“Nature loves diversity and it’s human beings who have an awful time with it” ~ Diagnosing Difference
Today’s documentary, Diagnosing Difference, highlighted the various subtle stigmas that are overlooked by society in the discourse surrounding the transsexual question. Like many other societal problems that are so often defined by their huge, general and overarching stereotypes, the problems associated with transgender people are no different. We try to categorize them based on their outward appearance or we assume that they want to be in either binary category. Neither of these strategies or tendencies will be fruitful in improving the social conditions and cultural environment of transgender issues. Today’s class focused on medical care and the steps taken by the medical community to define transgender no longer as a mental disorder but as a less stigmatized condition. We need to find an outlet in order for everyone to have affordable and available access to any resources they may need.
However, I think an interesting issue to look at—that was also addressed in the documentary—is the question of the binary gender categorization. Why should choosing a bathroom in a public park by the source of an existential crisis for anybody? Merely looking at the stick figures often depicted on the door: a skirt means the girl and the legs mean the boy raise a red flag when observed by a critical eye. However, in answering my big question I need to highlight a paradox. As somebody who identifies as a woman, I personally feel uncomfortable with the idea of going into a bathroom marked for men. Walking down the street I feel objectified almost every single day, and there is no way I will put myself alone with a male stranger in a secluded area. Therefore, in order to protect my own sexual comfort I do not agree with the idea of a unisex bathroom. My unpopular opinion renders an unpopular compromise; three bathrooms are perhaps necessary as a potential solution. Yet, therein lies another contradiction. We have thus created three categories: the men’s room, the ladies room, and the arbitrary unisex or gender-neutral room. I wonder if this has the potential to become another binary with which we measure our identities.
Moreover, this problem can be connected back to the college experience and the recent discussions about sexual abuse in college. More specifically cat calling and the question of men treating women. Many colleges are debating incorporating hours at the gym that are strictly female. Personally, I would be extremely pro this; however, of course we must then beg the question who are we excluding? Who are we punishing?
The vast majority of people understand gender discrimination through the narrow lens of women’s issues. Though they are indisputably important components of the fight against sexist oppression, our understanding should be more inclusive to those who do not necessarily fall into this traditional definition of gender discrimination, but still suffer for defying society’s expectations of a gender binary. Dean Spade offers a more holistic and inclusive definition in Resisting Medicine, Re/Modeling Gender, saying that “sexist oppression requires that all people adhere to two narrowly defined gender categories; that all people work, dress, reproduce, and generally behave according to the standards set out as appropriate.” With this new definition, we can acknowledge that more than cisgendered women suffer from gendered expectations. As Dean Spade writes, transgendered people suffer gender discrimination as they receive mistreatment and prejudice for failing to adhere to “expectations of the gendered category they have been assigned,” in appearance, demeanor, and behavior. Intersexuals likewise suffer; as activist and intersex person Eden Atwood describes in a youtube video, “out of a great deal of fear and prejudice, a scalpel is raised in order to normalize the genitals and force a gender identity onto the child.” Thus, intersexuals are denied of their autonomy and self-determination, and surgically altered as birth. Even cisgendered men can suffer gender discrimination if they deviate from their masculine expectations, like the father Belkin described the New York Times that struggled to succeed professionally because he prioritized parenting- a task usually designated for women. Though the plights of these people have often been ignored in the larger understanding of gender discrimination, we as progressive thinkers in the modern era should include them in our goals of ending sexist oppression.
Men are not encouraged to use beauty and bath products, as that is considered to be a ‘feminine’ activity. Nonetheless, many men do, in fact, need and use lotion because—do I need to say it?—all human beings have skin! Gold Bond recently released a commercial for “Gold Bond Men’s Essentials Ultimate” featuring former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal. Shaquille O’Neal is the picture of masculinity: he is large in stature, athletic, and African American. According to Patricia Hill-Collins in ““Booty Call: Sex, Violence, and Images of Black Masculinity,” African American athletes are considered to be “hyper-heterosexual” (Hill-Collins 158). African American athletes represent the pinnacle of masculinity, historically viewed as being “primarily bodies ruled by brute strength and natural instincts” (Hill-Collins 152). It is no surprise, therefore, that Gold Bond opted to feature this imposing and masculine athlete to market their product, in order to remove some of the stigma of femininity that some men may feel about using lotion. The commercial concludes with the slogan “Man Up…with Gold Bond,” once again indicating the essentiality of defining the product as wholly masculine. By blatantly stressing masculinity throughout this entire ad, it only serves to reinforce the gender binary that dictates gender appropriate behavior. Since when did the use of lotion have to become a test of one’s masculinity?
Patricia Hill-Collins. “Booty Call: Sex, Violence, and Images of Black Masculinity.” Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. New York: Routledge, 2005. 149-180.
