Gender: social personas vs personal identity

[Originally written c.2014 – & no I have no idea what I had read on the internet that had irked me so]

I’m afraid I’d quite like to make a long-winded ramble/rant.

…I know its been said before, and far more eloquently, but I believe its a point that can’t be made too often and I do keep reading things on the net that seem to miss the point.

Social gender is the convention used to differentiate individuals according to their clothing, demeanour, recreational preferences and role – it is broadly aligned to biological differences but the details are culturally and historically contingent (the simplistic examples being that Ancient Greek men thought trousers were feminine, pink has been considered a masculine colour and a number of societies do not use a binary system).
I believe it is important to recognise that the existence (and mutation) of social gender roles seems to be universal, and that it allows a convenient short-hand that can help distinguish people and teach children about personalities and social roles but also that it can be destructive, restrictive and inaccurate.
By contrast personal identity is the clothing, demeanour, recreational preferences and role adopted at any given time by an individual. It also encompasses the labels that individual applies to themself, including the gender they assign (or disclude or invent)  to/for themself -regardless of their apparent physical or genetic make-up or their adoption of local social customs for their chosen gender [also true for sexual/romantic orientation etc etc]. It also covers the kind of body that person feels is appropriate to them, from something as simple as whether they have tattoos to as fraught as whether they change their genitals and everything it between including weight. Broadly speaking personal identity when it comes to ones actions should not (though often is) be denied by any other individual or society.
[We do make exceptions (in terms of rejecting identity claims) for people complaining of discrimination based on a racial/cultural identity they either have no biological connection to or no evidence of a social connection/commitment to (e.g. adoption by or long-term integration within) and I forsee trouble in terms of biological essentialism in this area for gender… We also tend to make exceptions based on whether actions cause ‘harm’ but deciding what constitutes harm is an especially difficult and contentious topic]

I believe that there is nothing wrong with having  socially normal expectations. The idea of a persona to copy, adopt, adapt, build on, exaggerate and satirise is very valuable for many people.
I do, however, also believe that actually thinking any given individual fits that role is wrong. I do not disbelieve that certain genetic configurations are statistically more likely to be better at certain things (e.g. types of running) than others but statistics make sod all difference to individuals. It may be true that statistically men are physically stronger than women but that doesn’t mean that woman A is therefore weaker than man B or that their physical strengths determine what they enjoy doing. It is especially important that statistical probability and normalised roles are not allowed to dictate what someone can and cannot do; particularly if that role is thrust upon by virtue of their biology and not their choice. Furthermore, not only should we allow/encourage people to explore multiple roles and personas but we should be prepared to not let their apparent biology frame our judgement of them. A biological male in drag might be enjoying the clothes for their own sake, or the sensation of enacting female social persona, or wish to permanently adopt a female social role or wish to have a biologically female body – and we have no way of knowing without talking to that individual and nor should it matter.

And that is the reason all this is important – I have read a few things recently about trans individuals which argue that (for example) because some girls (who biologically present as XX) like traditionally (socially agreed) boyish things it is better to use their energies to encourage all biologically XX  people to acknowledge they might like masculine activities than it is to acknowledge that some people find their sense of their own body does not match with what is physically evident or that the wish to enact a male role neither requires you to want the ‘matching’ biology nor requires you to fulfil one variety of that social role for ever more.
Many traditionally butch lesbians take on a masculine-looking social role without wishing to change their biological sex and may in fact stridently champion their ownership of cunts and that is, and must be acknowledged as, different to adopting a gender neutral stance when raising children which does not equate their interests with their genitalia and it is also different to someone assigned female at birth who wishes to be recognised as a man but may still not want to adopt all the masculine traits society offers.
What I mean is just because we might want to change the way that society views gender  – or that we want roles to be unrestrictive – doesn’t mean we should be dismissive of the fact that they can be useful not just for those who naturally conform but also for those who want to experiment with something outside of their assigned role. We also need to acknowledge that some people have a very strong connection to a particular identity (regardless of biology or own ‘approval’ of that identity) and some people don’t have a strong feelings about it and still others shift in their connections to identity.
If it ain’t your body or body or your identity -shut up &  listen to the actual person.


[Addendum July 2017:
On a personal level I have never felt any strong connection to female social roles (some are alien, some I feel actively rejected by and some are ok) and only a mild connection to some male social roles but I am lucky enough that I have little or no dysphoria relating to my biology & am even sometimes happy with my body plus I am financially stable so I am able to wear almost anything and create my own identity as I go along.

