July 21, 2011

Guest Post: A Bit of Each

Photo by Kathleen Bennett.
Today's guest post is by my friend Heather Brady, who got roped into it after making the mistake of saying something interesting in my hearing, and even volunteered to write multiple posts! So stay tuned for more from her.

We were sitting in a coffee shop when the topic came up. Spiffy, who was sitting cross-legged on the large windowsill next to our table, bounced her knees excitedly a couple of times before asking us about it.

“So, do you think we could talk about gender identity?” she said, pressing her fingertips together thoughtfully.

The general response was positive, a curious yes from those of us around her. She seemed like she had something on her mind.

Spiffy said she’d been thinking a lot about gender identity ever since she had participated in a session at her workplace on the transgender experience. She had been trying to figure out where she fit into the gender equation, and she said she most strongly identified with femininity. But when she tried to conjure up an image of what that would look like, all she could think of was Belle from Beauty and the Beast.

As we went around the table and each shared what we identified with, I remembered an online brain gender test that I took a year and a half ago. I answered all of the questions seriously. The result? I was dead center between masculine and feminine.

I have felt this way for a while, that I can see some of each gender’s standard definition in my personality and the way I think. I spent many of my teenage years working to prove that I wasn’t girly or stupid. I was smart, and I didn’t think smart could blend well with femininity. I wanted recognition of my intelligence and ability to contribute productively to society, and I thought that being feminine would hurt my cause. I focused on strength and force of intellect, rather that what I looked like or some of my more girly desires. I even wore boy clothing like cargo shorts for a bit, just to flaunt gender roles even more.

Then, in the pages of my AP U.S. History textbook, I discovered Abigail Adams. This brilliant, smart, funny woman was a driving force in her husband’s presidency, despite living in a society that looked down on strong women. And she wore fantastic dresses. I began to learn what it means to be a strong woman, and how a string of them in American history have had a defining impact on the U.S. and the world as a result.

I could see femininity in action, and it spurred me to action. I began to dress how I wanted to, rather than how I felt I should. I discovered that I liked pearls, cooking and sewing—traditionally domestic, feminine things that housewives embodied. But I also learned that a woman can be strong and graceful, smart and silly. She can like lace and hiking. Heels and Chuck Taylors. Sewing and living outdoors.

Having mastered the societal perception of gender, my next struggle has become gender in the workplace. I’m still struggling with this concept. How do I find a job where I can simultaneously be nice and tough? A good listener and an opinionated talker? Creative and analytical? And will anyone take me seriously if I use all of my strengths in these areas, without regard to gender roles?

The semi-scientific online test I took did help to articulate what I was thinking, but the significance of gender is more than what a test can prove to us. The lines of gender are so blurred that it’s easy to see bits and pieces of both genders inside of us. After all, Belle might have been a Disney princess, but she did fight bravely for what she believed in. She was a nerd, an intellectual with Stockholm Syndrome who stood up for what she believed in, even to the point of interfering with mob mentality. Don’t be fooled by the sparkly yellow dress; Belle was a badass in a ball gown.

So where does that leave us? Well, if our different replies at the coffee shop were any indication, there’s a mixed bag of gender inside pretty much everyone.

But I think the key isn’t to focus on a definition that puts us neatly into a category. I think the key is to find what makes us unique, and then work like hell to bring it to the table, sharing ourselves so that the world may grow and change. I’m not sure what the end result of that would look like, but I do know that it starts with a whole lot of self-honesty and love.

Perhaps, then, the only definition of gender that we need is the one staring back at us in the mirror.

Photo by Kathleen Bennett


Donaya Haymond said...

Great post, and Belle was always my favorite too. I miss both of you!

Foxie said...

I think one of the problems with femininity is the lack of feminine role models in popular media. Maybe Belle is another exception, but I think it's very, very hard to find women in TV or films or Books or whatever who are strong and intelligent and independent, but also motivated by stereotypical feminine desires. There seems to be two options: Either a girly girl who loves dresses and is bitchy and just wants to fall in love; or a woman who has sacrificed her femininity and essentially taken on a masculine role. The only two examples of strong, feminine characters I can think of are Ellen Ripley (from the Alien films) and Sarah Conner (from Terminator 2). Both want to protect their children and family, neither lose sight of that, and both do it by kicking arse and taking names. Compare that to the massive diversity in male characters... I mean, Jack Sparrow wears eye liner!

So, while men are able to look to a huge gallery of inspiration, women are limited to just a few. Another example of male privilege--another very important aspect of gender (males are used to having it, women are used to being without it, and neither really realises).

(I'm sorry, I'm kind of reading and thinking and speaking all at the same time, so you're likely to get a drabble of semi-relevant waffle while I think aloud... feel free to tell me to shut up!)

Katie Casey said...

Don't apologize, Dylan, I'm loving hearing your thoughts! And I agree - I'm having a hard time thinking of mainstream female characters who show diverse personalities while still being feminine in some way.

I think maybe part of it is that traditionally feminine motivations tend to be seen as kind of all-or-nothing? Like, mothers are depicted as bad moms in the media if they do anything BUT take care of their kids. Girls who want to get a date or whatever will be depicted as totally unfulfilled if they don't fall in love by the end. Whereas a male character can protect his family, or get the girl, or whatever, AND have other motivations.