October 28, 2008

Who's On Top Reflection

In hir complicated, yet comprehensive, explanation of gender in My Gender Workbook, Kate Bornstein discusses the different theories and way about which one can approach and examine the concept of gender. Bornstein openly rejects the traditional concept of gender being a binary system of opposites, as this dichotomy simply does not address the entirety of the population. Kate also goes on to discredit the “ying-yang� and “continuum� concepts, and even the theory of gender being “a circle�. In Bornstein’s opinion, society has constructed a pyramid-like structure for gender, with the top consisting of white, executive, wealthy and happy men, a small and often unattainable portion of the population for most. Bornstein recognizes that citizenship, health, monogamy, heterosexuality and the possession of power and property all dictate where one might fall into this theory. The man described in supposedly society’s interpretation of the Perfectly Gendered Individual.

While completing Kate Bornstein’s activity in the “Who’s on Top?� section of My Gender Workbook, I was surprised with the results of the exercise. I initially thought that because of my background, financial standing, race, and definite gender identity, I would be toward the top of Bornstein’s Gender Pyramid. I only received a score of 578, therefore putting me in "far from perfect" category. Apparently, I inherently can never be at the top due to my lacking in dominant genitalia, but also in my religious beliefs (or lack thereof). According the Kate’s standards, which are reflective of society’s standards, many of us can never make it toward the top. Bornstein embraces this concept and recognizes how the simple act of toying with, or challenging, gender in our modern world might cause hostility. Regardless of hir complex explanation of the gender paradigm, the definition of gender and gender roles and identities in modern society are still up in the air, as I expect them to be for some time to come.

Gender Workbook Exercise

According to Bornstein, gender is any form of categorization where people are separated and designated as different from each other in one form or other. Sex, however, is any type of the act itself. Bornstein argues that gender gets conflated with sex in dominant society through the "biological imperative" and concepts connecting sexual preference with gender identity, sexual attraction with gender attribution, and the act of sex as gendered and specific. It is a "sex-as-gender" perspective.

Personally, I feel that Bornstein makes many points that I can relate to in my own life, such as the attempt to attain a perfect gender identity, the safety of an identity within the dominant female/male binary, and the structures of power and privilege attributed to individuals within dominant hierarchies. The exercise I react most emotionally to- the one that hit the most personal level- was the one where readers are asked to describe the last group or relationship they used to belong to and the reasons for leaving. To make a long story short, it reminds me of a past relationhip I had with a man and the many questions I still have about the relationship and why it ended. Although I was rejected by him not because of a shift in gender identity but rather because of my ideals about what kind of relationship I wanted and his fear of another hurtful experience, I think that it is still very relevant to look at that rejection and question both our reasoning and perspectives. It seems important to do this in order to get at the ways in which the dominant heteronormative hierarchies work in our lives. For example, why do I look for a monogamous, committed relationship rather than a non-monogamous one? Why would either of us fear a sexual or even emotional experience with another person? Why were we and still are, regardless of of the fall-out, attracted to each other?

I could write pages upon pages on how his status as a fit, white, heterosexual male seems to allow me as a fit, white heterosexual female to be attracted to him, why I fantasize about sex with him in a certain heteronormative way in which I take a passive or subordinate role, and even why I consider myself to be heterosexual in the first place even though I have had almost no sexual experience. There were a multitude of racial, class, and sexual factors that came together in my experience and interaction with him that relate directly to Bornstein's metaphorical pyramid of gender/identity/power. Even though I have only given an overview of my experience, Bornstein's exercise prompted me to question and critique my personal gender identity and preferences in sex as well as see the way in which dominant society conflates the two in my own life.

Engaging Assignment #3: Gender

First of all, I really like Kate Bornstein. Not only is hir writing amusing, but it seems to be written for everyone. It isn’t all crazy, advanced theory terms; it’s intelligent but very easy to understand, and very funny. I think this was perhaps hir goal–the book is supposed to teach everyone about gender, even those deemed “perfect�, who would presumably not be reading a book about gender that shakes the very ground that holds them at the top of the pyramid (to use Bornstein’s example). Which brings me to…

Gender. I honestly have no idea what it is to me. I’ve gotten as far as gender is an identity, but I have no words to describe what that identity is. If I fall back on society’s definition of gender, it is “male� and “female� (and probably based on genitalia and hormones and gonads, etc). . If I choose to reject those binaries (which I do), gender becomes anything between “male and female�. This definition, however, still assumes “male� and “female� as sort of norms–everything is defined in terms of the two binaries. Why should gender be squashed within two completely constructed identities? More importantly, how do you get gender out?

