No Gender December: Back to Basics

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Radical idea: ANYONE can play with pink or blue toys – out of control!

This week was a dismal one for the Australian Government. One of their many low points was Prime Minister Tony Abbott (apparently also the “Minister for Women“) dismissing the newly launched No Gender December Campaign, saying “Let boys be boys, let girls be girls“. Cue gigantic face-palm.

Abbott’s remarks came in stark contrast to the point made by Greens Senator Larissa Waters who introduced the campaign in Parliament, who stated the point was to “Stop with this nonsense of marketing for boys and for girls. Toys are toys and lets let kids be kids.”

The point of No Gender December? "Stereotypes Limit Thinking"

The outrageous point being made by No Gender December? “Stereotypes Limit Thinking”

The backlash in some of the conservative press, has unsurprisingly banged this story under the headline “WAR ON BARBIE“. If you’ve read some of my previous posts on children’s toys, you’ll know that I am a fan of Barbie. Or more specifically, I have difficulty accepting campaigns against stereotypically “feminine” toys, like the time everyone got really pissed off about the femmed-up Merida doll. But aside from my critique that a lot of the children’s toy debate becomes laced with femmephobia, we still need to make sure we don’t miss the fundamental point – that children’s toys are often gendered along the binary male/female, and this is not a good thing

Let’s step it through so you can rhetorically battle bigots if you need to:

The binary is often reinforced in ways we might not notice

The binary is often reinforced in ways we might not notice

1. What even is the “gender binary”?
The gender binary refers to the idea that gender can be neatly divided into a binary male/female. This binary is a pervasive norm, particularly in Western society (some other areas of the world treat gender differently). The idea that everyone can fit into this binary has real consequences for people whose bodies do not conform how “male” and “female” bodies “should” be.

A common question: "Is it a boy or a girl?"

A common question: “Is it a boy or a girl?”

For example, babies that are born with “indeterminate” genitalia may undergo surgery to make them “normal” to fit into one of the two categories. Estimates of this indeterminacy are as high as 1 in 100 births. This is often referred to as being intersex. Another example is in sport – you have to conform to the categories of either man or woman in order to compete, and determining this is a big issue. Many athletes are subject to “gender testing”. Here, “gender” is sometimes based on chromosomes (whether you are XX or XY), other times, levels of testosterone.

But we’re not just forced to physically conform to this binary, there are social expectations tied up with the binary that affect our ways of being and acting in the world too.

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De Beauvoir

2. But wait, what is the difference between “sex” and “gender”?
Many people now make a distinction between sex and gender, with sex being described as biological features, versus gender expression, as social phenomena. As Simone de Beauvoir famously said in The Second Sex, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. In other words, women are socialised into a second-class gender status. This fundamental distinction between sex and gender is integral to many analyses of gender – indeed it has been used by many feminist writers to show that biology is not destiny.

Judith Butler <3 <3 <3

Butler ❤

But this distinction is not without criticism. For example, Judith Butler argues that sex is “always already gender”, given that proclamation of sex at birth (“it’s a girl”!) assumes a gender trajectory for the child – that is, we expect that a baby without an apparent penis, who is then assigned as a girl, will grow up to be a woman. This gendering entails a set of social assumptions about what girls should enjoy, how they should dress, and how they should act. Really Butler is arguing that sex/biology are perhaps more social and constructed than we think – given that we look at a certain formation of flesh and imbue it with a whole heap of social meanings.

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Eating the right kind of food is about becoming the right kind of man


3. But aren’t men and women are just physically different and that is just a scientific FACT?
I’m not saying that hormones and other chemical and genetic factors mean nothing to shaping humans, but socially shaping the body to fit into expectations of the gender binary happens throughout the lifespan. Have you ever walked into a gym and seen the gender imbalance between the weights and the cardio rooms? Women are expected to be lithe and skinny, and men big and bulky, so women and men are taught to shape their bodies differently.

