Gender: Who Has It?

20150809_211514What do you think of when you think of gender?

If you’re me, it’s something you don’t have but others do. That probably reflects my privilege as a man.

Whatever social marker it is–gender, race, class, ethnicity, age, etc.–I usually think of it as something others (Others?) have.

Let me expand on that a bit. It’s not that I don’t think I have a gender. It’s that when I think of “gender issues” I’m not usually thinking about myself, because I don’t have a glass ceiling to break through. Worries about rape are not on my mind when I walk down a street at night. Anorexia and bulimia are not problems I deal with (if you’ve seen me in person, you can tell pretty quickly I don’t have these problems). Do these affect some men? Maybe. They just don’t affect me, and I presume they don’t affect a lot of men.

This somewhat reflects the field of gender studies. When I started reading Ursula King’s edited work, Religion and Gender, she indicated that many times gender studies=women’s studies.

Now this isn’t the case across the board. There is a subfield in gender studies called men’s studies or men and masculinities, so there’s an exception to this rule.

And maybe this is just me and something I will need to look at, but when you think of a category like gender, race, class, etc., do you think about it in reference to yourself or others?

Perhaps it is also true that I don’t get out much. Chalk it up to being a father of two young children, working, and being a student.

I have started asking some close family and friends what they think of when they hear the topic of gender. When I was waiting for church to start this morning, I wrote the following in my journal:

All I know of the past (before my conscious memory) is mediated. What would I think of gender were I alive in the 1950s? If I try to image this, all of my imagination of the 1950s is already constrained by what various patriarchs and feminists have informed me about it: it was utopia or a nightmare.

My “knowledge” of the 50s comes from books, movies, shows, clips. This is not to say that if I interviewed someone who lived during that time period would be any less colored by their perspective. However, I wonder what I would catch in the conversation unedited.

In print and in video, a lot of editing goes on. Granted, if you’ve had some practice answering a question, there has been editing done there, too.

What am I saying? I have a lot of work to do. Much of my research (maybe I’ll just call them “thoughts” instead of research since I haven’t really tested them against other peoples’ thoughts) on gender comes from inside my head.

However, if I want to pursue knowledge about gender, I will have to incorporate more than just my thoughts. It will require questioning others about their experiences. It will require probing their answers, being aware of my responses, making those responses known to them to gauge how they react, probing how others think about the data I gather, and continuing this cycle over long periods of time.

Here is what I think of when I think of gender: it is an amalgam of one’s sex organs, hormones, appearance, social interactions, experiences, sexual orientation, and how each of these interact with each other over time.

With this in mind, there will be many  masculinities, femininities, or just general gendered expressions. To put it another way, gender looks different for a black lesbian, a poor Chinese man, or a young trans woman. Each social marker will affect how gender appears.

Free Association on Difference

index“You must read literature, for there you find how people live.” That’s not a real quote, but Robert Turnbull said something similar in my “Theological French” class six years ago. I don’t know why they slapped “theological” on it since it was really a whirlwind course in French grammar, but alas…

Seminary was an interesting time for me. I had started considering that maybe I didn’t want to pursue theology. But still, when he said those words, I had an internal reaction. Theology was reality. All I needed to do to be right with God and people was to read theology. This would order my life and life would be grand.

This isn’t to say that I hadn’t enjoyed novels. I had read The Da Vinci Code while in seminary and absolutely enjoyed it. I don’t know how many would call that literature, but then again, what is literature? Is it merely a piece that literary critics have declared part of “the” canon? Is it a piece that has something of timeless, enduring value? Is literature a book people say you should read but never have themselves?

As I was performing a meticulous, mindless task at work, I began listening to Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.

What have I been missing all this time? Sure, gritty shows like Mad Men, House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, or The Wire have a similar “realness” to them, but their writers, directors, or producers are somewhat invisible to me. Furthermore, I cannot see and hear the internal workings of the characters. These shows also seem to match a lot of my experience in the following way: white protagonists.

What would happen if I continued to read non-fiction about my research interests, but augmented it with literature, pop- and classic? What sort of things would I come across that I might otherwise miss? As the narrator in Invisible Man speaks of his youth, I wonder how much that voice reflected a generation.

