Pitch Perfect (a.k.a. Gender is hard, y’all)

[Disclaimer: I have obviously not tried to deal with the entirety of the “What Makes a Woman?” NYT article in this post, nor the relationship between feminism and transsexuality. I am a feminist who supports equal and additionally necessary rights and protections for trans people, but I admit that I still struggle with the idea of non-binary gender as a heuristic for society at large. It makes sense to me that people in transition and intersex people should have this option and I can even see how binary gender causes problems for cis and hetero people, but I haven’t yet been able to wrap my head around the practical side of making society non-binary. I see categories as useful and humans as creatures that are inclined to categorize. This post is meant to raise questions that prompt patient conversation. If you feel that I am wrong or insensitive, please correct me but know that it was unintentional and that I am merely thinking aloud here.]

I haven’t been feeling particularly inspired to rant lately. That might be a good thing or it might just be that my adrenals are worn out from the Hulk Effect this spring. The only thing I’ve really gotten ranty about lately is a continuation on the “I shouldn’t have to act like a man [or, perhaps more accurately, to seem androgynous (not meant in reference to biological intersex physicality)] in order to have equal rights as a woman” theme. Ye Olde Internet is ablaze right now with a back and forth between a “TERF” feminist blogger and the trans community and allies. If those are the two poles of a feminist spectrum I’m supposed to place myself on, I think I’m in another plane.

Yes, it’s dumb to act like all trans women are Caitlyn Jenner, but the visibility of Caitlyn, Chelsea Manning, Laverne Cox, and others does open up a can of worms that’s distinct from the lives, transitions, and opinions of un-famous trans people, doesn’t it? Like it or not, and fair or not, their lives are being examined as studies in womanhood in a time when sex and gender are contentious even just among cis, hetero people. I wish I could find a response from either “side” that acknowledges the overlapping and sometimes contradictory but legitimate concerns being raised, but everything seems to center on language instead. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that language is a powerful tool and that those using it in a manner that oppresses a minority should be called on it. I just feel frustrated that it’s being discussed to the exclusion of the crux of the “debate,” for lack of a better word. 

For instance, in the NYT article, Elinor Burkett mentions a tweet from Chelsea essentially saying that she feels more emotional since her transition. Burkett seems pissy about this and trans activists have every right to call her out on her tone and language throughout the piece, BUT, is there a point in there that’s being lost in both sides’ outrage? Yeah, I think so.

I’ve written before about the pressure I’ve felt from feminists and society at large to downplay, hide, or deny the effects of female sex hormones on my cognition and emotions. I think what Burkett and others fear is that admitting our differences from men will hold us back in a world where equality between the (binary) sexes is not yet a given. Now we have these very prominent figures who are proud of their journeys and hopefully the most comfortable they’ve ever been in their own skin who are highlighting aspects of womanness (which I’m using instead of “femininity” or “womanhood” in the hopes of including those who were born female but don’t act femme, those who identify as female but weren’t born that way, and those whose age would preclude them from being termed “women”) that we cis women only discuss in hushed tones among other women, lest men remember that we’re different. I mean, can you imagine Sheryl Sandberg talking in mixed company about her nail polish or about girls’ night with wine and beauty tips? Sure, that might be what you expect from most Vanity Fair pieces, but most are not scrutinized by the world at large, let alone viewed as insight into what it means to be a woman. It might not be fair that that’s the treatment that Caitlyn’s piece is getting, but it’s a reality.

Maybe aspiring to a social identity as a woman for so long has just given these (trans) women a different and better perspective on womanhood or maybe it’s more a matter of the relative immunity of their social standings, but either way, I think there are a number of (cis) women–particularly those with high ambitions–who feel, as a result of societal BS, that statements like Chelsea’s are made in violation of an implicit female code of conduct. I wish we were focusing on how messed up that is, to the detriment of cis and trans women.

