Who decides what the rules are when it comes to gender and sex?
The short answer is, the People at the Top. You may not be surprised to discovered that, in patriarchal cultures (which describes most cultures), this is men. We can be more specific, however: bottom-to-top position in this hierarchy is determined by many things, and the closer one gets to the top, the richer, more educated, and lighter-skinned these men get. Upon discovering that the People at the Top are predominantly wealthy, white, Western males, understanding gendered rules and expectations becomes a lot easier. Patriarchal hierarchies of dominance vary from place to place (and even time to time), but the patterns of wealth, education, skin colour, ability, age, sexual orientation, and so on are fairly consistent.
As many people have discussed, not only in terms of gender but also in terms of race and other categories, the People at the Top do not actively and consciously determine and define gendered rules, necessarily; rather, it is largely through their mere existence as Normal and Best (or Default, as some say– I like that) that definitions of other persons are shaped relative to them. Male equals normal, female equals abnormal or deviant; male equals default, female equals Other.
That’s the short answer, but it’s not whole answer. The more accurate, complete, and much longer answer is: everybody. We all decide what gendered rules and expectations will be, by following them. And perhaps even more importantly, by punishing those who deviate. It comes so naturally to us it seems biologically innate to call the boy in your eighth grade class who was caught wearing toe nail polish a fag. Hatred and fear of deviance, however, is not innate; it is learned. We are taught early and often that deviation is bad, most appreciably by being punished, ourselves. Normal/good little boys do not play with dolls; they pretend to shoot each other. Normal/good little girls do not pretend to shoot each other; they sweetly and passively care for their dolls. Full-grown men do not cry. Full-grown women do not have double mastectomies. Et cetera. This is reinforced to us all our lives. We witness what happens to those who deviate, and we learn to participate in their persecution, be it in the comments section of Youtube or NPR, or on sports teams, or in ballet class, or in our classrooms, or within our own families (this is often referred to as gender policing). If you are not doing the persecuting, chances are you might be persecuted– so which side would you want to be on? This is the question faced by every single person who lives within the confines of patriarchal culture.
The next time you hear someone tell a young man “boys don’t cry” (or “you throw like a girl”, or whatever), call to mind the question: Who decides what the rules are when it comes to gender and sex? You do. Either through your inaction or by validating that young man’s feelings, you are helping to decide what the rules are.
In order to contemplate the rules and think about how you’d like them defined, they first have to be recognizable. For most people, gender rules are normative and it would never occur to them to question them. Those who do are said to be “challenging Nature” and pushing “unnatural ideas”. Challenging our conceptions of “natural” is a good place to start.
I found this through one of my friends, who has found her calling working with people with special needs. For all the deservedly-critical rants feminists have directed at Ann Coulter, none are quite so poignant as this letter from Special Olympics athlete John Franklin Stephens. He goes straight to the heart of the matter without blinking, calling her out powerfully yet compassionately. Brave, honest, humane: an example for us all to follow.
The following is a guest post in the form of an open letter from Special Olympics athlete and global messenger John Franklin Stephens to Ann Coulter after this tweet during last night’s Presidential debate.
Dear Ann Coulter,
Come on Ms. Coulter, you aren’t dumb and you aren’t shallow. So why are you continually using a word like the R-word as an insult?
I’m a 30 year old man with Down syndrome who has struggled with the public’s perception that an intellectual disability means that I am dumb and shallow. I am not either of those things, but I do process information more slowly than the rest of you. In fact it has taken me all day to figure out how to respond to your use of the R-word last night.
I thought first of asking whether you meant to describe the President as someone who was bullied as a child…
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An inspiring moment for Flint and for Michigan. woot, Claressa!
Excellent questions posed about aid to Africa from TED– some of which can also be asked about aid to other countries *cough* Cambodia *cough cough*.
Sobering and heartbreaking ‘economic suicides‘ are racking up in Greece and other parts of Europe. Which really points out to me… I have seriously neglected mental health on this blog, even though this constitutes one of the most marginalized groups of people on the planet– in “developing” and “developed” countries alike. See what happens when you’re in a place of mental stability? You neglect/ignore the needs of people who are not as fortunate as you. Let’s call this Sane Privilege. (I’m not kidding.) I will make amends for this in coming posts. Just because one is “sane” at the moment does not mean one should forget where they’ve spent (most of) their past.
I remember once a young kid (12 or 13 or so) was in a line ahead of me getting ice cream at the MSU Dairy Store. On the other side of the room was a Sikh man that I’d seen around campus before (possibly a professor). The kid tugged on his dad’s arm and in shocked whispers said, “Dad! It’s a Muslim!” Kind of hilarious on the one hand, because there are TONS of Muslims in EL and on campus, but they don’t have conspicuous markers like Sikh turbans. “He’s not Muslim, he’s Sikh,” I said, before I could help myself. The kid just kinda stared at me… An innocent mistake by a young boy, but apparently young boys are not the only ones to make poor assumptions. Here are the backgrounds of the victims of one such assumption. (To be fair, though, the FBI has not yet decided that this was a hate crime based on mistaken identity.)
Awesome (sadly universal) anecdote on sexual harrassment from Ann Friedman. Are you on The Island?
Gender discrimination presides and athletes keep their mouths shut so as not to seem “negative and moaning”; the Wheel keeps turnin’.
Interesting, having just seen the Agent Orange (dioxin) exhibit at the War Remnants Museum here in Ho Chi Minh.
Feminist lit is on a roll! Can’t wait to get a copy of Liza Mundy’s book.
And, Islam and feminisms compatible? Sure, why not?