Women are often sold chocolate on the basis that it is pleasurable

Women are often sold chocolate on the basis that it is pleasurable

 

 

Men are expected to eat lots of protein (hamburgers, steaks), while women are meant to be constantly dieting (salads) which also inevitably leads to bingeing (hello chocolate). This is reflected and reproduced in advertising of food and fitness products.

And don’t get me started on brain differences. There are literally oodles of books and journal articles that go into how the brain is wired through experience (i.e. the social), and how our expectations of gender affect child development (or at the very least, how we perceive differences).

Girls are often expected to be nurturing, playing with soft toys and imagining themselves such as "nurse" or "mother"

Girls are often expected to be nurturing, playing with soft toys and imagine themselves such as “nurse” or “mother”

4. Okay but what do toys have to do with it?
Expectations of gender are heavily reinforced in childhood – a critical time when children are starting to develop a sense of self and how they fit into the world. While Abbott is happy to argue that “above all else, let parents do what they think is in the best interests of their children”, as sociologist James Henslin notes, our parents and wider society are highly complicit in reinforcing particular norms.

The type of clothes we are dressed in changes how we are able to move about in the world

The type of clothes we are dressed in changes how we are able to move about in the world

For example, this manifests in:

  • The types of clothes we are dressed in, noting that sometimes clothes change the way we move about in the world (it is difficult to climb a tree in a dress or kick a ball in sandals)
  • The type of play we are encouraged to engage in – not just the kinds of toys we have, but also how rough versus nurturing we are expected to be
  • The types of emotions we are encouraged to express – anger, stoicism, bravado, sadness, compassion or nurturing
Screenshot from the current Toys 'R Us Catalogue

Screenshot from the current Toys ‘R Us Catalogue

 

Here’s where the colour-coding of toys comes in. As you may have noticed, toy manufacturers often make toys marketed at boys blue (or primary colours yellow and red), and toys sold to girls pink (or purple, teal or pastels) and stores often separate toys according to this schema of girls vs boys toys. Thus you get aisles that are predominately blue, and ones dominated by pink. The problem isn’t the colours in themselves. The problem is the different kinds of toys that are marketed according to the gender binary, as signified by the colours chosen for the toys designated “boys” versus “girls”.

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A double page spread from the depths of the catalogue

Analysing the current Toys ‘R Us catalogue, it is clear they’re making an effort to pay lip service to the gender issue – they have a boy on the front playing with a kitchen set (with the caption “just like home!”). But as you wade deeper into the catalogue, you’re met with more and more of the stereotypical stuff. Some examples of “boy” toys: space stuff, robot stuff, dinosaurs, action equipment, trains and transport, excavation and trucks, scientific equipment, pirate stuff, architecture and building, dragons, science fiction and fantasy, racing cars. And “girl” toys: dolls, princesses, woodland creatures, phones, drawing stuff, makeup, jewellery kits, accessories, fashion stuff, baby stuff, horses. It’s actually pretty crazy when you start to consider how this gendered marketing of toys might lead to the cultivation of particular interests along gendered lines, starting at a very young age.

Tony Abbott: A bit of a dick

Tony Abbott: A bit of a dick actually

From what I can see of the No Gender December campaign, the point isn’t to “Ban Barbie”. The point is to challenge the way in which toys are divided along the gender binary, thus reinforcing  differences between how “boys” and “girls” are socialised.

In conclusion, Abbott is a bit of a jerk. But we already knew that. Did I mention that time Tony Abbott allegedly punched a wall near a rival student politician Barbara Ramjan’s head for intimidation? Or that he constantly alludes to his “hot daughters“? Or that when in opposition he continually called for Australians to “ditch the witch“, Prime Minister Julia Gillard?

Well, he might be the Minister for Women but I guess boys will be boys.

