Gender performance and the rise of the umbralocks

(Content: gender identity, performance, roles, and policing.  Given my lack of expertise, this is a pretty basic post, but hopefully has the virtue of being so broad that people can share basically any gender-issue thoughts they like if they want to comment.  I am enthusiastic about this eventuality!)

First, a thing that I thought explained much when I learned it: the word ‘man’ was not originally male.  If we go waaay back to Latin, there was the generic ‘homo’ for humans and ‘vir’ for men, and then they started just using ‘homo’ for men as well.  If we go back to Old English, ‘man’ was still generic, and ‘vir’ had become ‘wer’, for men, complementary to ‘wif’ for women.  (Chaucer’s story about the Wife of Bath is a pun; in Middle English the senses were still shifting and so she’s ‘the wife (woman) who comes from Bath’, but she remarries, which is exaggerated as if she was ‘wife to everyone is Bath’.)

Over time, in English, ‘wif’ became wife, ‘wer’ only shows up in werewolf, and ‘man’ became male – but supposedly also generic (mankind), though frankly that’s as generic as saying that hypothetical individuals should be called ‘he’ but somehow this isn’t gender-biased.  (My philosophy of language prof best phrased a view I shared: “If you can have a version of ‘he’ that is magically not-necessarily-male, then I can have a version of ‘they’ that is magically not-necessarily-plural, and it will still be better than ‘he’.”  In years since, it has occurred to me that this is also more inclusive of people who are multiple.)  This saddens me, because English could really do with more generic words for humanity.  They tend to be kind of clunky – ‘people’ is bland, ‘humanity’ is formal or melodramatic, and ‘folk’ is very context-sensitive.  At least, so it is to me.  This being my blog, my personal eccentricities are oft presented as fact.  Dissent is welcome!

We can see the same sort of male-is-norm/female-is-exception thing happening all over the place in English.  Lots of actors, some of whom are also actresses.  So many kinds of priesthoods, some of which include priestesses.  And I may never get tired of the intricacies of categorisation of noble titles between genders.  On the one hand, referring to a mixed-gender group as ‘men’ is obviously daft; on the other hand, I kind of feel like ‘actress’ should be phased out into archaicness in favour of actors all ’round*.  The same for any other profession which inexplicably has a word to point out when someone is Having A Profession While Female but none for males.  But I can imagine counterarguments – how much is equality and how much is erasure?  Isn’t it justified for a woman to be proud of the label of ‘actress’, given the additional struggles that women have always faced to achieve anything like equality in theatre, going all the way back to the days when even the women were played by men?  The reason we have two different words is that these things were historically very much not equal, and there’s that whole know-your-history-or-be-doomed-to-repeat-eleventh-grade**.

And in a way that reflects a broader issue within gender itself.  Gender is a social thing and biological/physical sex is correlated but not causal and certainly not universally considered to determine gender, and the lines blur all over the place for all sorts of reasons, but referring to my culture in my time, we very clearly have concepts of what is masculine and what is feminine and I don’t know why.  For realsies, this confuses me.  Exampli gratia, since we are already on about acting: there is endless talk, when it comes to female action heroes, of characters who are ‘strong’ and ‘feminine’ at the same time – a concept which I have tried to understand and even in the best cases it always seems to come down to words like ‘vulnerable’ or ’empathetic’.  And quite simply I say: hell to that, because if the privilege of having real human emotions and doubts is the domain of women, then dudes are getting a seriously raw deal here.  I’m very wary of confidence, not because it’s an inherently bad thing, but because the people I have met who display the most confidence have often been epic jackwagons who desperately needed a dose of perspective and some time thinking stuff over.

