Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Reconsidering Gender, Part IV - Continu-What?

Part I - Introduction
Part II - Binary Breakdown
Part III - A Gender Continuum

This is the part where things get sketchy and especially tentative. It's always easier to tear something down than to build something else in its place, right? (But knocking down the Lego buildings was always my favorite part!) Anyways, here are my thoughts attempting to not just throw stones at traditional gender theory, but to contribute some positive ideas as well.

Gender could be thought of as something like the gender continuum but with lots of different continua instead of just one (note: this is your cool plural of the day). Instead of placing people's gender on a single continuum with masculine at one end and feminine at the other, we have one continuum for each trait we typically associate with gender. Yes, that is a lot of continua. So there's a compassion continuum, a nurturing continuum, a competitiveness continuum, a hairiness continuum, a likelihood to cry continuum, a who-you're-attracted to continuum, a chromosomal continuum, and so on. There are continua for emotional, physical, mental and many other kinds of characteristics. Everyone has a position on each of these continua, and you can think of gender as the conglomeration of all your continua. Men might tend to have positions that tend to one side on certain continua while women tend to have positions on the other side of those continua, and some of the continua might be gender-neutral (at least, in Western culture--things like small feet would be seen as more feminine in China in previous centuries, for example).

This would make it clear that the genders "woman" and "man" are vague and fuzzy at times, and that's OK because this concept of gender isn't an either/or choice. Ultimately, one can simply self-identify as one or the other, or neither, or come up with some other name for another general type of position on these continua. Our gender doesn't determine who we are or what we have to look or act like, rather our gender follows from who we are.

In this theory, traditional gender becomes a short-hand for classifying ourselves, not unlike saying "I'm outgoing" or "I love reading," but not meant to define us particularly rigidly. We happen to know that most outgoing people like parties whereas introverts don't, but it's also OK for an outgoing person to not be comfortable in large groups. People who love reading generally read a lot of books, but some might just really enjoy reading every once in a while and that doesn't make them a hater of reading. So a woman could say she isn't much of the nurturing/mothering type and that wouldn't lessen her womanhood. She would just be a person who happens to have one of her continua positions closer to the stereotypical "man" side, but that wouldn't be weird because we would all realize that no one has all their continua weighted towards just one way. We could better celebrate people as individuals--yes, the words "man" and "woman" would still be useful, but they wouldn't be thought to completely describe someone, they would be understood as just a first clue into who that woman or man is in her or his totality.

I believe we as a culture have already started to think of gender in this way. The old stereotype that girls don't like sports is fading fast, for example, and guys who can cook are sexy nowadays (I wish I could cook!). There is still a lot of baggage left from the old, rigid, binary gender way of thinking, though. It's still seen as strange, in my opinion, for a dad to stay at home and raise the kids while the woman works for a living. Granted, I'm now kind of conflating gender with gender roles, but the general point stands. People are starting to have less definite conceptions of gender, and I think it's moving towards something like this gender continua theory I've laid out.

What are your thoughts? Does that make any sense? (I really would like to know, it mostly makes sense to me, in my head, but I'm not sure I communicated any of my ideas well at all) Where does this framework fall short? Is it coherent?

In the last installment in this series, I'll try to make sense of this more complex understanding of gender within a Mormon framework.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Reconsidering Gender, Part III - A Gender Continuum?


The first instinct, for me at least, when considering that a simple binary model of gender is insufficient, was to just say "Hey, we'll just make a gender continuum!" The thought here is that you would have two polar opposite points on a continuum--archetypical man and archetypical woman--and a person's gender can be located anywhere along that scale in between those extremes.

This might be helpful for those "hard cases": someone born with ambiguous genitalia might be right about in the middle of the continuum, effeminate men would be (as the adjective implies) closer to the middle but still on the "man" side, and other cases might be resolved similarly. Case closed!

Not so fast, though. Who decides what the extremes are? As my picture shows, is manly man required to be super-buff and a protector while a woman has to cook and care for dozens of kids?Are those really what men and women fundamentally are? This is just the same problem as the basic binary model: we still can't define what must be there for a woman to be a woman or for a man to be a man. A single woman who has no children cannot in any rational way be called less of a woman than the mother of ten.

Even if we could define the prototypical man and woman, a continuum is still too limiting because it assumes that you can rank every person as either more manly or more womanly than anyone else, and that is just ridiculous--if two men are identical except one loves football and has a high voice while the other loves opera and has a low voice, how do you rank them based on their differing attributes? They send such mixed messages! It seems pretty clear to me that a continuum model for gender is only slightly better than a simple binary model. So if that doesn't work, what will? I have a possible idea, but it will have to wait for Part IV.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Reconsidering Gender, Part II - Binary Breakdown


Newton, interestingly enough, died in Middlesex--an apt transition into why it appears that a binary approach to gender is insufficient in general.

