Gender and Sexuality

Thu 01 August 2013

A couple of insightful articles and perspective on issues of gender and sexuality.

The first of these had to do with the 'genderness' of names. Abdullah is a name almost always used for boys, but there is nothing stopping a woman who wants to name herself Abdullah. It never happens. On the other hand, there do exist names which are used often enough for members of both genders. For instance, from the hilariously funny TV show Community I found that 'Kim' is used for men about 17% of the time (this statistic might be incorrect). One of these men in the real world, Kim O'Grady failed to get a job for months. He finally realized that potential employers were rejecting him because they were assuming from his name that he was a woman. He added a 'Mr.' before his name and soon got a job.

Biases like these have been studied academically. In one such study, science faculty were given a set of CVs and asked to hire some of them. However, each application was randomly assigned either a male or a female name. The result:

Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant.

Sexism can run deeper in our society. In works of fiction - movies, novels, plays etc - woman often talk about nothing except men. In a 1985 strip of the comic "Dykes to Watch Out For" by Alison Bechdel, an unnamed female character claimed she only watched movies which met these three requirements:

  1. It has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.

This test has since been named the Bechdel test. bechdeltest.com finds that out of 4176 user classified films only 55% pass the test.

A related test called the Finkbeiner test helps science journalists avoid gender bias about women in science. It was proposed by Christie Aschwanden only this year. To pass the test, the article must avoid mentioning any of the following:

  1. The fact that she’s a woman
  2. Her husband’s job
  3. Her child care arrangements
  4. How she nurtures her underlings
  5. How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
  6. How she’s such a role model for other women
  7. How she’s the "first woman to..."

The general principle behind the test is, "Take the things that are said about a female subject and flip them around as if they were said about a male. If they sound ridiculous, then chances are good they have no business in the story." Read the original article. It gives examples of articles about important women that fail the test, and articles that do pass it.

Both tests reveal the problem of gender roles of woman and their objectification. The objectification problem is discussed more deeply in this post. The central point is that woman are more often treated as objects than as subjects:

It is because society tells us that women are objects, not subjects, that even good men, when speaking out against violence against women, tell other men to imagine her as "somebody's wife, somebody's mother, somebody's daughter, or somebody's sister," it never occurring to them that maybe, just maybe, a woman is also "somebody".

The problem runs so deep that it is ingrained in our languages. Our ability to express our sex, sexuality and gender roles are limited by our language. In English, the words man/he/him/his are reserved for biological males who conform to the normative description of the gender 'man'. Similarly for woman/she/her. As Sean Carroll discusses, there are four axes of self description:

  • Gender Identity: how you think of yourself.
  • Gender Expression: how you dress/act/present yourself to the world.
  • Sexual Orientation: to whom you are attracted.
  • Biological Sex: what body parts you have.

A person could define each one of these separately for zerself. Zee could be a biological female, who think of themselves as male, dress in female clothing and are attracted to other woman. What just happened to my pronouns? It turns out that there is a movement (covered here) which rejects "the gender binary as an oppressive move by the dominant culture", and does so by rejecting pronouns used in the English language. The new gender neutral pronous are zee/zim/zer. But sometimes some people do want to identify themselves with a certain pre-existing gender, so they want to introduce themselves like so: I am X and my personal pronouns are she/her/hers. This is, however, only the begining of a solution. There must be an easy way in our language to express our preference on each of the above axes. Hopefully, one day we will see this development happen.

The other improvement that could happen is ending these oppressive moves by the dominant culture. Pre-schools in Sweden have taken the first step by making themselves 'gender-neutral'. One change they implement is the careful use of pronouns. But they also ensure that traditional gender roles are not reinforced. Story books are gender neutral. All types of toys are equally accessible to both girls and boys, allowing them to choose what they like.

(at this point in writing the article I realized that I put the story about a man being screwed over by gender issues first and then discussed the more saddening and serious story about the potrayal of women in fiction. I had no reason to do so, so I would guess that I was being subconsciously sexist. I am going to leave things as they are for the purposes of illustration, and make a better effort in the future to avoid these biases)

On the local front, here is an interesting rantish list of criteria by Nabiha Meher, a self described feminist, on the type of spouse she would like. Many of the criteria, though couched in feminist terms, are simply expectations of respect of her person as a human beings - many of those expectations more often denied to women than to men. She also has other criteria which reflect her gender and sexuality, implicitly or explictly. She is a biological female. She identifies as a woman (so strongly she fights for their rights). She does not necessarily express herself in cultural gender roles associated with women. Most fascinating are her sexual and gender preferences. Sean Carroll believes that people only have sexual preferences. That a person is potentially attracted to all men, irrespective of the gender of those men.

But Nabiha also describes gender preferences for her potential spouse. She wants a biological male who does not conform to the stereotypical male gender, "a man who isn’t a manly man, one who doesn’t subscribe to the cult of masculinity, one isn’t afraid to cry or be judged as not being man enough." Similarly, she wants "a man who doesn’t feel the need to protect me, doesn’t get insecure about my male friends and doesn’t believe he is my guardian or protector." She also wants a person who isn't particularly attracted to the culturally stereotypical woman. "Find me a man who believes I’m beautiful no matter what and not just when I’m dressed as a womanly woman."

So really, Sean Carroll's axes can be extended.

  • Biological Sex: what body parts you have.
  • Gender Identity: how you think of yourself.
  • Gender Expression: how you dress/act/present yourself to the world.
  • Sexual Orientation: to whom you are attracted.
  • Gender Orientation: to people of what gender identity and expression are you attracted.

In the end, I am reminded of a wonderful episode (S04E08) of Southpark (NSFW), an animated TV show by Comedy Central. Some of the people in the town of Southpark want to change the town flag, because it is racist (it depicts a black figure being hung by four white ones). Others feel the flag is ancient heritage and should be kept. After much argument and protest, it is decided that the issue is to be settled by a debate among fourth graders at the local elementary school (it is a comedy show after all). However, the children start debating whether capital punishment is legal and hence alright to depict on a flag. It is at this point we discover that when the children look at the flag all they see are four figures hanging a fifth - the color does not even register. What a place the world would be, if we not only treated people irrespective of race, sex and gender, but in fact do so because we don't even register the race, sex and gender.

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