This past week there’s been a lot of attention and discussion around the idea of gender, particularly on the topic of raising a gender neutral child.
This attention has spiralled from five year old Sasha Laxton, whose parents refused to disclose his sex in an effort to raise him as gender neutral and avoid stereotyping. What a grand attempt to free a child from a culture that insists gender is an expression of self.
Individual gender identification is not only on trend, it’s a theoretical development that could change the way we perform socially stylised actions of masculinity and femininity and it’s another step forward, changing the way we perceive gender.
In western society, from the day that you’re born, it is instantly assumed that your gender is synonymous with who you are. It’s tantamount to your sex and is considered an innate, biological reaction. From the second we yelp from the womb our sex is called out and the pink or blue paraphernalia swiftly follows. From the toys we played with as a child, to the mass media we gorged in our adolescence. This delineation of gender is in the films we watch and the fashions we adhere to.
MAN = HANDSOME, BRUTE, HUNK, BUTCH, STRONG, ACTIVE, POWER, DICK
WOMAN = ELEGANT, FRAGILE, BEAUTIFUL, PASSIVE, VAGINA, PINK, DEMURE, DOLL
It goes without saying that the avant garde, the feminists and the mavericks of this world have challenged these assumptions for years. Particularly great writers like Angela Carter, whose illuminating short stories in The Bloody Chamber provide an interesting case study for the assessment of gender as performative. Extracting the latent content from the fairy tales we read as children, she MIMICS, DISLOCATES and CREATES new ideas about The Masculine and The Feminine. Although criticised for never being able to fantasise Cinderella into bed with the fairy godmother, Carter uses the very tales we learned from as children and forces us to question our assumed knowledge and understanding of our own performance.
Gender is a role we play whilst standing on a stage: surrounded by garish mirrors that reflect the masculine male and the feminine female back onto us. Gender is a culturally inscribed spectacle and the idea that masculinity is a male trait and femininity a female one is being collapsed. This questioning and attack on the archetypal stereotypes of men and women provides space to consider the societal pressure for these irrefutable binaries of gender. Is this act by Sasha Laxton’s parents an act of kindness or a short fall into a world of psychological confusion and schoolyard bullying?
If we ingest the words of theorists like Judith Butler and Joan Riviere who view the body as a site for performativity, we scratch beneath the surface and start to uncover something new. We start to question, and cultural questioning is the apex for the beginning of change.
Is it a fantasy, or a fragment of your imagination? Look at yourself in the mirror. Do your movements and mannerisms mirror your inner soul, your deepest individualities –your very uniqueness? Or, are you reproducing, imitating these modes of being from the culture that surrounds and imposes on you.
With the likes of Andrej Pejic and gender subverting experimentation in the iconography of the counter culture, you must admit, there is something very interesting happening. So then we must consider that Sasha Laxton, aged 5, may well be one of the privileged minorities.
“The presumption of a binary gender system implicitly retains the belief in a mimetic relation of gender to sex whereby genders mirrors sex or is otherwise restricted by it” – Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity
“Women who wish for masculinity may put on a mask of womanliness to avert anxiety and the retribution feared from men” – Joan Riviere, Womanliness and Masquerade in Psychoanalysis and Female Sexuality
“The conception of womanliness as a mask, behind which man suspects some hidden danger, throws a little light on the enigma” – Joan Riviere, Womanliness and Masquerade in Psychoanalysis and Female Sexuality
“A women’s sexuality is more complex because a girl has to change her erotogenic zone and her object- both of which a boy retains. A girl has to both, transfer her love from one parent to another and relocate her locus of pleasure from the clitoris, or ‘small penis,’ to the vagina” – Sigmund Freud, Femininity in Psychoanalysis and Gender: An Introductory Reader
“It’s not the concept of rearing allegedly gender-neutral children that causes affront – it’s fear of those who have the courage (and liberty) not to conform” – Yvonne Roberts, Observer
“Gender is socially constructed and learned behaviour that society considers appropriate – a set of rules laid down to benefit males and keep females in our place” – Julie Bindel, Independent