Conversations With My Brother

Amongst other vital pursuits such as pottering around aimlessly and reading other feminist blogs, one of the tasks I set myself for this holiday was awakening in my teenage brother a glimmer of feminist consciousness. My younger sister cottoned onto feminism a few years ago, and delights in telling me about arguments she has with her philosophy class and general peer group on such contentious propositions as ‘it’s harder to be a woman than a man in today’s society, isn’t it?’ and ‘how feminism would be an appropriate topic for an assembly in an all-girls school.’ Apparently one girl literally opposed the latter idea (‘and got a verbal smack in the face for it’, says my sister). In any case, I’ve been discoursing away about the sex/gender distinction and the representation of women within popular culture for the last few weeks, and I think I’m beginning to have an effect. My brother has now agreed to read some feminist literature (a great step forward, his original responses were ‘why?! What will it say?’ and ‘what’s the point?! I’ll only disagree with all of it!’)

One conversation we had has stuck in my mind. We were sitting on the sofa one evening watching my family’s favourite comic, Lee Evans. When it had finished, I pointed out that the amount of references to ‘you and your wife’, ‘your girlfriend does this, doesn’t she’ ‘you know when women do this’, and so on and so forth without any corresponding ‘you and your husband’ grated on me somewhat. I appreciate that much great comedy draws on stereotypes of ‘male’ and ‘female’ behaviour (not to mention stereotypes of race, sexuality and so forth), but Evan’s implication is clearly that his intended audience are heterosexual men (I doubt that he is thinking much of lesbians). Female subjectivity, of course, has historically been denied and remains ignored in virtually every field, but I for one would appreciate being acknowledged as a valid human subject to be addressed at least once or twice in a comedian’s set, particularly if I am also going to be used as an object of humour. My brother agrees with me, I think, on this, or at least pretended to, to get me to stop going on about it.

Our conversation then turned more generally to gender and to the detaching of gendered roles from sexed bodies. One of my brother’s arguments was that if those people with anatomies considered to be male and female no longer displayed corresponding gendered behaviours, we would be all the same and the world would be less interesting. His point, in short, is that we shouldn’t try to eliminate gender but should instead eliminate the attitude towards the ‘female’ gender that renders it intrinsically less valuable.

When feminist theorists argue for this point, it is my experience that they ground the maintenance of gender in biological or social essentialism about men and women. The late Mary Daly and her ilk tend to be guilty of this, and whilst such arguments are valuable to feminism, my personal preference tends towards a belief that there is nothing about gender that could not and should not be deconstructed. But when talking to my little brother, and when the discussion is framed in terms of what is ‘interesting’, my ideas about the value of queer are pretty much just academic. It remains the case that the majority of people are heterosexual men and women. Given that society is constructed around a maintenance of this gender binary as ‘interesting’ (read: perpetuates sexuality), I found myself at a loss for how to convince my seventeen year old brother that oppression, hierarchy and limitation are realities inherent to a society that conceives of human ontology as not just essentially but also valuably entrenched in a gender dichotomy. Any suggestions?

3 Comments

  1. I’ve heard about the ‘world would be less interesting’ argument before, and especially in discourses which seem to value a strict dichotomy in roles between the genders. What might be of use to you in your discussions with your brother is suggesting that by discarding the simple (not to mention restrictive and demeaning, for both genders) two-role view you might not induce conformity but an increased heterogeneity of ways of life.

    If we are no longer identified primarily and overridingly as male/female we may be more inclined to expand and experiment more. There is nothing to say we would all necessarily gravitate towards some sort of homogenous standard, rather we would be free from two homogenous standards (gender roles) and surely that would be more interesting?

    Probably some people would maintain the more stereotypical roles, while others would feel freer to explore and diversify. Ask your brother if he complained about girls who were tomboys he knew. No? Well maybe it was because she proved more interesting than her peers (not to denigrate their choices) by her willingness to ‘mix it up’ a little. A breakout and deconstruction of the kyriarchy might prove more interesting than your brother thinks, if only he uses his imagination.

  2. I know you said that the value of queer was academic in this context, but your brother might find some of the direct transgressions of binary interesting: e.g. genderqueer people, various recognitions of third-gendered or both-gendered persons in traditional cultures. Google ‘berdarche’ if you’re unfamiliar with that. This could lead on to discussion about the constructed nature of the binary, and how people transgress it in interesting ways.

  3. I feel we do need to acknowledge our genders in some way, whether we are men, women, genderqueer, trans (although trans people often don’t want to be recognised as trans), and all the other gender possibilities, but we need to avoid homogeneity. I don’t know why I feel there should be basic male and female ideas, even loose ones, which could help a lot with gender inequality, but I just think there is something we portray in ourselves about the way we feel about our gender that is part of who we are. For example, I was born a man, and I enjoy quite a lot of the things about being a man, I enjoy that’s it’s easy for me to be physically strong, and I enjoy my (sorry) penis immensely. However, I can imagine a women might equally well like being a women (if society wasn’t continually trying to kick her to the curb), she might like her physical attributes also, or obviously a person born as a man may not enjoy being a man, etc. I think the way we enjoy/negate our biological sex with gender is important to who we are. I don’t think we should remove the gendered nature of society, just loosen it up a bit.

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