Reading back through the above it is clear I was struggling to articulate something about race and about cultural appropriation – there is currently no evidence for “racial dysphoria” and cultural appropriation is a worryingly imperialistic issue but I don’t know that it is always going to be that simple.]


Dressing our Daughter in Pink & other modern parenting dilemmas

Back in a time before Baby, I had a lot of opinions about parenting.

One of the things I developed a fairly strong opinion on in the run up to starting a family was gender-neutral parenting. What modern ‘liberal’ free-thinking middle-class woman hasn’t thought about how to give children positive messages about the fluidity of gender and enable them to make informed choices in their life which are  unconstrained by social conceptions of gender even if they are eventually conforming? I am keen to make sure traits and preferences are not gender-coded; that all clothing  and job choices are seen as valid options. I want blue and pink to just be colours, fairies & dinosaurs to be fun. But what if we overdo it, I worry that our little family is not equipped to demonstrate and articulate expressions of traditional femininity  – girly isn’t really our thing…
Then I look at the reality that snuck up on us.
A lot of the clothes we have for baby are second-hand or are gifts from relatives. Financially, it is daft for us to even contemplate not taking the help we have been offered. So pink it is.
Plus it turns out not only do some people just love buying girly stuff, only those with female shaped (and coded) babies been happy to donate clothing and actually it is surprisingly hard to buy things other than in very gendered blue or pink (ie no blue flowers or pink robots or green well anything)
But as I watch relatives and complete strangers flail around desparately trying to gender our child if they cannot see blue or pink cues I realise that this is not a battle that can even be fought just with accessories – perhaps it is more important that Small realises that even when they have to dress to conform for safety or other reasons that doesn’t restrict the way they fee lor their intrinsic worth.

One of my most difficult dilemmas is parent naming.
Small has 2 mummies and a daddy. But should the mummies have different names to her? How should we introduce ourselves? How should I enforce making relatives give Mummy W appropriate recognition? What if neither of the mummies have ever been entirely comfortable with the idea of motherhood? What if Daddy is wrapped up in a very traditonal 2 parent model?
And this is the key area of difficulty what are the boundaries and responsibilities of 3 parents? And how can we make that work for a small human who has her own needs?

More thoughts on Beer

Mildly inspired by something I read on Freshly Pressed and this event..

I wanted to think a little bit more about stereotypical attitudes to gender and beer.
As a girl who has been drinking real ale for more than 15 years, selling it for 11 and doing cellar management for 9 I have seen all variety of attitudes to my tastes and competency.

When I was younger what I noticed and was irked by most was incredulity- people didn’t believe I wanted a real beer or almost as annoyingly they didn’t believe that I knew what I wanted. I’d like to say that the scepticism about my own ability to know that I quite like beer but do not in fact like *that* beer has disappeared as I’ve grown to look a little older and the world has changed but actually attitudes seem less about whether I’m dressed as a dyke, a goth or a hippy or  aged 18 or 30 and more about whether the person involved in judging was used to women drinking beer or not. I am less worried by this attitude these days – I have a bit more sympathy for staff who are sceptical of people faking their knowledge through bravado or ignorance and lets be fair I’m a little more sceptical about my own knowledge of what I want.

Not, of course, as sceptical as I am of what advertising suggests I might want. Truth be told I’d be more offended by the suggestions that I needed smaller more delicate glassware, fewer calories & light beer possibly with fruit if it weren’t for the fact the industry has so laughably little clue what I want anyway. The gender stereotypes (male and female) I see regularly on TV ads often genuinely anger me but fortunately they are rarely for products that I have any intention of buying so I can vote with my consumerism so to speak. Its more challenging when you read trade rags where marketing execs for alcohol companies burble about how they are making their products more ‘female-friendly’ – what I want to say is don’t. Its not the product that needs changing – some people like it and some don’t regardless of their gender preference –  its any advertising that has focused on men or on laddish culture that should be changed. And I don’t mean putting a token ‘pretty girl with pint’ on your posters (not that I object to looking at pretty girls per se but it really  doesn’t help make women feel included).
I do also think that awareness should be improved. More women would feel included if they knew just how many women are already there and misogynists would be forced to acknowledge their existence and competence. And of course there are plenty of brewsters and female brewery minions and brewery accountants and delivery drivers and pub managers and cellar managers and CAMRA volunteers and drinkers…just out there getting on with their lives and sometimes it would be helpful if more people knew that because I was lucky not to be intimidated out of the whole scene at 19 by a sea of middle-aged men because I had already seen beyond those pubs.

