Friday, February 3, 2012

Cuppa Conversation: Gen(d)eration X

by frédérik

In this irregular feature, best read with coffee, tea, or cocoa, I (over)indulge my philosophical inclinations to peel back pure aesthetics to consider how we create fashion and, in turn, how fashion creates us. Let's kickstart a conversation, shall we?

Sasha, whose sex was recently revealed by his parents. Yahoo.
Preceding the story of parents raising a genderless child and revealing the child’s sex as he starts school, I remember reading last year about a Toronto, Canada couple who decided to raise their child, named Storm, without gender so that it might evolve its own identity without the restrictions of social stereotyping. As the comments in response to the article reveal, the decision is controversial. Although some responses express support for the parents’ decision, most span disbelief, undiluted contempt, skepticism, calls to have the children removed from their custody, and, of course, religious outrage over a perceived affront to God’s intentions for men and women as distinct genders. All exert the same force: impose societal norms of gender identity.

But even before reading the comments we can see how the issue creates bafflement and confusion on the part of the article’s ostensibly open-minded author, Monica Bielanko, who struggles with cognitive dissonance. Bielanko writes:
I fully believe in supporting gender-creative children… However, I don’t know that keeping a child’s sex hidden doesn’t hinder the child more than help. 
She goes on to call in an air strike from psychologist, who says:
“ I believe that it puts restrictions on this particular baby so that in this culture this baby will be a singular person who is not being given an opportunity to find their true gender self, based on also what’s inside them.”
The issue is far from settled, however, revealing instead the crucial hidden assumptions about the entire discussion: that there is such a thing as a “true gender self” and that the world necessarily requires reducing identity to “either male or female.”  Already, we see confusion between biology and culture, a sloppy slip of language that muddies the issue from the get-go. Biologically, sex is inarguable although perhaps not as inflexible as one might think. While most people have clearly defined male or female genitals and physical characteristics, there is some variability. Nevertheless, sex, whether male, female, or transitional, is an empirical fact. Gender, on the other hand, is a construct built by placing the individual’s body within a social context that includes language, cultural customs, politics, economics, and ideology. It is the constellation of assumptions about behaviour and psychology, and it is by no means fixed between cultures throughout history. There is, in short, no such thing as gender truth; there is only gender as custom, as a habit of mind, as ideology. Allowing children to make choices for themselves without the consideration of whether it’s gender-appropriate or not seems to be the very model of children identifying themselves “based on also what’s inside them.”

 The Egyptian kilt, called a shendyt, as seen on this statue torso of General Tjahapimu from Egypt's 30th Dynasty. Kilts were a universal garment  for men throughout Ancient Egypt's long history, used by everyone including warriors and the Pharaoh. Image from Wikimedia.

Many of the commenters expressing their outrage miss this distinction between biology and culture, thus implying that Storm’s parents are actually aiming to deny their children’s physical makeup. The force of the parents’ decision to have people interact with Storm without using gender as a referent is nothing so absurd. It is, in fact, a substantial subversion of society’s conformist impulse, the very same that once plagued gender relations in both the past and, arguably, today still. The decision to remove gender from Storm’s early social development directly confronts the questionable reasoning that once saw the female gender as incapable of participating in politics and men as unsuitable for raising children (to shorten the list of stereotypes). It marks a rejection of the flawed causal logic of associating biology with social standards of identity, without the rejecting biological basis of sex.

And to the charge that these parents are using their children as social experiments, I call shenanigans: all parenting is fundamentally experimental. What religion, if any, do parents raise their children with? What hobbies and activities should parents support or discourage their kids from pursuing? At what age should parents start talking about sex? Parenting is complicated, but there are many paths through which parents can raise healthy, well-adapted children. It strikes me as prejudice and conformism that parents be expected to raise their children to meet other people’s gender expectations. Furthermore, there are many instances in which parental/societal expectations in regards to identity have traumatized children – among homosexuals, for example.

If gender is the socialized expression of an individual’s body, then fashion is a language that mediates that expression. What concerns us as fashionistas, then, is this; after biology, the use of clothes constructs the gender, just as the assumed gender influences the choice of clothes. Baby boys dressed in blue and baby girls clad in pink, both indicators of gender that, in turn, directs how people will treat the baby as he or she grows. As babies become identified with a gender, there comes an assimilation of dialects, male or female, each with a vocabulary of colours and styles that in turn reinforce that gender.  From this we can extrapolate cross-dressing as a mismatch between perceived gender and gender dialect, androgyny as an even blend of dialects that erases gender distinctions, and so on. All this, before we consider how men’s fashion easily influences women’s without the reverse being true.

They say clothes make the man, and woman, and the questions becomes: to what extent does fashion control us? We see a draconian expression of this when women walk around fully shrouded in fundamentalist Muslim societies. In our Western culture, however, the control is more oblique and insidious, aligned along commercial rather than theological interests. Consider how advertising plays up sex appeal and strong gender identification in order to sell products.

There’s more to talk about, of course, but since this post’s word count is getting elevated I’ll end with a question to discuss in the comments below. How does the way you dress reinforce, or refute, your sense of femininity/masculinity/other? I’d love to read what you think…

And don't forget: today is Frivolous Friday. Get your tiki on!


Mica said...

Really interesting post! Although I didn't drink it with any of the mentioned beverages, I did settle down to read it in an effort to delay facing the growing pile of ironing that must be done. ;)

The question is a really interesting one. I went from being a very girly child loving dresses and skirts to a very tomboyish teen hating anything aside from jeans. As I got my own disposable income it opened up wider opportunities to dress in whatever way I felt like that day.
When I started to wear high heels I embraced a more feminine style of dressing and loved it.

Now an injury prevents me from wearing heels for more than a few hours I've found I'm focusing on skirts and "girly" colours more. I want to have that feminine - dare I say "pretty" - feeling I had in heels by changing the rest of my wardrobe. Pants and a shirt for work just doesn't feel the same when you can't rock it with OTT heels, you need to wear a skirt to try and capture that feminine feeling.
In a complete contradiction to that, when I'm feeling less than 100% for whatever reason, I cling to the simple jeans and a tee outfits I used to wear so much growing up. It's effortless and natural, where a dress or skirt feels like it requires more effort somehow.

I'd be interested to read other responses to your question!

Becky Haltermon said...

This is something that I've actually pondered and discussed oft. Lovely post!

We'll be having an androgynous Frivolous Friday for those to wish to subvert the dominant gender paradigm!

Frederik Sisa said...

Thank you, ladies. :)

It's very interesting how tightly heels are associated with femininity. Of course, this hasn't always been the case throughout history and cultures...Louis XIV apparently wore then 4inches high and decorated with battle scenes...

Becky: Androgynous Friday, eh. That should be interesting. :)

Mica said...

It is strange isn't it, the way we think heels = femininity.

Androgynous Frivolous Friday would be interesting - wonder if I will be confident trying it!

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