Gender: Making a Caste System Into a Democracy

For so long I’ve wanted a good way to articulate the battle feminists wage over gender. Too often we are accused of wanting to make everyone “the same” (aka. “like men”), but that’s neither possible nor, in my opinion, a helpful discourse in any way. People are not the same. Period. It has very little to do with the sex that they are born into and a whole lot to do with their individual traits, which are influenced but not dictated by primary and secondary sex characteristics. Thus far, I’ve used the terms “cult of masculinity” and “cult of femininity” as shorthand for society mandated gender roles, but they reference more the specific traits seen as “essential” to either gender and less the reality of what forcing people to follow these strict gender binaries really is.

Enter a comment on a mostly unrelated post on the feminist LJ community [emphasis mine]:

There are feminists who believe that the way to solve sexism is to do away with gender, but i think a more practical, interesting, and diversity-friendly approach is just to make gender voluntary or democratic, as opposed to the rigid “caste system” we have now, where your gender is determined by a doctor at birth and is seen thereafter as eternally immutable.

[From Not a REAL FEMINIST!!!, comment by sophiaserpentia]

And there it is, in black and white terms that any one should be able to understand: democracy vs. a caste hierarchy. Who, among Westerners at least, would claim a rigid system with little mobile ability to be superior to a system that purports to champion the individual’s pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness? And if you support democracy in your governmental institutions, if you support it for yourself, then you have no leg to stand on when it comes to supporting a caste system over a democratic one when talking about gender.

Even if you believe in gender essentialism – a belief system yet to be proven, or even strongly supported, by science – then giving people the choice to act in a way that befits them hurts no one. If boys are “naturally” suited to x and girls are “naturally” suited to y, then in a neutral environment they’ll gravitate towards that anyway. If girls don’t like science, then why go through extraordinary measures to keep them out? If all boys are so tough, then why take such extreme measures to shame, and in some cases injure, those who show their feelings or other “weaknesses”?

But, the truth is, gender essentialism is a crock. The very existence of intersexed and transgendered people proves that a person’s identity is more than their chromosomes, or their primary sex characteristics, or even their secondary sex characteristics. We see further evidence of this in the visible correlation between more freedom for people to find an individual identity apart from the traditional one assigned their gender and the increased in varied expressions of gender.

Indeed, if we take a look at Southeast Asia, we find that their different views on gender has lead to a vastly different model than the Western one [emphasis mine]:

The concept of gender is much more complicated in Southeast Asia, with the complexities from social relationships, status, history and even religion. For example, it is often said that women in Southeast Asia has always enjoyed a higher social standing because of their roles in household management and their involvement in local trading activities. This means that it is difficult to establish very clear-cut distinctions between the polarity of male and female using gender roles. Both men and women often share these “traits”. Should trade and management of household finances be considered traits in exemplifying masculinity or femininity?


Based on my fieldwork on transsexual performers (kathoey) in Phuket, Thailand, I have found that there are many individuals who cross-dress, for different reasons and there are many kathoey (transsexual males) who are comfortable with having both penises and breasts. These people are therefore, satisfied to be in the “territory in-between” and see no need to transgress the gender boundary to become “totally women”. Gender can no longer be strictly defined in terms of possessing biological genitalia and the situational flexibility of gender and sexuality must be recognized. There has been a gradual increase in the number of people who have come to recognize themselves as constituting a separate “third gender” – the transsexual.


Rather than attempting to cross the gender boundary and passing off as a non-transsexual man or woman, many transsexuals are increasingly seeing themselves as a transgender individual, in a third gender category altogether. Some Western scholars such as Marjory Garber (1992) have advocated the need to escape from the bipolar notions of gender and use a “third category” to describe these new possibilities of gender identification. Transgenderism describes more than crossings between poles of masculinity and femininity. It means transgressing gender norms that are socially-defined. Gender definitions with clear boundaries are also not feasible.

[From Transgressing the Gender Boundary by Wong Ying Wuen]

Wong’s study of Southeast Asian comes to a conclusion that many scholars in the West are only beginning to understand: people are not easily pigeonholed into binary categories. Modern feminism has by and large already embraced this concept, at least from my personal experiences as well as the scholarship I have read on the subject. Because of this, it seems so absurd to me when non-feminists/anti-feminists claim that feminists want to make everyone “the same” – if we acknowledge that people cannot, and should not, be forced into a binary caste system, why on Earth would we advocate forcing them into a singular caste system?

No, what feminists advocate, and indeed what all people regardless of their stance on gender essentialism should advocate, is a gender democracy. Everyone should be allowed to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. What that means is that it should be ok for me to cut my hair short, play video games, and have equal opportunity in the job world if that’s what I want. It means that my friends should all be able to choose to be stay-at-home-parents or not, choose to be caregivers or not, choose to cry or not, regardless of their gender.

