Questioning the Status Quo

I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot since even before the comments on my last post concerning power, women, and the Oxford Dictionary exploded with lengthy, well thought out comments. I don’t have a lot of answers, but here come some questions to get a discussion started (I hope!)


muscles1At this year’s CLLP Conference I attended a very illuminating panel on the construct of masculinity, as seen through the eyes of four men from very different generations, orientations, races, and cultures. One speaker at this panel briefly mentioned the idea of masculinity without power – what would it look like? Could it exist? How intertwined are the ideas of masculinity and power? He said he was going to pose far more questions than answers, and he did.

Today, two months later, I don’t have many answers – but I continue to ask the questions, and wonder. Just as I did the last time my ambition surpassed my experience* – I turned to Travis. In this case his expert opinion was needed on masculinity, seeing as he is a man I felt he had the necessary experience to answer.

So I asked: how has the concept of power, as it relates to masculinity, had an effect on the way you’ve felt and acted through-out your life? Do you feel that within the social construct of masculinity there is an expectation of power? Can masculinity, as it stands now, exist without power?

He answered: I cannot speak for anyone but myself, but based on my own experiences I believe the construct of masculinity is very linked with the idea of power. As a male in today’s society, I feel that I am expected to act in a certain way to “be a man” or be viewed as masculine. All throughout my life I have been made to feel that I am less of a man because I don’t fit into the mold that men have been expected to conform to, something that has influenced how people perceive me and how I see myself; it took until high school for me to become comfortable and happy with the fact that I would never live up to the ideals that traditional masculinity demands from men. It is undoubtedly true that within the social construct of masculinity there is an expectation of power, given that society still views masculinity in the traditional sense of physical strength over emotions and intelligence, sports over arts, and a general sense of superiority to women. Masculinity, as it exists today, cannot continue without power based on the fact that the traditional vision of masculinity is itself an entity defined by its overwhelming need to have power and control.

(E-mail me your answer and it will go here too!)

Since femininity is considered masculinity’s opposite (like yin and yang) it makes sense that the construct of femininity does not much allow for power. Herein lies the problem of defining the sexes based on these concepts of masculinity and femininity. There are plenty of physically and mentally powerful women, there are plenty of men who would rather take on a less outwardly powerful persona – but in both cases people often feel limited in the things they can express based simply upon their biological sex.

largegender_symbolsImagine a society where no one assumed anything about another person based on their biological sex (other than, I suppose, the undeniable fact that they would have the “parts” associated with that biological sex. Updated (2/20/2011) because I don’t want to let the trans and intersex erasure that this comment reeked of stand uncorrected. I have grown a lot since writing this in 2009.) In this society boys and girls would be free to wear the clothing they wanted (pants or dresses, whatever one chooses), they would be free to pursue the hobbies and career goals the desired (girls wouldn’t be ridiculed for liking football or wanting the be a mechanic, boys would be free to knit, be a nurse, or even be a stay at home parent without worrying about teasing)… and so on. Why does that world scare some people so much?

I suppose, what I really want to know at the end of the day isn’t: why are masculinity and power so inextricably linked but why do we, as a society, cling so tightly to our prescribed gender roles? How does having these roles in place benefit anyone?

I doubt I’ll ever have an answer.


* Its hard to write about Riot Girl culture when you have no idea what that culture evolved from or entails! (/20/2011: Which is why I am so glad I got around to doing some research! This post is very embarrassingly bad/ignorant two years later…)

10 thoughts on “Questioning the Status Quo

  1. Why is it undeniable that they have the parts? Some men do not have two testicles, and some women do not have ovaries and members of both sexes can be infertile. All you can assume is that it’s quite likely they have those parts, but very few people would find such assumption offensive. It’d be like assuming a pizzeria has mozzarella and pepperoni. Not making assumptions about things so commonly true makes life overly burdensome.

    But, if we’re going to allow this assumption, what about assumptions regarding other parts? Are we going to count hormones and glands? If we can assume that a woman has a vagina, can we also make assumptions about the amounts of estrogen and testosterone in her body? And here’s the one that no one’s going to want to allow: What if there are biologically hardwired differences in male and female brains?


    As for who might benefit, it’s not that confusing if you accept that who we’re attracted to is probably very ingrained in our DNA. We like fat and sugar because our caveman ancestors who liked those things ate more food and thus survived. Their cousins who liked the taste of dirt died and did not pass on their dirt-loving genes. Likewise, men who were attracted to 60 year old women didn’t pass on their genes, and women who were attracted to a man who couldn’t kill a wild animal would also fail at the reproduction game. Virtually every common mate preference has an evolutionary explanation.

