Saturday, July 14, 2012

Sex != Gender: a contemplation on misplaced questions

This is a somewhat meandering response and contemplation on an article in "The Atlantic Wire" from July 13, 2012, entitled "A Debate About Manliness: Too Little, Too Weak".

I have two initial thoughts here, speaking as a middle-aged, college-educated white male of the 22nd economic percentile, who minored in Women's Studies, and who (with full collaboration of the equally feminist woman he has loved for the last 8 years) has sorted a lot of the wheat from the chaff of Second Wave Feminism:

First, whether we employ the dipoles 'manly' and 'womanly', or 'masculine' and 'feminine', any one of those words require that we submit to a concept that exists nowhere in reality. No human being can be any one of those *enough* to fulfill the definition. In practice, the ones women are saddled with align closely to whether they will submit to the tasks of reproduction and child-rearing, while the ones for men are mainly about a socially-constructed (meaning here, 'an abstraction meaningful only in its social significance') framework that involves acting in a manner that won't make *other men* doubt *their* manly credentials.

Which brings me to my second thought: while we may consider our society in some broad sense to be 'post-feminist' - which assumes a fallacy that all the thrashing about of Gloria Steinem-era feminism had been put irrefutably behind us - there's still a fundamental that bites at our heels. This is simply that the culturally-accepted male continues to be judged by his willingness – indeed, zeal – to repudiate whatever culturally-accepted women 'are'. Why do the cultural standard-bearers have it in for the 'metrosexual'? He's suspect; he rides the line of being some aspects of whatever women 'are'.

(Why is it desirable for women to seek what men have, but unacceptable reversed? It's about power, as the whole patriarchal ball-o-wax has been for a long time. I won't get into the causes and origins here, as they remain hotly contested, but suffice it to say that men have been calling the shots in most human groupings for at least several thousand years. Precedent shows us that men who give away their power or allow it to be taken from them are not as 'manly' as those who defend their power and do the taking. The 'losers' are vulnerable and potentially unable to defend themselves. They can't be counted on in a pinch. Following this logic through, they are a danger to the group and it's continued safety, which is a code-word for power accrued and retained.)

What we have in these gender discussions circles about, but refuses to land on, a dichotomy. That is the old animal-versus-not-animal conundrum of human existence. As animals, men and women want what makes them want to fuck like rabbits: pheromones and the otherness of secondary sex characteristics. (Remember: we didn't always have language...) Soft/Hard. Curves/Muscles. Inny/Outty. Yin/Yang. Each wants the other to smell right and bear the hallmarks that define the healthy end of the gene pool.

Now let's get the frontal lobes involved, and everything gets complicated. People are stinky, and lots of people close together are way more pheromones than the ol' hindbrain can figger. Either we all fuck like rabbits, or we make that damned reek go away! Oh, but then, when all the rest are gone, I can't smell you anymore. Now she smells like talc and panty liners and 'feminine sprays', and he smells like Old Spice or Axe or shaving gel. At the very least, we all smell like shampoo and soap and our hopefully inoffensive antiperspirants. Sniff sniff. "Where'd everybody go?", asks the hindbrain.

One's 'sex' is the essence of what the animal in each of us is looking for. These things are concrete and tangible. They make the right neurons fire. They prepare the actors for the play. One's 'gender' is the frontal lobes layering on a thick mess of language and meaning and groupthink. It's abstract and mostly about not being seen as a threat to others. A man who can't fight or fend for himself? Outta here! A woman who won't do her part to maintain or further the group's population? Outta here!

This dissonance between sex and gender is the confusion at the heart of questions about not only the aforementioned dipoles, but discussions about alternative lifestyles across the board. If a man who cares about his appearance is suspicious, then what of the men and women who won't even act like proper animals?

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