Confronting the Gender Binary

A few days ago I whipped out the construction paper and glitter at work so that I could have the kids make “commitment collages” to go along with their lesson on the sacrament of Marriage. Each kid got a big piece of paper with two interlocking rings drawn onto it and were instructed to draw pictures that reminded them of commitment inside the rings and, when they were done, place glue around the rings and sprinkle glitter on so they would look more like wedding rings.

There were funny moments – when I asked the group what commitment was one kid said, “a whole lot of work” and everyone laughed; I overheard a little girl (I think) explaining to her friends that gay marriage was totally okay (she had drawn many girls AND boys together:  sometimes with two girls next to each other with a plus sign between them, sometimes two boys, and sometimes a girl and a boy). All I overheard was see they can be together too! because my presence caused her to clam up (as the Bible Camp Art Director I believe most of the children assume I am anti-gay marriage due to my position, which sucks) but still… good moments!

However, there was also a moment that really ticked me off. I was at the glitter station with my assistant, supervising the kids adding some sparkle to their collages when one kid decided he’d rather have some glitter on himself, specifically his pants. I was just about to say something in response to his exclamation of the phrase “Glitter Pants!” and subsequent sprinkling of glitter onto his pants when a parent volunteer who happened to be walking by beat me to the punch –

“Don’t do that,” she exclaimed, “you look like a girl!

Really? Really? Out of all the possible follow ups –

“Don’t do that…

…you’re making a mess on the floor.

… you’re wasting glitter.

… someone is going to have to wash that out of your pants later on.

…you’re supposed to put the glitter on the paper, not yourself.

… and so on.”

– out of all the possible responses she could have chosen she had to choose the one that places a (negative) value judgment on being a girl. Rather than learning that messing around with the glitter made a big mess and was annoying to all of the adults involved, what the kid took away from this exchange was that something he wanted to do (in this case, wearing glittery pants) was wrong, not because it made a mess but because it was somehow feminine.

By extension this incident also added to the cultural lesson that being perceived as feminine in any way when you are a boy is BAD. (Girls get a version of this lesson too but, at least in my experience, I’ve found that it is slightly more acceptable for girls to step outside gender norms – being a “tomboy” is not always looked down upon.)

I really felt for this kid because I’ve been in similar positions in my life. For instance, I doubt I’ll ever forget the vaguely formed anger I felt in sixth grade when we were assigned two books to read for our class book report: a “boy book” and a “girl book.” Although I was years from identifying as a feminist, being told that I was required to read a book about a midwife (I honestly cannot remember anything about the book other than this) that did not appeal to me at all, simply because I possessed a vagina, really irked me.

Luckily I was an outspoken kid; I refused to read the “girl” book and ended up, instead, reading BOTH of the books offered to the boys (Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow… part of a series I still adore to this day) without any teasing/annoyance from the teacher that I can recall.

The boy in camp, however, was younger than me, not so outspoken, and quite frankly did not really have the capacity to respond in a constructive way to a fly-by comment like that. I mean, even I was at a loss for words when faced with the volunteer later on… how exactly do you explain to someone that the comment they perceived as harmless to the kid and “helpful” to me was actually perpetuating a construct that causes a great deal of damage both in individual children and adults and society as a whole?

Making value judgments based on gender (sometimes called gender-boxing) is something that we face every day from various sources of society. Its hard on girls, who are often criticized for acting “too manly” when they seek positions of power, play sports, don’t put enough time into their beauty routines, and so on…but its also hard on boys who from a young age are encouraged to bottle emotions (because “real men don’t cry) and develop a general aversion to anything girl-y.

It can harm people in large and obvious ways. For instance, the fact that male suicide rates are much higher than that of females – partially, I’m sure, due to the fact that men are encouraged to be “stoic” and avoid talking about their feelings at all costs, causing those feelings to bottle up until they simply become too much to handle. Or the fact that so few females make it big in the realms of business and politics – because the gender binary causes us to see women as passive  beings, incapable of handling the world of business and politics (and those women who do make it in those realms are often insulted and called names like bitch because of people’s discomfort with a woman showing stereotypically “masculine” traits*.)

It can also be harmful in more subtle ways as it limits choices (both consciously and unconsciously) people make from career decisions to clothing.

Even worse, gender boxing can also be linked with homophobia, as explained by this article:

“The gender binary creates for people the proverbial bubble; it substitutes reality for a stereotypical world where all is in order and, well, people act just “as they should.” The issue, then, is the attitudes that the binary gender system perpetuates in society in regards to queer phobias. If someone is born female but identifies and presents as male, they are clearly not acting as they should. A binary society does not understand transgendered people, and because we are inherently afraid of the unknown, we are left only with transphobia and no understanding.

The gender binary system perpetuates not only transphobia, but homophobia as well. LGB people are breaking the mold and stepping out of their strict gender role in all sorts of forms, from gender expression (not looking like “typical” men and women) to not subscribing to the traditional notions of dating. A woman is breaking the gender binary by dating another woman—because dating women is for men alone.Without the concept of the gender binary, society would maintain no gender-related expectations of men, women, or the people in between. In turn, society would not expect men to date women and women to date men and they would not pursue rituals of biological gender, eliminating both homophobia and transphobia.” 

Finally, many people don’t even associate themselves with either gender – male or female – and having a binary in place at all makes it that much harder for those who fall completely outside the binary to be understood.

There is, essentially, no good that comes out of enforcing a gender binary so strongly in our society – but there is a whole lot of bad – so the question remains: how can we fight it? I have a few thoughts:

~ Don’t gender-box other people or yourself: avoid using gendered insults or criticizing people** for falling outside their assigned role, examine your own life choices; are you limiting yourself from doing things you want to do for fear of stepping outside the “appropriate” gender construct? Examine your own choices; if you have children, encourage them to express themselves regardless of gender.

~ Educate others: explain where the harm is in gendering actions/choices/personality traits/etc. when you see others doing it.

An example script that I could have followed:

Her: Don’t do that, you’ll look like a girl!
Me: I appreciate you trying to help me control this situation, but couldn’t you have told him not to do that because [insert any reasonable response detailed above into here] instead? There is nothing wrong with anyone, male or female, liking glitter on their pants!The general formula = acknowledgment of their statement/appreciation for their good intent, and then gentle correction. If they press further it would make sense to go on and explain the harm that gender boxing can do, however, that explanation will probably prove too long/unwieldy for most casual encounters.  

~ Be an activist: write letters/make phone calls to companies that gender products unnecessarily (like the girl version fo scrabble… whats up with that?) and express distaste for their exploitation of an oppressive binary to sell products. Whenever possible, make your voice heard with your money as well – don’t purchase from companies that you see doing this. Call out the sexism that you see in politics, business, and so on. Make yourself an example by loudly and proudly breaking gender norms if it suits you…

Basically, the best thing I’ve found is simply don’t be ashamed to be you however masculine/feminine/whatever you may be.

How do you fight the gender binary in your community?


* Just look at the rampant criticism of Hillary Clinton (I don’t think I need to spell this out for anyone), or the recent criticisms of Judge Sotomayor’s temperament (a good recap found here). Plenty of current and former Supreme Court Justices have been less than sweet and gentle on the bench, yet they’ve rarely been criticized for it (especially not to the degree Sotomayor has been) because within the gender binary we don’t expect sweet and gentle out of men, only women.

**For instance, some guys I know call a girl Man-lissa as an insult… thus, calling her femininity into question and supporting the harmful binary.

One thought on “Confronting the Gender Binary

  1. Pingback: Mothers For Women's Lib

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