I don’t follow medical journals with any regularity, but last I checked, the jury was still out on the nature/nurture debate on how we develop and why. Like most complex discussion, it seems like the pendulum swings back and forth pretty regularly. I used to believe that we were generally blank slates when we came into this world, ripe for the inscribing by whatever parent, tribe, or village happened to get to scribbling first.
That was before I had kids.
When our oldest, Gabrielle, was born, I remember thinking that she had about as much chance of becoming a cheerleader as a penguin did of not only flying across the ocean like an Wandering Albatross, but flying to the moon and back for extra mileage. My wife, Kris, grew up a tomboy, always more comfortable in jeans and t-shirts than sequins and glam; she wasn’t going to be rushing our daughters into makeup or wedges. And while I consider myself a pretty open-minded guy, probably in touch with my feminine side (if someone could definitively explain what that is, exactly), I had met too many vapid, narcissistic, or selfish cheerleaders for comfort, so I wasn’t going to push our daughter in that direction. (I’m generalizing, of course—plenty of cheerleaders are down-to-earth and genuine. Penguins, too).
But right around the time Gabi learned to walk, she was accompanying Kris on a shopping trip, and they took what should have been a quick stroll through the shoe aisle. Only Gabi’s eyes lit up like she just saw the most beautiful thing in the universe, and she moved from one glittery pair or girl’s shoes to the next, and couldn’t be coaxed out of the aisle for over an hour. She was in love. Did I mention she wasn’t one yet?
Kris and I made jokes, thinking it was a funny one-off, a cute anecdote to tell at parties later. “Our daughter, the little diva.” But almost as soon as Gabi found her voice and started communicating what she wanted (why does that have to happen, again?), it became clear that she wanted all things sparkly, glitzy, glamorous, shiny (and expensive)— baubles and do-dads and accessories and the whole shebang. She gravitated to princesses and unicorns and flowing fabric—she couldn’t have been a more “girly girl” if she was following a manual. Now, thinking I was still working with a slate that someone had snuck in and drawn on with pink chalk when I wasn’t looking, I assumed I could just do a little erasing or modification. I tried redirecting her, offering other choices (“How about a whiffle ball bat? Or a plastic chainsaw?”). We tried pointing out that women and girls could wear pants, play sports, win elections, and do anything else they set their minds to (we didn’t mention glass ceilings). We fought the good fight. But Gabi was resolute. She liked what she liked. And what she liked was dresses and boas and bracelets and gods, shoes, so many shoes.
Of course, if I decided to brainwash the child, I’m sure I could have. She’s smart as a whip, but kids are impressionable, after all. I could have forced her to wear camos and jungle boots, thrown the TV out, locked her in a tower where no commercials, books, or movies could possibly reinforce her natural inclination to be a dramatic diva. But some stuff just comes hard-wired. Nature sometimes has its way.
What does this have to do with our ongoing coverage of all things gender this week at the Bazaar? I don’t know, exactly. I’m certainly not suggesting girls come out of the womb with a homing instinct for the shoe aisle. Our second daughter, Scarlett, couldn’t be bothered at all with any girly crap. She was a polar opposite in so many ways, and again, without her parents trying to inscribe her too much. It’s only recently that she started even wanting to wear a dress ever, and even then, it’s sort of a half-hearted request on the days she wants to mimic her sister instead of punching her.
And I’m not arguing that nurture and external pressures and currents don’t have an impact on our development. Clearly, culture (pop- or otherwise) plays a role in how we perceive, what we desire, what we consider acceptable (whether we choose to embrace or rebel against that). What I’m driving at is that it isn’t simple to parse out precisely what the cause and effect is when examining gender roles and what shapes them.
When I was in grad school, I took a wonderful class called Cultural Theory. Like most courses that sound fun, breezy, or easy, it actually ambushed the hell out of me and proved to be one of the most daunting and demanding. With a syllabus chock full of light reading like The Dialectic of Enlightenment, The Wretched of the Earth, Anti-Oedipus, and cute little articles like “The Antinomes of Melancholy” and “Odysseus and the Siren Call of Enlightenment,” it generally made my head pound and my ears bleed. Still, the professor was amazing, the really heady brain-splattering content was balanced out by books like Dennis Rodman’s Bad As I Wanna Be (I did a presentation on that in drag, but that’s a story for a different day), and the class almost always generated interesting debates. Though, given that it was grad school, most of them were laden with far too much academic jargonese as we tried to impress or one-up each other with prattle about paradigm shifts and hermeneutic fault-lines and crap like that.
