Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Gender Identity & Embracing Femininity


I recently attended a fascinating lecture where we were all asked to participate in an activity that provided some interesting insights into how we identify with gender.

Upon entering the auditorium, we were each asked to write down our five strongest individual identifiers. People could have written things like: Reader, Cook, Runner, Sister, Brother, Latino, Extrovert, or any number of different terms. I myself put Feminine, Feminist (of course), Academic, Foodie, and Occasional Introvert (this one might have been contextual  -- I was terrified of being called on to share my terms in front of the entire room).

It is surprisingly difficult to come up with five different words to describe yourself. Can you think of your own? (See what I mean, its hard!) Perhaps we find it easier to judge others than to judge ourselves - I could have chosen any number of positive attributes for my closest friends or family members, but struggled to come up with 5 of my own. I noticed a few people around me clearly felt the same way as they raced against the clock to complete their 'personality maps' in time.

Eventually we all completed our forms, and the presenter then asked a series of questions regarding our identifiers: If we associated with the question, we were asked to stand up. So, for example, if the lecturer (who was, incidentally, a man) asked, "Did one of your identifiers have to do with your ethnicity?" anyone who had written down their ethnicity would have stood up.

For the most part, the groups who stood for any given category were varied. In the case of the ethnicity/race question, a handful of people from different races, countries and ethnicities stood up, including a number of white Americans.

The ONLY time a group was starkly segregated was when the issue of gender came up. Not a single man stood when gender was named as a primary identifier.

How fascinating! Why is it that the women in this room felt so connected to their gender identity while not a single male felt the same way about his masculinity? People will of course have different opinions on this, but it seems to me that the privilege of a male gender identity in this society is so taken for granted that it never occurred to the men present to write it down.

Thinking about this further, I can't help but think that because 'masculine traits' are both culturally normalized as well as constantly praised, men don't need to identify themselves as "men" at every turn. Women, on the other hand, are constantly pitted against those same idolized masculine qualities like competitiveness, drive, focus, ability in math and science, and strength, to the point that we must constantly assert ourselves both in opposition to 'masculinity' while also aligning ourselves with those very traits the male gender has claimed as its own if we want to get ahead. No wonder we feel so strongly about what it means to be a woman!

Indeed, the word 'feminine' has so often been associated with negative terms such as weak, gossipy, obsessed with love and relationships, needy and, well...stupid. Yet today, empowered women know otherwise. To be feminine, or to identify as a woman, is to also be strong, assertive, competitive, capable in STEM research, and driven. Perhaps we are owning our gender identity because we are recreating what that identity means. Whatever the case, I was proud to stand up with a number of intellectual women asserting their 'femaleness' for all to see.

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