Thursday, September 20, 2007

Gender and Socialization: A comment from the front lines

MimiSmartyPants has a recent entry in which she reviews the book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity .

SmartyPants' one quibble follows (bolds mine):

"In one chapter Serano writes about how it is misguided (at best) to assume that a woman's pull toward the trappings of femininity is always socially constructed, and uses her own experience growing up as a boy as a very logical example. Despite feeling metric tons of pressure to express herself as male, she felt naturally drawn to feminine gender expression, which means that wanting to be feminine has to be at least partially inborn. Also, to assume that women are somehow "tricked" into stereotypically feminine gender expressions is insulting and misogynist, etc. And of course that's true. My only problem is that I think it is impossible for a cissexual woman to separate what is a "natural" pull toward femininity and what is years of near-constant socialization messages about How To Be A Girl. I mean, you can yell all you want about how you "naturally" feel pretty in high heels and makeup and a push-up bra, and maybe you do, but how do you know it's natural? None of us were raised in a cave. In some ways trans women have the best claim to "legitimate" desire of all things pink and girly (if indeed they do desire those things, since of course not all trans women do), because the desire is felt no matter how severely its expression is restricted. The rest of us get many subtle and overt cheers and props for doing the feminine thing, and for some women they want to do it anyway so it all works out fabulously. It just seems hard to know for sure that the path was freely chosen."

I think this point is absolutely true and important -- how do we know what is nature and what is nurture. However, I am not sure that transsexuals have the corner market on helping to illuminate this. Aren't all transsexuals also equally socialized with the rest of us? Admittedly, the socialization may affect them differently, but we all grow up within some similar social context.

Here's what I am getting at. I am not a trannsexual, however, I feel much more aligned with the masculine end of the gender continuum. And while, for the most part I suppose, I was discouraged from exploring my particular gender identity by the general population, I believe that I still receive(d) some accommodations for my masculine(ish) identity. This is to say that I don't believe that social approbations work linearly -- i.e. social pressure increases exactly opposite to the degree to which one expresses oneself outside of the social norms.

It is possible that people get implicitly rewarded to the extent that they "do gender" (to use Butler's term) correctly, regardless of their sex. The closer we approximate our stereotypes of gender (again, regardless of sex) the more comfortable people are around us. As an example (admittedly idiotic and simple), once a guy figures out that he doesn't have to open the door for me, we're okay.

I also wonder if this may be more true for masculine women than for feminine men. Our society is highly oriented toward the masculine, so any social kudos would be more likely to go toward people with more masculine gender expressions.

So, all I am saying is, we are no closer to solving the nature/nurture dilemma.


Anonymous said...

"I also wonder if this may be more true for masculine women than for feminine men."

Yes, I think this is true, especially after some recent comments with Mr. She Who Was Named after an Elf Queen on this very subject. As he is a more feminine man, and in some small regards, I'm a more masculine woman, we've discovered that it is indeed easier for me to wonder along various ends of the gender line than for him - particularly when it comes to coworkers and work politics.

~ She who was named after an elf queen.

giddings said...

Hello Dear Elf Queen! Long time no talk! Sorry I didn't respond to earlier email -- I will do so asap. Nice seeing you on the blog!