I was not a particularly socially-aware child (I was raised by scientists and have little natural aptitude for connecting with people) but some things have not changed at all as I learned more about them.  It was a long time before I learned anything about multiple genders, and I always thought of them as purely descriptive – my body is male, therefore I am male.  There’s really never been any question on the matter.  I do often create female video game characters, mostly because I think they get better customisation options (my first paladin in Warcraft was a lady because all the human men look like pro wrestlers), and this doesn’t really create any cognitive dissonance for me, but I know someone else who has mentioned that if she ever has a dream or daydream or is put in any kind of abstract situation in which she is ‘male’, her brain immediately rejects the concept and tries to get her back to being female.  This is a gender-sense that I don’t think I can properly grasp – my thoughts when someone suggests a magical gender-swap scenario are generally of the type ‘This is going to play merry hell with my dating compatibility’.

So Judith Butler wrote about ‘performing gender’, although generally when I see people talking about it these days it’s not in the terms on that page: it’s simply taking actions with the express purpose of highlighting your gender.  A way of walking, talking, thinking, presenting.  And if gender were purely descriptive, then that wouldn’t have much purpose, because there wouldn’t be anything to say about your gender except whether it did or didn’t match your body.  We do have, socially and culturally, these ideas of how to be male or how to be female, and they can be downplayed or emphasised (if they’re not largely immutable).  And again, I could see how that would work if gender wasn’t assigned, because people could just pick the template they preferred and go from there, but that’s not going to work because gender isn’t that simple, it’s this messy intersection of prescription and proscription and WTF why are we even using this concept now?  (Rhetorical question.)  Because now we’ve got things like body-p0licing fights over the appropriate female BMI (“Real women have curves”***, which I’m sure will be vitally important knowledge when we’re invaded by Cubodroid sleeper agents) or the appropriate level of emotion males should express (“Real men are willing to cry”, because obviously being raised in an environment that suppresses displays of vulnerability means that your right to be recognised as male has been revoked by your more enlightened dude-peers).

Every female is a real female, every male is a real male, everyone else is a real whatever they are, whether they choose to practice and perform behaviours that have been traditionally associated with their gender or not.  So what exactly is the future of the gender concept?  If we were all sitting around an enormous table, plotting what gender should be for in the utopia of the 31st century, what would it be for?  Because I can’t see what its vital purpose is.  It mostly seems to be about restrictions and telling people they’re Doing It Wrong, and it is up to individual readers how sexually to take that last bit.  But I know better than to make the mistake of a first-year social engineer as illustrated in xkcd, and I realise that for whatever reason, some people are very much attached to gender.  I don’t know everything (but don’t let that get around) and maybe there is something enormously good about being able to categorise people along lines that are kind of biological and kind of social and kind of sexual but not always all of those things and also there’s lots of fighting about it.

I’m just not sure I can consciously grasp it.  My body is male, I am male; I don’t need it to get more complex than that.  The idea that it’s a good plan to also have behaviours to perform male is as bizarre to me as the idea that we should, I don’t know, perform hair colour.  Hair also has (cliché) associated behaviours and attributes – fiery redheads and all that – but somehow it’s a non-issue.  No one’s freaking out because someone wants to present as blond instead of brunet.  No one’s throwing a panic because a black-haired woman wants to use the ginger restroom.****  There’s one obvious reason for this (hair colour has much less to do with sex and so people are capable of rational thought in its regard) but beyond that, what is there?  What is gender uniquely good for that makes all this mess worthwhile?

Mind you, I’d be very suspicious of anyone showing up saying that they thought ditching gender was a great plan, because that’s not the way society is built right now – there’s no more efficient way to hide sexism than to insist that we’re post-gender and no one cares about that silly stuff any more.

