Thanksgiving weekend: The collision of my gender politics with my family, and the Second Shift in action
Because it is a holiday weekend, I have spent the last two days around my family, including my parents,brother, and extended family. I never been incredibly close with my family, so I don’t spend a lot of time with them, and since I am often surrounded by progressive/feminist/activist/LGBTQQI/sex-positive/etc. friends and other folks at school, it’s always kind of disheartening when I leave the haven of this bubble. I hate to call it a bubble because it’s not like we as a community are oblivious to the thoughts, beliefs, and lives of people who don’t share our political beliefs, but sometimes to me it feels like a comfortable, cozy bubble, which is both a good and a bad thing.
It is not even as if I deal with a constant barrage of overtly sexist, racist, classist, homophobic, conservative and/or fundamentalist bullshit- my family (minus my neo-con, Fox News loving brother) is relatively liberal and they (even my brother, to a certain extent) are pretty accepting of my political views and activism/organizing. I make my dedication to reproductive rights no secret, and have no qualms discussing my feminist views and activism with my family. But I have observed things this weekend that have made me incredibly uncomfortable, and I share this because I’m sure some of you have seen the same, as it is the weekend of a capitalist, hetero-normative, materialistic, racist, and overall problematic holiday. The first instance came when my mother took no time to inquire about my sexuality due in part to my short hair, decision to take more women’s studies classes, friends, and activism. I told her that it was wrong to attempt to determine my sexuality on the basis of these things because there is no right or correct way for a female or queer person to be.
Later on at my uncle and aunt’s house, I observed my aunt doing ALL the cooking, serving, tending to everyone, cleaning up of messes, fixing of desert and coffee, etc. Once dinner was done, the men cleared out to buy cigars, and the women were left to clean up after them. The only other women there either were not physically able to offer assistance (my grandmother) or off doing kid things (my 11 year old cousin), so I stayed around to help her clean the dishes, put away leftovers, etc. I had absolutely no problem helping her with this, but the fact that this was seen as HER job and HER task without question made me feel pretty ill. Additionally, I see the way her husband talks down to her or talks over her- and for that matter, the way my step-father dominates conversations with my mother, the way the men in my family sometimes talk over me, and the fact that this shit happens all the time and it sucks and people need to stand up and say something when it happens around them. I see the way her contribution to the family is taken for granted, the way her personality and dreams and hopes are meshed with her husband’s or diminished all together (when I asked how the music store she owns with my uncle is doing, she answered by telling me how busy my uncle was without even mentioning her role), and it makes my heart hurt for her. I don’t want to spout feminist theory at her, I don’t care if she ever reads feminist theory or anything related to gender politics, I just want her to have her own dreams and life and happiness and desires independent from her husband, from her family, from what society tells her she should and shouldn’t feel and do and think.
Back to my little cousin- she is by far the coolest kid I know. She’s super smart, ambitious, and reads 5 books at a time while playing an instrument and getting A’s in school and doing science fair projects. She is cool as shit, and although she’s young, I’ve been trying to slowly introduce her to ideas of gender, feminism, and her role as a woman in a patriarchal society. But then I look at the shit she watches on TV and the messages about women’s roles and gender she gets fed on a daily basis. She just had on a show in which the woman (the wife, I presume) stands in the kitchen with whom I presume is her husband, and laments about how she’s finished everything on her list, is bored because she has nothing to do now that she’s cooked and cleaned and served her family (she doesn’t use the word “serve,” but that’s what it is), and proceeds to ask her husband if he wants sex. And I look at the toys my cousin has in her room- everything is pink and flowery; she has doll houses with big laundry rooms and kitchens so that little girls know their role from early on, which is to be a servant available to tend the house and the family 24/7. And I question if my perceptions of gender are completely wrong, if maybe the self-realizations I’ve come to and the questions and doubts I’ve had about the construction of gender are completely fucking wrong. And if they’re not, what hope do we have for the future, and what hope do we have for the children growing up in our patriarchal, misogynistic, and fucked up society?
