A few nights ago, I was talking to my friend Teacake (not her real name in the slightest, but if I’m going to change her name I want to change it to something silly) on the phone. Rosebud was expressing her frustration of her boyfriend still being a student, while she was the one with a career and a salary, and therefore subsidizing most of their relationship for another year. (It seems like nobody actually enjoys being a breadwinner.) Out of solidarity, I reminded her that she was not alone – my partner may no longer be a student, but his employer has not given him full-time hours yet, even though he was supposed to last week. So I know what she’s going through. But when I told her that, she said, “Yeah, but you’re different – you’re a different kind of woman.” I’m different because, if I were making enough for my partner and I to live on comfortably, I wouldn’t mind supporting him while he took his time looking for a better job, or just pursued a writing or music career. I’m different because I actually wouldn’t mind being the breadwinner if we could afford it. I don’t really care about gender roles, or about which partner supports the other, or who makes more money.
From there, the conversation took a turn to one of Teacake’s other friends, Sandwich, and the ways in which that friend views gender. Violin views gender as completely independent of the biological sex someone happens to have. And based on her definition, while I might have a female body, I’m nonetheless a “man.” Sound familiar? However, Sandwich doesn’t use these terms as a way to judge people for their gender transgressions. This is genuinely the way she views gender: no matter what physical body you have, that body does not have anything to do with your actual gender.
I actually think it’s cool that there’s at least one person out there who might call a biological female a “guy” and a biological male a “girl” without any sense of judgement or punishment. I think it’s interesting that Sandwich geniunely sees the world, and gender, that way. This is especially true because I’m trying to articulate my own theories of gender, and that’s difficult to do. However, while I think Sandwich’s view is interesting, I’m pretty sure it’s not something I’m going to subscribe to. Not that it’s not useful. I think it’s great when people theorize that gender can be completely independent from one’s biological sex. On the one hand, I want to believe that one can be completely independent of the other. However, the more I read about gender and sex, the more I wonder where biological sex ends and social constructions of gender begin. I’m not an essentialist by any means. And I don’t like thinking that there are some aspects of my personality that I can’t control, that are based entirely on what I got in the chromosomal lottery. What I’m wrestling with now isn’t gender’s independence from biology. I’m wondering whether or not that’s even possible. Gender has been informed by biology for thousands of years at this point; even if the two were independent, would we ever be able to extract them? Or are they too caught up in each other?
What I have settled on for now (although I am by no means done thinking about it) is that gender and sex are both more than just dichotomies. For example, as I’ve been following debates about female athleltes having to undergo chromosomal and hormonal testing to prove that they’re female, I’ve discovered that conclusively proving an individual’s biological sex is more common than I actually realized, as chromosomoal testing and hormonal testing may not back up what is apparently conclusive based on a person’s genitals. So while I’ve been wondering about the social constructions of gender for years, I never really thought about the complexities of biological sex. It’s really only been a couple of days since I realized that male/female/intersex is not nearly as cut-and-dry as I would have believed.
I think it’s going to be awhile before I can articulate my own specific theory of sex and gender. Right now, all I can say is that it’s up to the individual to define for themself who they are and why. I don’t see myself as a “man” or a “guy” because I don’t think my aggression, my distaste of cleaning, my hairy legs, or my dislike of children are inherently “male” characteristics. I think those are ways that masculinity has been constructed. But I’m not necessarily masculine because of these constructions. Right now, I’m still using the “gender is constructed” paradigm to explain things. But I also don’t know how to organize gender in a non-dichotomous way. I want to say that gender is a continnum, but that still puts “masculine” on one end and “feminine” on another, which is still too dichotomous for me. And now I’m also trying to figure out how to include biological sex into all of this. So it’s going to be awhile before I figure this out. One thing I am sure of, though, is that our expressions of sex and gender are culturally specific and changeable. Furthermore, ideas about how to define them have changed, and currently are changing. So I’m not satisfied with my personal philosophy of the two right now, but sooner or later I’ll work it out, probably as I read more, study more, and other people’s ideas change again.