A last thought, vaguely connected to all the above – I read things people have said about gender in fiction, and whether a particular author ‘gets’ the opposite gender, or whether a dude is just writing ‘men with breasts’ or a variant on that phraseology.  This is important to me, as an aspiring writer, and really confusing, because all else equal, I don’t know if I know what they’re talking about.  I’ve heard women say they liked reading a female character and recognising ‘female thoughts’, and immediately I want to know how they know what constitutes a ‘female thought’.  (There was an entirely different and more obvious scenario where people said this and I had no problem – women were talking about a manuscript from a male author in which a female character experienced sexual harassment in the workplace and immediately started scheming as to how she would best profit from this, either via blackmail or formal complaint.  That’s not so much a failure to think like a woman as it is failure to think like a person, and the inability of some men to think of women as people is well-documented.)  Most Many people are only ever one gender.  Maybe everyone?  Obviously not everyone; there are some who are neither and some who alternate and I can’t quite figure out how but I bet there are some who are both.  But if a particular thought pattern is unique to one gender, I’m not how that would be tested, aside from a global survey.  I can’t think of a thought process I could read in a character that would make me say “Oh, so honestly and accurately male!”  Is this a phenomenon restricted to women living in a culture that treats male as normal, such that they are saturated with male thoughts and can pick out the ones that they never have and the ones that they have but never see written?

So these are a sample of my many and confused thoughts on the subject of gender.  I have undoubtedly displayed startling ignorance in at least one area.  I am excited by the possibility that, if you have read this far and are even now fuming at my foolishness on any of the above subjects, you will let me know in the comments, allowing me to increase my knowledge and grow closer to omniscience.  Or maybe you’ve had similar experiences, or know of good examples to illustrate something I’ve talked about!  Or maybe you’re just as baffled as me about the whole thing!  All of these are delightful prospects!

Seriously, I think we should be trying to get ‘umbralock’ into the vernacular.  Anyone have an in with Merriam-Webster?

*There is a basic rule of courtesy: call people what they want to be called.  One-on-one, that trumps most things.  In broad references, it gets trickier.

**Eleventh grade really was the only year of high school that we had ‘history’.  Grade ten was geography, and all previous years were ‘social studies’.  I don’t know if I ever fully grasped what the scope of ‘social studies’ was supposed to be.  It sure as hell did not teach me how to socialise like a normal person, which would in retrospect probably have been vastly more useful than whatever they did teach.

***I only recently discovered that I had already heard Adele’s music without knowing it, and am now doing so intentionally and frequently.  And it is tiring as all @#$% that basically every youtube page of her songs has a fight about whether she is Fat or Curvy or whether she is Too Fat or whether she is still Beautiful and honestly people why does anyone care you probably have a Shuffle with no screen anyway HOW IS THIS YOUR PRIMARY CONCERN and I’m not even a woman.  (Since drafting this post, I’ve heard that Adele is now planning to take a multi-year break from music.  I apologise, Adele fans; apparently my power to interrupt the production of media by liking it remains strong.)

****Okay, so there’s blond(e), brunet(te), redhead/ginger, but no noun for black-haired people?  We have to use a hyphenated phrase?  What is this oversight, English?  From now on, people with black hair are umbralocks.  Pass it on.

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8 comments on “Gender performance and the rise of the umbralocks

  1. frasersherman says:

    A lot of “the writer masculinized his female character” analysis hits me that way too: The critic has a clear idea what women are like and doesn’t consider deviation.
    On the other hand, sometimes it does make sense. My SO informed me that I had so much women-checking-out-men’s butts in the novel draft she read that it was way over the top. And I trust her judgment.
    And there was a Wendy Pini essay I read on writing believable female characters that covered some of this topic and made perfect sense (unfortunately I don’t remember much of it).
    I doubt that’s much help.

  2. hapax says:

    I’m just not sure I can consciously grasp it. My body is male, I am male; I don’t need it to get more complex than that. The idea that it’s a good plan to also have behaviours to perform male is as bizarre to me as the idea that we should, I don’t know, perform hair colour

    I would respectfully suggest that perhaps as a cis-gendered male, the reason you “don’t need it to get more complex than that” is because being a cis-gendered male is overwhelming equated in our culture with being normal.