And, as you might imagine, there was a lot of discussion about gender, politics, economics, and what forces create and contour our thought processes, our beliefs, our agendas, covert or overt. And though I don’t really remember everything about the class (I had to Google the syllabus to refresh my memory, and just seeing some of those titles again made me twitchy), one thing the professor imparted has always stuck with me. On day one, he referenced the old joke: There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
He used this to illustrate that ideology is to us as water is to fish; it’s everywhere around us—we breathe it, live in it, move through it, but it’s so ever-present that it’s essentially invisible, and we rarely stop to think about it or acknowledge it. And he constantly challenged us to reexamine ourselves and our beliefs, to defamiliarize everything that we take for granted.
So, while I don’t think we can lay the blame at pop culture’s feet for how genders are molded or represented, I think it’s a mistake to dismiss its impact. After all, Madison Ave. and Hollywood arguably have as much (if not more) traction in our lives than our parents, politicians, and teachers (especially the ones in ivory towers—seriously, try reading Anti-Oedipus—you will hemorrhage somewhere). The Simpsons, The Girls Next Door, comic books, ads, music videos (do they still make those anymore?!), every movie Megan Fox is in, Ellen Degeneres, Desperate Housewives, Super Bowl commercials, etc.. . . they all inform the way we look at things, and this includes gender roles, even if we don’t see how they do that exactly because we’re too busy swimming in it every day.
I’ve been a longtime lurker and very infrequent poster on the Westeros forums. There are often lively, well-informed discussions about books over there. A while back, there were some behemoth threads dedicated to R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing, and one in particular focused on the depiction of women in his series. Now, I don’t know if you’ve read those books, but the women have it rougher in that world than just about any patriarchal historical period, and that’s saying something.
There were some fascinating debates about whether the female characters had any agency or were completely beaten down by the world they inhabited, and what all of it meant. Sadly (though predictably), this inevitably led to the outcry that the books were promoting or advocating misogyny, which meant that by default, the author was a big ass hat woman-hater. And when the author personally got involved in the discussion on the forum to try to explain, things got defensive and confrontational and generally messy and ugly, and most productive discussion got derailed.
It’s difficult enough to parse out what impact pop culture has on the way men and women perceive themselves and each other–low or high, art is art and highly subjective—but when you try to divine the intentions or agendas of the folks who create it, things get thin or specious really fast. And the author jumping into the fray doesn’t always settle things.
So, leaving aside authorial or directorial intent and just looking at the text or the celluloid (What’s that? What do you mean everything’s digital now? Damn, I’m old!), there seems to be an increasing number of female characters in books and films who are meant to be empowered simply because they are armed to the teeth and skilled in the art of shooting, blowing up, or dismembering other people (historically the province of the men folk). As if that was the only means of demonstrating that the female characters have agency, and have somehow triumphed over the millennia of male dominated society and stories simply by virtue of being able to bust a cap.
In some cases (a lot, really), these ass-kicking women folk are still presented as sexy and slinky, even as they are wading through blood and dispatching foes with extreme prejudice (e.g., Selene in the Underworld films). I’m not sure if this is supposed to show characters like Selene as more empowered (she can disembowel a werewolf but still chooses to dress however she sees fit—she is the Serena Williams of vampires) or if it undermines her potential potency (it’s a calculated marketing ploy to pander to the 13-25 year old male demographic, who wouldn’t be interested in a tough chick doling out punishment if she was wearing a burlap sack and played by Kathy Bates instead of Kate Beckinsdale).
Worse still are the fantasy heroines who kick ass, take names, and wear a chainmail bikini doing it. My objection isn’t because it’s ostensibly sexist or pandering, but because it simply isn’t practical. Low protection and all kinds of chafing with no Vaseline to protect the sensitive bits.
Either way, I have absolutely nothing against a woman wielding a sword or pulling the trigger. I think it’s kind of hot, actually (must avert my male gaze, must avert. . . ). But it is troubling when that ability is presented as the only means available for a woman to adjust the balance of power or attain some autonomy as a character (especially when that seems to be the full scope of her character, and she’s just as flat and uninteresting as most of the male action hero counterparts who are underdeveloped beyond their capacity for dishing out damage).
Fantasy and science fiction are (or can be, anyway) a great vehicle for exploring gender representation, dismantling traditional roles (The Deeds of Paksenarrion) or deconstruction the ways those roles are codified and institutionalized (The Windup Girl). Particularly because the milieus are different from our own world, so the authors/directors don’t have to adhere to any historical analogues. They can take things in whatever direction they choose. (Which was one of the objections some folks raised about The Prince of Nothing—why deliberately create a world or universe that showcased even worse treatment of women than our own, which we all know hasn’t been a cakewalk?).
I have three daughters. I want to teach them to value critical inspection of the world, to be self-confident, strong, and self-sufficient. And the end of the day, I want them to be able to examine the choices in front of them and make the best ones, to stand up for what they believe in, even if it’s difficult, to trust their own instincts and intelligence. And if that means they wear a tutu or combat boots while doing those things, I can live with either. Provided they aren’t pink. Please, anything but more pink.