I’ve been thinking a lot the last few days about topography — the lay of gender land, so to speak. There seems to be a cycle of news and blog posts appearing and then being discussed in ways that never 1) clearly define what’s being talked about, 2) create false dichotomies between male and female, “all-boy” boys and “pink” boys, gay men and machismo, etc., and 3) mush together gay, transgendered, culturally feminine, cross-dressing, and just about anything else into one.
Take last week’s story (which I heard about on NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me) that the Czech Archeological Society had discovered a “gay caveman,” thought to be so because he was buried like a woman, with household jugs rather than weapons. Now the folks at Wait Wait get paid to make things funny, so that didn’t bother me. I went to the Internet to find out the details, and the first headlines I saw read, “First Homosexual Caveman Found” (Telegraph), “Archeologists Find First Known Gay Caveman Near Prague” (aol), and “Gay Caveman: 5,000 Year-Old Skeleton Outed” (Daily Mail).
On the one hand, it cheers me to think that thousands of years ago, Czech society had a place for different types of men. On the other hand, some gay guys certainly like to cook, but “GAY” does not mean “ACTS LIKE A WOMAN” (mush, mush).
Blog posts and a follow-up story since have pointed out the trouble aptly; Salon talks about how far we haven’t come in gender awareness if we can’t distinguish among gay, transgendered, intersexed, and third gendered. LiveScience problematizes many aspects of the original stories (like, the fact that pre-Bronze age is not a caveman!) and paints a much richer picture of ways ancient cultures thought about gender, including shamanism and third gender.
What all this confusion says to me is that in many places including the United States, the gender binary is so firmly part of our worldview that we not only don’t have the vocabulary we need for rich conversation, we don’t even have the mental conceptions. (Gender binary, by the way, means a rigid way of thinking about sex and gender as comprised as two specific and disconnected parts: masculine and feminine.)
Often, work that discusses gender or even sets out consciously to challenge the notions of binary gender ends up reaffirming its very precepts. The field of folklore recently took a stab at discussing masculinity in Manly Traditions: The Folk Roots of American Masculinities.”Although by using the plural “masculinities” the authors are clearly trying to acknowledge that there is more than one way to be manly, the bulk of the book describes men’s attempts to perform, learn, or rebel against one culturally scripted form of masculinity.
In Judith Halberstam’s important Female Masculinity, the author acknowledges that our beliefs about what is masculine or feminine are socially constructed, but sidesteps even a definition — “although we seem to have a difficult time defining masculinity, as a society we have little trouble in recognizing it.” The book then proceeds to look at ways that woman inhabit stereotypically masculine spaces and identities through drag king performances, butch film characters, and the like.
When we use expressions like “alternative masculinities” or “feminine men,” we are exposing our underlying worldview which says despite lots of evidence to the contrary, we can only think of sex and gender as being male/female, with certain exaggerated definitions applied to each. That is why discussions of the many aspects of the richness of gender descend into, “He likes pink? So he wants to be a girl.” Or in the case of the Prague burial remains, “He likes to cook? That’s woman stuff, so he must be gay.”