Sunday, July 14, 2013

Gender and Language: a Personal Note

the works i've been reading and watching for my new class have been stirring up my mind, as i mentioned here yesterday.  they grab associations with pieces of my own, not very dramatic, childhood, and remind me of what gender expectations and confining language can do to us all.  there is in particular one episode of the 1999-2004 drama Judging Amy, clearly influenced by the splendid film Ma vie en rose. briefly, it's a story of a preadolescent boy convinced he's a girl, who repeatedly gets beaten up in school because of his 'bizarre'  female dress.  the principal wants to kick him out b/c they don't have the resources to keep him constantly guarded.  amy is skeptical at first: can a boy that age be certain he's a transsexual?  finally she decides to take him at his word, and still keep him in school.  gently she asks 'sasha' if she [the pronoun amy now accepts] ever plays pretend.  sure, sasha answers. well, amy suggests, do you think you could pretend to be a boy at school? get your hair cut just a little shorter, and wear boys' clothing.  then when you go home, change clothes and dress like who you really are.  the child agrees.  amy's statement to the court then is revealing.  we don't know if this child will grow up to be transsexual, or gay or straight, or whatever, she says. we do know who she perceives herself to be now, and that needs to be respected.

i remember some protests from others in the women's and gay movements, since it forced comprise on the child.  but in real life, a boy who thinks he's a girl will, as  does this fictional child, face constant physical and verbal attack.  to me what makes this such a profound episode is the adult authority's  acceptance of the child on her own terms.  she is not a boy pretending to be a girl; she is a girl pretending, and only for part of the day, to be a boy.  sasha is right, her attackers are wrong, and, by implication, the world that enforces specific gender expectations on everyone is wrong.

my own experience is hardly as compelling as sasha's, and hasn't been traumatizing, but it is i think an interesting example of how gender assumptions tie us all down.  i had a conversation with friends when i was about 8. we were all talking about what we'd be when we grew up. the other girls were going to be nurses or secretaries, or they didn't care b/c once they were married they wouldn't have to work at all.  i had just seen the film The Big Top, whose heroine was a trapeze artist. so i declared emphatically a twofold ambition--i was going to be a trapeze artist, and i wasn't going to get married and have children. when the grownups heard this they laughed. i think the trapeze artist made them comfortable: i had several outlandish ideas so they were considered cute.

over time, the trapeze artist faded away [making the world a safer place for me and several circus audiences].when i read the cherry ames books i was going to be a nurse like cherry; there was a series about a stewardess, and i was going to be stewardess,  and so forth.  but there was always the tag line: i was never going to get married and have children.

when i tell this story now, in my late 60s, i frame it terms of my lifelong commitment to not getting married and having children. and i often get an amazed response.  how could i know at 8 that i didn't want to get married and have kids?  i didn't know then, they argue; it just happened to work out that way.  maybe. this sort of assertion doesn't lend itself to proof, or disproof. i can only say that what i felt so adamantly at 8 has been consistently what i have felt so adamantly throughout my life. i have never wanted marriage and children. sex, a monogamous, permanent lover, yes. marriage, no.  kids, absolutely no.  there has never been a moment when i have wanted otherwise.  my guess is that that 8 year old girl knew exactly what she wanted, alongside the lovely fantasy of the trapeze artist.  at 27 i got sterilized--which annoyed my then-boyfriend, who thought he should have some say in the matter.   i thought he was being a jerk. i was right, on both counts.  now, at an age when  one tends to reassess successes and failures in one's life, i know without question that the sterilization was one of my successes.