By contrast, the attitude I was least aware of before I worked in the industry but is most guaranteed to wind me up now is where people ignore my opinion. I’m not 16 any more, I’m happy for you to disagree but don’t look at me stood behind the bar and ignore my offer of advice and turn to Joe Bloggs stood at the bar and ask Him what you should drink. How dare you assume that just because he has a penis he knows more the beer in front of you than I do… I racked and prepped that beer, I tested the beer, I compared it to the other ones on the bar today – he’s drinking the beer he usually drinks/he tried 1 other beer/he  will talk to you about technical details and not your preferences… I know that sometimes the people behind the bar know nothing, I know that you want the reassurance of something that other customers are enjoying because that means its fresh and cool- but have you any idea how f***ing insulting that is to my cellar management? We keep 8 handpumps because we sell enough beer to make that worthwhile and maybe, just maybe, you should give us the benefit of the doubt (and well over a decade of good beer guide entries as basic research) to think that each of the beers is in basically good condition so you can then ask for a recommendation/tasters from someone who has had the training and experience of working behind the bar.


I am not an Activist

I am not and never have been the person who goes to the rallies, I do not use my position of privilege to offer a platform for minority voices.
I have never started a petition or lobbied parliament. I don’t even blog about my politics very often.
I have to put my energy into being me and I don’t have the strength to do more but I have nothing but respect for the energy people put into that kind of fight (even when I don’t necessarily agree with their aims) and I am well aware that people with less resources than me, less physical and emotional stability than me try to make the world a better place and offer themselves up for causes I believe passionately in and a part of me is ashamed of my inactivity even as I know I can’t do it.

I am also not a person who shares much in the way of links to blog posts and petitions and political rants. The two are very much related.
Since I am not involved in the fight I do not know the path that it has taken to that step and whether that course of action is the right/better/only way forward. Since I am not involved in the fight I don’t want my voice to drown out the voices of those who are.
And most selfishly of all I don’t want to be that person – the kind of person who jumps on bandwagons without understanding all the issues, the kind of person who nags people to be do-gooders with the press of a button without standing up there doing it, the kind of person who thinks liking a page on facebook is all the effort that they need to put in.
I choose to try and lead by example in my sensitivity to other people’s needs and rights and I hope that my comparative silence means that people will take a moment to stop and listen when I feel I must speak out.

On being a girl (& apologies)

First apologies for my neglect of this blog in favour of other writing engagements.
The Classically-minded or masochistic can read my gradually growing report on the Swords, Sorcery, Sandals, and Space: Fantastika and the Classical World Conference here.  I am also still writing that godsforsaken article and trying to prep a business plan.

What I want to write about today however is the weirdness of being a woman. Not just that inevitable gripe about female hormonal shifts or a pseudo-feminist rant (which isn’t really my forte) – though both of those will turn up. Rather, what I want to try and express is the sense of disconnection I feel from my gender.

To forestall any questions.. I am perfectly content with the genitalia I was born with and at peace with the physical shape of my body. I have thought long and hard about whether or not I want male parts and male hormones (and yes if you gave me the opportunity I’d love to know what it feels like to have and use a penis) but whilst I’d comfortably give up menstruation I’m not sure I’m ready to give up a clitoris and womb. I think that now the conscious decision I made aged 9 that I want to act/dress/be treated as a man but have no actual desire to change my shape holds even more strongly (I’ve learnt to use my body for fun and quite frankly don’t want to re-learn that stuff).

I also want to point out that my problem is more fundamental than a desire not to be stereotypically ‘feminine’ – Its not just about not wearing make-up very often or the fact I don’t like shoe-shopping or gossiping and waxing or whatever girly girls do with their time. Though let’s be honest that type of femininity is a complete mystery to me. [I’d love to tell you I totally respect women for whom that works but whilst I defend their right to do it, I struggle to have any understanding of it.. sorry].
On the other hand I would be lying if I said it wasn’t, to a certain extent, about all the things that inaccessible to me as a woman.. certain monastic libraries and gentlemen’s clubs are pretty high on my lists of cool places to go.