Bornstein basically sums up my thoughts on gender in the section Gender: The Shell Game, on page 31. She talks about living in systems of gender–the “two gender system� and then living out of the system entirely. I am struggling with understanding how Bornstein “got out of the system�. As though in response to my thoughts, Bornstein states, “I think it comes down to an understanding of gender as simply one aspect of identity. Gender is a kind of identity, that’s all�. This is where I’m at.

My completion of the “Who’s on top?� quiz and a gender exercise, as well as my day to day experiences, have confirmed a lot of my opinions on society’s definition of gender. I think it is very much about power, and society sees that power most manifested in a straight, white, middle-class, etc. male (basically everything Bornstein lists on page 43). I was put in the “um� result category, and while I don’t think this necessarily describes the way I am viewed in my everyday life (at my high school, at home, at tournaments), it caused me to consider how people who see me on the street or the bus view me. The other day I was transferring buses (ironically, after a class discussion on gender binaries), and two men behind me had a very loud conversation (and later proceeded to ask me) about my gender–whether I was a guy or a girl.

I think that this is indicative not only of societies definition of gender as the incredibly rigid “male and female�, but also of the need of so many people to classify everyone as “one or the other�. I am not allowed to exist just as Laura, a person; I must be “Laura, the lesbian, middle-class, white, Christian, female�. I can’t escape identity–I want identity; to a certain extent, I need identity in order to exist in our society. At the same time, however, I can’t seem to find one that fits.

Engaging Assignment #3

Bornstein's "Who's on Top" exercise was one that elicited both surprise and anger from me (and surprise at being angry). When I was taking the test I was pretty ambivalent about it--I'd figured I'd end up with the same results I always get on these types of surveys and ratings: the middle category, where you're not special enough to praise, but not weird/abnormal/low-scoring enough to wonder about.
However, when I graded my exam and found myself in the second-to-last category I found myself surprised and angry. I was surprised because I felt like I knew that, had I taken this exam four or five months ago, I would have scored much higher simply because I didn't identify transgender. I felt like after reading all of these words about how gender is so elusive and isn't someone's entire identity as a person, and because I feel like I'm still trailing off of a life where I lived gender congruent, surely my relatively new claim to being transgender wouldn't change everything so completely (not to say this one test is everything, but you know what I mean). And, there my score was, proving society's point--it doesn't matter who you were and how successful you were in that identity, what you do, or what place you occupy in the world. If you're transgendered, you are automatically knocked down to the bottom of the ladder.
I felt significantly discouraged. So I decided, like any normal human, to look at what was to be said about those in the bottom category, and that's where my anger came in. To see that Bornstein praised the bottom category of people really frustrated me. I know the scores are arbitrary and this is just one person's quiz on a totally elusive concept, but it reminded me of the culture I've found myself immersed in since I came out as trans and moved to the Twin Cities, and it also pinpointed the following notion that I had been previously unable to articulate: Even in the trans/queer community, you have to look, act, or feel a certain way, or else you are pushed to the side. You either have to be fully passable or a complete genderfuck to fit in, and if you're not either of those things there's not much, if any, room for you. It's also completely representative of how incestuous the GLBT community is--if you don't fit the aforementioned prerequisites, you'd better know someone popular in the community in order to fit in and be just as loved.
So, essentially, seeing the acknowledgment of the dominant society's values on the top of the score chart and the praise for those who are the "prime" of the GLBT community on the bottom in combination with seeing my score and knowing that it's a visual/numerical representation of what happens in everyday life really frustrated me. The GLBT community (or even just the trans community, more specifically), I feel, claims to be an all-inclusive and supportive place to go for those of us who don't fit in, but once you try to sign up for the club, you realize that it's just as exclusive as the rest of society.
As for gender...I think gender is a monster that we've all created, but none of us can afford to kill. It's a completely arbitrary system and hierarchy, but at this point I think it may just be something that we'll never be able to escape. So many of the foundations of our everyday life are grounded in gender, and with the paradox of progress that we've created (the more efficient we get as a society, the more we fill up our newly free time), I think if we were to try to deconstruct something so basic to nearly everything in everyone's lives it would cause so much of a breakdown we would be back to square one, thinking of equally arbitrary ways to classify people and make it easier to navigate everyday life. So, while I know gender is stupid and not even real, I can appreciate the necessity we have to continue to use it every day.