    So how does this relate to gender roles? Gender roles make it very easy for a new member of society to know what will give him or her the greatest odds at reproducing successfully.

  2. I’m sorry, you’re right, it was foolish of me to make an assumption like that – I agree, there really is NOTHING that can be assumed about people of either gender. Thanks for making my point for me.

    There are no universal biologically wired differences in males and females, none. You’re really right, we can’t make any generalizations about either gender because there will always be exceptions to that rule, many exceptions probably.

    Which is why I disagree with this generalization you made: “Gender roles make it very easy for a new member of society to know what will give him or her the greatest odds at reproducing successfully.” Its insensitive because it assumes that every individual is living simply to reproduce, rather than for a myriad of other reasons. Even without the factor of infertility, not everyone’s goal is to reproduce and its a fairly weak argument you make if you rely on that fact to build it up.

  3. When you went to type that response, did you check to make sure that your keyboard was still connected to your computer, or did you just assume so? Did you make sure all the keys were still in their normal place?

    The last time you started a conversation with a stranger, did you ask what language they spoke, or did you assume that they spoke the language most commonly spoken for that region?

    The last time you bought a book did you assume it was the English edition just because the cover and the blurbs and maybe the few pages inside you looked at were in English, or did you read through the entire thing first to make sure?

    Do you check every morning to see if there’s a news story about the side of the road we’re supposed to drive on being switched, or do you assume that this just doesn’t happen without a whole bunch of news leading up to it?

    “What we can assume” is a term you have to define. You seem to want to use it as “What we can assume with 100% accuracy” which, thanks to black swans, is virtually nothing. But most people have a lower threshold for assumptions, and make assumptions in a way that balances efficiency with the risks of mistakes.

  4. Making assumptions about people based upon their gender is completely different from making an assumption about a book or a laptop – my assumptions about objects don’t limit those objects in what they can achieve in my eyes, my assumptions about those objects don’t create a culture where those objects are pushed into certain roles regardless of how appropriate that roles is to their interests so your analogy really doesn’t work here – why are you so determined to prove me wrong? What bothers you so much about the idea that there might not be anything substantial we can take from people’s biological sex?

  5. Whether you can take something substantial from a person’s biological sex all depends on what counts as substantial. You seem to think that only things you know 100% to be true are substantial, but there is virtually nothing useful you know to be 100% true aside from negations (not all swans are white) and a priori truths (x->y |- x->x&y).

    Why are very strong correlations, such sex chromosomes and sex organs, not substantial?

    And what about the other assumptions you make about people? Do you assume that a white person working in a service industry in the US speaks English? Or do you always ask what languages they speak?

  6. Do you have a real point to make besides finding something to prove me wrong on?

    Honestly – all I am saying is that you should not, and cannot, assume anything about people’s capabilities (physical or mental), desires, and goals based on their biological sex alone since there are a lot of other factors that go into those things and, by extension, the gender norms presented by society harm people who naturally fall outside of them because those norms make assumptions about women and men.

  7. Obviously you don’t actually mean that we cannot make assumptions about people’s capabilities, desires, etc, since we do it all the time. That’s pretty good evidence that we can. What you mean is only that we shouldn’t, because our assumptions aren’t 100% accurate and can create bad results when we’re wrong.

    I agree that gender norms hurt the people who fall outside of them (I’m not a particularly manly man, I’m very aware of this). But, that doesn’t mean we should get rid of them. Vaccines and airbags also harm a number of people, but we keep them because they help even more people, and all told, the benefits outweigh the harms.

    Could it be that the same is true of gender norms? What if gender norms do in fact help members of both sexes find a good strategy for mating and reproducing, which is a goal the vast majority of people have? Then getting rid of them might help the outliers, but harm a far greater number of people.

  8. I mean we cannot accurately make sweeping generalizations and assumptions about people of either gender, and we should not do so because to do so creates schemas in our minds that color the way we see other people and are very hard to undo once they have been formed.

    I’m not going to continue to debate this with you if you continue to ignore what I have said.

    “What if gender norms do in fact help members of both sexes find a good strategy for mating and reproducing, which is a goal the vast majority of people have?

