhibited by masculine protagonists in American literature up to that point in time. In The Prince, and in Conroy’s later novel the South of Broad, the author shows that there is still a long way to go in molding behavior for both males and females in our society in order for them to find congruence, but suggests that it is one worth striving for.

Perhaps the congruity in which Conroy and other writers allude can be achieved simply by exposing, and unraveling of the myth of binary gender based on anatomical sex. At one time or another everyone expresses to varying degrees a masculine or feminine quality. It is society that pushes and confines them into either category—a boy must be masculine or a girl must be feminine—based upon their anatomical sex, male or female. Maybe it’s time to stop propagating the myth, and start living as a homogeneous, congruent society equally proud of both the feminine and masculine sides of our nature regardless of sex, and be human.

I have no idea if it was just a joke demonstrating the poor taste of the talk show personalities, or whether Bruce Jenner really wants to become a woman, or whether he simply wants to buy, and wear a dress, all I know is that if he does, I for one will welcome him into the ranks, and applaud his courage to stand up to the misinformed masses, and misguided few, and live his life as he, or she wants. He should not feel ashamed, or be ridiculed simply because he admits he is a feminine person and not a masculine one. Live and let live.


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