Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Gender Disaster

The 11,000-year-old Ain Sakhri Lovers Figurine. If one is female and the other is male, it is impossible to tell which is which: because all who can love must be equal.
Disaster: when hazard and vulnerability collide, bringing loss of life – or worse, destruction of life – and harm to that which gives it function or meaning. But here is a disaster of which we still know next to nothing of what the hazard was, nor of how it warped us; indeed, which we often fail to acknowledge as disaster at all.

The following is an excerpt from an as yet unpublished work of mine: Disgrace – Why humanity can be so much better, first drafted in October 2010, one year before this post.

Gender is one of the human race’s most cataclysmic inventions.

We speak of gender as distinct from sex, and the distinction is as massive as that between fish and nuclear submarines. By sex we mean the biological, chiefly morphological distinction between male and female. By gender we mean the idea that there is such a thing as masculinity – that is, Normal thoughts, behaviour and identity for men – and femininity – likewise Normal thoughts, behaviour and identity for women – and that men and women are expected to conform to this masculinity and femininity respectively, and are stigmatised or persecuted in any number of ways if they do not.

The world is divided into roughly two parts: those societies that maintain the falsehood that these pressures are natural, whether biologically innate, divinely ordained or otherwise, and carry them out shamelessly; and those societies which claim to have surpassed them, yet are still infested to the marrow with gender constraints and expectations and the repression they bring with them in all times and places.

We speak here of more substantial things than proportions of women in parliaments or male and female wage equality, although these are important reflections of the deeper problem. That problem is the very fact that we associate particular attributes in behaviour, capabilities and personalities to men and women in contrast to each other, and view them more as entirely separate races mutually opposed than as equal and individually distinct human beings.

Where gender corruption came from in the first place is anyone’s guess, but to defeat it, we must reject all suggestion that it is natural. There are certainly biological differences between male and female, but let those bear themselves out on their own, without embellishment by our ideologies and vested interests: for just as there are these differences, so too does every individual differ from every individual, with more variation than merely that between male and female. We are all different, we all share a common humanity, and that is enough such that no human being should be socially expected to think, behave or identify in any particular way on account of his or her sex.

To bear such expectations, to act upon them by pressuring or injuring others towards conformity, is repression. It is pernicious, with no exceptions.

It crops up wherever you look. Men are considered rational, women emotional, never mind that reason and emotion are both pillars of humanity, not one half or the other of it. Of men is expected largeness, a higher public profile, assertiveness and strength, while of women smallness, compliance and a greater emotional fluency, but all these attributes are things to which anyone may be inclined as a human irrespective of one’s sex, and may find useful in different situations. That we go out into our social interactions with the burden of stigma attached to those things thought improper of whatever sex we happen to be, and forego them in situations where they are most called for, is surely a great contributor to the infinite and meaningless conflicts rife in our world. How less abhorrent would wars be if all these male armies were more emotionally inclined to limit the suffering of those they fought against, and how much more compassionate would be our governance? If we shut off half our attributes because we fear others judging it would not become us as males or females to exhibit the other half, then we are only half human. We half-think, half-care, half-assert and half-compromise; it is no wonder so much has gone wrong with us.

This paradigm, which still predominates in the present day, is to the disadvantage of everybody, regardless of whether one is male or female. The female side of it has received greater notice: suffering from being confined to the household, or treated as property, or robbed of the right to one’s own decisions, or sexually brutalised in a world where males are conditioned to be physically stronger than women (for whatever the source of the size differential, average base statistics for male and female sizes and strengths are close enough together that it is preposterous that a man should everywhere be able to assault a woman and expect to automatically overpower her). Conversely, men get conscripted to fight and die in pitiless armed ranks in conflicts that mean and achieve nothing, are left to burn when women and children are evacuated first, are not taken seriously when abused, may be left shrieking on the inside from emotional exploitation while desperate to maintain a face of stone, and are defenceless if they do not live up to the harsh and unsympathetic standards society expects of them.

And this, in short, is the problem of gender: it brings out the worst in male and female alike, elevates those of both who are most ruthlessly and unscrupulously able to manipulate the paradigm to their own advantage. Likewise it represses the kindest and worthiest men and women, battering them into shame, concealment, marginalisation, or at worst, insanity (and often from there into prison or hospital, between which there is sometimes little to distinguish) or suicide. And thus society guts itself: we become a society of half-humans, and it is certainly not the better half.

It needs no legal or political sanction to be soul-destroying. As interactions between one sex and the other form a defining part of most people’s lives, being marginalised for deviating from gender norms can be a person’s absolute destruction. One grows accustomed to expecting certain things from men or women that one approaches in this context, reflecting our general expectations of masculine and feminine personalities. If a man lacks a deep wallet, or a woman conformity to a rigid model of physical appearance, then either is likely to have a much more difficult time getting all that they wish in life that they can only get from the opposite sex, whether their friendship, solidarity, the chance at a family with children, or worse still, the right to not be treated like excrement for simply not being ‘manly’ or ‘womanly’.

