When you ask someone what is masculine and what is feminine, they usually have a simple formula.
They take a list of what they like, decide if they are masculine or feminine, and then match the list to their personal identification.
For example, if they identify as a woman and love to participate in sports, then participating in sports is a feminine thing, or at least a gender neutral thing.
The converse is often also true. If they identify as a man and don’t like engaging their own feelings, then engaging one’s own feelings is a feminine thing.
This formula is what make it so difficult to try and quantify masculine vs feminine. Say, for example, that women like colour and someone is bound to say “Well, I’m a woman and I don’t like colour, so you are wrong!”
We police identity by policing those who attempt to find commonalities that may include us where we don’t want to be included or separate us from where we do want to be included.
Gender, in the way that it is portrayed in the media, especially commercial media, is usually seen as being based in symbol rather than in meaning. We learn early that to be effective in the system of gender we have to wrap ourselves in gendered symbols, from clothing to speech patterns.
In this model, gender isn’t something essential, something deep within us that we can’t lose, something we are centred and confident about. Instead, gender is something to be earned by effective performance, something we are rewarded for doing well and punished for not doing well.
If someone even hints that something we do, something we love, isn’t manly or womanly enough, well, that’s plenty of reason to hit them hard to try and silence them. “I love it, and I am a _____ so clearly, it’s a very ______ thing!”
To me, gender isn’t symbol, gender is meaning. Gender isn’t the simple story of our choices, rather it is the poetry that underlies those choices, the essential us. Anyone can do anything — change a tire, cook a dinner, plow a field, brush hair, whatever — but their heart is still their heart.
When we see gender as symbol rather than meaning we miss the power in the hearts of those around us. Some people born female who love men are great firefighters, and some people born male who love women are amazing at caring for infants. A binary, heterosexist compulsory gender system enforced by shaming non-normative performance doesn’t ever let those people just give the most of what they love, what they are passionate about, what is in their heart.
The defence of our own gender performance often make it very hard for us to identify masculine and feminine traits that cut across the simple binary of reproductive biology. We end up not being able to discuss gendered hearts in any profound or meaningful way because we feel the need to defend our own choices and the choices of others around us.
For me, there is nothing more important when meeting someone than to see the meaning, the poetry, the attitude, the truth contained in their heart. I know that the essence of who they are is inside of them, not in the symbols they have wrapped themselves with. And I know that a big part of my work is helping them feel safe to own that meaning rather than fearing they will be creamed for doing their assigned gender role “wrong.”
Very often, though, the moment someone suggests that gender might not be simple and binary, when someone hints that part of us may be masculine or feminine, contrary to the role we work so hard to portray, we end up kicking. Why can’t wearing a dress be masculine? Why can’t arm wrestling be feminine? What are you, some kind of gendered bigot?
We become bound up in defending our choices as appropriate for the gender role we have been assigned, working to extend the range of available symbol. So what if this means we can never really explore the tender masculine and feminine portions of our own heart, can never work to find a vibrant balance? At least it means we don’t have to have our own gender role challenged at all!
I have experienced a wide range of these moments when people felt the need to try and erase gender differences to justify their own choices as appropriate and good. Every time I have been frustrated by this defence because it shut down the opportunity to actually gain a deeper, shared understanding of the poetry of gender, of the way our hearts really do find a unique way to blend the masculine and feminine to give us special insight and power.
People defend their gendered choices as one or the other in order to stay proper in the world of gender and I understand why they do that. Compulsory gendering is brutal.
When they do that, though, they put up walls that stop them from seen and acknowledging the continuous common humanity that runs though every heart. They put up walls that stop us from really bringing out what we do have inside, choosing instead to work to only bring out what they have been told that they should have inside.
I really want to be able to discuss the poetry and meaning in gender without getting bound up in the symbols around gender that we can so easily feel the need to defend, moving and bending walls rather than seeing how they are just illusions, just separations without meaning.
Being a bull about gendered symbol, from either side, demanding that meaning be what you say it is rather than working to find common ground, is just something I have never, ever been very good at. Personally, I believe that inability is rooted in my own gendered heart.
But I know it’s not something I can easily talk about without many seeing a red flag, pawing the ground and ramping up to defend their own choices, their own position.
In my experience, though, that just leaves us genderbound.