As another example of what I view to be misguided feminism, a Facebook friend from college recently posted something about how she wants to stop raising the pitch of her voice when she’s trying to be polite because she’s worried about the “cumulative disempowering effects” of such things. (Please assume “cis” in relation to all gender identifiers for this portion unless otherwise noted.)

I guess it depends on what “polite” means and on the situation, but the convention of raising the pitch of your voice when you want or need something from someone else isn’t even exclusively a human one, let alone a human female one. I’m no zoologist, but I know cats and dogs do it. Bear (a.k.a. Large Cat) actually mews at such a high pitch when he wants food that he sometimes fails to make sound. Or at least I think he’s failing; maybe he can hear it.

I applaud the notion of being more confident in your ideas and your worth if you’re prone to downplaying or doubting them, but voice pitch is a weird battleground to stake out. For instance, it is social convention for anyone to raise the pitch of his or her voice when trying to help another save face or when uncertain about the veracity of something. This serves to indicate a lack of aggression. Imagine, if you will, that a woman is in labor and her husband is trying to suss out whether she wants to make a change to her birth plan. Option A., spoken with a higher pitch and up-speak: “Honey, didn’t you say you didn’t want an epidural?” Option B., stated with a low voice and no up-speak: “You said you don’t want an epidural.” There is good reason (probably avoiding bodily harm at the hands of a laboring woman) to choose the former. The Polite Pitch or whatever you want to call it is almost certainly a part of Nurture that has its roots in Nature and it clearly serves a valuable societal function. Hell, there are even changes in a woman’s voice associated with where she’s at in her cycle, though researchers are still debating their significance.

Generally, I’m nervous about the prospect of attributing too much of modern womanness to nurture and not enough to nature because it seems like a good way to add obstacles to the average (cis) woman’s quest for respect. For instance, yes, women are taught that being aggressive is unbecoming, but there’s a very clear correlation between testosterone and aggression. Women have less testosterone. Women are, on average, less aggressive. (Insert evo-bio speculation about male brains concluding that women displaying signs of higher testosterone may be less fertile or whatever.) We shouldn’t have to be more aggressive to be taken seriously. I don’t care if a woman sounds like Dr. Squeaky Pants from Scrubs, if that’s what she feels is the most natural, comfortable way to present herself, she shouldn’t lose others’ respect for doing so.

The dangers, as I see them, of pressuring women to scrape off all that culture and act more like men include:

