Guest post by @doodle_pops: on binaries and divisions
I am so lucky. I sometimes forget how lucky I am, and then someone reminds me, and I get awed at the universe all over again. This week’s reminder came in the form of this awesome blog post that arrived in my inbox
with a request for anonymity from the writer from my awesome partner @doodle_pops. This blog is mostly my own work, and I’ve no plans to turn it into a group blog, but the writer doesn’t have a platform of their own where they would be happy to put this post, and felt that my blog would be appropriate. I agreed.
Edit: This post was initially published anonymously, then @doodle_pops changed their mind.
I am going to say some stuff that is going to make people hate me, in this post. I want to lay down some ground rules about what I am and am not going to engage with, before I get started. I am not going to defend myself in the comments. I am not interested in having other people defend me in the comments. Seriously, please don’t. If I haven’t defended myself adequately in this post, ten comments telling the people who disagree with me how they’re terrible people will not do so. If someone wants to comment here and say that everything I’ve said is bullshit, then let them knock themselves out. I don’t care. I’m writing this because I think it might be food for thought for some people, because I think it needs to be written. My honour is not on the line, here. I am expecting vitriol in response.
That said, let’s get down to it: I am very interested in matters of gender, for a number of reasons both personal and not-entirely-relevant to the wider context of this post and I think that the way that people are talking about and doing gender politics is a little bit broken. Bear with me, here. The basic premise of every single bit of gender politics is that every single person on this planet has a right to express their gender in whatever way they see fit (that does not harm anyone else) and no gender is better, more important or more valid than any other.
Seems like an easy principle, right? Except due to a pattern in thinking that you see so often in politics (and most notably online politics), people seem to be getting it a little bit wrong. That thinking pattern is binary thinking and before you all groan and headbutt your desks in frustration about being conned into reading yet another post on how harmful the gender binary is, please hear me out. The way ‘binary thinking’ is often used in gender politics is that society tries to teach us that there are two genders, masculine and feminine and male people have to be masculine and female people have to be feminine, because they match up neatly. This is, fairly obviously, reduced down to the point of making little sense. Gender is done so very differently within each of these categories, as well as the gender expressions which cross the invisible line between them, genders that live on that line, genders which bounce back and forth over it, genders that are outside these two categories entirely and obviously, agendered people, who have no real use for this whole gender concept anyway.
This, however, is not the binary I’m referring to. The binary I’m on about is Us vs. Them and it is, in my opinion, the core binary at the heart of all oppression, everywhere. You see it among people who are otherwise quite good at gender politics – hell, you see it among people who think that the gender binary as a concept should be done away with entirely, which never fails to strike me as faintly ironic. The thing is, when you get down to it, whenever you draw a binary, whenever you divide the world up into two neat categories, you are always, always, and I cannot stress this enough, always drawing that line through the middle of a real live human being somewhere on this planet. Even if it is an Us vs. Them argument.
When I talk about Us vs. Them, I’m going to use an example from the arena of gender because it’s what I see most of – people who know lots about gender and how to try and be supportive of many genders and who are campaigning for better treatment of all these genders have a frequent tendency to decide that one gender is the enemy in their fight. This gender is masculinity. Men are the problem, people say, because they gain from patriarchy. This is true. If someone is a bit better at gender politics, they tend to say that it’s cisgendered men who are the problem, because they haven’t considered their gender, thereby assuming that all transgendered men have spent considerable portions of their time navel gazing and making theories about how gender works. (And alright, yes, I have, actually. But goodness me, let’s not assume that’s down to my gender. It’s due to the fact that I could get the gold medal in navel gazing – my masculinity is just an interesting topic upon which to navel gaze.)
There is something wrong with saying that cisgendered men who present their gender in a masculine manner are The Problem and therefore The Enemy. It is threefold: firstly, by doing so, the other genders in the world are simply creating feminist spaces where this gender is unwelcome. As, by and large, people who have had uncomfortable experiences because of our gender being unwelcome in spaces which we inhabit, one would be forgiven for thinking we are better than this. Say it with me, people: oppressing another gender and pushing it out of your lives does not make you feel less oppressed when someone does it to you. I can see why it happens – believe me, I know why it happens. It happens because after a certain point, you notice that there’s something all your oppressors have in common and you think ‘Aha! I’ve cracked it!’ and you endeavour to avoid that gender in future. But I don’t think it works in the long term. Short term, it can give you much needed space, valued refuge. But I think we need to move past this – because in the long term it just leads to you inadvertently giving some of your troubles, some of your woes, some of your deep seated pains to someone else. The point of feminism, of politics, of social justice is to try and eliminate these woes and troubles and pains, not to play pass the sodding parcel with them.
The second problem with this is that it is lazy thinking. It is so much easier to blame a gender than a set of behaviours. Why? Because if someone is blaming a gender that I do not express or inhabit then I know for certain that I am not contributing to the problem. If cisgendered masculinity is to blame for misogyny and horrid horrid gender politics, then I can be certain I am not doing those things, because I am not a cisgendered man. If we say that the problem is people’s unthinking support of a gender hierarchy, then every single person has to analyse their behaviour and figure out if that is something they are guilty of. Chances are, most people are.
I’m gonna use an example here – I know of a party that a friend of a friend attended recently that had a rule that no cismen were allowed to attend, because there was a sauna and this was presumably decided to be the easiest way of making sure no one made anyone else feel uncomfortable while they were in states of undress. (Also, I imagine that person is reading this – apologies if you don’t like my choice of example. If so, let me know and I’ll try and think of another to put here.) It’s a smart rule – it will weed out the group of people most likely to be a problem. Trouble is, I am priviliged enough to know an awful lot of smart, kind, resolutely feminist cismen. (I know, there’s a sentence you don’t hear often, right?) Were I to take a similar stance at one of my parties, for example, some of my best friends would be unable to attend. The problem I’m trying to avoid here is people being made uncomfortable by misogyny and other related gender pains- why not just make a rule that anyone who does this to any other guest isn’t allowed? Usually, the answer is that it takes too much time and effort. I’ve never found that – I do actually have this rule in force at my parties. If one guest makes another feel uncomfortable by being misogynistic or whatever the word is when you’re talking about the same kind of cruelty to someone based on their gender, but for people whose gender is not woman (Seriously, world, can someone invent a word for this? Or let me know if there is one?), then they get two strikes, the first to let them know that there is a problem with their behaviour and this is not acceptable. If they do something similar a second time, then they are no longer welcome in my house or at my parties.
The third problem is that it does not solve the issues we are having. Have you ever seen the video on youtube about how to tell someone that they sound racist? Here it is. Go watch it. By blaming a gender for an individual’s actions, we let them off the hook. We tell cisgendered men that they need to change their gender, even if those aren’t the words we are using. That is not okay! That’s so fucking far from okay, I don’t know where to start! But not just that, it allows arseholes who do do misogynistic stuff something to blame it on – they get to pretend that this is how you express masculinity and if you aren’t a masculine creature, that might sound plausible. But it’s not. There are ways to be masculine without being a misogynist. Trouble is, no one is talking about that, because the feminist cisgendered men, whose masculinity isn’t like that are being told that means it doesn’t count as masculinity because masculinity is inherently harmful to others (which is untrue and unhelpful) – so it’s kind of like that old definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it.”
The worst bit about letting people blame their gender for their actions is that is insulting to the people who have that gender and don’t do that. And those people are the ones who get blamed for the actions of some arseholes. If no gender is better than another, then it follows that no gender is worse than another either. This is just as important, I feel and frankly, I’m disappointed that we need to explain this to people.