Sunday, September 23, 2012

Gender Bender, A Wobbly Spectrum

"Is it a boy or a girl?" K.F. circa 1996

           The limitations of the two genders division is a game we all enter as soon as we are born. Anatomically we are all either male or female, but everything else about an individual exists on a continuum where we all have our own specific coordinates. What we feel like, who we are attracted to, how we are supposed to act, and many more gender-centric behaviors and expression have been molded and prescribed by society and the “norm” it dictates. Men are strong, aggressive, ambitious, active and big. Women are nurturing, thoughtful, empathetic, passive and small. Even if our parents don’t impose these stereotypes on us, society does with an immense force as soon as we are labeled “girl” or “boy”.
            The evolution of gender studies has made a transition from the school of thought called essentialism to that of social constructionism.  Essentialism encompasses the idea that for any entity (such as gender), there are sets of characteristics or an overall “essence” fundamental to its identity and function.  These characteristics could be as abstract as a person’s intrinsic role or goal in life, or as superficial as facial hair. Yes, many women want to have children and yes, many men have facial hair, yet is this what makes us a man or a woman? Social constructionism is the idea that there is nothing intrinsically male or female inside of each of us, and that those differences are a result of social and cultural history and practice, which have been going on for thousands of years. Our ancient cavemen and cavewomen ancestors acted a certain way to survive based on their separate biology and set a precedent, which traps us still today.  Men used their physical strength to provide for their women who had holed herself up in a cave in order to create a safe and healthy environment to have babies, an endeavor which an average cavewoman wouldn’t survive. The pattern of men working and women staying at home to focus on child rearing has hardly changed at all since the times of cavemen until the last fifty years or so.
Statistically we live in amazing time some deem The End of Men, where in the United States women actually hold a majority of the jobs. With the percentage of women to men in college fast approaching sixty percent, the statistical marvel is only set to continue. The job market steadily shifts away from physical strength and stamina centric jobs where men excel above women, to cognitive and communication centered jobs which women are just as well equipped for. Beyond being equally equipped, many men will need to actually evolve away from a reliance on their bodies to make a living to the exercising of their minds. In this recession, three-fourths of the eight million jobs lost by Americans were lost by men, many in the domains of physical strength focused jobs like construction and manufacturing. It’s not easy to be a man out of work who now depends on his wife or girlfriend as the primary breadwinner, many new male support groups have appeared to help unemployed men come to terms with this role reversal in their families. The personal pride women gain which comes with raising their formerly marginalized gender creates its own momentum, motivating women more and more.
Another school of thought is an independence from gender at all and instead an individual’s personal and specific place on the gender spectrum. This spectrum disregards the limitation of deeming yourself or someone else as male or female and instead allows room for the complicated identity, expression, and role that each of us has. Imagine for a second not being anatomically on the outside how you feel on the inside, and the struggle of everyday changing your identity to fit in with what society and people in your life expect you to look and act like. Most people wake up every morning comfortable with their body and their identity, and for many years people who didn’t have that luxury lacked resources also. Now there are organizations such as, which educates about and reaches out to transgender adults and youth. Most people haven’t had to think about or fight with the social constructs that surround us because those constructs have suited them. Historically there have been people living outside of gender norms across the globe, yet many Western traditions have been behind the times and still are. As soon as we all realize what a trap gender and gender norms are, the sooner we can be free to be whoever we each are. The End of Gender touches upon what more and more parents are attempting to do by raising their children in a gender-neutral environment. This doesn’t always mean not disclosing the anatomical sex of the baby, like the approach Storm’s parents Kathy Witterick and David Stocker have taken, with considerable backlash. All they want is to let him or her decide exactly how he or she wants to be, free of expectation from society.  
“The end” is too definitive and limiting for this blog post, we may be at the end of classic gender roles for men, but more importantly it just may be the beginning of the end of gender roles in general. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Living, Loving, and Learning in the Digital Age

