Gender Binary and Language

Definition of MASCULINE — a : maleb : having qualities appropriate to or usually associated with a man

Definition of FEMININE — female: characteristic of or appropriate or unique to women<feminine beauty> <a feminine perspective>

A couple of friends of mine got into an interesting conversation over fall break. “I want to have four boys, and raise them to be masculine, strong, and independent in their interactions with women,” he said. “I think it’s problematic that you said masculine, because that’s a social construct that basically says men should behave in a way that perpetuates inequalities based on gender,” she replied.

Tony Porter would agree with my female friend in her definition of the masculine. An educator and social activist, Mr. Porter has spent the better part of his life working for the institution he co-founded: A Call to Men, a leading national men’s organization addressing domestic and sexual violence prevention and the promotion of healthy manhood.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Porter in action twice during his annual visits to Columbia to speak to the Consent is Sexy NSOP facilitators. (He is an AMAZING public speaker.) Both times, his message was clear: in order to make the world a better place for both men and women, we have to redefine how we raise our sons. We have to challenge men to reconsider their long-held beliefs about women. We have to step away from traditional masculinity.

As the oldest child of 5 (2 younger brothers and 2 younger sisters), that’s a message I can completely get behind. Our perception and use of language through the lens of gender molds the way children behave, react, and treat each other – something I’ve witnessed first-hand growing up and helping to raise my younger siblings. It shapes classroom discussions and practically directs professional and personal environments. At its worst, it educates and reinforces certain negative stereotypes about the ‘separate spheres’ of masculinity and femininity, which divide character traits and qualities that can and should be applicable to both sexes.

With these thoughts in the back of my mind, it was with great pleasure that I delved into Alanis Morissette On Why America Must Embrace the Feminine in the Daily Beast. As I read through the article, however, I became more and more confused by the message it was sending. We must “embrace the feminine” by… keeping art programs alive? Compensating teachers well? Being more vulnerable in relationships, more transparent in our businesses, etc. etc…? And how would ’embracing the feminine’ render us “wholeness-ists, rather than patriarch-ists or feminists/matriarchists?”

Ms. Morissette, a very influential singer/songwriter in contemporary music, makes some valid points. The feminine has traditionally been snuffed out because of masculinity’s dominance in society. As Tony Porter so vividly illustrated in his TED talk, men have been smothering certain ‘feminine’ aspects of their nature for quite some time: things like sensitivity and vulnerability. Women have also striven to adopt ‘masculine’ traits to get ahead in life, most obviously in male-dominated professional areas. However, Ms. Morissette loses me when she comes to her resolution: how is teaching and art feminine? How is being a better partner and a more transparent businessperson feminine?

There are traditionally male- and female- dominated areas of work. However, by defining these different professions as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ and then embracing those definitions, we alienate women in ‘masculine’ roles and men in ‘feminine roles’ as well as stigmatize those professions for male and female pre-professionals. More generally, assigning specific attributes (emotional, intellectual, or physical) to either gender binary has created a problem in the past – so why do we still do so?

By continuing down this path of trying to ‘adopt’ so-called feminine traits, we risk widening the gap between and cementing those spheres of masculinity and femininity rather than dissolving them. Ms. Morissette is right: human characteristics are a continuum. By trying to break down and classify that continuum we alienate each gender’s access to the whole spectrum. Sensitive men and aggressive women exist, and it’s high time we let those adjectives speak for themselves – NOT for the gender of the person they are describing.

This starts with actively listening to how we speak and interact as individuals. It means re-attributing ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ traits to ‘human’ traits and embracing the GOOD traits in everyone – male, female, gay, lesbian, straight, or transgender. It means paying attention to our language in the classroom, our descriptions of our friends, our casual conversation, our resumes, our children, everything. It comes down to how we speak.

For Tony Porter, that meant speaking to his son like he speaks to his daughter, and visa versa. For Alanis Morissette, that meant creating an album that shook the foundations of traditional patriarchy. For me, it just means talking to everyone the same way. I’m strong, compassionate, competitive, and accepting; I am more than a woman and more than a man. I’m human.


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