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?