  • The obvious absurdity. Women, on average, have lower testosterone levels and most women between certain ages experience monthly estrogen and progesterone fluctuations. People born female can get pregnant. Associated with these things are temporary changes in mood, physical wellbeing, and even cognitive ability. The hormones that control postpartum bonding are different for women. With exceptions for those with the financial means and suitable dispositions, women who want to have children can’t delay until it’s convenient and then seek out a younger male partner. The list goes on. Tech companies offering to let women freeze their eggs pisses me off for this reason. Is it really helping women or is it adding more pressure to match males tit for tat professionally, even in spite of biology?
  • Submissiveness shouldn’t be extolled as a virtue to aspire to for women and it certainly shouldn’t be said that a non-submissive woman is a Bad Woman, but I see no reason to settle for equating respectability with aggression in professional settings, either.
  • The idea that femininity (for females or males) has to be disempowering, bad, or oppressive, even though we’re not yet sure to what extent a predisposition for it is encoded, seems dangerous. Hell, even for the parts that are merely cultural, I’d much rather we reclaim femininity than have to strive for androgyny to be respected. Why is being more like men necessarily better? I realize that in a grand societal move toward androgyny, men would have to become more like women, too, but as things stand presently, it seems to me that women are expected to move more often and further toward androgyny than are men. We live in a world where women who order whisky/bourbon/scotch and men who order “girly” drinks (usually as markers of sexual desirability and undesirability, respectively) are two of TV’s favorite tropes. Clearly the mainstream message is that men should not meet us in the middle. And men, it seems, are still doing plenty well with their stereotypical masculinity, at least professionally. This puts at least some women in the position of being more masculine (moving toward androgyny) at work, and then being more feminine in their personal lives, all to appease men or members of society at large who have internalized unrealistic, male-originated expectations. It’s like, for men, “professional” means “as per usual” and for women, “professional” means “manner of conduct that minimizes the number of times a man might be tempted to sexualize you while also excluding any manner of conduct that might cause a man to feel threatened by you.” Yeah, that’s a standard I want to reinforce.
  • Speaking of androgyny, it is unnatural for mate selection, on the whole, to favor androgyny (again, not meant in reference to intersex individuals). I don’t mean “unnatural” in a normative way; certainly it is possible that culture could overcome instinct on that front (and hipsters might even be proof of that). But it would definitely be swimming against the tide for most of society to do so. This is one of those logistical things that makes me scratch my head when I hear what some people want for society in terms of gender. There are a lot of times when subjugating instinct to culture or social norms is Good and is a marker of civilization, but I don’t believe that there is a moral quality to overwriting all instincts (i.e. that that would decidedly make us more civilized and that that is Good) and I’m not sure what the litmus test should be in deciding such things. For example, it is instinct to attack when enraged, but we have made many forms of vengeance illegal and I believe that that is Good because, among other things, it reduces the likelihood of punishment that doesn’t fit the crime and of punishing the innocent. Given the choice between respecting women even when they remind us of their second X chromosome, and frequently respecting women only when they hide their womanness (unless their profession demands the opposite, though I am not sure to what degree respect is in play there), my preference is for the former.
  • The feminists I see throwing these “act more androgynous because power” gauntlets are often LGBTQIA allies, too. I just do not understand how you can excise femininity or avoid highlighting womanness because you find them (unproblematically!) disempowering while also fighting for a broader acceptable range of gender expression. Like, you as a cis woman won’t act effeminate because it’s disempowering, but you expect people to respect effeminate men or M2F trans people? Ummm.

I guess, to wrap things up, I struggle with the fact that I see the denial of, or minimization of, biology as an impediment to equality for (cis) women, but I also don’t want to emphasize biology to the detriment of trans people. On the one hand, I can see how a looser and broader spectrum of genders could alleviate the problem of de-legitimizing femininity and shunning womanness. On the other hand, I am fearful that a move toward androgyny would endanger these even further, given current trends.

I am not fighting for women with squeaky voices and a love of cosmos because I am ultra femme, and I do agree some standards of femininity are not worth keeping. I promise, for better or worse, to always be the first to roll my eyes when a smart girl plays dumb for the benefit of a guy. In fact, I am uncomfortable with Caitlyn Jenner’s seemingly fluffy portrayal of womanness precisely because I don’t (yet!) have her money or distinguished career, I haven’t yet made a name for myself, and I feel that the respect of others is key to achieving my goals. I, like Burkett (I think?), worry that as the world examines that interview for a definition of “woman,” it will lose respect for us all in view of the frivolity therein. (I should mention that I haven’t read the VF article myself).

It makes me nervous that the world might see [that version of] Caitlyn as emblematic of all womanity, just as it made the trans-female community nervous that she is the standard to which they will now be held. I worry about my career, finances, and my family’s health and wellbeing far more than I indulge such girly thoughts as those Burkett excerpted. I make no secret of the fact that I enjoy pretty things, but I don’t think that’s what makes me a Good Woman. Nor am I saying that Caitlyn thinks that, though some portion of the public does seem to be interpreting it as evidence that she, like, “came out the other side” properly womanized or something (which is in and of itself clearly very problematic); I imagine she’s (a.) excited to be able to embrace these rituals at last, and (b.) in a financial position that allows her the luxury of not having more pressing concerns. But I wouldn’t be worried for the standing of women in the wake of the article, nor embarrassed that the unusual attention it’s received resulted in the breaking of the Seal of Womanly Confession, if femininity were not such a joke except where it concerns the proclivities of boners. And that is something I think we should all be upset about. 

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