men, masculinities and gender politics

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Don’t “bond” with me, bro! (When all you share is a penis.)

The other day it happened again.  I got “male bonded” with.  I met another man who works in my field – a line of work that has more women in it than it does men.  This guy took one look at me and was instantly very happy to meet me. 
 
A little too happy.
 
“It’s sure nice to have a little more testosterone around here!” he declared loudly with a wide smile as he pumped my hand enthusiastically. 
 
It turns out this man is the only male in his department, and he is surrounded by females. 
 
Apparently this is a situation that troubles him.
 
There are just so many problems with how this guy greeted me.  It is a little tough even to know just where to start…
 
Problem # 1.  Assuming that I am a man.  The guy looked at me, and, because I happen to conform physically to what society considers to signify “man,” he just assumed that I am one. 
 
In my case, his assumption happens to be correct.  I am indeed “cisgender" - a term first coined by Schilt and Westbrook to describe "individuals who have a match between the gender they were assigned at birth, their bodies, and their personal identity."  “Cisgender” stands in contrast to “transgender,” which refers to people whose sense of their own gender identity does not conform to their assigned biological sex.  When I was born, the doctor, the nurses, and my parents all saw a penis attached to my body and decided that I was a boy.  And my body did in fact subsequently develop along the most common pathway for a human being who has an XY chromosomal pattern.  And I have always identified as a male person. 
 
But the past few decades of transgender activism have brought increasing attention to the existence of gender variance throughout global human populations.  And, slowly, ever so slowly, mainstream society is beginning to learn that just because someone appears to be a man, that does not mean that one can automatically assume that person is a man.
 
I could look exactly as I do now, sound exactly as I do now, and act exactly as I do now… and yet identify as a woman.  So when this other man (or, more accurately, this person whom I am also assuming is a man!) greeted me, he was not wrong in concluding that I am a male. But he was lucky.  It was wrong of him to make that assumption in the first place.   
 
 
Problem #2:  Assuming that having a penis means having similar interests.
 
Although this guy’s assumption about my gender was correct, he was wrong to assume that because he and I share the same genital configuration that we should have much else in common.
 
As a boy I played with G.I. Joe “action figures.”  There is a good chance that he did, too.
 
But I also played with Barbies.  And, honestly, I thought then – and continue to think now – that the life that Barbie leads is far more interesting than G.I. Joe’s militarist existence.  Barbie, in addition to living in a “dream house” at the beach, works as a vet.  Or as a teacher.  Or as a dentist.  Or as a doctor.  Or as a pilot.  Or as a cowgirl.  Or as a scuba diver.  Or as…. 
 
The list goes on and on and on.
 
But what does Joe do?  His only role is that of combatant.  And that’s a pretty limited repertoire.  Sure, he’s done stints in special forces, driven tanks, and flown helicopters, but Barbie herself has also served in the Marines, the Air Force, the Navy and the Army. 
 
And when she’s not in uniform she gets to wear the most fabulous shoes! 
 
(I understand that a lot of people have problems with Barbie.  It is not my intention to champion her here.  I just think that she is – and always has been – far more interesting than G.I. Joe.) 
 
Although my Barbie days are behind me, my interest in other things that society considers typically female remains high to this day.  If I attend a social gathering where more of the women are talking in the kitchen while most of the guys are in the living room watching sports on television, you will find me in the kitchen talking with the women.  Because I find watching sports on t.v. to be only marginally interesting.  And I find the limited conversational repertoire of many straight men to be only slightly more interesting than that.
 
A little secret that I have discovered over the years is this: in general, when compared to my fellow straight guys, women’s conversational topics and interactional styles are far more interesting.  More stimulating.  More dynamic.  I can learn a lot from women.
 
So when I heard this guy the other day essentially complain that there was not enough testosterone in his work environment, my first thought was… well, my first thought actually was rather uncharitable.  But my second thought was that being surrounded by women is not a problem!  And if you actually pay attention to what those women are saying, you might well learn something!
 
 
Problem #3: Exaggerating the differences between men and women just reinforces sexism and male supremacy.
 
We make some really erroneous assumptions about people – ourselves included.  Like when we assume that everyone is either male or female (when the reality is that at least 1 baby in 100 is born with ambiguous genitalia).  Like when we assume that male = masculine and female = feminine.  (There are plenty of masculine women out there, and plenty of effeminate men.)  Like when we assume that effeminate men are necessarily gay and that masculine women are necessarily lesbians.  Like when we assume that the concepts of masculine and feminine themselves are discrete categories with little or no overlap between them.  (That all girls will only want to play with “dolls” like Barbie, and that all boys will only want to play with “action figures” like G.I. Joe).
 
Why all this categorizing?  I think that we try to maintain these rigid sex/gender categories as a way to attempt to firm up our increasingly limp patriarchal social order.  Because it is only when you establish and maintain rigid distinctions between two groups of people can you then invent the arguments that justify one group’s supremacy over the other.   Because if men and women are not all that different, then how can we continue to justify men’s enduring dominance over women?
 
We can’t.
 
Dr. Seuss’ brilliant book The Sneetches depicts a discriminatory and oppressive society based on the exaggeration of differences.  In The Sneetches, the “Star Bellied Sneetches” have (you guessed it) stars on their bellies.  And they discriminate against those who do not have “stars on thars.”
 
(SNEETCHES SPOILER ALERT:  There is a lot that happens in this book around the issue of exclusion and discrimination.  But in the end, the Sneetches lose the ability to easily distinguish between those who originally had stars “on thars” and those who did not.  So – in the wonderful fantasy world of Dr. Seuss – the Star Bellied Sneetches stop discriminating against the other group on the basis of star-status, and decide that one Sneetch is indeed as good as another.)
 
Sigh.  Would that daily life were as moral and as wise as a book by Dr. Seuss.
 
Like the pre-enlightenment Sneetches, we too make too big a deal about biological differences.  But we do it between men and women.  Drawing a firm (but largely fictitious) line between what is “man” and what is “woman” allows us to reinforce male supremacy – the un-natural order of things.  When we exaggerate the differences “between” the sexes, “between” the genders, and when we fail to acknowledge that there is far more that ties us together than that which separates us, we compartmentalize our fellow human beings into artificial either/or sex/gender categories within a global phallocentric context that continues to elevate the penis and denigrate the vulva.         
 
On a small planet that has endured millennia of male supremacy,  drawing so much attention to our ostensibly biological differences only works to reinforce the notion that man = good and woman = bad. 
 
There are differences between men and women, to be sure. Differences that are the result of a complex interaction between nature and nurture.  And people’s behaviours often may cluster around these (innate and/or assigned) differences.  Our differences are to be celebrated. They make for variety – and they make the world a pretty interesting place. 
 
But I cannot help but hear this man’s ecstatic greeting of me (and my testosterone) as his way of saying: “Thank God! Finally! Another man amongst all of these crazy women!” I hear it as an attempt to reinforce a patriarchal, male supremacist way of being. 
 
And I actually happen to know some of the women who work in that guy’s office.  In their ways of being, these women range from extremely “girly-girl” to rather masculine.  Each woman in that office is an individual.  No two of them are alike.  And each one of them is so much more than just her genital configuration.
 
And so am I, bro.