Look at the picture. No, really, look at it closely. What goes through your mind?
What’s this author getting at? It’s just a picture of some woman dressed in a suit. Big deal. Happens all the time. I saw a woman in a suit at work today. Ugh, my boss is such a – wait a second. Something looks a bit odd about this woman, something about her face… hand’s awfully veiny. Eh, probably nothing. Dinner, dinner… should use that eggplant I’ve been saving, it’s getting kind of soft but – um. Hmm. Is that a guy? No, can’t be. Long hair, jewellry, want to say woman, but what if it’s a guy? Ugh, I’d feel so weird if it turned out to be a guy!
Now, the above train of thought may bear little to no resemblance to what actually went through your head at the sight of the image. I freely admit that I exercised a little creative license in my interpretation, but hey, I don’t know you too well yet, since we were only introduced a few seconds ago. My name’s Sam, by the way, and I’m afraid I’ve forgotten your name too. Your lovely boss gave you a nice, firm new eggplant just today? Boy, was I way off!
Here’s the thing, though: with the way so many people react to blurred or violated gender lines, the above scenario must hold a grain of truth for a significant portion of the population. When people see someone they perceive as either failing to fall squarely into one neatly labeled box or, worse, deviating from some assigned gender role, they freak out. It unsettles them, and rightly so.
We’re human. We put things into boxes and categories the moment we see them because otherwise, with the overwhelming amount of stimuli we’re exposed to every moment of every day, we’d go insane. It’s an evolutionary coping mechanism, and a frightfully effective one that allows us to filter through colossal reams of input and still function. Four legs, sharp teeth, running fast: dangerous. Small, vulnerable-looking, no visible weapons: low threat. Long, purple, green bit on top: eggplant.
On this point, I’m certainly no different. When I see someone of ambiguous gender or otherwise, my brain scrambles madly to plaster a “male” or “female” sticker on them for reference purposes: it’s undeniably convenient to be able to employ simple pronouns without having to resort to Futurama’s gender-neutral “schkle”. It’s a simple fact of nature that we’re all susceptible to this desperate labelling as an immediate response. The issue is that humans, unlike ants or eggplants (but like rockets), have a second stage in our response to the world around us. Once we’ve seen something, categorized it, and dismissed it as not a threat to our continued survival, the old reasoning engine kicks in and we can start thinking critically about our initial assumptions, allowing us to form a considered response.
All of which leads to the baffling (and often unpleasant) part. After having a good while to think about the whole thing and really mull it over, so many people still react with hostility or scorn to those who contravene the iron-clad appropriate modes of clothing and behavior for their assigned gender. What a sissy! they cry, incensed, or She’s such a tomboy. If she’d just put on a dress maybe she’d have a boyfriend. Keep in mind that these particularly repugnant examples are extremes; for most people, it tends more to a silent condemnation or unconscious shunning of the gender role defier. But what motivates such behavior? I think it boils down to two fundamental things.
The first, and less contentious one, is society. Yes, the old whipping boy trotted out once more to the post for another round. As I’ve mentioned in previous opinion pieces – and forgive the melodrama – we’re more or less thralls to society’s self-policing and insidious dogma. The so-called wrongs and rights of life are drilled into us from a very young age, and we are chastised everywhere we go by everyone we know for deviating from this ol’ straight’n’narrow, until we internalize the fear of rejection that accompanies non-conformity. The fear of rejection is so strong that we are compelled to reprimand others for straying themselves, or ridicule and humiliate them to publicly reaffirm our own compliance. In this manner, we perpetuate society’s message, and suffer intense shame when we find ourselves filled with a desire to do something that goes against what we’re told is right and proper.
As far as gender roles go, the system seems a singularly unfair one. We’re designated either a Type A or Type B human at birth in a rather arbitrary fashion, and are henceforth expected to follow the category’s set of associated rules for the remainder of our natural lives. It seems a bit rough that we’re not even given a choice one way or the other, especially as these gender roles are rather strict and don’t offer much in the way of overlap. The sets of “male” and “female” are complementary in many respects: pants OR dresses; trucks OR dolls; rational OR emotional. While it’s true – in Australia, at least – that some of these OR’s have softened into AND/OR’s over time (thanks, in part, to the advent of the internet and the feminist movement), many remain heavily weighted one way or the other and still carry significant social penalties for a Type A dabbling excessively in Type B’s domain. Aww, look at that little boy wearing a dress, isn’t he cute? What?! You let him wear it to school? He’s going to grow up mentally scarred!
Wonderful, isn’t it, how people’s minds work?
The second factor is a little harder to define, and based solely upon personal observation and experience, with little in the way of hard evidence to back it up. After years of contemplation, I have come to the conclusion that people must feel extraordinarily challenged by the sight of, for example, a man in a dress. Why else would they react to it so strongly, and negatively? It’s not hurting them physically; it’s not affecting their life in any concrete way; it’s not threatening to take away their job or home or quality of life or monthly data allowance. In short, it poses no overt danger to them whatsoever. Therefore, I can only conclude that the sight induces agonizing inner turmoil.
Gender roles are fragile: one’s identity as male or female relies upon constant reinforcement and affirmation that what you are doing is correct for your gender, and, even more importantly, not incorrect. Therefore, when people see someone who is acting in a way deemed gender-inappropriate, they react adversely, feeling that only through outspoken opposition can they protect themselves, and that to condone such deviance is to be complicit in the crime.
I’m just guessing here, of course. I’ve experienced constant shame and intense self-doubt for engaging in modes of clothing and behavior that, I’ve been informed, are unusual and unhealthy for a male to express, and will severely hamper my chances at thriving in the society that birthed me. In recent years, though, I’ve come to realize that this constant feed of negative reinforcement can be ignored, and that experiencing gender as a strict dichotomy of black and white, male and female, shuts you off from the freedom that running through the vibrant hues of a gender spectrum can provide. I don’t know that gender roles make anybody happy; if people were able to just let go of what seems, to me, an archaic system designed to depress and dispirit, the world would be a heck of a lot easier to live in, and a whole lot more fun.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an eggplant to prepare.