I’ve lately been trying to define the difference between the genders (beyond just chromosomes or genitalia) and it’s really, really hard to say that “All men are ____” or “All women are _____.” Statistically, you can make arguments (brain size, approach to problem-solving, tendencies to listen or sympathize or interrupt, etc) about the differences between genders, but I can’t think of any characteristic that is fundamental to either masculinity or femininity. There are always some men or women who don’t have a certain trait stereotypical for their gender but who are still very much men or women. It gets confusing because we, as laypeople, sometimes use 'gender' synonymously with one's physical sex and other times we mean something like personality types.

I’ve asked a few friends if they can think of any characteristic that all men must have or that all women must have in order to be a man or a woman. So far, we haven’t come up with anything. By all means, if you can think of anything that every woman does (nurture? listen well?) or every man does (be aggressive? provide for a family financially?), I’d love to hear your thoughts. Suffice it to say, though, that when you get down to it, the two categories of man and woman can’t really be defined beyond “I know it when I see it” except, again, perhaps statistically. A stay-at-home dad who is 5’4’’ without much body hair or muscle mass can still have a deep bass voice and be a wonderful father to his children. And someone who is tall, muscular, and aggressive can be no less a woman than a demure home-schooling mother of nine.

This is why I feel like binary gender theory is incomplete. It is an impossible-to-fully-define shorthand into which we shoehorn the people we meet. And that fundamental flaw is apparent even before we get into the hard cases. For example, what do we make of gay people? Is a man who is attracted to men less of a man? I don’t think so. Further still, what of hermaphrodites or people with significant intersex characteristics? Or people who have all the physical characteristics of a female but have always felt that, deep down, they were a man? Yes, such people are a relatively small minority, but we can’t just ignore them when it comes to gender (or anything else, of course) any more than we can ignore the fact that stars are not where they should be during a solar eclipse according to Newton. Where do these people fit in the binary gender model? They don’t.

Can we find a model of gender that accommodates those who don't fit comfortably in the binary system? In part III, I'll take a first stab at just that.

P.S. For further thoughts on why a simple binary system causes problems, see this recent post at Mormon Matters.

Reconsidering Gender, Part I


In 11th grade, I took physics. We learned how to calculate everything from how far a rock would fall in one second if thrown with an initial downward velocity of 2 m/s to what the escape velocity is for the earth. We used equations first published by Isaac Newton in 1687. Those laws of physics were good enough to get men to the moon--sadly, they apparently weren’t good enough to get women to the moon, but that’s another post. My point is: Newton’s laws are powerful because they work. So they are true, right?

Well, technically... no, they aren’t true. It turns out they are just approximations of what’s actually happening. The reason they work so well is that unless you’re getting anywhere near the speed of light (186,000+ miles/second) the difference between what Newton predicted and what actually happens (a.k.a. what Einstein predicted in 1905) is so small that we didn’t even have the technology to detect a difference until the last half century or so, much less have any expectation to find any discrepancies. My point is: Newton’s laws are true for all practical intents and purposes except in the most extreme circumstances. They almost always work.

For centuries, Western culture has operated under a binary model of gender: woman and man, and never the twain shall meet. But what if this is approach is akin to the Newtonian model of physics? Clearly the man-woman dichotomy is useful. It helps us make sense of our lives and the people around us in a myriad of ways. But there seem to be circumstances where it begins to feel more like an approximation than the final say.

So with that introduction, I’m going to toss around some tentative ideas about gender. It’s an attempt to (begin to) lay out a theory of gender that does to the binary theory what Einstein’s theory of relativity did to Newton’s theory: replace it in theory but yield to it for simplicity in almost all cases, because I think a binary understanding of gender almost always works, too.

Disclaimer(s): these ideas definitely are not set in stone, I don’t know how much (if at all) I believe them, they might not even be very original (I haven’t done very much research into theories of gender), but I figured I’d blog about them. Because what is the internet if not a place to sound off on half-baked pet theories? So this is Part I of a series of posts: watch this space for the actual substantive thoughts soon. In upcoming installments I'll talk about why I think the gender binary fails to capture all of the human experience, what gender could look like beyond the either/or we have now, and maybe even how it intersects with Mormonism. I hope you'll chime in along the way with your thoughts, emendations, or remonstrances.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Two Much Honor


UVA has an honor code and I like it a lot. One interesting thing about it, beyond the actual code of conduct, is that it is entirely student run: students wrote the honor code (and can amend it), students report possible violations, students investigate the reports, students advocate for defendants and prosecute cases, and students make the decision about guilt or innocence (and if you're found guilty of cheating, it's automatic dismissal from the University). This strikes me as a great example of Joseph Smith's famous dictum about how to govern such a large body of people: "I teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves."

