Thursday, March 27, 2008

Can a Woman Experience Male Privilege? and other questions on "Growing Up Genderless"

Although I managed to find something familiar in almost every one of the pieces anthologized in Women from Another Planet?, the one that resonated the most with me was Jane Meyerding's essay "Growing Up Genderless." Even the title grabbed me, because I felt I had grown up genderless, too, and wanted to see if she described the same sorts of things that I would.

Meyerding seems to have been gifted with greater social awareness at younger ages than I ever was, and it shows in her recollections of childhood. Her memories of grade school primarily involve bafflement at the mysterious doings of her classmates, whereas mine tend to be montages of sensory impressions, mostly color and shapes, and a few flashes of imaginary adventures, whether of my own invention or from books I was reading. Indeed, it's to this profound solipsism that I ascribe my general sense of having been a happy child.

One thing Meyerding describes that I also experienced is a sense of disconnection from her own body, to the extent of not really knowing what she looked like:
I can give you statistics --- height, approximate weight, hair length and color --- but I do not have the kind of relationship with my physical self that would allow me to participate in the female commitment to "doing the best with what you've got."
I never learned to see my body as a woman's body in the sense that a woman's body is an actor in socio-sexual relations. My body is the support structure for me ... (if) it has a gender, that gender lives on the outside, not in here where it would make a difference to how I feel or see the world.

In my own childhood, I experienced much the same kind of nebulous self-image. For me, that meant I was whatever I decided to imagine myself as, whether that was a dinosaur or a horse or a fox or a boy or whatever.

Meyerding also describes seeing "Woman" as a group to which she couldn't belong, a separate species she could study from afar. (Boys baffled her too, but since she was theoretically a girl, she devoted more mental energy to understanding girls). I have to say, I identify with this too. I went further than she did --- she thought of herself as neither female nor male, while I adopted masculinity as my own. My friends have historically been mostly male, largely because boys were more likely to share my interests, and more likely to socialize on terms that I could understand. Girls' discourse always seemed shallow and content-free to me, which I now recognize is because it was so rich in the nonverbal cues and vocal intonations that I can't perceive. I became a hard-core weightlifter in high school and college to masculinize my body, the achievement of which goal had the paradoxical effect of making me more open to femininity. I grew my hair out long, made jewelry and wore long skirts. Much later, I came to identify as a feminist. I'm still not sure whether I can say I experienced male privilege, although I was certainly blind to the social expectations of women, did not meet them, and arrogated numerous male prerogatives to myself (which I continue to do, as long as I step on no one's rights in so doing).

I question whether I (a woman) can have experienced male privilege for the same reason I question whether Meyerding or I really did "grow up genderless." Gender is not just lived reality, it's also a category other people sort you into. On some level, you can't escape awareness of gender. I may have believed myself to be all manner of things, even to the point that, drawing pictures of myself with my family, I'd draw a dinosaur, but somehow I always knew I was also a girl. However much I questioned the extent to which "girl" described me, there was no question that it was the label that would be applied to me. Similarly, as a child Meyerding somehow knows that it is girls, and not boys, that she must study and emulate. We were privileged by our limited awareness of gender, but some level of gender-consciousness infiltrated even our highly resistant minds. And both of us, as adult women, can describe in great detail the ideal "feminine" role that society expects us to play. So I would amend the phrase to say we didn't grow up genderless so much as we grew up weakly gendered, in contrast to the very strongly gendered society around us.


Ettina said...

I think a woman can experience male priviledge in one sense: a lot of people think that men and women should be considered equal, but still value 'men's tasks' more highly than 'women's tasks'. From a person like this, anyone doing a traditionally male task will get male priviledge, even if they are female. This is especially seen in paychecks - traditionally male jobs typically have higher pay, even if they are less skilled (eg guy who lifts crates as opposed to secretary).

Anemone said...

I used to think I could be and was androgynous, then finally I realized that other people look at me and see a woman, so it really doesn't matter what I think. Now, if I really looked androgynous, that would be different.

makoto/pomegranate said...

I agree with Anemone's comment.

You can't escape gender, because it's what other people put on you. If the most effeminate man in the world smiles at someone's child in the supermarket, people will still get mad (will treat him like a potential pedophile).

The most butch woman in the world can do the same (at least when people get close enough to tell she's a woman), and it's fine.

Trivial example, but you can't escape your gender unless you *really* look opposite gendered. (Maybe this is part of what requires transsexuals to actually transition -- just thinking of yourself different won't cause the world to treat you differently; and it does treat you differently.)

Also, notice what people do when they can't tell what someone's gender is -- they freeze up and freak out. I think they're struggling to figure out which of two scripts for interaction to use; the "man" or "woman" script. The implication of that being that people don't have genderless interaction scripts. Which means that all human interactions are always gendered. (or at least that's my take)

I suspect many autistic people do have genderless interactive scripts, although the pressure to adapt them at least a little bit will be powerful.

As far as male privilege, I personally don't think a woman ever gets that. And guys are hopelessly stuck in their roles, too. Personally, I think I'd like a gender-badge system (you get to pick, and change as you please).:)

Lindsay said...

@makoto/pomegranate - yeah, I've come to notice the script thing, too.

There seems to be a hitch near the beginning of almost all of my interactions with strange men, during which a claim is laid, by me, to at least some part of the "man" script, and they decide which parts of it they will use with me.

People usually end up using a composite of both when interacting with me, but yes, the first choice is always the "woman" script, and sooner or later there will be a moment of tension when that script doesn't work on me.

I also agree that a woman can't ever really have male privilege --- she can escape various aspects of feminine socialization, whether due to her own obstinacy, obliviousness or nontraditional family background, but I don't think anyone ever escapes *all* of it (I sure didn't!) and that even the most oblivious or obstinate gender resister has to contend with the fact that other people are going to gender hir one way or another all hir life.

I have been lucky enough in my friendships, acquaintanceships and working relationships that people have been willing to stretch their conceptions of gender on discovering what I am like.

I also think Ettina is right that masculine pursuits --- even when pursued by women --- are privileged above feminine ones; a female engineer benefits from the social prestige of her (male-gendered) profession, and is probably going to be seen as an Exemplary Woman or an "honorary man." But the "honorary man" role isn't quite the same as actually treating a woman as if she were a man.

(I liked your supermarket example, too --- I am definitely not considered a threat to anyone's children!)