           The Internet is an awe-inspiring invention, a tool to connect socially and intellectually and a forum by which the entire world has an opportunity to work together to further advance the human race. Most reasonable people would agree with that statement, yet most people young and old have a sense of conflict about where humankind is going, guided by this technology. It may be a loss of tradition, a change of focus, or more sinister opportunities provided by the Internet, but present also is the classic mentality of the old to be distrustful of the  new-fangled life-changing contraptions the kids today have. I can see both sides of the argument. Socially, many of us put less work into being less personal with online correspondence, yet many who would not have the chance to communicate normally with the world now have the opportunity. Intellectually, we skim articles and our attention spans have consequently shortened, yet the vast amount of information available to the world helps spread education, equality, and entertainment. So what does it mean for we who have never lived without the technology that is now impossible to escape and can we form meaningful relationships while taking advantage of the wealth of information available to us?
           Those who lament the loss of some activity or trait that makes us more “human” such as reading a physical book, writing an actual letter, or communicating face-to-face must realize that like humans themselves, the definition of “human” is free to evolve. As told by the BBC Prehistoric Life series of articles, three million years ago, the closest human ancestor, known as a hominid, first began to get enough nutrition from meat to actually develop the size of their brains. Those who therefore worry about modern developments in technology such as the inevitable computer chip addition to the brain making us “less human” must remember the original humans are barely recognizable as humans and therefore not a viable “pure” model to compare modern humans to, modern humans being much more advanced intellectually, socially, mechanically, and in many more significant ways. Humans have more trouble evolving to accept the many more people we come in contact with and must remember and interact with every day. From an evolutionary standpoint, our ancestors interacted personally and frequently with a small number of people in their villages, most of whom they were related to. Nowadays because of dense cities we live in as well as modern media, we are expected to know about, interact with, and think about hundreds more people than we are evolved to remember. The number of people we are actually able to know and keep track of has been coined as "Dunbar's Number" based on the research of Oxford Professor of evolutionary biologist Robin Dunbar who has determined that 150 close relationships is all the average person can keep meaningful track of, and this number for a community comes from the societal traditions of our ancestors. Whether it is celebrities we know much about but who don’t know us, acquaintances or strangers we see and interact with on impersonal levels, or the hundreds of Facebook friends we communicate with in an abstract and new way, we are not perfectly evolved for these modern human relationships.
          I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. As a social being I like to see what is going on with my friends and family in the form of messages, pictures posted, and status updates. At a certain point however I get overwhelmed by the amount of collected data about my friends and I, not to mention the number of friends I have collected myself. I fantasize about deleting my profile and communicating with whom I want to with email, texts, phone calls, and the dear old US Postal Service, yet something always brings me back to the ease of social interaction that Facebook provides. The most recent time Facebook lured me back was when I turned nineteen this past Thursday and found myself ambushed by wall posts, pictures, and messages wishing me a happy birthday and hoping I do my best in the Big Apple. Being away from home in a place where most people don’t know my name, let alone my birthday, this attention on Facebook was profoundly comforting. Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan, authors of Your iBrain: How Technology Changes the Way We Think  would likely argue that this comforting attention I got from the Internet medium of Facebook was feeding my ego and self-worth, an argument I would not necessarily dispute. A common characterization of my generation or “Generation Y” is that we are self-absorbed, crave attention, live off of praise, and cannot take criticism. Part of my conflict about Facebook has to do with what I am gaining from it and what I am losing because of it. If I am gaining a sense of social acceptance from the internet in a world that is becoming less and less personal and more and more plugged into a different reality, aren’t I only gaining back a sliver of what has been lost? Why can’t I be satisfied with the sense of self I cultivate based on what I’ve read, what I care about, and what my values are? Since in the end the only person you can really trust and rely on is you, shouldn’t we all focus on growing ourselves and exercising our minds, instead of worrying about other people’s opinions and judgments of us? The only answer I have is that the digital age and the different reality it brings must be introduced into all of our lives differently, either embraced or tolerated, because it is here and we all have the choice to make of it what we will.
          What can be gained on a personal and a global scale from technology and the Internet should be appreciated as the result of many people’s hard work and design. It is a useful tool to keep in touch socially and delve deeply into many relevant articles from reasonable sources. For those with the appropriate expertise, it can be used to propel the human race into yet another stage of technological advances which may allow us to solve many of the global scale problems whose solutions may come to define this point in time, such as climate change, cancer, and global poverty. Since the Internet makes the world such a smaller place where people can communicate and collaborate so easily, such global scale problems are made apparent and also are made solvable.