Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Sexism #4: Gender Roles

I had a conversation about gender and sexuality this weekend that reminded me of something.

And since it is a chilly, rainy night in mid-June, it seems like a good time to write a blog post about it.

I'll begin with this true story:

Once upon a time (i.e. in the early 2000s), I worked for an organization that produced educational materials.

They had a mandate to represent male and female interests equally*. They also had a mandate not to spend very much money.

And so, in the creation of the educational materials, we used a lot of royalty-free clip-art. (For anyone who doesn't know what royalty-free clip-art is, it's inexpensive stock illustration that is available at sites like

I remember one math problem that was illustrated with a clip-art silhouette of two people in a canoe. The people were shown on a slight angle with mostly their backs facing the viewer.

A request came back from editorial to make one of the people in the canoe a woman.

"One of them already is," I responded to my manager who had conveyed the request. I mean, for Pete's sake – they were silhouettes of the backs of two people in a canoe. Both of them looked the way most of my either male or female friends would look if they put on their camping togs and had their backs drawn in silhouette in a canoe.

Why did editorial assume they were both men?

"Don't be smart," my manager told me. "Just make one of them a woman".

"What do they want? One foot sticking out of the canoe with a high-heel on it?"

My manager grimaced. (I suspect managing me was not always the easiest part of her day.)

"Just make one of them look more like a woman, okay?"

I sighed and returned to my desk, muttering about tits, tiaras and high heels. And this most recent example of editorial's stupid, backward headspace.

I looked at the silhouette.

I sighed again.

And then, I made one of the figures have a narrower neck, made what was visible of its chin less prominent, and gave it a ponytail.

I'd like to think that I then imagined that one as the man (it certainly looked like a couple of the men of my acquaintance in the early naughts) and the other one as the women. But I think that possibility is only occurring to me now.

What does this story illustrate? 

Basically, that we have some really persistent and pretty screwy ideas about what women and men should be like – even when they are clip-art silhouettes in a canoe.

I identify as a woman. Despite failing to meet a "stereotypical standard of femininity" on a lot of different counts – while I definitely meet that stereotype in some other ways.

Despite the fact that I would look just like a man if you stuck me in a canoe and drew a silhouette of me from the back.

Here are just a few examples of my complex gender stereotype composition:

I don't like make-up or babies. I do like baking and knitting. I don't like high-heels or shopping for clothing. I do like pretty stationery and having long, deep talks about feelings. I don't like removing my body hair (and I don't).

I do like cursing and splitting wood. I don't like manicures or moisturizer. I do like having a drink and talking off the cuff. I don't like measuring twice and cutting once.

I do like sitting with my knees apart. I don't like order. I do like control. I don't like lies. I do like a firm handshake. I don't like macadamia nuts. I do like getting massages. I don't like pandering.

I do like hugging. I don't like making mistakes. I do like being a person of my word.

I feel like I'm supposed to feel confused of conflicted about all of this, but I don't. None of it makes me question my gender. Am I gender-queer? I can remember thinking in the past that that would explain – label – the ways in which I diverge from "typical womanliness". But today the question occurs to me – why would I need (or want) a label? I mean, why do we have to assign "male"/"masculine" or "female"/"feminine" to any human characteristics? Why does picking out throw cushions have to be a woman-thing and using a chain saw have to be a man-thing?

(I reference here, for members of the Free To Be, You and Me generation, Dan Greenburg's poem, My Dog is a Plumber, which ends with the line: "So perhaps the problem / is in trying to tell / just who a person is, / by what they do well.")

In my opinion, we, as a culture, are fundamentally messed up in the head about gender.

Like what you like. Do what you do. Be sexually attracted to the people or things or activities to which/whom you are sexually attracted. It doesn't have any impact whatsoever on your "masculinity" or "femininity". Those are constructs that don't mean a damn thing. Be "you-gendered". I'll be "me-gendered".

If only we could then all be exempt from judgments and derogatory comments and prejudice and discrimination when our behaviours and appearances don't line up with expectations other people have because of our anatomical appearance. As if any of it is anyone's business but our own...


*It is interesting to me that while this organization was expected to represent equal numbers of males and females in their materials and while some attention was paid to racial diversity, there was no effort made to represent kids with different body types, abilities, etc. That would have been a fun challenge with clip-art, which tends to be bland, Caucasian and svelte. I wish editorial had been in the habit of coming back to me with requests like, "Put that person in a wheelchair," "put another 100 pounds on that person," "give that person a prosthetic leg". And I wish I had thought and dared to introduce that diversity myself – to send images up to editorial that were fat, pierced, naked or otherwise outside of the status quo. 

Now that would have been fun. 

I probably would have been fired. But in a fun way. 

(And given how that job eventually ended, being fired might not have been such a bad thing – but that's another story, perhaps for another rainy evening).

No comments:

Post a Comment