The “Show Your Joe” commercial featured above is an example of the gender binary that exists within advertising and media in general. This ad, choosing to feature good-looking handsome men and bells on their balls, has caused massive outrage in society; however, the ad isn’t the problem- the problem is that if this were an advertisement featuring women in the places of men, the backlash would be substantially less.
The public has grown accustomed to the sexualization of women’s bodies, the presentation of women in just their underwear, acting sexually by rubbing their bodies or being fragmented by the camera’s gaze. But when the roles are changed, when the camera is turned on a somewhat sexualized man (who is actually more dressed than the majority of women in commercials), it is indecent, in poor taste and an affront to the holiday season. While the advertisement is not especially child friendly during this family oriented season, most advertisements featuring women are not either (See Victoria’s Secret). And these sexualized holiday advertisements are usually successful: Victoria’s Secret sold over 400,000 Miraculous bras during just the 2010 holiday season! (Link)
The intended audience for this advertisement, the men who need some underwear, will probably believe the ad to be funny in nature and not offensive, while their significant others might feel like the ad is inappropriate. But the ad will still be successful and the selling of the product will still be successful as well.
So, why this ad? Why is it this advertisement that has caused an uproar? Maybe people just aren’t ready to accept the comical, sexual man. Or maybe it’s just easier to stick with women.
“Shrinking Women,” a spoken word poem by Lily Myers, articulates the relationship between women, food, space, and voice. Myers compares her upbringing with her brother’s, and explains that while men are encouraged to speak out and raise their voices, women are told to become less than and belittle themselves. As Myers speaks, “I have been taught accommodation. My brother never thinks before he speaks; I have been taught to filter […] You [her brother] have been taught to grow out, I have been taught to grow in.”
The inequity Myers discusses is cultural, and we’ve all experienced or seen the phenomenon of the “shrinking women.” Susan Bordo discusses the issue of “the slender body;” culturally, women are told to view and value themselves only in terms of their physical appearance, and can only be deemed valuable if they fit the image of beauty societally upheld: skinny. Men aren’t upheld to a similar definition of beauty, however, and, as Myers highlighted in her poem, are taught completely different standards of behavior. As John Berger wrote in “Ways of Seeing,” “men act and women appear.” It is very obvious that a large inequality exists between men and women in our society. This inequity can only be eliminated when women are no longer upheld to the skinny ideal and taught to shrink.
Berger, John. “Ways of Seeing.” Ed. Amelia Jones. The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader. New York: Routledge, 2003. 37-39. Print.
Bordo, Susan. “Reading the Slender Body.” Unbearable Weight. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. 185-212. Print.
CoverGirl promotes the idea that a successful woman is both strong and beautiful. While strength is a trait stereotypically associated with what Simone de Beauvoir calls the “Subject,” that is to say men, here it is attributed to the “Other,” women (33). On the surface, this advertisement empowers women. However, beauty and strength are accredited to success, implying that both are necessary. Strength in this depiction is correlated alongside beauty, which is almost exclusively reserved for women. That the advertisement is for cosmetics makes it more unlikely that being strong here is meant in a gender-universal sense. With that in mind, CoverGirl helps divide a characteristic into male and female subparts, not only keeping women and men separated, but also reinforcing the gender binary system.
de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex: Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Oppression is when societal norms are used to define everyone’s identity, regardless of whether the same conditions are applicable to the individual. Intersexuals are oppressed when they are pressured to change themselves to fit into male-female gender categories.
Society frames intersexual genitalia as an undesirable aberration from the norm that must be rectified. Intersexuals are expected to reconstruct their genitalia to cosmetically appear male or female. Medical authorities recommend parents to raise hermaphrodite children as one gender and not the other. These are examples of oppression – people use societal norms to justify preventing intersexuals from creating their own unique gender identity.
Our dependence on norms are reflected in the language that psychologists, writers, etc. use. They describe intersexuals as having “manifest sexual problems” (Colapinto 233), even though their genitalia are not truly “problems” until society frames them that way. Medical experts predict that intersexuals will “break down under the strain” (Colapinto 233) or, if they’re lucky, find out that “adjustment to unusual genitalia is possible” (Fausto-Sterling 95) – as if it is necessary and difficult for people to “adjust” to the genitals they’ve always had. In reality, genitals play a “strikingly insignificant” (Colapinto 234) role in one’s gender identity and self-image. Intersexuals’ gender identity issues, if any, likely stem from constantly being told that their genitals are abnormal rather than the abnormal genitals themselves.
Colapinto, John. As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl. New York: HarperCollins, 2000. Print.
Fausto-Sterling, Anne. “Should There Be Only Two Sexes?” Sexing the Body. New York: Basic Books, 2000. 78-114. Print.