It’s not wrong to let an individual choose for hirself what is, and is not, good for hir. What’s wrong is when society takes away that choice with laws, traditions, and social pressure. Choosing a gender democracy over a caste system is a win-win situation; it allows for non-traditional genders to co-exist with traditional ones. The only losers in a democracy are those who are more interested in control than the good of the people.

"He's a man", "she's a woman"… So what?

While I’m on my mental vacation I’d just like to point ya’ll to a post by alley rat entitled Why Do Women Cheat?. It’s a critique on a pop-science article that uses essentialism, bad evolutionary science, and a big dose of idiocy to say that since “monogamous” female birds cheat for supposed “reasons”, human women do it for the same “reasons”. Yeah. Right.

Anyway, the conclusion of the article caught my eye. It gave me a warm fuzzy, so I wanted to share it:

While I’m at it, I’ll just mention that I think that the absolute weakest explanation for anything people do is “well, he’s a man” or “well, she’s a woman, that’s how women are”. No, people. That may be how YOU are, but don’t include me in that. The reason I got interested in feminism when I was a teenager was because people kept telling me what I was like, and they kept being really, really wrong. People told me that I wanted to get married and have kids; people told me that I couldn’t enjoy sex without love; people told me that I was a romantic, delicate creature. People told me lots of shit that was supposed to be true because I was female, and that wasn’t true at all. And it wasn’t true of most of my female friends, but a lot of it was true of my male friends. And I realized that people had been telling me a bunch of lies, things that were “social convention” and things that were stupid rules that I was suposed to follow whether or not they actually suited me. And the same thing applies to every boy I’ve ever been close to, only probably to a more severe extent. They got told all kinds of untrue things about themselves too, because when you’re born people look at your genitals and they think they know who you are. But they don’t. And so, to close this rant, I’d just like to say a big “Fuck off!” to all the lies. Human beings are infinitely more complicated than our biology (whatever that may be, anyway) and if you ignore or downplay the role of culture in behavior, you are doomed to telling lies.

Right on, alley rat.

Hugo Schwyzer on Being a Pro-Feminist Man

I saw this post on Hugo Schwyzer’s blog today and I was particularly struck by this part (emphasis mine):

I stand with my feminist allies who push men hard to change. I’m a pro-feminist because I want to see the men in my life become better lovers, husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers. I’m a pro-feminist because I refuse to believe that men are biologically oriented towards domination, violence, and poor parenting skills. I’m a pro-feminist because I believe that both men and women benefit from a society where gender roles are less rigid and more fluid, and where both men and women have access both to political and economic power as well as the opportunity to nurture the vulnerable. But I’m also a pro-feminist man because I love men.

All I have to say is right on, Hugo, right on.

Feminism is about Choice

Over at reappropriate, I was half responsible for hijacking one of Jenn’s threads, The Sexism of Father’s Day, with a lively debate on gender roles and choice. I highly recommend reading through the post itself, as well as all the comments, because there is a lot of interesting discussion on all sides.

phillyjay drew me into the debate when he said:

I just don’t think it so bad if men and women live up to their gender roles.

I responded with:

I would just like to say this outright: there is nothing wrong with people choosing what is best for them, whether it fits in the accepted gender roles or not, what the problem is that society in many ways forces it on us.

And, really, that sums up what I think is one of feminism’s biggest points: people should have the right, and opportunity, to choose to do what’s right for them. Now, there are obvious limits; my ability to choose ends when it impedes someone else’s life. Debates within and outside of the feminist community arise because that division is not a simple line to draw, but, at the root of it all, the feminist ideal is that of choice.

One traditional stereotype of feminists is that we look down upon women who choose to be homemakers or stay-at-home moms. While some people devalue that choice, it is completely anti-feminist to believe that. Ideally, feminists want homemaking and stay-at-home-parenting to be seen as a valuable activity, one that can be (and should be) open to either gender. Many feminists advocate the elevation of these “caring” activities (and professions such as nursing and teaching) to the same level as traditionally masculine jobs. If that is achieved then it will bring us one step closer to giving people a real choice in what they do, whether that be working outside of the home or inside of it.

Now, we feminists say we want choice. Some people may wonder how all of our social activism comes in. Some may argue that, instead of equalizing society we’re just trying to gain supremacy for women. I mean, we live in a world that seems, on the surface, to be pretty equal and no one is forcing a gun to our heads to make us act a certain way, right?

I address this a bit in my response to phillyjay:

Most times it’s more a very firm pressure that implies that if one steps outside these preordained roles then they will be branded as an outcast for the rest of their lives.

We have in our society what I like to call a “cult of masculinity” and a “cult of femininity”. What this means is that, from birth, we’re presented with images of what a “man” is and what a “woman” is with very little room for anything in between. This can be as simple as the “pink for girls” and “blue for boys” regimen, or as devastating as forcing a transsexual or intersexed child into the gender one wants them to be. We are, in many senses, robbed of the choice to be exactly who we are from a very young age. Sometimes all it takes is growing up and becoming aware of the issues to take back some of your choice. To say things like, “it’s ok for me to like racing cars” or “it’s ok for me to like makeup.” In a truly equal society, there would be nothing wrong with advertising that shows women in nurturing roles or men in overseer roles, because there would be other things to show the opposite is ok, too.

