Why do we unnecessarily gender-code our description of basic bad behaviors instead of calling it what it is? This week, Babble of the Sexes finds the right channel.
You don’t have to scroll too far down a social media feed to see folks attaching genders to bad behavior. We decry “mansplaining” and the reprehensible acts of “fuckboys.” Yes, these things are irritating, obnoxious and nothing any woman should have to deal with.
Unfortunately, the way to describe them is problematic from an intersectional feminist perspective (at least this woman’s intersectional feminist perspective).
When you attribute a gender to a bad behavior, you are gendering (and potentially mis-gendering) the perpetrator of said bad behavior. It’s difficult to say out of one side of the mouth that gender is a spectrum, something self-identified and something that can be fluid, and out of the other attribute specific negative behaviors to an individual fixed gender identity. To say that folks are entitled to self-identify and have that identity honored, but at the same time label behavior with a gender in a deprecating way is problematic. You can’t acknowledge a spectrum and describe behavior that enshrines a traditional binary.
Behavior over labels
Why do we need these labels? Can we not just describe the behavior? I realize it makes it hard to fit our grievances into 140 character boxes, but maybe our messages need to be bigger than that if we are going to hear each other. When we short circuit conversations by reducing them to gendered language, we miss out on all the other facets of a person’s experience.
Instead of complaining about “mansplaining,” we could explain the real issue, which is “speaking from a place of privilege which denies the experiences of those who live without the same privilege.” Our language becomes so specific that it doesn’t advance the causes of folks that are non-binary.
This phenomenon is not isolated to men talking about women’s experiences. It can apply to other forms of social or economic privilege.
It’s all about the privilege
On a micro level, let’s consider the impacts of gendering behavior in an intimate relationship context. “Typical man,” she grumbles in disappointment, after he forgot her birthday/their anniversary/milk at the store. Thoughtlessness is attributed as a direct result of her partner’s genitalia. “Just like a woman,” he grumbles, frustrated with a dramatic overreaction, tardiness he attributes to aesthetic concerns or some form of miscommunication.
Problem solving and communication has greater potential to have the desired effects when it addresses the offending behavior, instead of attacking the person or reinforcing negative gender stereotypes. It becomes like any other form of name-calling. It’s not productive. The needs and shortcomings of people are not things that can be universally sorted in pinks and blues.
We can cover more ground by describing the behavior instead of the person we are upset with and communicating our needs as individuals. We can explain where we are coming from in terms of our experiences which can be shaped by what we have experiences based on how others react to our gender identities, socio-economic status, experiences with disability, race profile, and religious upbringing. That’s about telling someone who you are and why you might be feeling the way you are.
You can describe your experiences without making assumptions about someone else’s experiences and the motivations for their behaviors. These preconceptions are barriers to communication and eliminating the he-said-she-said is one way to instead get to a place of we-heard.
Whew, this feels like a dangerous topic for me. As an older, white, cis-man I come loaded with lots of privilege. And I’ve heard about it. I’ve had people tell me that because of who I am, I don’t have a right to comment or that my thoughts are inherently skewed.
That’s another version of this issue—assuming that because of a person’s status they have somehow have nothing of value to add to the discussion. That’s hard to swallow for me given that I believe we create change by working together.
The gender spectrum
In terms of gendering behavior I completely agree with you. I think there are multiple issues. It does completely ignore the fact that people exist on a gender spectrum. It also doesn’t allow for the possibility within the specific genders that individuals don’t all act in the same way.
Both of those end up alienating people and causing them to be defensive. If you have to spend your time saying, yes, but, I’m not that gender or yes, but I work very hard not to behave that way, it doesn’t leave as much room for growth and change. It makes hard work to improve feel like a wasted effort because despite what you do you automatically get lumped with the “bad ones.”
Having said that, I get that our culture sets us up for this. Our world is designed to raise people as males or females—the system doesn’t create space for another option. That means that we tend to be taught how to behave, interact, and navigate the world as either male or female.
That does mean that individuals are more likely to have the traits, behaviors, and attitudes of one or the other, depending on the group in which you were raised. That makes it easy to generalize and assume.
The group and the individual
In some ways it reminds me of what an actuary I know told me. She said she can take a large group of people and pretty accurately tell me when they are going to die. What she can’t do is tell any individual in that group when they will die. In the same way, if you were raised as a male you are likely to have certain perspectives and attitudes. Except you may not.
The answer, as you said, starts with dropping the labels and the assumptions. When we start seeing people as individuals and don’t hold preconceptions against them, it creates opportunities for understanding, discussion, growth, and change.
I’ve said it many times and I’ll repeat it here: the road to change isn’t through blame or shame. It is about creating invitations for people to understand, to safely learn and practice new ways of doing things. We don’t want people who act a certain way because they’ve been ridiculed into it. We want them to change because they believe it is the right thing to do.
I hadn’t really considered the socialization component in terms of our tendency to raise children with a binary perspective. I only find labels useful when I’m trying to find the right size of yoga pants.
Otherwise, I don’t really see the point.
Photo: alicia reiner/Flickr