Really though, I struggle with being female because I feel like someone made up a set of rules about how to do it but didn’t give them to me. Some of that I can recognise as social conditioning  – though knowing it to be true does not automatically lessen the sense that one should conform – but some of it feels like being wired differently (even when it might also be social conditioning).
The social and cultural role of a woman isn’t just about material expressions of femininity (like looks and the way you dress) but shows up in the expectation that you are more empathetic and emotional and less aggressive and competitive than men, that you are shy/reserved but form large strong friendship groups amongst your peers, that you will have an instinctive skill with children but that your brain is less analytical… There are even social rules about how to be a lesbian and the way relationships should work. More capable people than me have drawn huge lists of traits, behaviour patterns and pathologies – some patently ridiculous and some undeniably statistically evident.
It feels weird and insidious. Research into how men and women’s brains differ creeps me out, advertising sucks and role models are hard to come by.

The good news is of course that I am personally lucky enough not only to choose to ignore most expectations thrust upon me but also to recognise them as unnecessary. What that doesn’t help with is the process of decoding the behaviour of other women. I can read body language on a basic level (Thankyou Desmond Morris’ Manwatching & Drama lessons) but there seem to be more subtle aspects of people’s behaviour that are based on social understanding of gender roles and I don’t get it.
So where is the manual girls? Is it because I didn’t read Cosmo or watch enough chick flicks? Or does everyone feel like this and not mention it because they are too busy acting out the roles they heard about?

SFF & Classics Weekend

Gonna blog about actual academic stuff over at my other place soon but just needed to say out loud that you know you’ve been at this kind of event when you have discussed (as well as your own research) the problems of zero-sum power loss assumptions in criticisms of feminism and the problem of gender binarism in Gravesian styled fantasy as well as the varied potential of research into fan-fic, counter-canonicity and alt. history and lost count of the number of times you have heard the term meta.

What’s in a name?

A friend of mine recently commented about her resistance to changing her name when she wed and shared a link to this article.

As a woman in the “Western World” it is still usually assumed that you will take on your husband’s surname and yet as civil partnerships become more common and people who have delayed marriage til later in life find that their professional life is dominated by the name they built up this must surely be becoming as much a practical issue as it is a gender politics one.

Personally I feel no more strongly about changing your name if you get married than I do about keeping the name assigned to you by your parents – neither is automatically your identity so much as they are about your family and your connections. Sharing your surname with your parents or your children marks out a sense of belonging (in both a negative & positive sense) and builds up history. A similar trend must surely be seen in the continuing desire for many people to give their children the same names as their parents or grandparents (even if it is often relegated to a middle name).For some this is a burden and for others a sense of joy.

Whether you feel more strongly connected to the past in your own parents, desire a connection to the family who you marry into or wish to forge a new family bond and new name must surely be a personal choice in this day and age…

More importantly I feel that we should not question an individuals relationship with their name – for some it is a torture (be that through bullying at school or the gender assumptions it carries) for others it is an intensely personal point of pride. What is interesting, socially speaking, is the expectations we put on people:

  • That women will change their name at least once in their lives [and those who don’t are spinsters, lesbians or uber-feminists (which may because they are both of the first two of course)]
  • That men won’t change their’s [and those that do are milksops to their wives or hiding something]
  • Hypenation is an ugly postmodern cop-out that suggests you are a bit too right-on
  • If one half of a homosexual couple changes their surname to match their partner’s they are the more feminine party
  • That wanting to change your name substantially marks you out as odd
  • That children having a different surname to the main adults in their life is undesirable

I think that pretty much tells you everything you need to know about how tied we are to a traditional family structure despite the number of possible variations currently experienced…
Food for thought.


On a completely personal level – I have no desire to change the name my parents gave me (indeed with the exception of my online persona and the pet name my wife uses for me I have never settled into any nicknames); I never expected to change my name even as a child despite the attitudes of most of my schoolfriends; my name is my brand academically speaking and is even more so for my wife; we are all (all 3 of us?) slightly attached to the connection to the history and continuation of our families as represented in our names; we have not been able to settle on what surname we would give any children but agreed that something new is the best choice/compromise for our blended family….

Whose Labels?

On a side note to depression I once mentioned the difficulty of a “diagnosis”
The issue that I wanted to highlight centres around the problem with labels. A concept that gender and sexuality politics refuses to let go of. In respect to mental health although a diagnosis offers problems of expectation (which can be especially difficult when that might result in chemical intervention and social restrictions) it is usually [though frighteningly not exclusively] based upon socio-scientifically agreed criteria. That is, although there may be many reasons for suspecting the grounds for proposing rules by which our sanity may be judged (including the involvement of interested parties like enforcers of political norms or profit margins of pharmaceutical giants), there are at least agreed guidelines for professionals to link us together and scientific research to link traits and treatments by statistical analysis. This means, in general, if two diagnosed schizophrenics sit in a room and chat there is a good chance there will be a common experience.