    I am saying this not to scold, but to as an exercise in perspective. I am a Caucasian in the U.S. — I have no idea what “white culture” would be like, because it’s NORMAL culture. On the other hand, I’ve been told that I “speak with an accent” (a hint of Southern Briar, which I confess tends not to go for the most attractive of vowel formations) — implicit in this observation is that the Eastern-Midwestern-Establishment-Newscaster speech patterns are NOT an accent, but just the way that “normal people” talk.

  3. Loquat says:

    “Umbralock” is a great word, but I’m afraid I can’t support using it for black-haired people. It just sounds too much like a D&D monster to me.

  4. Will Wildman says:

    Fraser: I will look for that essay; it sounds very helpful. In terms of female characters checking out male characters, my primary writer friend has if anything suggested I should play it up more, but I’m not sure she’s representative of traditional femininity.

    hapax: That’s a very good point – taking that perspective, possibly it’s rather like a white guy saying ‘Why does it matter if all the action heroes are white? It’s not like I’m going to movies thinking “Yay, white people”.’ So already I have a new angle to try to take this concept on!

    Loquat: Per the first footnote, obviously people choose their tags for themselves, but as a natural brunet and frequent artificial ginger, I think I would consider going black-haired just to get to be an umbralock. Does it sound like D&D? Yes. Is that awesome? Also yes.

  5. Benvarious says:

    Can we be peppers? Like gingers, but pepper can be black. Come to think of it, ginger isn’t really that color, is it? Can we just pick a spice for every hair color? I’ll take spikenard for mine (yes that is a spice. I wanted one that’s cooler than “garlic”, so I applied the google).

  6. depizan says:

    I’m just not sure I can consciously grasp it. My body is male, I am male; I don’t need it to get more complex than that. The idea that it’s a good plan to also have behaviours to perform male is as bizarre to me as the idea that we should, I don’t know, perform hair colour.

    Nonetheless, you’ve almost certainly learned to perform male. You just aren’t doing so consciously. We all learn how our gender is supposed to act, sit, stand, talk, etc, all our lives. Of course, if we aren’t cisgendered it’s all a bit more complicated. I know my gender performance is all over the place, influenced by the people I’m around, the fiction I consume, and who knows what else. Though I do try to perform “female” when shopping for undergarments, so people don’t think I’m some sort of perv. *sigh*

    Most people are only ever one gender. Maybe everyone?

    Hi, genderqueer person here. I have never felt entirely either gender. I can remember being a small child and playing around with dressing room mirrors – performing “male” in one, “female” in another, and myself in the middle mirror. I identify as both/neither, with some leanings one direction or another depending on various things. Though I lean male more often, inconveniently.

    And that is probably way to much information.

  7. Will Wildman says:

    Nonetheless, you’ve almost certainly learned to perform male. You just aren’t doing so consciously. We all learn how our gender is supposed to act, sit, stand, talk, etc, all our lives.

    Oh, certainly. I should probably have emphasised more: “The idea that it’s a good plan to also have behaviours […]” – what I was getting at is that I don’t see the inherent value to the existence of these behaviours and roles and expectations. Their value to me is mostly that they are expected and thus by doing them I don’t have to explain why I’m not doing them. I get the impression that there are people for whom this is not the case; I just don’t understand why yet.

    Hi, genderqueer person here. I have never felt entirely either gender.

    This should have been obvious to me and I’m going to edit accordingly because I feel ridiculous. I was all focused on ideas of transitioning.

  8. depizan says:

    what I was getting at is that I don’t see the inherent value to the existence of these behaviours and roles and expectations. Their value to me is mostly that they are expected and thus by doing them I don’t have to explain why I’m not doing them. I get the impression that there are people for whom this is not the case; I just don’t understand why yet.

    Well, I can’t help you with the inherent value to gender roles, because I don’t see it either. I’d rather people felt free to make up their own version of male, female, both, other, neither, whatever without other people giving them crap for it. I sort of hope someone who does value them for reasons other than fitting in wanders by, since I’ve never understood that, either.

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