1.12.2007

Holding things

Recently Biffle and I were walking through a department store. He was carrying some towels, and I offered to carry them for a while. He said, "No--I kind of like holding them. It's comforting. I never got to hold things like this growing up."

I hadn't really paid attention up until that point, but he was sort of clutching them to his chest, with his arms wrapped around them. He said, "This is how girls held things. If you were a boy and you held your books this way, you got called a fag."

"How were you supposed to hold things?"

"Like this." He dropped his arm so that it was hanging straight down to his side. "Even if it was incredibly inconvenient and uncomfortable, you had to hold your books this way."

And then I remembered being in tenth grade health class, with a teacher whose qualifications for teaching were that he was the assistant football coach. He told us that guys naturally hold their books "like clubs," because that's how their bodies evolved from the "caveman days," and that girls cradle their books because their bodies are made for holding babies.

I don't remember how I reacted. When I was in tenth grade, I'd stopped wearing make-up, but I don't know that I'd started questioning biological determinism, so I probably thought, "Hmm. Clubs vs. babies, biologically programmed into our bodies. I guess that explains things." Meanwhile, the boys in the class were being trained in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to perform the version of masculinity that would keep them from being "fags." They were being trained down to the level of how to hold their books. And then the performance was so pervasive that the teacher could tell us that this was "natural," not culturally constructed.

Barbara Ehrenreich has an essay where she talks about how ridiculous it is to look at the way men and women perform their genders and presume that this is in any way "natural." She says, "It's like studying giraffes in a zoo and concluding that giraffes can't run."

These days, of course, I'm totally sold on the idea that gender is culturally constructed. "Natural" is one of those red flag words that always gets my attention and makes me skeptical. I think that almost every way in which men and women act differently from each other is based on training rather than something inherent in our physical make-up. And yet the subtleties of our gendered construction continue to surprise me--the small ways in which Biffle has been trained to exist in his body differently than the ways I've been trained, and the ways homophobia was used casually, pervasively, throughout his childhood and young adulthood as a tool for keeping him in line.

10 comments:

charlie said...

It's weird how incidents like the clubs/babies thing can resurface so that we (or at least I) end up reading them as formative. They must have raised some sort of subconscious red flag, to be picked out of such an amorphous, massive thing as memory, wouldn't you say?

Aaron said...

have you done any research about these "society based gender roles" and if/how they exist in different cultures?...does that make since?

Alison said...

Oh, good question, Aaron--and the answer is YES, gender roles do exist in other cultures, and they're often very different from our own. One classic feminist example is footbinding: men in contemporary US society don't tend to find tiny, deformed, rotting feet to be attractive, and yet for thousands of years in China, they were absolutely the height of sexiness. If a woman's foot could fit in the palm of a man's hand, then she was a sex goddess.

aaron said...

That's the one that I've heard most from you...( not to knock it...or say that it's not imortant to note).

What about for men... are there any wierd things that guys do to change their looks? I guess the most obvious thing I'm thinking of is the wearing of dresses by men in some cultures (scottish), and how that could be looked at as masculine in their society but feminine in others.

Kissing cheeks is another example... what made americans make closeness unexceptable?

Alison said...

I know less about masculinity as an area of study, although there is some really great work being done on it (by people like Michael Kimmel, Jackson Katz, Michael Messner, etc). I don't know why we developed this certain model of masculinity in the US that's so different from, say, France (and these different models of masculinity are central to one of the big jokes of the movie Talladega Nights, where the French driver is contrasted with Ricky Bobby and it's sooo humiliating that he's a better driver because he's sooo not masculine according to the Ricky Bobby model).

I have more to say, but I think this comment box has gotten long enough...

Marco Acevedo said...

Hi Baxterpeoplz—
Firstly, I'm new to this blog— my significant other recommended it to me as an example of a great "couple" blog, as we're thinking of starting one ourselves. I agree. Kudos— this is a fine, informative, and most importantly very *readable* blog. Anyhow, on to the subject: the men of the Wodaabe of Nigeria and Niger turn the whole sprucing up and preening thing around— they dress up, put on heavy makeup to highlight their eyes and mouths in a dance/beauty contest to woo the hearts of the available young women (pics here: http://www.projectexploration.org/niger2000/wodaabe_feature.htm). They are very photogenic so there's a good chance you've seen them on some PBS special or other.

CT said...

Since we're talking about gender constructedness: I was walking in Target today with my boys, and there was an entire AISLE labeled "Boys Toys." Whaaa? Are you kidding me? It was full of cars and action figures. As a girl who grew up loving trucks and playing with Star Wars figures (and knowing plenty of other gals, past and present who did/do), today's Target sighting made me want to scream.

Haven't we already been through this? I didn't see a label of "Girls Toys" by the Barbies, but really now. Target, you disappoint me! I have a mind to call up the manager and leave a rather heated complaint.

Alison, I took a snap of this aisle with my cell phone and pix messaged it to you.

Alison said...

Welcome to Marco--and thanks for the cross-cultural masculinity info.

Cass, I got the pix message, but it unfortunately wasn't clear enough for me to use as the basis for another blog post (which I'd hoped). But I think toy marketing is some of the most crassly gendered stuff out there. If you want to see our society's messages about gender without a whole lot of subtlety, look at the way toys are marketed to boys and girls. I have a set of toy commercials I show to classes sometimes, and the gender stereotyping is so blatant it's startling, even to intro WGS folks.

Alison said...

Welcome to Marco--and thanks for the cross-cultural masculinity info.

Cass, I got the pix message, but it unfortunately wasn't clear enough for me to use as the basis for another blog post (which I'd hoped). But I think toy marketing is some of the most crassly gendered stuff out there. If you want to see our society's messages about gender without a whole lot of subtlety, look at the way toys are marketed to boys and girls. I have a set of toy commercials I show to classes sometimes, and the gender stereotyping is so blatant it's startling, even to intro WGS folks.

Bookninja said...

Your gym teacher was rehashing Lamarckian evolution: anything an animal does for it's own needs will cause adaptation over time. Just about every dumb thing said about evolution is not Darwinian, but Lamarckian. This is the "Africans have dark skin because the sun is brighter" or "giraffes have long necks because they stretched for leaves" type of error.