By Jason Brown
Sugar, spice and everything nice; that is what a girl is made of. How early did we learn this rhyme? It wasn’t the first time that we had gender specific behavior modeled for us, but make it sing song and it sticks. I can help but think that the moment we start to label differences we start to build a power system. You start by making several groups out of thin air, give them labels then you can start to stack them on top of each other. Create little blocks out of strata with quaint little letters on them telling you how to read them. The fact that many of the deciding factors for theses labels are inherent to birth rather than merit, leads to the failure the great experiment America has been.
What I want to talk about is the labels themselves and how this really creates then reinforces the power system we have been given to change. I think about my own experiences with labels and how this has pushed me one way or the other as I have navigated personal development. Being a white male from the working/military class, I had at birth inherited a list of descriptives I needed to fill as I grew and as I became an adult. I learned very early that a boy dose not cry, ever. In fact any emotional outburst, other than anger, is also taboo. I needed to do well at sports, and in my family in particular taking chances with my physical well-being was highly rewarded. Let me give you an idea what that looked like. When I was a kid, I would climb trees. Once my uncles caught me jumping from one tree to the other about forty feet up, rather than scold me for risking my life, they cheered and laughed. This kind of thing was common. I am not making value judgments on their choices, some of them I am glad for, but it’s that all of that would have been different in my gender was female. That’s the problem.
Our culture has decided for us, long before we are able to make a conscious decision, how to act and what traits to adopt. Moreover, traits are rated in an ascending order as to what has value and of what amount. Because many traits are given an actual gender identifier, this makes one gender or the other better by simply having society say what traits are best. This is the inherent flaw in our current social system.
Think about some words we use to describe certain traits or characteristics. If I say the word strength, what image comes to mind for the majority of America? I would put my money on a large male with five percent body fat and a significant amount of muscle mass. Now take the word compassion, chances are it’s a Mother Theresa type person. The important part of those two examples is the portrayal of those traits being male or female. Take it a step further in our patriarchal society and we can start placing value to these two traits. Strength is good, and male. So being strong is a good thing (as our society defines strength). If you are compassionate, since it’s a feminine trait, means it’s a trait of weakness. And since strength is good, compassion is bad or at least not as desirable as being strong. Many problems come from this practice of attaching gender to various adjectives.
Being strong is in and of its self a bad thing for those of us trying to make a change. In fact we need it in bunches. The problem is labeling it as male domain. That means a woman that is strong is trying to be male, and due to the fact that we have narrowed it’s definition, she would need to pursue strength in a very male way. Even if she achieves the same level, she is not granted full acquisition of the trait due to its male correlation. Intense social correction can also be thrown her way. If the woman is in a leadership position and she uses the same techniques of management her male counterpart uses, she can easily be labeled a “B###h.”
We go even further with this by dividing up professions and actions based on ones gender. Once we throw sex into the mix things become even more complex. When I lived in NYC I was a struggling artist. I like flowers and pay attention to the way I dress. Hygiene is important to me, and I love good food. I have many traits that would label me a gay man. I worked in fashion and art. I was told many many times that I could come out of the closet. I would say my apartment is too small for a closet so I got nothing to come out of. The issue was that our culture is using traits and characteristics to define a person, rather than a person simple being something. Liking flowers has not one thing to do with being a man and liking men or women for romantic interludes. It is just something I like.
Why a gay man should be forced into a profession he doesn’t like just because he is seen through a colored lens? What is it about homosexuality that makes it so that you are unable to be say, a fireman? Our society says that women are weak and being gay is like being a woman and is also weak. In movie and shows if it’s a guy that is helping kids or the poor, it is always a gay man. Heaven forbid heterosexual male shows anything “feminine” in his character.
One of my best friends in this world is gay. The last thing I would say of him is that he fits the conventional stereotype for his sex. In fact when he came out to me I thought he was joking because I had a subscription to society’s judgment magazine. The man participates in medieval fighting, has a horribly dirty house, and speaks without a lisp. He does fit the one part of the description though, he loves men.
I think we need to disavow gender and sex from traits. Being strong is a human quality, and compassion should be an equally important part of our makeup. Not only are we limiting ourselves but we are boxing in untold millions of people in a system that will not allow them the freedom everyone deserves. I want both my daughter and son to be strong compassionate independently successful humans. I would love for them to join an adult world where judgment on how that manifests within their gender to be irrelevant. I however, watch the walls I have built for them develop cracks as they enter a larger social system. The pressure behind the dam is intense and I have only so many fingers to plug holes with. As I stand there worried for my offspring and our greater culture I do see people with sandbags coming. All is not lost, and I see a sun over rising in the east. I do believe a new day has begun.