Monthly Archives: March 2011
Every quarter I ask my women students if any of them had been tomboys when they were little. Many hands enthusiastically shoot into the air. The women often have fond memories of their time climbing trees and digging in the dirt.
Then I ask men students if any of them had been sissies. The class bursts out laughing. One hand might sheepishly creep up.
One man claimed the question was unfair since the word “sissy” is stigmatized but “tomboy” is not.
Actually, there isn’t a non-stigmatizing word for a boy who acts like a girl. And there’s a reason for that. Any boy who acts like a girl takes himself down to a lower status. He becomes demeaned.
A girl who acts like a boy, on the other hand, doesn’t harm her social standing. At least not until she gets older and the behavior takes on lesbian overtones.
Another student thought I was exaggerating the problem. For his term paper he asked men and women on campus whether they had been tomboys or sissies, and whether they had ever thought about being the opposite sex.
When he asked women if they had ever wanted to be a man, or wondered what it would be like, many said they had. When he asked about being tomboys when they were little, they often reminisced on that happy time.
But when he asked men whether they had ever wanted to be a woman, or been curious about what it might be like, stunned reactions were the rule: “What!? Are you serious?” When he asked if they had been sissies when they were young, men turned an angry eye and asked, “Are you looking for trouble?”
He’s lucky to have finished his research and still be alive and in one piece.
This is just one of many examples of how we “gender rank” men above women in our society.
What difference does it make?
Devaluing females and femaleness ends in all sorts of problems: Women expect less for themselves, including pay and power in relationships. In societies and subcultures where masculine is valued over feminine we find higher rates of rape, wife battering, gay bashing, daughters-for-sale, and female infanticide. STDs are more widely spread. Women’s sexuality becomes repressed. The list goes on.
Gender ranking. It’s all about empowerment and disempowerment. But as we become more aware of the problem, we can create change.
When I ask students what they call a penis and a vagina in everyday words, two responses stand out: “cock” and “down there.”
The difference is telling. Cock: Cocky, proud, boastful, swaggering, self-satisfied. Image of a strutting cock, er, rooster.
But “down there”? Unspeakable. Embarrassing. Shameful.
Male sexuality is something to brag about, while female sexuality is something to hide.
The difference is reflected in Zestra’s difficulty getting ads on TV for a product that arouses women’s sexuality – while songs of “Viva Viagra” fill the airwaves.
The New York Times reports that TV networks, national cable stations, radio stations, and Web sites like Facebook and WebMD have all resisted airing ads for Zestra. Some agreed to broadcast ads in the early morning when most people are asleep. Others wanted disclaimers: “Not for people under 18.” Most felt that no amount of tweaking could make the ad suitable.
Many stations want to remove the words sex and arousal. Yet “An erection lasting more than four hours” is O.K.?
The manufacturer believes the resistance comes from our culture’s discomfort with women’s sexuality.
Meanwhile, normal processes of the vagina are shrouded in secrecy. Ads for one brand of sanitary napkins simply said, “Modess … Because.” Ok, that was the 70s. But even today women are embarrassed when tampons fall from their purses. Ever hear anyone say they had a “visit from Aunt Flow” when their period started?
Because female sexuality is deemed dirtier, more evil and more unspeakable, insulting slang for the vagina packs a bigger punch than slang for a penis.
Call a man a dick, and you’ve called him an idiot. Dictionary definition of dork: a whale’s penis. So a dork is a giant penis – an even bigger idiot.
But a cunt cuts deeper, moving into deeper disgrace.
Whether “down there” or “cunt,” it’s just degrees of shame.
We think that women will enjoy sex as much as men? In this atmosphere? It’s just the tip of the iceberg.
A version of this article was originally posted on Sept. 30, 2010
As Women’s History month winds down I’d like to ponder the difference between being powerful and merely feeling powerful. Too often people chase the feeling and give up the real thing.
I sensed the phenomenon in a highly publicized event last year.
Last October a Yale fraternity chanted “No means yes, yes means anal” in front of the campus Women’s Center. One man concluded it was all meant to stir up feminazis. “The sole purpose of that building,” he opined, “is to give hatemongering academic feminists a base to spread their propaganda and recruit new members… They most likely (chanted there) because feminazis always go out of their way to harm men. Just about every policy implemented by academic feminazis is meant to incite misandry and marginalize men.”
Interesting tactic. “Who looks worse?” I asked.
“The guys will come across as arseholes, but they don’t care. All they care about is stirring up the feminazis.”
The commenter has a blog which seems to have the same goal. I just don’t know whether any feminazis go to his site so that he can stir them up.
Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt that his theory could be true. Do you think the Yale frat staged a blow to feminism? Or to sexism, instead?
While some seek to feel strong by chanting rape fantasies, real rapists and wife batterers are involved in the same loop. They want to feel powerful, so they beat down a woman or invade her body. Or both. They feel dominant in the moment. But their potency is actually pretty limited. And the acts are only destructive, not constructive.
Any time gang members beat or kill someone they probably feel formidable. But in the long run, how mighty are they sitting in jail, or dead?
A few early feminists made the error of feeling powerful over the real thing when they spewed man-hating rhetoric. In the moment they likely felt pretty tough. But the strategy did not create real muscle and feminists at large gave it up. For the effect was to repel potential female and male allies, alike.