Freedom of choice means that a person should be able to be who they are without fear of being ridiculed because they don’t fit the traditional norms. It also means that they should be able to be without fear of being ridiculed if they do fit the traditional norms.

While feminists fight for choice on many fronts, we aren’t some perfect beings. We aren’t the Borg and there is no hive collective. Not all feminists want the same things, think the same way, or hold all “feminist” ideals. The same is true for non-feminists and anti-feminists. I know many people, women and men, who don’t identify as feminist and yet hold many feminist ideals and act in very feminist ways. And yet it is feminists who are held to some standard of “man-haters” as if that’s one of our basic tenets.

But, get this, feminism isn’t about hatred, it’s about giving people the choice on how to live their lives. It’s about letting women choose to use power tools, to read romance novels without shame, to work on the same level in the same jobs as men, to be valued for the work done at home and not be seen as “lazy” or “freeloaders” because they don’t earn a wage. It’s about letting men choose to play with Barbies, to watch sports on TV, to be able to enter “caring” professions without being branded a failure, to be able to contribute to the work done at home without being seen as some bumbling man incapable of even the easiest domestic tasks. It’s about seeing those who don’t fit into the binary of “man” and “woman” as people instead of freaks, to allow transsexuals to explore their gender identity without fear of being teased or worse, to stop the barbaric hospital procedures that force the intersexed children who are born with both a penis and a vagina into being “female” by removing their outward male organ, to let those uncomfortable with the implications of male and female exist as they are. It’s about all that, and much, much more.

People need to be free to choose who they want to be. But we’re not. And that is why I fight. That’s why I blog. And why I debate. And why I want to educate people out there about the world beyond constricting binaries. That’s why I sometimes come off as angry or, as two people close to me have suggested, “man-hating”. Because I am angry. I’m angry at the institutions that have taken away my ability to choose how to live my life. I’m angry at the media that has told me and the people I love that a feminist is a “man-hater” and that if you attack a dominantly male institution then you must be attacking the men that make it up. And I’m not going to stop being angry until I have done all I can to give the choice back to people.

Religion And State = OTP?

So, I just got back from writing my first final (one down, two to go) where I wrote a masterful essay on “church-state” relations in Japan. In this achievement of literary prose that is sure to achieve me full marks on that section (yeah, right), I posited that, as things existed, neither religion nor the state could ever reign supreme without acknowledging the power of the other. Now, we all know that talking out of one’s ass is a time honoured university tradition, but I must confess that it made perfect sense in the context of the essay. Having had all of twenty minutes to think about it, I’ve begun to wonder: do religion and the state really need each other?

In the Japanese model I used for my essay, I examined the power of the state versus Shinto (indigenous, polytheistic, kami worshiping religion), Buddhism, and Christianity. Overall, I saw these relations as a dance between the state and religion – oscillating between one extreme and the other, but normally existing in a delicate balance with each other. I discussed the rise of Buddhism, how it (in the guise of “protecting” the state) eventually undermined state authority, which led to a violent suppression of religious power in the Tokugawa period. I finished with a discussion of the new religions that emerged in Japan, which restored an uneasy balance between state and religious authority. In all the cases, neither religion nor the state were able to fulfill all the needs of the people; even when one had its high watermark, the need for the other would change the balance once again.

Clearly, what happened with Buddhism and later the absolutist state of the Tokugawa are warnings against either religion or the state gaining too much power. I can think of other, modern day, applications of this principle (not naming any names, but the domain is often mistaken for a site devoted to making fun of a certain president that this applies to). I’m not all that knowledgeable about communism, but from what I know any attempts that communist states have made to suppress religion have either failed or backfired. Indonesia comes to mind, as part of its constitution, as either direct or indirect backlash against the attempted communist coup, states that one must have a religion, any religion as long as its not a lack of one.

As much as the bitter atheist in me hates to admit it, religion offers something to both the state and the people. For the state, it can be used as a tool to legitimize a rule – whether it be the Japanese Emperor tracing back lineage to a goddess or President Bush using “God” as a smokescreen for his real agendas (Iraq, I’m looking at you). The people get a sense of community that cannot be offered by the state, as well as access to easy answers that often erase those pesky grey areas of life and replace them with simple black and white binaries. What results is a triangle of state, religion, and society that looks more like my South Asian professor’s mapping of Ashoka’s reign in India than my binary model of state/religion. Well, I suppose that just goes to show me that nothing fits into a neat little box, or triangle as it were.

So, are state and religion the One True Pairing (to borrow from fandom)? I don’t know. I do know, however, that they have a long history of fighting and making up with each other that’s not likely to disappear anytime soon. I may not have said anything riveting or novel, but least thinking about this sort of stuff is more interesting than studying for my next final exam.