Justine Musk explores the way in which a set of glitter pens in a girlie box suddenly showed her the ways in which we are all trapped in a gender binary.
I would rather be whole than good. — Jung
My son was five years old. He liked colors and textures and shine. He told me one morning, with a shy, sweet smile, that he would like to make drawings with glitter pens.
Soon I was cruising the aisles of a local toy store, checking out the kiddie arts and crafts.
Which were mostly packaged in pink.
My son was old enough to feel self-conscious about liking something girly, and I worried that his brothers would poke fun at him. I kept scanning the rows of merchandise, the jewelry-making kits and boxes of markers and crayons: where the hell were the boy glitter pens? Or, at the least, glitter pens in a unisex packaging?
Why did the packaging even matter?
I was prepared to admit that girls and boys are wired for different forms of play; I had, after all, watched one of my sons transform bananas into imaginary guns when he was a toddler and I wouldn’t allow toy guns in the house. The boy thing, as I tended to think of it, kicked in early. But this wasn’t about trucks or dolls. This was a shiny metallic ink used in art projects. Assigning it to one gender instead of the other seemed arbitrary.
Even so, why should I care? Why should a simple marketing decision have the power to dictate what my child could and could not play with?
The solution was easy enough: remove the pens from the incriminating package before giving them to my boy. But that didn’t change my sudden, vivid sense of the stigma of the feminine, and how it threatened to limit my sons. Glitter pens were all very well, but what about the other things my kids might feel compelled to turn away from because of that feminine tag?
Things like emotions.
There’s a movie called BOXING HELENA, in which a man with certain skills kidnaps the Helena in question, drugs her, and amputates her legs — and then, in a second surgery, her arms – in order to contain and control her. It’s disturbing as hell. Now I could see how this culture of blue and pink – of blue over pink – also threatened to perform a psychic amputation on my sons, chopping off whatever parts didn’t fit this very particular box with three very particular words emblazoned across the front:
BE A MAN.
And since you can’t talk about one box without talking about the other, I could also see its mate:
BE A LADY.
For a long time, off and on, I was involved with a writing workshop. On the designated Saturdays I would drive out from Bel Air to where the Pacific Coast Highway curves up along the coastline — blue sky over blue water — and make my way into the hills of Topanga. I sat on a deck with six or eight other writers and ate artisan bread smeared with fig jam. We would critique manuscripts, one after the other, as the day turned from cool to hot to cool again and the sun took its dying fall into the long yellow grass.
We talked a lot about going there. It wasn’t enough to string together pretty sentences, or know how to stage a scene, or understand the cause and effect of plot. You had to travel into the deeper places, the soul-places, that scare you and strip you raw. Because it was only when you showed your inner self that you showed us something we haven’t seen before (perhaps many times before). That work was original, because it was infused with the originality of you. That work was true, because it came from an honest place, and touched off the kind of vibe that went through the reader’s body.
When you went there, the writing came alive. It got juicy. It resonated.
It wasn’t until those conversations — and I saw the quantum leap in ability the writers made when they blasted through the levels of their own resistance – that I began to understand the relationship between creativity and authenticity.
Creative intelligence draws from the different parts of you, the various dimensions of your experience. Instead of trimming yourself to fit a pre-existing mold, you work to reclaim the lost and shadowy parts of yourself. The more of yourself you can access, the more powerful your work becomes, the more likely you are to connect with an audience.
When you create, you take what’s inside you and give it shape and substance in the world.
Other people can see who we are, what we stand for, and respond accordingly. Some will reject us – which is what makes creativity a high-risk endeavor – but others connect with who we are, instead of who we’re pretending to be.
Creativity makes it possible to connect and belong.
There is a difference between fitting in and belonging.
As researcher Brene Brown describes it in her book DARING GREATLY:
Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be in order to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are…
We are hardwired for connection – it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The absence of love, belonging and connection always leads to suffering.
We are also hardwired to create. As Brene Brown points out, there is no such thing as an uncreative person. Creativity
lives within us until it’s expressed, neglected to death, or suffocated by resentment and fear.
That we are hardwired for both connection and creativity is not a coincidence. If connection gives meaning to our lives, it’s creativity that makes meaning possible.
But you can’t go there when you’re stuck inside the gender box.
When you’ve disowned your power (if you are a woman) or your vulnerability (if you are a man) in order to fit in. When you’re trapped in constant power plays between those who conquer and those who are conquered, life becomes a series of chess moves, a game (The Game) that has rules (The Rules) about who wins and who loses. Which would be fine, perhaps, if the evidence didn’t suggest that we are destroying ourselves in the process, whether it’s the soaring rates of addiction, depression and heart disease, the plundering of the planet, the exploitation of children, the global violence against girls and women, the…you get where I’m going with this.
This is why I’m a feminist. Certainly not because, as certain stereotypes would have it, I hate men (I don’t) or because I think women are superior (I don’t – although we are very damn cool), or because I don’t like to shave various body parts (laser hair removal, baby).
But I have learned to value the feminine, in myself, in other women, and in men; I believe that if feminine values were expressed alongside masculine values, and weighed as equally valuable, the world would be a better place. I believe that women have the right to step into power and men have the right to be seen for who they are instead of the money they make (or don’t). I believe that both genders have the right to pursue accomplishment and relationship. I believe that no one – and certainly no box, no pink or blue packaging – has the right to tell you who you are, or define your experience for you.
I have nothing against traditional masculinity/femininity in and of themselves – the world needs the warriors and the nurturers. But most of us fall somewhere in between: gender as a spectrum inside a shared humanity, rather than two fixed points eyeing each other across an abyss.
I believe in your right to remember who you are, and be all of what you are.
To create and connect.
After all, in the end, what else is there?