Thursday, May 28, 2009

Is gender just something you are, or something you do?


"...the tendency to try to fit every person into the binary of male/female can be explained by...the human propensity to categorize."

Last night, under the yellow glow of passenger-controlled lights on the 10.5 hour bus ride from Manhattan to Toronto, I read Gendering Bodies by Sara L. Crowley, Lara J. Foley and Constance L. Shehan (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). The three sociologists argue that even though human bodies, sexuality and gender are interrelated, they can be considered separately. Doing so allows the authors to demonstrate how gender is constantly mapped onto the body and reinforced through social constructionism and forms of surveillance so ingrained that we tend not to question them.

The authors state that the tendency to try to fit every person into the binary of male/female can be explained by typification, which is the human propensity to categorize. Reading this made me appreciate my own quirky complexities: how funny is it that a librarian--naturally driven towards categorizing--would become so frustrated by the practice of colour coding infants with pink and blue clothing that it would form the entire basis for her artwork?

The comment, "Gender is something we do, not something we have" really struck me. Many people are surprised when they hear that baby girls used to be dressed in blue and baby boys used to be dressed in pink. Maybe we subconsciously see the blue/pink divide as being driven by gender rather than being a celebration of gender, so we cannot imagine this social practice being different from what it is, and especially not being opposite. As I ruminated on this statement, I noticed that a similarly phrased Morrissey lyric from the song Sister I’m a Poet was going through my head: "And is evil just something you are, or something you do?" (While I am on a tangent about Morrissey, if you want to read about gender expectations, babies, and butterflies [read: former chrysalises], the three things that converge in my artwork regularly, check out Mark Beaumont’s blog posting on Morrissey’s latest album cover here).

Although the book does not look at the practice of dressing baby girls and boys differently, it is clear that it fits with the many examples they cite of imposing gender on humans. If I do not get around to reading Stephen Pinker’s writing anytime soon, I take comfort in the authors’ suggestion that resolving the nature vs. nurture debate is less pressing than grasping the ways in which gender is constructed. By relaying countless examples that reek of sexism, the authors reveal the practice of gendering bodies to be anything but nurturing.

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