What is most scandalous of all is that the Normality that governs this is an illusion. It is no fact that men or women do naturally conform to what the standard demands of them; rather the standard is an artificial one, brashly reinforced by media, tradition, bad science, bad religion, and disastrously by those who only reinforce it because they fear not doing so would in turn expose themselves as abNormal. Nowhere is this more tragic than in conceptions of beauty, for while in reality beauty is subjective and cannot exist as a concept if not for diversity, society has done an immaculate job setting up the nonsense that there is an ideal model of male or female beauty in appearance and character. Because of this, people (especially women it seems) are left agonising over how far they are from this ideal, which can never be reached because it simply does not exist; lives are literally destroyed by the health and welfare implications of their impossible efforts to conform to it. That photographs are adjusted and doctored in magazines, for example, to conform to this established Normality of beauty is odious. Those who maintain this Normality illusion, especially in order to gain from it, must hang their heads in shame and depart from public influence.

Do we in the societies which claim to be past this believe this ghastliness no longer chains us? Look around you. Folklore, adverts, literature, films, paintings, video games, celebrity behaviour, sports, the military, the differences between how we raise boys and girls, the guys who have to dress up as superheroes and strand themselves on building exteriors because fathers are supposed to be less vulnerable than mothers; beyond the exceptions, they overwhelmingly bear out these set expectations of masculine and feminine roles, all combining to crush us within a gendered straitjacket in which to even suggest it could be any different tars you a dangerous eccentric.

There verge on seven billion people in this world. Take any man or any woman, of any size, shape, height, weight, beliefs or attributes of personality or behaviour, and there will be at least one person somewhere in the world who finds that person a paragon of aesthetic brilliance, and at least one person who finds him or her irredeemably hideous. The numbers are irrelevant: no one conception has a right to take precedence over any other, and it is the imperative of society to accommodate all of them and alienate none.

There can be no justification for any society to pressure a person, in any manner whatsoever, to waste one second of his or her life, pursuing an ‘ideal type’ based on gender expectations.

This again is a matter of social choice. Something has corrupted us and brought a gender imbalance to our kind, which has been established into our human identity by those who would seek to gain from it. But we have everything we need to correct this imbalance and make this a world where we do not need to conform to hollow gender dogmas: it is for us to choose, and all those who openly defy the marginalising threats by any action or creation that does not conform to those norms are to be applauded as incomparable benefactors of humankind – so long as they do no hurt. The dance where the female lifts the male, or the folk tale where the princess kidnaps or rescues the knight; the boy who wears pink or the girl who wears blue; the male care worker, and the female imam at mixed congregations; the one whose style of spoken Japanese reflects not the expectations on his or her sex but the substance of his or her individual character; such things open our eyes to our true diversity, shatter the lie of gender conformity and pierce the malicious agendas behind it with the shards. Such eccentricity is a service and the finest there is.

That is not to say we should all stop doing things that happen to be the convention for our gender just for the sake of rejecting gender. It would be daft to sack a competent male construction worker or female receptionist if their work is good and they find it fulfilling. The point is that a male who wishes to be a receptionist, or a female who wishes to be a construction worker, should find such goals just as accessible as he or she would if he was a woman or she a man – and vice versa. The standard of princess-kidnap in the Super Mario series of video games does not detract from its entitlement to the legendary status it has so dramatically attained. Whatever it is we want to be, we must be free to captain our destinies irrespective of our sex: to negotiate the same waves as males or females without coming to grief on wave-machines.

For the threat defiance stands up to is real. The imbalance between male and female and the gender constructions built up around it are deliberately maintained by some of the most powerful forces on Earth, whether by physical compulsion, legal reprisal, social taboo or the regulation of ideas. We can no longer delude ourselves that the centuries of suffering on account of these myriad forces, the gentle and courageous souls they have slain, and their debilitation of humanity as a whole, constitutes anything less than a crime against humanity.

Equality is not something given. When we at last have a world where males and females are not constrained by gender expectations, it will not be because we have ‘given’ them these rights and freedoms. Freedom becomes us all as humans: it is never given, only stolen. A society of male and female equality is not ‘advanced’; rather it has clambered its way back to a starting point from which it chose to charge headlong backwards.

And equality is only the beginning. The only condition befitting us as humans is one where we fight no longer this unwarrantable war of the sexes. Men are from Earth and women are from Earth. Female or male, we are all humans. We are all unique, and whichever our sex, we have more in common than this dichotomy will ever divide us.


  1. Wonderfully and eloquently written! Everything you write here is spot on. Thank you.
    I'd love to hear more description about how the styles of spoken Japanese differ in expectation for men and women.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind comment.

      Japanese is distinct from many other languages in how men and women are expected to speak in comprehensively different ways. This includes different pronouns, use of honourific prefixes, inflections and sometimes choice of words, for example, the sum of which is that female speech is expected to convey an greater impression of softness and compliant respect. Women also generally speak at a higher register (level of politeness)than men - in Japanese there are several of these, each so distinct as to almost become its own language. All this is as much about social norms as about the language itself though; most people seem to comply, perhaps because Japanese society is profoundly hostile to non-conformity and delivers considerable stigma upon people who appear to behave differently to everyone else.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.