Let's Have a Social

We all fall into the same trap and why shouldn't we? We are products of society, and being thus we follow social standards; prescribed behaviors constructed by society, but sometimes these behaviors aren't always for the best. Just because society prescribes these behaviors does not make them right. Even so, deviation from them usually causes isolation. So we follow, blindly and unconsciously, these social constructs.

I feel like two people. One person is society. He sees in the eyes of society, made by society, to live in society. The other resists society and the idea of conforming to what the group thinks is best without first consulting what he (I) think(s) is best. I think in all of us these chasms exists. Gaps between what we want and what society wants.

If we give into society we lose what I'd like to think of as our individuality. We can't make a choice for ourselves, what feels right to us. Instead we make choices to appease society. On the other hand to do something we feel is right that contradicts what society feels is right leads to negative sanctions from people around us. Depending on the severity of our actions in their deviation, these sanctions could range anywhere from a frown to jail. So there the choice lies, what you feel is right vs. what society feels things should be.

These social norms do exist for a reason though. They teach children what is right or wrong (morality), they unify people for a united purpose, they make life generally easier. Laws protect people. Institutions teach children. But the cost of this is a loss of personal power over actions. So maybe the choice is more like personal power vs. safety/unity.

I don't know how I feel about this so far. Right now I'm confused. I feel like the solution is viewing society through a critical lens, always measure your actions through a grain of salt, but there still seems to be a problem with this. Can we really ever be without the desire to fit into a society? If not then the problem lies in reform, but reform to what and how? Questions.

October 27, 2008

"Who's On Top" Gender Workbook

Society defines gender as a hierarchy; just another way to lump individuals in to categories to determine the "haves" from the "have-nots"...basically, lumping people who are biological males at the top of the pyramid, women fall underneath them (of course, because they are inferior being that they have no penis) and then anyone who does not fit in to one of those two categories is at the bottom of the hierarchy. Bornstein refers to this as, "a hierarchical dynamic masquerading behind and playing itself out through each of only two socially priviledged monogendered identities." Bornstein asserts that gender has very little to do with genitalia (65) and is simply a method of categorization (26). I agree with Bornstein's definition of gender as a simple method of categorization. So far, this is the best defintion of gender I have ever heard.

The gender exam really got me thinking because I have always felt that I was part of the "norm" as far as my identity as our culture defines it...I am a caucausian female, I love to be overtly feminine (it is just how I like it...some poeple tell me I am so flambouyant I should have been a gay guy..haha),I am hetero-sexual and in a monogamous relationship with the man I will spend the rest of my life with, I am in perfect health (always have been), I came from an upper-middle class family, and I was always told by my parents that "I can be anything I want to be as long as I just work hard enough at it (I found this ironic because Bornstein mentioned this on page 57)". So when I scored 606 and fell in to the category of "Um, you don't get invited to a lot of ritzy places, do you?" Then it hit me that although I feel confident and proud about my gender and being a woman and have never viewed being a female as a "handi-cap" so to speak, sometimes it is a handicap. I am viewed as weak and less capable then i would be had i been born with a penis. I started thinking about how this affects my daily life; why am I always the one that has to make dinner while he watches the football game? Why does he always drive the car (even when it is my car)
when i am just as capable? Why can't I open doors for men when i am just as capable of pulling it open as the man in front of me...I am not weak! Why do I make less at my job (which I am VERY good at) than someone doing a job at my work that takes less skill but is a man? Why does my dad tell me I can not use certain words because I am a "lady"? Why am I told that I should subtract the "one-night stands no one will ever know about" from my number of sexual partners so that people will not think I am a slut when my guy friends seem to multiply their number of sexual partners with pleasure everytime I talk with them? And then I started realizing I have been blind to how my gender affects me and that how I view my gender as equal to that of a male is not viewed by society in that way.
just some thoughts,

