As a kid I didn’t think about gender much. Sometimes I played kiss chase with one of my best mates so that we would fit in at school, but once we got home from school we were back to unsuccessfully farming ants and successfully climbing walls. As a young teenager I took the “anything you can do, I can do equally” approach, and wouldn’t concede much in the way of differences between the genders. This was still playing the game on some pretty unhealthy terms, because my attempt to be awesome at stereotypically male traits implied that they were indeed the valuable ones. My beliefs are more nuanced now. I don’t think “equally valuable” means “exactly the same,” but I also believe that “not the same” is no excuse for creating arbitrary boxes of opposing traits and then categorising them according to ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ and judging people accordingly.
For example, is it likely that if you could find a reliable measure for speed of sexual arousal, and then could apply that measure to all people from all cultures and all generations currently living around the world, you would find more men at one end of that continuum than the other? Yes, I think it’s likely. Would you find men and women at both extremes? I’m sure you would. We don’t know though because such research is utterly impossible. The research that is done into the differences between the genders, valuable though it is, is necessarily limited and at least somewhat culturally constructed and confined.
I’m not saying that the trends we do observe within certain epochs and particular cultures aren’t helpful to analyse and talk about. I’m not even saying that research is the only way of knowing such things. I’m just saying that there are certain ideas that we take for granted that could bear a little deeper thinking, and so we should be careful about the boundaries we draw, and even more careful about how we use our labels…because we’re talking about identity here. It’s potent, powerful stuff.
Even if we could create a set of continuums for ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ that showed trends across all times and all cultures, would being at one end of the continuum on any given trait make you more of a man or more of a woman? I don’t believe it would. In fact, I believe that to suggest it would is damaging to everyone. In other words, are there differences between males and females, or between masculinity and femininity? Yeah – I believe there are. Can you define and pin down what those differences are into neatly categorical traits? A) Nope and B) Hey, there are differences between you and me, whatever your sex or gender is.
So now I find myself somewhat torn. On the one hand, I do think there are differences and trends and and that in some contexts more stereotypically ‘feminine’ traits are devalued, made the butt of jokes and dismissed whilst in other contexts more stereotypically ‘masculine’ traits are mocked, patronised and, yup, dismissed. As one author (Silk, 2013) writes, “By valuing male characteristics more than female ones [in professional leadership contexts], we have created an environment where it is very difficult for a woman to be successful and influential without suppressing her femininity.” This is true, and I’ve seen the same thing done for stereotypically ‘male’ traits in other contexts too. On the other hand that same author then outlines feminine qualities that we should value more, and…I’m a woman with some of them and without others, like all women I imagine. In fact I think the concepts of masculinity and femininity are used in such flawed ways that there are stereotypically masculine and stereotypically feminine traits in more or less everyone. Doesn’t the meaning of these words begin to collapse? What use do they then become to us?
The dilemma for me is this: what’s it to be? Value the differences between the genders more, or emphasise them less? Attempt to recognise ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ traits and value them more in both men and women, or stop talking about ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ traits at all?
I love being a lady. I am feminine – that means something to me – but I don’t really think it’s certain traits that make me that. I’m feminine, I’m sexual and I want to embrace that. For me, personally, that means embracing some stereotypically feminine traits and working really hard for them to be valued more AND it also means asserting that those traits of mine that are seen as stereotypically masculine traits are just as fully integrated into who I am, into my womanhood. In my case that means I’m relational and intuitive, I’m a risk taker, I’m a global thinker who is also somewhat of an analytical thinker, I am (awesomely) emotional and passionate about deep communication, I have a drive for adventure and expedition, I’m strong, I’m a leader, I’m creative, I’m fearless, I’m great in a crisis, I have a strong instinct for nurture, I’m all about the outdoors, I’m pretty driven and I’m a fighter. I’m a lady.
As you can probably tell all these thoughts are very much still in progress. What do you think? What do the words ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ mean to you?
Image of me and bro jammin’ from the personal collection of Rachel Hughes Shah.