    Who says this is the main goal that the vast majority of the population has? I mean, really? Maybe decades ago when humanity was in more of a precarious position in terms of survival this was true – but certainly not anymore when you consider overpopulation, couples who choose not to have children, etc.

    Even if you are right about reproduction, if we didn’t have rigid gender norms people would still find others to reproduce with, in fact it might even be easier for the majority of the population that does not embody the “ideal” masculine or feminine traits to find a partner that cares about them regardless.

    Like I said before (you seem to have missed it) “not everyone’s goal is to reproduce and its a fairly weak argument you make if you rely on that fact alone to build it up.”

    Finally, once again, you use an irrelevant metaphor to try and seem as if you have a real argument – airbags and vaccines do not dictate what people can and cannot achieve in a society, they don’t cause people to feel pressure to behave a certain way, etc. – both of those things have clear purposes, namely to save lives, and cannot be compared to gender norms which have no such purpose.

  9. “I mean we cannot accurately make sweeping generalizations and assumptions about people of wither gender” Sure we can. Want to see me do it?

    MOST men have penises. Bam, Sweeping and accurate. Now, of course it’s true that not all men do, but that’s not at all what I’m claiming. I’m just saying most do, which is entirely true. Want to see it again? The AVERAGE height of adult males is greater than the AVERAGE height of adult females. Holy shit, this is easy.

    “Who says this is the main goal that the vast majority of the population has? I mean, really?”

    Well, I said “a goal” which is hardly the same thing as “the main goal.” (“I’m not going to continue to debate this with you if you continue to ignore what I have said.”) Even in overpopulated areas people still have a lot of kids (which is why they’re overpopulated). Mankind spends a huge amount of time, energy and natural resources on mating, reproduction, and child rearing. Do you really think most people are choosing to not have kids?

    Getting rid of gender norms won’t necessarily make dating, etc any easier. It might be the way you describe it, we get rid of norms and suddenly everyone is more accepting of people who used to be outliers. Or, it could be that a great deal of what makes us attracted to someone is hardwired into our DNA and getting rid of gender norms will lower the number of people who aspire to that norm, and thus lower the number of people you’re attracted to.

    “Finally, once again, you use an irrelevant metaphor to try and seem as if you have a real argument” …I used it once. But for some reason this is the third time you’ve responded to it.

    And fyi, airbags do create pressure for people to act a certain way. The government mandates that all new cars be equipped with airbags, this sends a signal to all of our society about how much we value safety. Yeup, airbags send a message about our collective values. Do you think that maybe some people who like classic cars, made before airbags, feel guilty over driving a less safe car?

    Vaccines also create pressure to act a certain way. Schools require students to get quite a few vaccinations. There’s tremendous social pressure to not be the kid who gets everyone else in the school sick.

    Any time a society adopts a norm it sends a signal about its values, which in turn creates pressure to conform. But, this isn’t always bad (and yes, I’m sure there are many bad norms, but most of them are good, and norms are not inherently bad). Without norms many people would have no idea what decision to make or even what the relevant issues are (how much did you know about airbags before they were a required safety feature? would you have thought of it on your own?).

  10. Your point would make sense if we were ignoring the context of the argument, however, we are not. I am talking about people’s goals, abilities, and so on… I am NOT talking about their genitalia or their height, I figured you could understand my point in context – I was wrong. From now on I’ll spell everything out carefully.

    Honestly, I’m done arguing with you because you’re just being obstinate and I can’t figure out why. You can’t compare airbags with a pressure for some people to deny certain parts of themselves in order to fit in, those things are in two COMPLETELY different playing fields (and you’ve been tossing out metaphors constantly over the course of the last two posts we have debated on – none of which worked to do anything other than derail the conversation.)

    Gender norms are a large part of the reason why homophobia and transphobia exists in our society, two “value-systems” that have caused more suicides and hate-killings than I can even handle thinking about. Gender norms help keep the glass ceiling in tact and keep women from being fully accepted into the professional and political world. They create a society where rape is often considered acceptable because men “just can’t control themselves.” They create unrealistic standards that hurt women and men alike.

    I’m not saying its WRONG for people to act masculine or feminine, however, what I am saying is that as a society we should strive to be more accepting of the fact that MANY people don’t want to fall between those lines…. what the hell could be wrong with that?

    (Respond all you want but I’m not going to give you the pleasure of a response. You’re just out for an argument with me for some reason and I’m done playing – I have better things to focus my time and energy on.)

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