September 24, 2003
Sex and status

There was a passionate exchange recently between Ampersand and Eve Tushnet about gender roles. Roughly speaking, she's for them, he's against them. I'm not going to try to solve the overall issue, much less wade back into the SSM debate, but I wanted to make a point based on one powerful part of Ampersand's post:

I think about the years in which I didn't go a single day without fearing that someone would beat me up, and rarely went an entire week without being physically brutalized by someone (usually, but not always, a boy). After a few years, I internalized so much loathing that I'd stand in front of the mirror, yell at myself, and punch myself in the face; I didn't even require a bully to be present to get beat up.

And the beatings happened for one reason, and one reason only - because I was unable to decide for myself what was valuable about me as a male. Instead, the people who think it's important to teach gender roles got to decide - they created a social context in which the punishment of gender role deviants was not only acceptable but encouraged.

I know how he feels, and I believe bullying is a serious problem that our society does way too little about. But I don't think it has to do with gender roles per se. Back when I was on Blogspot, I did a post about bullying (mostly other people's words, but they're good words) and the theory that it's really about social climbing. Enforcement of gender roles is one way that's exercised, but only one.

I used to get bullied for some truly bizarre reasons. When I was in the fifth grade, a boy in class started to make fun of me because he thought my lips were too big. Later, I would realize that most guys actually like full lips, and many people think it's one of my best features. But it was something about me that leapt out at him as abnormal, so he gave me a hard time about it.

I seriously doubt that anyone taught him that girls' lips should be X size, and anything bigger is bad. I expect he just did it because he could. I lacked social skills and self-confidence, and ridicule really got to me. So over the years people mocked me for various different things -- including that schoolyard catchall, "you're weird" -- but I think it was ultimately about the same thing.

I think that this aspect of status-seeking underlies the Eve/Ampersand debate, though neither is saying it explicitly. Though in school it's especially naked, the same game plays in the adult world. And it is closely tied to gender roles, because success with sex is a major part of status.

The really difficult thing, as I see it, is that even if you ditch the gender stereotypes, the stratification goes on, just reformulated. Once upon a time, it was a bold feminist statement for a woman to have muscles; the feminine ideal then was soft. Now muscles are OK, but they've become the new standard of beauty: a woman looks "flabby" if she looks like the former ideal. Or to choose a masculine example, anyone who knows the tech field can tell you that nerds can be just as cutthroat as jocks, once they take over the place. It doesn't matter what the ideal is; an ideal forms, and some people live up to it better than others.

Part of what Eve is arguing for, I think, is that we're going to have gendered ideals anyway, so we should make them benevolent ones. Ampersand seems to be rebelling against the whole idea, seeing that a ideal always means a hierarchy based on how well you achieve that ideal. I sympathize with Ampersand but I incline towards Eve's fatalism. In my school days, in Northern California in the '70s and '80s, the children were really a lot more intolerant than the adults, so I don't think they learned it from them. Short of divine intervention, I don't see anything stopping human social climbing. (Probably one reason I keep seeking divine intervetion!) But on the other hand, the society we live in today probably would have seemed impossibly egalitarian in the feudal past, so maybe I'm too pessimistic.

Posted by Camassia at September 24, 2003 06:56 PM | TrackBack

Excellent post. Though I don't think of it so much as "fatalism" as a recognition of the reality of the Fall. Chesterton argued in Orthodoxy that the empirical evidence for original sin is the "only part of Christian theology which can really be proved."

Professor J. Daryl Charles writes:
The optimist and the pessimist both err--the former, blinded by the myth of "progress,"has false loyalties, while the latter has no loyalties at all. Both err in negating any transcendent allegiance and in their failure to identify sin and evil for what they are.

Which is what you were saying about the need for divine intervention. And your reason for seeking - compassion - is the best reason of all.

Posted by: TSO on September 25, 2003 07:03 AM
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