How much did young African-Americans in the 1930s and 40s wish to be successful, but only in a way that didn’t upset white supremacy? How many constantly feared that they had upset whites? How many had tried to be “good blacks” as defined by their white lords? As I listen, I wonder how different a person I would be if I were raised in a different body, time, family, and social setting. The big value that shines through early in the novel is to speak to whites in a humble way or else incur their wrath. Is that assumption still present in the minds of African-American minds today?

Perhaps it’s my Millennial sense of entitlement, my narcissism, my white privilege, or healthy sense of self, but I don’t generally put on airs with people. But to approach an entire class of people as if they don’t use toilets, as if they were gods? It doesn’t compute.

How many voices are absent in my life? Not only do I not have a very diverse group of friends at work or church, but also at school. They’re primarily straight white Protestants. I don’t have anything against straight white Protestants. I am one. But I along with my group are not the only people in my city, state, and country. If I cannot find different voices in my experience, is it at least desirable to hear alternative voices in literature? This is elementary, but I probably have a lot of unconscious opinions that I never become aware of because I don’t have Difference showing me how much my assumptions don’t reflect everyone else’s reality.

If you have any good novels that deal with the following topics, send them my way: gender, sexuality, race, class, age, rites of passage.

A Wrinkle in Time, and Non-Intervention

I just finished reading A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, the first in a series of five books. It finally grabbed my attention when they arrived on the planet Camazotz (about half way through the book, particularly chs 7- The Man with Red Eyes and 8- The Transparent Column). On this planet, everyone has given up their individuality, difference, or freedom, for all conflict and calamity is said to arise from these elements. When the children play, they all bounce balls and skip rope in cadence. Mothers open their doors and call their children in at the same time. Paper boys deliver papers while others are inside their houses. Any deviance from this is grounds for pain. Oh yah, this planet is devoid of pain, suffering, war, etc. because they have all sacrificed their individuality, difference, and freedom.

What would I trade to mitigate or eliminate evil? Would I give up my individuality, difference, and freedom? Color me selfish, but probably not. I REALLY like those things. Of course, on Camazotz, the people live in fear, because expressed individuality (e.g., bouncing a ball out of sync with others) means being turned over to the authorities for “processing.” All the people are asked to do is submit to “IT,” that ominous entity which hovers in the background (IT is power “incarnated” in a disembodied brain). Conform, and all your problems will evaporate. Don’t ask questions, because that edges one closer to individuality, difference, and freedom. I forgot to mention, that there are earthling children who visit this planet in order to find the father of two of them, but also fight evil which is pictured as a darkness that can be felt. It exists throughout the universe, enveloping some planets, and having a real fight put to it on others. Also, these children have been left on their own by the trinity of ethereal beings, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which.

This got me thinking back to my post on the problem of evil. Let’s say I was god, and didn’t have to trade anything to eliminate unnecessary pain, suffering, and evil. Why would I relent? Might I have a purpose in allowing it to exist? Perhaps it gives people room to grow. Without room for theft, there is no opportunity to demonstrate honesty. Without the chance for revenge and murder, there is no opportunity for mercy and forgiveness. Without despair being a possibility, there is no understanding of unrelenting joy. But I have left people to develop their moral goodness on their own. Their good response in the opportunity of potential evil is their own, not mine. What do they need me for, then? Isn’t this free will defense, this soul-building theodicy, actually atheistic at its core? Or are there things behind the scenes of which humans are oblivious? The trinity leaves the children in fear for their mission and safety. This almost seems to be open theism before it existed 30 years later (i.e., of course, if these ghosts are taken to be the Judeo-Christian god)!

SPOILER ALERT: everything works out. Well, one of the children gets possessed by IT, the other two children and the father are transported to another planet, the trinity of ethereal beings decides to help send Meg back to Camazotz, unassisted but for a riddle to help her, and then she’s back to saving herself. Are we left on earth to save ourselves, work out our own moral goodness, and die well without god’s help? At least the children and father had direct relationship with the trinity of ethereal beings for a little. What does actual humanity have? I look forward to all comments, if you gots them.