On Being Created and Constructed, Part 1

This semester I am teaching my international cinema class, which I enjoy because it gives me a chance to delve more deeply into topics that interest me but that don’t exactly fit into most of my Spanish courses. The course is focused around the themes of gender roles and identity  (both masculine and feminine), gender disparity, and sexual orientation. We talk about gender stereotypes, the oppression of women, the treatment of LGBTQ folks, and the way that standards of masculinity harm men as well as women. It’s a fun class, but it has the potential to become a minefield of sensitive topics.

Early in the semester, we read an essay on the social construction theory of gender. For those of you who aren’t up on feminist thinking, social constructivism opposes the idea of biological essentialism: that our identities as men and women are biologically determined by little more than our anatomical sex. Or, to put it another way, biological essentialism means that if you know which type genitals a person has, you can also assume a great deal of other things about them: their dominant personality traits, their potential skills, their suitability for certain careers, their role in a family unit, their rights and responsibilities, etc.

Social constructivism (not a new idea) claims the opposite: that biology doesn’t have much to do with our gender identities. Instead, this theory claims that from the time we are born, we are socialized into certain behaviors and beliefs according to what our society deems is appropriate or ideal for a man or a woman. This starts with our obsession with gendering infants (just do a Google image search for “baby girl clothes” and “baby boy clothes” and see the predominance of pink vs. blue, flowers vs. baseballs, etc) and then progresses to the differing behavioral standards and expectations that we often set for boys and girls (again, you can see some confirmation of this with a quick image search; this time, try “toys for boys” and then “toys for girls” and think about how nearly all of the items fall into clear categories of active/violent vs. passive, mobile vs. stationary, outdoor vs. indoor, beauty/appearance based vs. skill based, domestic/maternal vs. career-oriented, etc). Thinking of this always reminds me of a day when I picked up my then four-year-old son from day care and the new teacher apologized to me because when I walked in, my son was playing with the baby dolls. Clearly, she felt uncomfortable being caught allowing this subversive behavior that was so ill-suited to my man-child!

This semester, I’ve had one student who has repeatedly challenged me on the “truth” of social constructivism, which is fine by me. I have seen enough evidence of it operating historically (especially in my area of expertise/favorite pigeon hole, which is 19th century Spanish gender ideology) and in my own life to be quite convinced that much of our gender identity is shaped by our socialization. I have seen how women in different times and places were expected to be and how that formed their identities. Why, if I had lived 150 years ago, instead of writing this, I might be writing in a women’s magazine about how a woman shouldn’t go to university because 1) women aren’t capable of abstract thought, and 2) all that intellectual rigor might affect her delicate nerves, irritate her uterus, and make her less fertile, and 3) everyone knows that women are divinely ordained to be wives and mothers! Fortunately for me, my uterus survived my PhD, and I came out of it buying into the social-constructionist view of how we become manly men, feminine women, or (thank God), sometimes another category entirely.

However, I have also carried, birthed, and nursed two babies and I know from those experiences and others that our biology and our hormones certainly can influence us as well. I remember that during the hormonal onslaught of my first pregnancy, something seemed to change in the way my brain worked, and I felt like I couldn’t process and speak my second language as well (fortunately my students did not seem to notice!). As a result, I think that the source of our identities lies somewhere in the middle of biology and construction. I suspect that there are biological/genetic/neurological factors that tell us from deep inside whether we are men or women (or neither), and whether that perception matches our physical body or not, as may be the case with transgender or intersex individuals.

But, once we are labeled with a gender (by society or by ourselves) there are a host of socially-constructed expectations revolving around that gender that we either accept or rebel against–from who gets to wear fingernail polish to who gets to speak up first at the meeting. Some of these rules are stricter than others, and transgressing them has a variety of consequences: the girl who doesn’t cave to feminine standards might be labeled a tomboy, or a bossy bitch, or a butch dyke, or the girl who just needs a good f—, or the wife who needs to be ‘put into her place’ with her husband’s fists or a gun. The boy who doesn’t measure up to masculine standards might just be the sensitive guy, might a sissy, might be a fag, might be the kid who gets beat up in the locker room or left to die on a fence post. Because no matter how we arrive at it, this shit is real.

I joke sometimes about being the liberal college professor out to corrupt the youth, but the truth is that I have little interest in turning any of my students into clones of myself by pushing a particular ‘truth’ or agenda on them. I’m still getting to the ‘truth’ of things myself, and I find that there are very few things in this life that don’t deserve some critical scrutiny or that should not be subject to revision now and then.

If there is anything that I do want to model for my students, it is the ability to hear other people’s stories with openness and compassion and to revise our own understanding of ourselves and others when needed. We can debate academic theories or religious beliefs all day long, but in the end it comes down to how we react to the people who challenge our expectations for what is ideal, normal, acceptable, or even comprehensible.

It’s okay to not ‘get it.’ If you are straight, if you are comfortable in your body and with your assigned gender roles, and perhaps especially if you have been taught that certain ways of being male or female are wrong, it’s okay to not understand why that girl wants to look edgily androgynous, why that guy is attracted to other guys, or why that other guy at the office now wants to be called “she.”

There are things that I don’t understand about identity and about the choices that some people make to live into their identities. There are topics that once made me uncomfortable, and a few that still do, but I have learned the value of listening to the experiences of others through forming relationships with people who are different from me and through resources like TranspeopleSpeak.org. I have yet to regret engaging with someone else’s story; in fact, the stories of others–in person, on screen, online–have been sources of growth, surprise, wonder, and beauty in my life.

It’s okay to not understand, but it’s not okay to try to force someone else to fit into your understanding of the world, whether that means chiding a little boy for playing with a doll, telling a little girl that she isn’t being ‘ladylike,’ or something much more drastic like yelling profanities and threats at a transperson on public transit (as happened to an acquaintance of mine recently). We need to realize that our expectations of people are just that–our expectations–and that they are neither absolute nor universal truths.

People face unkindness, ostracism, discrimination, and even death because of the ways that we as a society understand and enforce expectations of gender. It would do us all a great deal of good to realize that these expectations are not only constructed, but that they may need to be deconstructed and reconstructed in a ways that let all of us be our most authentic selves–the people we were created to be–without shame and without fear.

So, for any of my students who may stumble across this–as well as anyone else who may be reading–here is the best lesson I can give about when questions of gender identity or sexual orientation get confusing or uncomfortable:

Listen, try to understand, and if even if you can’t, remember to be kind.