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.