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How to Smash the Patriarchy with a Small Book

Perusing Yang Lin's new work

Perusing Yang Liu’s new work

Book Review: Man meets Woman by Yang Liu
You often hear of blogsters of the new world gaining financial – and product – benefits from their blogging pursuits. I’m thinking here mostly of the fashion and makeup bloggers that have risen to stardom, who are no doubt constantly being sent designer threads and cool new stuff to put on their faces. Well, here at binarythis.com, I’ve finally reaped the first free thing of my blogging days: a book about gender stereotypes (yes, I have obviously officially made it to the big time). Oh the spoils of blogging about gender! But enough of my bragging – let’s cut to the chase and get on with a review of the thing.

Taschen asked me if I might like to review Yang Liu’s new conceptual book, Man meets Woman. Yang Liu explains in the preface that her work seeks to document the differences in communication between men and women, that she has observed and experienced. The following pages are filled with complimentary sets of graphic images on particular topics such as shopping, sex and illness. Images appearing on the left, on a green background, represent a man’s view, with images on the right a woman’s view, on a pink background. For example, “mysterious objects” reveals that for men the unknown revolves around women’s makeup accoutrements, whereas for women tools and other hardware objects are mysterious.

Liu works with a range of stereotypes from the home to the workplace, providing imagery for many clichés – e.g. a man who sleeps with numerous women is a king, whereas a woman who sleeps with many men is considered easy. While the majority of pages focus on perceived differences between men and women with regard to heterosexual relationships, there is some commentary on same-sex partnerships. Liu’s images reflect a view that gay male couples in society are much more visible than lesbian partnerships.

While looking through Liu’s work, I couldn’t help bristle at many of the reflections on offer. It seems to me that there is a fine line between reflecting stereotypes, and reinforcing them through replication. Liu dances on that line, and I’m still not sure whether I really like the project. Part of the problem is that Liu’s motivations are somewhat difficult to deduce – she states that the images are reflections on a world that she perceives, yet it is not clear whether she is challenging these stereotypes, or merely describing them (and perhaps, reasserting them).

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Liu uses the classic iconography of “man” and “woman” symbols in her work

However, luckily we’re living in a postmodern age where the author is (figuratively) dead, so we can make of texts what we will. At the end of the day, I think that the greatest contribution Man meets Woman makes, is that it acts like a guidebook to stereotypes of men and women today. Do men really find beauty objects mysterious? Are women confused by hammers and screwdrivers? We don’t have to accept these as “truths” but Liu’s capture of these generalisations hints at the social expectations underlying the perceived differences between “men” and “women” in society.

But how are we to ensure that Liu’s book gets taken up in this way – as a challenge rather than a reinforcement of stereotypes (already there are a number of blogs reflecting on the “charming” and “witty” reflections of the book). Never fear – here’s a handy guide to using this small book to smash the patriarchy:

STEP 1: Visit parliamentary question time. Throw copies at the heads of known misogynist politicians.
STEP 2: Go on a guerrilla mission Valerie Solanas style – throw the book at all known misogynist pop artists.
STEP 3: Get someone to bail you out of jail.
STEP 4: Reflect on the stereotypes of the book, and realise that we live in an unjust world where men and women are socialised differently and driven apart.
STEP 5: Become a revolutionary gender warrior.
STEP 6: Use the book for kindling if you get cold while smashing the patriarchy.
STEP 7: The book also doubles as a nice coaster if you need to stop for a refreshing drink.
STEP 8: Show other people the book and talk about how it doesn’t need to be this way.
STEP 9: Work with others to fundamentally reassemble society into a world where gender is plural and fluid, not binary, and doesn’t separate us from each other.
STEP 10: Read the book again, as a bizarre historical artefact capturing an inequitable time.

