Doing Gender: No One Passes

One neat thing I learned in Women’s Studies is doing gender. This is the idea that gender is a performance that we all become really really good at understanding.

  • What does a girl look like?
  • How do girls behave?
  • What do girls like to do?
  • What are girls really good at doing?
  • How do girls talk?
  • What kinds of clothes do girls wear?

Though you may not agree with the answers, its likely that you have some picture in your head of what the “correct” responses are. Similarly, men have standards on what they are supposed to look like, how they are supposed to behave, and what kinds of things they should be doing. Generally men are supposed to be a little rougher and more outspoken, while women are supposed to be a little softer and quiet.

When Caitlyn Jenner was announced to the world yesterday, an outpouring of ooo’s and aaa’s went to her glorious self. Yet as the wickedly awesome Laverne Cox reminds us, it’s not just about the body. It’s important to remember that not all trans* people are going to look like men or women. We can quickly see a new transnormativity being created in front of our eyes. An accepted and comfortable story of what being trans* means. The public demands answers to such questions as “have you had the surgery yet?” or “when did you first know?” and such questions are not necessary to answer in order to be trans*. In moving forward with transgender rights its important to remember visibility for all people.

This idea of passing doesn’t just apply to people who are trans*. To understand it in greater depth we can look at people who are cisgender (people who were identified as female at birth and still identify as female, for instance.)

In the earlier example of women being soft, quiet, or timid. What happens when a woman is not soft, quiet, or timid? What happens when women take on personality traits that are generally reserved for the male gender? Women are called bitches. This is an act of “burning” someone back into their gender.

Similarly we can look at men who are too emotional or soft. They are often bullied, called pussies, or not allowed to participate (or discouraged from participating) in important parts of male rituals, like sports.

No one passes. Some women are too masculine in shape, too tall, too big, too thin or too curvy. Some women are too loud. Some women take up too much space in “male jobs.” Some women aren’t participating in their duty as mothers. If you are not fulfilling your role as woman, someone will let you know. If you are not successful enough at work or in your career, if you cannot play sports or are not athletic, if you are sensitive or like things that are considered girly, someone will let you know you’re not being manly enough. No one passes.

Trans men and women experience this twice as much as people who are cis, and the consequences are so much worse. There are people out there who are actively monitoring how many trans people are being murdered. Chances are, you’re only hearing about a very small fraction (if any) of these in the media. As we judge people by their bodies, we dehumanize them, and when we dehumanize them, it makes it so much easier to forget them.

Thinking about gender as something that everyone is doing is really helpful in understanding these new very public conversations about the body. How has your body been ‘policed’ by others? How often are you shamed out of doing, thinking, feeling, or being in ways that someone believes are not appropriate for you?

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