Now we are left with the brand “feminazis.”
To all of the above I ask, why don’t you do something with your efforts and your lives that are both powerful and constructive, instead of beating others down in a basically weak attempt to feel better about yourselves?
And next time you seek power, consider whether you are being powerful only in your own head.
March is Women’s History Month
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has introduced a bill that would repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which bans same-sex marriage. It would also give married gay couples the same federal benefits as straight couples.
We’ll likely hear the usual response from the DOMA crowd: Gay marriage hurts families.
Actually, gay marriage helps them.
Without marriage, children of gays and lesbians are not protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act, which gives parents precious job-protected time to care for a new child. These kids aren’t guaranteed child support should their parents separate, either. They may miss out on social security or inheritance if a parent dies. They may not even be allowed to visit a sick mom or dad in the hospital. Shouldn’t children of gay and lesbian couples be protected, too?
Some worry that kids with gay parents will be mocked. But don’t most kids undergo teasing? Kids are laughed at for all sorts of reasons: glasses, religion, height, weight, a crooked nose, poverty, an unusual name. I know of one African American boy who has two lesbian moms. But the first time he was taunted it was for being black, not for having lesbian parents.
A few years back a gay couple who were fostering special needs children wanted to adopt to create a real family. At the time, Florida forbade gay adoption. When the children were asked if they feared being mocked for having two dads, they said no, they just wanted to be a family.
But what about the kids’ social, emotional and intellectual health? Studies show that these children are indistinguishable from others. Some will be surprised to learn that there is no difference even in gender identity, gender role behavior, or sexual orientation.
Others worry that gay marriage will lead to higher rates of divorce. Really? I know several people who have gotten divorced because one spouse was gay, the other straight. The partnerships were unstable and the eventual breakups weren’t good for families. There are many reasons this can happen, but stigma and the illegality of gay marriage certainly factor in.
Meanwhile, gay suicide rates are four times those of their hetero peers. As gay marriage – and gayness itself – become less stigmatized, these young people will be less inclined to take their own lives. And parents will be less likely to lose their daughters and sons to these tragic deaths. And that’s good for families, too.
Gay marriage hurts families? I can’t figure out how. Unless it’s patriarchal families that are the concern. Lesbian and gay marriages both upset the dominant-husband, subordinate-wife model. So gay marriage may indeed hurt patriarchal families that promote gender inequality. I’d say that’s a good thing.
This article originally appeared in the Ms. Magazine Blog March 18, 2011
Random Moms across America think they know: My son has got to be gay. He wears khakis today but wore a dress to school from age 4 to 6; he used to do ballet and still doesn’t like sports; in preschool he was all about playing princess but now is all about Pokemon; and, in spite of the clear gender divisions in third grade, he plays with both girls and boys. I mean, what straight boy is into that kinda freaky gender mash-up?
This mom knows better, and she goes on to remark that, actually, butch boys can grow up to be gay, and fem boys can grow up to be straight.
Interestingly, few moms worry that their little tomboys will grow up to be lesbians.
But this mom gets LOADS of advice on how to turn her son “boyish.” Take away the girly toys and clothes, and enroll him in sports!
So much worry about girly boys.
Yet what we think of as “girl stuff” turns out to be “boy stuff” in other times and places.
Boys shouldn’t wear pink? Years ago the country staged a great debate on whether pink or blue should designate girls or boys. Some advocated pink for boys – such a robust color! Blue is so dainty.
The Cabbage Patch craze of the last generation led a lot of boys to want dolls. One of my little boy cousins got one for Christmas. Today most people would call him a manly man, complete with wife and baby. (And G.I. Joe is a doll, too.)
Ancient Roman men wore skirts, though the one on the left is armored! (A likely relief to some macho men out there.) Other Roman men wore dresses (robes).
And we mustn’t forget men in tights, circa “Romeo and Juliet.”
Moving on to the court of the “Sun King,” Louis XIV, we find him wearing lots of lace, ruffles, curls, and color. And gracefully posed!
The American founding fathers had considerably less glitz, but they still wore more color, lace, ruffles, and curls than most men today would be caught dead in. They also hired instructors to help present a more graceful appearance. One of my male students asked, “Ok, but what did the manly men wear?” This is what they wore!
In more modern times, Scottish men can still be partial to skirts, though they call them kilts. Below are traditional and more recent versions of the garment.
Judges, priests, and scholars also continue to wear “dresses” today.
Perhaps the most surprising expressions of manhood come from a culture entirely different from our own: the Wodaabe of Nigeria in Africa. There, men adorn themselves with makeup and jewelry. Because white eyes and teeth are part of the beauty ideal for men, they often roll their eyes and show their teeth to show off these features.
In our own time and place there’s Rod Stewart, who seems to be strongly hetero by all accounts. But check out these shots:
There’s a difference between sex and gender. Sex is biologically-based. It’s made up of our genes (xx for girls, xy for boys), hormones (testosterone, estrogen), anatomy (vagina, penis, breasts, etc.). But gender is all made up. Or what cultures make up to mark biological differences.
If clothing, makeup, jewelry and toys aren’t naturally “boy” or “girl” things, how can doing “boy” or “girl” things mark sexual orientation?