the other childhood memory that the transgender works evoke is from a few years later--i was perhaps 10 or ll, and had just read the girl's classic Little Women.  in this subtly resistant work, i learned two words that deeply affected my life.  Jo, the beloved hero of the book, defined herself as a tomboy.  she played ballgames and climbed trees and ran around the park and hated being a girl.  she also loved, above all else,  reading, and planned to be a writer when she grew up.  oh, how i wanted to be jo! nancy drew and cherry ames faded in the face of jo's glory.  if jo was a tomboy, that was what i was going to be. so i manfully played ballgames and climbed trees.  the ballgames [punch ball, the kids on my block played] were okay for awhile. i wasn't good at it, but i wasn't terrible.  they didn't last that long.  but the tree-climbing, alas, was a huge failure.  i tried; lord, i tried.  i found one tree around the corner that crotched fairly low down into two thick branches, and i was able, bruising my shins and knees, to get up into that crotch, where i would try to read. that's what jo did--read sitting up in a tree.  my parents hated my proud declarations that i was a tomboy.   but it made me proud. i wasn't a little girly girl who worried about mud getting on her pretty white dress. i had an identity.

that identify, of course, was false. but what other word was there? you could be a boy or a girl or a tomboy or a sissy [but no one wanted to be a sissy].  what i hadn't picked up as a gender alternative was the other thing jo called herself, something that really did fit me: a bookworm.  i sort of elided bookworm into tomboy, which worked for jo but not for me.

the tomboy eventually faded into the ether along with the trapeze artist: both were useful symbols of freedom in their time.  but there was another word in Little Women, for grownup women, that i embraced and have maintained all my life.  a woman who didn't get married was a  spinster.  no matter that people told me a spinster was like an old maid, pathetic and unwanted, living in the houses of grudging relatives.  too late! the word came to at first unvarnished, from the pages of a defiant spinster's book.  it was ironic that jo herself didn't get to be a spinster.  alcott's editors forced her to marry jo off, though at least jo was able to pick a nice fatherly man who encouraged her writing.  but by that time we had already heard jo's mother tell her girls that, while marrying the man you  loved was the happiest thing that could happen to a woman, marrying for any other reason--money, fear of being alone, etc.--was the unhappiest, and that many women lived happy and useful lives as spinsters.  in all the books that followed Little Women, alcott gave her readers at least one happy spinster.  Who could not love Nan from Little Men and Jo's Boys?  or the happy band of women artists in An Old Fashioned Girl?  or the elderly, cheerful aunts and the splendid bachelor doctor in Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom?

what would i have doe if my rebellious needs were scarier to the adults around me? Would i have held out so well as a sissy as i did as a faux tomboy?  would i have dated some good catholic schoolboy and married and had kids b/c i had no hint of other possibilities?  i know that the tomboy and the aspiring spinster brought me into the civil rights marcher and anti-war marcher and eventually into the active feminist.  what else might i have been if there had been a larger vocabulary, a larger vision of what people can grow up to be?  what possibilities can we create for the girls and boys who come after us?

so much for not blogging while preparing for my course.  never mind, this tale might work its way into the course.  i'd like to think i can offer my students some confidence for their own possibilities--tomboy, gay-straight-transsexual-bisexual, sissy as a positive word,  whatever.  a student once came to me after a women's studies  class to talk about the discussion that had come up in class about lesbianism.  since that discussion, her sister had come out to their parents, who had berated her bitterly.  'but because of you and the girls who talked about it in class,'' my student said, ' i knew about lesbians and i could support my sister and fight back with our parents.'  one of those moments i look back to in pride: that wannabe tomboy, that real spinster, that fantasy trapeze artist, has changed at least one person's life.  and could i have done it without that earlier determination to move a little outside the framework i was given?


Anonymous said...

I am curious about why you were so adamant about not having children? Why not adopt? There are so many children without families.

karen lindsey said...

hi laprofessora--

i was adamant b/c everyone around me assumed women would have children, and i knew i didn't want it. didn't adopt for the same reason i didn't want birth-children: i didn't want children. period. that's a big job, raising kids, and a job i didn't want.

ChrisB said...

What a lovely, wise and provocative musing, Karen. Thank you so much, my friend, the faux tomboy, spinster with an attitude, trapeze artist wannabe....and passionate feminist! Reading this was like being carried down an river of realizations and resistances and I appreciate every one!