With gender and sexuality, however, the expectation of shared experience seems higher but in practice the actual similarities are lower and the cross-over is unfeasibly complicated.
For example – If homosexual means attracted to the same sex – do we specify sex meaning physically similar genitalia, or do we assume a degree of gender related association?
If (for argument’s sake) an all-american ‘jock’ falls in love with a person who dresses as Audrey Hepburn and prefers baking, shopping and embroidery to contact sports and pornography but also has a penis which s/he is happy with – is that Jock gay? Is Audrey male or female? If Audrey sleeps with a man who wants a vagina and dresses like Ellen de Generes are they straight? If all three live together and never have sex are they polyamorous?
Of course these questions are themselves irrelevant (if emotive) as long as that/those relationship(s) is itself comfortable [please do not message me with answers to these hypothetical questions – I in fact do not care about your answers]
That practical irrelevance doesn’t mean that in daily life we are not constantly encouraged to select shorthand for ourselves. But should we?

Many liberal postmodern commentators urge us to free ourselves from labels – arguing that the prescriptive nature of labels enables society to pigeon-hole, sanitise, stigmatise and stereotype us. Yet in the same dialogue we are reminded of our own discursive power to formulate meaning for the labels we use, to problematise, re-use and reclaim our own labelling.
Most modern scholars would be offended if anyone suggested that when they wrote about women they only referred to the Holly Golightlys or Cinderellas or Mother Goddesses or Miss Havershams of this (anglo-centrically stereotyped) world and nor do most men-on-the-street use such glib shorthands but we choose to still signify people using these words.
I believe we do it because we like to both categorise others and to belong. It is easier to fight for womens rights or gay rights or poly rights than to fight for my rights. I do not have to match a role or force others to fit my idea of a label to see that we share issues, worries and needs. Our commonality allows us to empathise with each others needs and to recognise our insecurities and appreciate our quirks.

Perhaps in the end we have labels because it is nice to have something in common rather than always focusing on what makes us unique. We are individual everyday, we are all in a category of one in our preferences, styles and aspirations perhaps sometimes there is a comfort in appreciating what is similar despite all that difference.
I don’t want to stop being the singular special me and I don’t want you to stop being the utterly unusual you but I do want to notice that we all love and live in this small space.


(Wo)men and Drinking: A Gender Stereotypes Rant

  • Ain’t nothing so macho as getting pissed and throwing up right?
  • Girls like drinking wine, cider and (depending on degree of pretentiousness/budget) alcopops, spirit + mixer or cocktails..
  • Real men shouldn’t drink: anything under 4.5%/lager/anything a girl might drink (see above)
  • Not drinking is only acceptable for the following reasons:- driving, taking antibiotics (and even then one or two shouldn’t hurt), giving up for january detox/lent or being an alcoholic

What is it about alcohol that makes some people so prissy? So judgemental?
Scientifically it is clear that different people metabolise alcohol differently and that typically women have a lower tolerance level (not simply because of body mass but also because of fat:water distribution and chemical levels). It is also true that there is a general trend towards a preference for sweeter tastes amongst women and yet some of the best mixologists in the world are men and some of the most ardent real ale campaigners are women
But I fail to see how that should apply to me specifically or indeed why getting outrageously drunk is the acceptable and indeed desirably big and clever thing to do.

In my job I am often asked to suggest a drink for people who don’t recognise the selection and in doing so I both ask questions about people’s tastes and make judgements about them based on their appearance and attitude. What I find difficult is when people are very firm about one aspect of their preference because of their belief in what they (or their friend/partner) should be drinking. The lads who won’t except anything except the strongest pint for their mate’s stag do; the girls who refuse to touch something dark because it might be heavy.
Despite having done the job for many years and tatsed and recommended thousands of beers I have not yet worked out a particular defining feature that makes a drink masculine or feminine and I’m pleased with that. So why do people care so much?
I can only assume that a drink is an accessory by which you tell people about yourself and attract a partner. If that is the case what is 14 pints of stella saying about you? What does the fear of trying something new say about you?