Darth Penis vs. The Training of Men

Ok, so it may seem like a silly task to dissect a flippant popular culture article (although, that is mostly what is done on this blog). However, I got some referrals to this cracked.com article today titled, ‘5 Ways Modern Men Are Trained to Hate Women‘, and by popular demand, thought I would give a considered response. Incase you can’t be bothered looking at the article, here’s the five basic tenets of its argument:

– Boys are indoctrinated with the idea that one day they will be “rewarded” for their efforts in life, with a hot chick. When this doesn’t work out in life, this makes men inevitably turn into the Hulk (that is to say, angry, not giant and green)

– Boys learn that women must always be pretty and decorative eye-candy. They can have a brain/be people too, but they also (mostly) have to be hot. Again, when this is not the case, HULK SMASH

– Men have penises that they can’t help touching (e.g. in public places), they are super horny creatures that just want to get laid 24/7. So when a girl “shows too much skin” this is a major tease, which brings out the big, green, angry man

– Men think that since childhood, women have gradually emasculated their “core male urges” (e.g. stopped them from showing their penis to strangers as a child). This makes men embarrassed and spiteful

– Men are OBSESSED with sex. That is why men have created civilization. To get the hot chicks. The hot chicks which they actually, will probably not get. The hot chicks who they will not get, who show too much skin, and have emasculated them. This all causes resentment and a BUCKET LOAD OF ANGER. HUUUULK

All in all this article reads as a kind of feminist take on why men subordinate women. To be fair, I think that this article is well-intentioned, and has mostly come about in response to the truly misogynous comments made by Rush Limbaugh in the USA recently. However, there are some very, very concerning assumptions made in it, that should be pointed out. The main problem with this article is that it reinforces some pretty serious stereotypes about men and women, even though it is actually trying to challenge some of them. How’s that? Well…

In some respects, this article presents a blurred line between the “constructed” and the “real”. While the article is keen to preach the things that men are “taught”, is also relies on a bunch of statements about men’s “nature”. So while men’s thoughts about being owed sexy women is something that they have learnt, they have an anger-response and ridiculous sex drive that is intrinsic to being a man. The proof in this “base-urge” pudding is given as neuroscience findings, possibly higher testosterone levels in men, evolutionary factors, and/or “maybe society has trained us to be like this”. Despite this little construction-disclaimer (we learned to have these crazy base urges), the article still paints this as a kind of man-truth.

The article actually gets close to questioning the naturalness of the “man” category in point #2, recognising the kind of enforcements of male masculinity often seen in popular culture, but then goes back to talking about how when men are boys “Darth Penis” rules their primal urges to wave their wang in the face of women. So, in all of these senses, this article actually reifies what men are like, in the way in which it talks about the “nature of men”.

Most problematically, when we get to point #1 of the article, that men have constructed civilization to get some lady lovin’, but will forever remain bitter and twisted about it, I can’t help thinking of this:

"I have turned the world upside down"

In the end, I think it’s great to have discussion about what we absorb from the gender norms perpetuated in society- it’s just a shame that often in our questioning, we end up reinforcing the idea that “men” and “women” are discrete and stable categorical realities, and we end up driving that gender binary wedge just a little deeper.

Men, and International Women’s Day

Today I went to a luncheon for International Women’s Day (IWD). The room was full of hundreds of (mostly) women, from many different sectors in the community. Being there, listening to speakers on the topic of “women” (mostly focusing on the need to enhance the lives of women in developing nations), I had some deep pangs of uncertainty. As I sat there, eating my posh lunch and sipping Pinot Grigio, I couldn’t help but ask myself, what does it even mean to be a woman? Should I be proud? What does it mean to be an “empowered” woman? Where do men figure into this?…

It felt to me like the “feminist” bent of the meet was to say “look, there’s still work to be done sisterhood, keep up the good fight!”. Not a single speech considered the relevance of feminism or the importance of challenging gendered assumptions. But I was torn – while I sat there wishing we could instead have an “International Question-the-Binary Day”, I was also struck by the fact that the lived experience of many women around the world is profoundly disturbing and must be addressed (and, admittedly many women in need may not be helped much by my proposed academic gender-deconstruction talk-fest). I think that some of my existential angst sprung from the fact that I felt a deep concern over my relationship to the women overseas being spoken about, considering my apparent academic Western ivory tower.