At first I was sad that BYU doesn't follow a similar method. [Of course, the BYU honor code was instigated by students and originally was based exclusively on academic honesty, Ernest Wilkinson was the one who appropriated (some might say hijacked) it into an administration-run system that expanded to include things ranging from modesty to advocating homosexuality as moral.] But then I thought about it and I think I actually prefer it the way it is now.

To some extent, and in an idealized world, I do wish BYU's honor code were run by students. But... I also worry that if we handed that duty off to students today it wouldn't work too well in practice, in fact I would argue that in many ways it would be more strict than it is today. I mean, I could just see too many people who are the hardcore-"honor" types taking over the enforcement and not showing any mercy on people who leave a person of the opposite gender's apartment at 12:15, or on people who support civil unions for gays, or who wear tights underneath a skirt that doesn't reach their knees. While I admittedly haven't had any personal run-ins with the honor code office under the current regime, I would think administrators, who have had a lot of experience with people in bishoprics and relief societies and wards in general, would have a bit more mercy on things.

Or maybe I'm way off.

If it were up to you, would you have BYU's honor code enforced entirely by students? Are my fears of honor fundamentalists taking control and ruling with an iron grasp paranoid?

Monday, August 23, 2010

What your Subconscious Knows


I've started law school at the University of Virginia and, among many crazy-cool things going on, I wanted to briefly blog about the doors here. Specifically, the doors to a big inner courtyard at the law school.

The law school is a big square of four connected halls with a nice big pleasant courtyard in the middle of it all. The weird thing is that the fire marshal has designated the courtyard as "interior" space, so in the case of a fire you would have to leave the courtyard (through the building) and go to the "real" outside. What this means from a practical perspective is that the doors between the courtyard and the building open into the building.

Now, I know that doesn't sound like a big deal. We're all used to glancing at doors we're approaching and determining if they have a push-bar or pull-handles and acting accordingly. We don't even think about it, so who cares which way these doors open? I've found that my subconscious overrides that action when the doors in consideration are doors to the outside. The concept that, if I'm exiting a building, I can just push the doors and they'll open is deeply embedded in my mind. But in this case, even though I'm exiting the building into the courtyard, the doors open the opposite of what I would have expected, and I often find myself trying to push when I exit or pull when I enter and looking like a moron.

All of this is to say that your subconscious mind knows a lot more than you think it does. I don't have anything more profound to say than that, but I think it's cool and worth being reminded of.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Old Time (Mormon) Religion

Give me that old time religion
Give me that old time religion
Oh give me that old time religion
It's good enough for me!

You may have heard the gospel standard "Old-Time Religion." It's an ode to the spiritual devotion of previous generations of Christians ("It was good enough for my mother/my father/Paul and Silas/the Hebrew children" etc). Setting aside possible qualms about its inherently fundamentalist nature, it's a wonderful song and I love it.


Pete Seeger wasn't big on organized religion, but he didn't let that stop him from performing (his own version of) a classic. He just pretended to be nostalgic for equally ancient religions outside the Judeo-Christian tradition. He sang it with verses like "Let us pray with Aphrodite / Let us pray with Aphrodite / She wears that see-through nightie / And it's good enough for me!" and "We will pray with Zarathustra / We'll pray just like we used ta / I'm a Zarathustra booster / And it's good enough for me!" and "We will pray with those old druids / They drink fermented fluids / Waltzing naked through the woo-ids / And it's good enough for me!" Egyptian, pagan, and new-age religions are also included. It's a wonderful parody. Here's some guy on youtube performing one version:


So what would a Seegeresque Mormon version--one that gently pokes fun at our tendencies to lionize early leaders and only tell our best history--sound like? I've come up with two verses so far:
We will pray with Joseph Smith / Say monogamy's a myth / We'll get married--who knows with / And it's good enough for me!

We will pray with Brother Brigham / We'll embrace the curse of Ham / And believe that God is Adam / And it's good enough for me!
I'd love to hear any verses you all could come up with!

Note: This isn't meant to be disrespectful or antagonistic towards any person or the institutional church--in fact, I'll bear testimony of the LDS Church, Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and its current prophet-president, Thomas Monson, to anyone who will listen. It is rather meant to be taken both as a celebration that we are a living church and as a reminder that church leaders and members haven't always done things that are easy for us to understand and wholly accept. That doesn't make the church untrue, it makes it colorful!