So I jotted down a few things about gender and what I think about it, in light of everything I’ve witnessed this weekend, and I wanted to share it with some folks to see what other people think. And for the record, I am a white, cis-gendered female from a middle-class background who despite not being 100% heterosexual (like the majority of folks, I’m certain), has lived with and continues to live with hetero-privilege.
WHAT IS GENDER?
In my opinion (and this definition is quite simplified and can and should be added on to): A socio-political construct of culturally-approved and endorsed messages and norms about “APPROPRIATE” and “INAPPROPRIATE” attributes for males and females (yes, this follows the gender binary, but I will touch on that below)
What we are generally (and quite consistently) taught about gender (none of which I agree with, but all of which I was taught at some point in my life and continue to see taught to each subsequent generation)
– Our sex identification, as defined by a vagina or a penis, equals our gender identification, in that a vagina denotes a female and a penis denotes a male. Along with this, we are taught that gender is biologically and genetically determined.
* Within this sex-gender binary, there is NO room for anyone who is intersex, transsexual, or crosses/deviates from strict gender and/or sex boundaries in any way, shape, or form.
– Males and females are inherently different from one another, and these differences are innate, biologically and genetically based, and not due to social or cultural influences. This includes our thoughts, emotions, behaviors, sexuality (including sexual orientation, sexual desire, sexual activity, etc.), goals/aspirations (familial, occupational, academic, etc.), desires and needs, physical appearance, personality characteristics, ability, etc.
But but but….I think this is fucking bullshit. And this is why I find these notions of gender to be fucking bullshit (in case you haven’t noticed, I enjoy cursing, which I was told this weekend by my family is not the behavior of a proper lady)
– Males and females are treated differently from DAY ONE. We are pigeonholed and constricted to fit into our gender as defined by our anatomy and genitals, and this includes the surgical modification of intersex infants to be either female or male, because god forbid we do not fit perfectly into neat little boxes labeled “male” or “female”.
– Following this notion, males and females are given completely different toys, clothing, room decorations, are socialized with by adults and caregivers more or less depending on their sex, and are encouraged to exhibit different behaviors- to explore, be adventurous, and playful (males) or to be more stationary, sociable, and calm (females).
– We are REINFORCED by parents, friends, peers, teachers, counselors/psychologists/psychiatrists, etc. when we act in gender/sex appropriate ways, and PUNISHED when we do not. This is why transsexuality is still considered a mental disorder according to the DSM-IV-TR, the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, called gender identity disorder and treated as a psychopathology needing intensive therapy and psychiatric medication.
– Gender and sex are, in especially crude and arbitrary manners, one of the first and most salient identifiers we use to categorize people and process information about them. Even infants are able to, on a basic level, distinguish between sexes by length of hair (females = long hair, males = short hair). We form mental concepts and ideas of what a “male” is and what a “female” is very early on, before we understand the few actual differences between males and females (anatomy, genitalia, reproductive capabilities).
– We are ENCOURAGED to categorize people and differentiate them by gender and sex, although this is not generally the case with other facets of identity (and this is definitely something that can be argued, since racism/classism is just as prevalence as sexism and misogyny, but I mean in terms of what you would see in the average classroom), and the same could be said for sexuality. It is still quite acceptable to call someone your “gay” friend, or your “guy” friend (instead of just your fucking friend, jesus christ I hate this shit), but you might get some looks calling someone your “black” friend. I think the classroom example works well- you might still see boys and girls split up in teams against one another, or lines/clubs/etc. social grouping by gender, but you probably wouldn’t see a teacher tell kids to separate into groups based on their race.
As I see it, differential treatment of the sexes and genders, and having ideas of what is appropriate or expected of someone based on their gender and/or sex, hinders the unity and liberation of all.
And back to my observations of Thanksgiving, has anyone else seen the Second Shift still prevalent in their lives, the lives of the women they know and love, etc.? Why do women still bear the burden of childcare, cooking, cleaning, eldercare, grocery shopping, laundry, emotional support, etc.?
I love, love, love this blog, have enjoyed all the wonderful posts, and appreciate anyone who took the time to read this. Hope everyone has had a great holiday weekend thus far!