Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Society and Sexual Identity

When I was a young child growing up, I wanted to be a cowboy. Not a cowgirl, mind you, but a lasso-swinging, gun-toting, bronco-busting keeper of the law. I’d seen images of the cowgirls of the era, and quite frankly I was unimpressed. No, no short skirts or high-pitched yodel for me—I wanted to be the real deal! Yee-haw!

I had a small collection of pitiful country-western ballads on cassette tapes that I listened to religiously. I rented some of the library’s old John Wayne movies—remember the Alamo, ya’ll! I doodled scenes of shootouts and stagecoach chases on stacks of cheap colored printer paper. Yes, every child has an obsession, and this was one of mine. What can I say? I was—and in many ways still am—a total nerd.

I have great parents, and even then they encouraged and fostered my slightly atypical interests. They never forced me to act “girly,” play with dolls, or wear pink clothing. As an only child, from an early age I had little exposure to culturally typical feminine norms. The concept of “gender roles” was entirely alien to me. I specifically remember praying to God (!) to let my hair continue to grow long: I thought that the difference between men and women lay solely in the length of the hair. At the same time, I had a inquiring disposition, and was suitably presented with enlightening books about Where Babies Come From, so my education was far from lacking.

[Embarrassing childhood story: One time when I was four years old, my mother caught me kissing the television. The object of my affection? The eldest girl on the “Barney the Dinosaur” show. I thought she was pretty. My mother thought I was a lesbian. OK, mom, just because I thought the gal was attractive enough to warrant a peck on the cheek—or screen, as the case may be—does not mean I’m gay, all right? Sheesh. Although I just looked her up (no, I didn't remember her name; it took me a very long Google search), and damn…she appears to have gotten married. At least now I have closure and can move on!]

I grew older, of course, as we all do, and slowly the realization dawned on me that I was far from your average teenage girl. I’d always been a bit of a tomboy or a loner, preferring the company of animals or adults to the petty social circles of children. Add to that my disinterest in fashion, socializing for socializing’s sake, and pop culture (save for the analysis of interesting cultural trends), and you have a very unfeminine female…at least as far as society at large would dictate.

But I would disagree. “Femininity” and “masculinity,” after all, are completely arbitrary, subjective terms. You can’t possibly pin them down with concrete definitions—the very idea is absurd. Pink versus blue? Weak versus strong? Emotional versus rational? Please.

Getting my feet wet in a Women and Gender Studies class has allowed me to formulate ideas that were already lurking unheeded in the back of my mind. What I’m saying is this: our cultural concepts of normative gender roles are constructed in such a way as to be quite damaging for men and women alike. If a woman isn’t petite, sweet, and beautiful, what good is she? And who has use for a man if he’s not assertive, aggressive, tough, and strong? In short, if someone fails to conform to the stereotypes of his or her sex, they (we really need more gender-neutral nouns in the English language so that we can be concise without being grammatically incorrect) end up looking like less of a human being. Then you end up with such evils as homophobia, anti-feminism, and various other discriminations based on appearance or behavior. We live in a culture founded on hierarchies: male over female, white over black, rich over poor. But as so many great thinkers and doers have said, it’s high time to work to change all that.

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