Though I didn’t quite come to terms with these cultural qualms, I was also still stuck on the issue of the day being so overtly gendered. The old adage often brought up on this day is, “why isn’t there an International Men’s Day?” with the reply “every day is International Men’s Day!” This oft quoted interlude is problematic for several reasons:

1. There is actually an International Men’s Day. November 19. Look it up. This is not to be confused with Men’s World Day– an event celebrated in Austria in the early 2000’s, awarding “exemplary” men (including the Bee Gees). Funnily enough the day was criticised for it’s gender-exclusivity and after being renamed, the main event is now (rather ironically) called the “Women’s World Awards“.

2. Promoting the idea that every day except this one is a default men’s day kind of reinforces the whole notion that every day is men’s day. It’s a catch-22. At what point do the days stop being gendered? Is there a point of “progress” where we finally sit back and go, “yep, equality achieved!”?

With these points in mind, I think that there is a fundamental problem with the current approach to women’s “equality” in the Western world, in that it often involves a tactic of “tipping of the scales“. This is an affirmative action strategy that says: to make up for all of the years of oppression and male privilege, women are now the ones that should be privileged. And often IWD involves celebrating the achievements of women, which is great, until it slips into essentialist generalisations about how women “keep the world together“. The thing that this particular mode of feminism overlooks is, well, men (and don’t even get me started on how this whole thing forgets people that don’t fit neatly into the man/woman gender binary!). Instead of focusing solely on “empowering” women to do anything, shouldn’t we be doing the same for men (and actually everyone despite gender), so that we achieve some balance and so that women aren’t expected to do everything?

We should be supporting men (and everyone!) in parental roles, men as caregivers and carers, celebrating the men that are community sector workers, teachers and nurses – i.e. men that do “traditional women’s roles”. As well as promoting women to be engineers, we should encourage men to enter primary school teaching. Instead, we just focus on the women – and that, I think, puts both a burden on women and denigrates men (and everyone outside the binary) in our society.

What about the men that we love? What about the men in our lives that are gentle and caring and believe in equality, but that get overlooked for scholarships, jobs and other positions because they are not women or are not cut throat competitors? And how on earth can we really empower women around the world, if we turn a blind eye to the role of men in these societies? What about the men in the world that are feminists? Surely we should celebrate and encourage them too. In the end, I appreciate International Women’s Day- I just don’t want to forget about men along the way.

Just call me Twilight Sparkle: a word on bronies

From the "Friendship is Magic" TV series

I feel like the internet has been keeping a magical secret from me. A pop subculture revelation waiting in the (Fluttershy) wings. This gender bending gem is of course, the phenomenon otherwise known as bronies.

Another online miracle sprout of the infamous 4chan, the term “brony” (bronies is the plural) refers to adult guys that are massively into My Little Pony. Specifically, bronies revere the Friendship is Magic genre of MLP (an animated TV series), not so much the plastic ones I remember from childhood (which seemed slightly more demure, and a lot less like Powerpuff Girls). Some say that brony-dom is just another ironic fad, but then again, these fellas are pretty hardcore. They’ve even started holding “Bronycon“- a convention for dudes to share their love of the sparkly horses and magical unicorns (etc) of the show.

A brony in action

Bronies don’t seem to fit any stereotypical gender models- they embrace their proclivity for wearing the rainbow wigs and tribute wings of their favourite characters, while still donning their baggy jeans and gaming-related tees. And although some haters may label this “super gay“, the whole thing doesn’t seem aligned with any particular sexual orientation. There are even reports that a brony, upon finding a like-minded man, will fist-bump and say “bro-hoof!” with his compadre.

Apparently the appeal is the “non-combative fandom” and peaceful friendship story lines. In fact the Executive Producer of the series (up until recently) Lauren Faust (she is so cute BTW), is being hailed as some kind of pony queen/god. It seems to me that Faust is preeetty much the internet version of Judith Butler.

The only thing that worries me about this whole situation is that by all definitions, I am out of the brony club. Turns out women watchers of the show are dubbed “pegasisters“, which seems like 100% lamer if you ask me. I’m just not sure why in amongst all of the brony challenges to normative masculinity we have to get all gender-binary all over again. But there you go.

