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.


  1. I don't think you need to recreate gender to breakdown gender stereotypes. A man who likes to sew is still a man--in fact, to put him on a continuum that implies he is not 100% man only reinforces the stereotypes. I think the stereotypes have to go (and are going), but gender still matters. It is important to people. The important thing is to let people identify and classify themselves.

    I am a man. 100%. The fact that I am gay doesn't change my gender at all. It also doesn't mean that gender isn't important to me. I value not only my own gender, but the gender of my husband. The fact that he is a man is important to me.

    I think you're intentions to break down stereotypes and free up archaic gender roles are in the right place, but I don't know that we need to reinvent the wheel. We just need to be more flexible and less quick to draw boundaries and assign labels.

  2. Thanks Daniel. If I'm understanding you right, I think we're pretty much on the same page. We definitely have the same goals here, it seems, ("to be more flexible and less quick to draw boundaries and assign labels"). I guess I feel the need to kind of break down the rigid gender structure that exists now and start with a more flexible one, and you're advocating simply loosening up the categories we have now. We end up with the same result, and I see how you feel like I'm doing more work than is necessary. I wonder if this is related to my love for math, where the foundational theories have to be absolutely airtight...

  3. Daniel, the most interesting (and problematic) part of your comment is when you say that your husband's gender is important to you. It's problematic because I feel the same way about women, but I don't know what it is that I'm really saying is important. I am not attracted to those who are born biologically male but who self-identify their gender as women, even if they might very well act basically the same as cisgender women. For me it just isn't the same.

    Are you able to explain what it is about the quality of being a man that you need in a spouse? I can't do the same about women for me, and that's one of the reasons I've been thinking/blogging about this whole issue. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

    One possible answer is that, while attraction is not just about sex (either for gays or straights, obviously), it might be a necessary element for the vast majority of humans. I'm physically attracted to females, you're physically attracted to males, and that needs to be a part of an overall attraction. It still doesn't seem like a very satisfactory answer though, it seems like there should be some deeper reason.

    And I feel like I'm not explaining things well now again. Sorry if that all doesn't make much sense.