October 26, 2008

My Gender Workbook Exercise

According to Kate Borstein--and I really think she hit the nail on the head--gender is "anything that categorizes people" (65). She says that it includes appearance, mannerisms, biology, psychology, hormones, roles, genitals and any other aspect of the human that assigns a group. Thinking this way about gender is almost mind-blowing to me, because even though hir definition makes perfect sense, I've still grown up thinking of gender and sex as one entity and only now do I see that they are as different as night and day. After completing the gender exam and the workbook exercise, I am realizing that my own view of gender and my own definition is changing for the better. For example, now everytime I even see the word "gender" I look at the context in which it's used. I'm surprised how much I find a word used when I'm actually looking for it, and even more surprised that I still have yet to see the term "gender" used correctly.

Gender, according to dominant society, is still synonymous with sex. I guarantee that if someone sent out a survey for the general public to take, that almost nobody would be able to differentiate between the two. Young people might have a better understanding than the older generations though, and I think that's because we are more willing to adapt to new ways of thinking.

Gender according to me...This is tricky. I honestly think that Kate Bornstein's definition is exactly right, and I hope that one day I am able to think with hir train of thought about gender and sex and people in general without consciously making myself do so. But right now, I don't always see gender as it should be seen, and I find myself defining it by dominant society's definition. Do I want to do this? No. But unfortunately after growing up for 18 years thinking that gender and sex are the same thing, it is proving a little difficult to break the habit. Despite that I am glad to say that I am starting to think of gender and sex in a new light.


October 21, 2008

Engaging #3 on Bornstein

Before I read the Kate Bornstein chapter “who’s on top�, I figured that it would deal with the power dynamic in an individual personal/sexual relationship. As I finished it, I was excited to see that her descriptions matched both my understanding of gender and my experience of it also.

Bornstein defines gender as more than sex, genitals, personal identity, sexual preference, etc—all the things that we have been discussing all semester. She defines gender in terms of power to both be successful yourself and then to mold the society and its institutions to your point of view for continued dominance of the prototype. The prototype on the “top� of the pyramid is the white male who has a number of features that she lays out in the chapter, the most prominent of which are perfect male genitalia and producing sons that look the same. Anything else slides further down the pyramid.

Before I read the article, I was somewhat surprised by the questions asked in the exercise, but afterwards, it was clear that she is asking us to explore the gender-power axis for ourselves and see where society places us versus where we might think we fit. I have always thought a lot about this in my rise to professorship in a white male dominated scientific field and university. I personally don’t think that I have suffered greatly from discrimination, for sure I am here as tenured professor. However, as I look back, I wonder if I had to work harder, acquiesce to things I might not have liked, or “toe the line� and I think that in reality I probably did. Being observant, I could see what success looked like and jumped the barriers to get there, even if they might have been higher for me. I remember a male colleague discussing the importance of golf course and locker room talk to get business done and feeling out of the power structure that determines our destiny. I am not sure if things have changed, but Bornstein puts my thoughts and experience into a model that explains a lot of what has occurred.

October 19, 2008

Thoughts on "My Gender Workbook"

After working through Kate Bornstein’s “My Gender Workbook,� I feel that for me, gender is a place where I’ve always fallen a little bit short. While I don’t feel that I was assigned the wrong gender at birth, I also don’t feel that I’m the “ideal woman or man,� which is what I believe our society demands of us. As Bornstein suggests, there isn’t room for outlaws to the system of gender, which has become mistakenly interchangeable with sex. I thought Bornstein’s organization of gender as a “hierarchical dynamic� made a lot of sense and accurately depicted how privilege operates to reward those that fit within the “two socially privileged monogendered identities.� (pg. 42) Bornstein’s defining of gender made me finally understand some of my own feelings of inadequacy, and made me realize that we’re all constantly being pushed out of our gender comfort zones to become what society views as a perfectly gendered person. Whether or not we conform or attempt to is another question, and I think Bornstein is suggesting that we don’t.