So let’s keep watching this web-wide fanboy wonder unfold- but I implore you, always challenge the broninormative gender assumptions you encounter.

What a Bust: Sexy Dressing Revisited

Something funny happened to me this week. Bettina Arndt contacted a mailing list I am part of, asking for research related to an article she wanted to write on the way women dress. Arndt said she was interested in writing about the paradox that when women dress sexily they don’t necessarily appreciate men paying them attention. I didn’t think much of it. Being a PhD student, I hardly felt qualified to be giving advice. But later I came across what seemed a very relevant text – Duncan Kennedy’s Sexy Dressing – so I emailed it to Arndt, to which she replied with thanks.

One of Arndt's controversial books

I then had a dawning realisation that Arndt isn’t just another academic, she’s that infamous and controversial sex therapist and columnist. I remembered where I had heard the name before – Arndt came to the Australian National University last June to promote her book What Men Want (spoiler: “more sex”), which was met with much protest from students. My inner feminista gave a little squirm.

But then, I thought about the content of Kennedy’s Sexy Dressing that I had emailed to Arndt (see also Kennedy’s Sexy Dressing, Etc). Written from a legal perspective, Kennedy asserts that there is power in women dressing provocatively, but promotes a sex-positive approach with an aim to reduce the sexual abuse experienced by some women that do dress sexily. Kennedy’s work has not gone down well with a number of feminist writers, given his endorsement of women’s eroticism for male heterosexual pleasure (see Janet Halley’s discussion of some reactions to Kennedy in Split Decisions). Basically Kennedy asserts that men have a stake in reducing sexual violence, abuse and crime, “so we can get on with playing within while evolving the [sexual fantasy] repertoire”. All in all I felt fine about sending this controversial sex- and desire-positive piece over, given that it so strongly asserts the need to differentiate between sexy dress/play and sexual abuse.

This morning I turned on the television to find Weekend Sunrise’s presenters discussing Arndt’s article “Busted: the politics of cleavage and a glance” appearing in today’s Sun-Herald (I wouldn’t normally watch this show, but I was waiting for PopAsia to come on, naturally). Arndt’s article basically frames women’s sexy dressing as a power often wielded unwittingly, that keeps men in “a state of sexual deprivation, dealing with constant rejection”.

Arndt's formula: women put it out there, men ogle

Unlike Kennedy, who frames his entire discussion around concerns of violence, Arndt only briefly touches on the issue, stating that “of course” men shouldn’t be sexually violent towards women because of the way they dress. The article paints women (especially the “young” women she refers to) as the naive commanders of sexuality, with sexual weaponry at their disposal (read: boobs). Men don’t fare any better, with Arndt stating that men are “lousy” at picking up on non-verbal cues in courtship (apparently all they see is boobs).

Aside from the binary-stereotype-reinforcements going on, there are so many problems that I have with this article that I can barely express them. Here’s a few: 1. It reinforces the idea that women are the only ones that put sex on display and that men are the only receptors of this (ignoring that men might also be negatively sexually objectified or that women might  be more than just “givers” of sexuality). 2. It doesn’t seem sex positive– rather than making some suggestions about how we might healthily negotiate the sexual power that Arndt accuses us of, she effectively condemns it, “with so many women now feeling absolutely entitled to dress as they like”. 3. It overlooks the many other directions sexuality might go in, not just orientation-wise (women can find women sexy too), but issues of domination and how these might figure in conversations about sexual power are not discussed.

An image from Chicago's SlutWalk

4. Last but not least, it only vaguely considers sexual violence and really does seem to suggest that women “invite” attention through the way they dress- yet I get wolf whistled at by men even when I’m dressed in tracky dacks and a baggy old t-shirt, it’s disgusting and I hate it!

I am deeply disheartened by this article, and can only hope that it invites greater discussion about sexy dressing in a way that moves beyond the simple and sensationalist stereotypes that Arndt presents.