Ever since I read Jennifer Troemner’s blogpost “A different kind of plot: the Heroine’s Journey” posted September 4, 2013, I have been thinking about how society has tried to define what it means to be a man or a woman. I have always found it fascinating and somewhat baffling that some need to put people in boxes with neat little labels. I have always thought that the soul has no “gender,” and that the bodies we are born with does not dictate what type of personality we have. That being said, I understand that people need something to latch onto in order to define themselves, something by which they can say, “Aha,” that is why I am like this. There have also been studies that demonstrate some particular difference between male behavior and female behavior. Then of course there are differences in experiences, interests, and priorities which I acknowledge, but that I am not dealing with in the following post.
I know this does not have to do with fantasy writing, but since writing is about trying to understand ourselves, I am including it here. Moreover, I think it is valuable to have this conversation. In the last few weeks, everywhere I turn I hear talk of someone being masculine or someone being feminine. I do not purport to have all the answers, but I offer the following for consideration, my 5-paragraph essay on redefining what we think of as masculine and feminine.
Redefining the Masculine and the Feminine
In early modern England, the definitions of what was masculine and what was feminine were a prescribed dichotomy and inextricably linked to the sex one was born as. For example, men were associated with order, strength, and the public sphere among other things, and women were associated with chaos, weakness, and the private sphere, to name a few. However, as society has come to recognize the artificiality and inadequacy of such definitions, we have turned to look at issues surrounding nature versus nurture to find the answers we seek. What does it mean to be a man or a woman? Generally speaking, there are tendencies that are predominant in men such as being competitive, and others that are predominant in women such as being cooperative; yet, it is more important to note that such tendencies are still inherent in all of us to varying degrees, and therefore, should not also be linked with the other aspects falsely associated with what it means to be masculine or feminine. For this reason, masculine and feminine should be redefined as competiveness and cooperativeness with the understanding that these terms do not define what it means to be a man or a woman. Rather, by recognizing the values of each, we can appreciate the unique mixture of both that we all have in ourselves.
Society has a general consensus that men on a whole are competitive in nature. As an undergrad in Linguistics, I learned, for example, that studies have shown men to be independent speakers while women were interdependent speakers. This meant that while women would cooperate with each other to build a conversation, men would often speak up to assert their presence within a crowd. Then there is biological science that tells us that it is testosterone in men that propels them to be “aggressive” in competing with each other. And recently, in the news, studies have indicated that men are greater risk-takers than women, prompting some to ask whether the financial melt-down of 2008 would have happened if more women had been in positions of power in financial institutions.
Yet, competiveness is not the sole purview of men. Many women want to compete in the career field, in politics, and sports. Unfortunately, if they are seen as overly aggressive in their competiveness, they are often labelled with an expletive which essentially brands them as the “Other” of a group already seen historically as “Other” by patriarchal traditions. Finding competiveness in women unacceptable is both destructive and confusing for women who through cooperative interdependent dialogue recognize the presence of this feeling in themselves and want to act on it. They then suffer the frustration of how to channel it when society begins to “punish” them for it. Moreover, when it comes to having a career, some women may be drawing on their cooperative nature in wishing to pursue one because it would help their family financially, but a patriarchal structure will often label their desire as deriving from what it sees as unacceptable competitiveness with a male power dynamic.
Conversely, even as the fields of science and linguistics, generally speaking, demonstrate the predominant trait of women to be more cooperative in nature, there is a danger for men to deny this side to themselves. Once, male cooperativeness was labelled with the heroic terms of brotherhood and the maturity of compromise, but with women feeling free to show their inherent competiveness, I would argue that some men have reacted with a redefining of cooperativeness. Understandably associating with the idea of the feminine, they have then gone further to associate it unfairly to the physical attribute of weakness once falsely linked to the idea of woman. This mistake gives rise to men misunderstanding how they should define themselves because they then do not accept whatever mixture of competiveness and cooperativeness exist in themselves.
In our search to understand ourselves, the place we look to first is at what is most apparent, how we look; and the most fundamental part of that is labelling our sex. By extension, then, how can we understand what it means to be a man or a woman without creating parameters and definitions? Well, we can, by first recognizing that, in the end, we are all a unique mixture of what has been considered masculine and feminine. And second, to accept each other for whatever form that mixture might be.