Stephen Michell asks us to imagine a world where humans get to experience much more than just 50% of humanity’s awesomeness.
Does a boy grow up and become a man entirely? Does a girl become wholly a woman? Some thinking about sexual education, gender development, and relationship norms would have us believe that definitive gender is important and perhaps even necessary. A boy—a biological male—should be raised to become a man within his society because that makes sense and it’s useful, and therefore a boy should be guided, influenced, and educated within a specific parameter of masculine ideals in order to successfully create a man.
Respectively, a girl—a biological female—should be raised to become a woman within her society, and she should likewise be guided, influenced, and educated within a set understanding and expectation of femininity in order to produce a woman. But what if ‘men’ and ‘woman’ are merely fictions? What if there is absolutely no such thing as ‘man’ and no such thing as ‘woman’, but only societal constructs build upon assumed biological realities and previous cultural expectations that have been conservatively propagated and maintained for the sake of, say, expediency? What if a boy could be raised to be anything? What if a girl could become everything?
Professor and historian Yuval Noah Harari touches on this idea in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.[i] He illustrates excellently the difference between biological categories such as male and female, called sex, and societal fictions such as man and woman, called gender. The primary difference, apart from one being ‘real’ and the other being ‘fake’, is that biological distinctions—male and female—are 99% permanent throughout human history and across all races. As Harari argues, a homo sapien born with one X chromosome and one Y chromosome is categorically a biological male, but not necessarily a man.
That’s because the societal construct of gender is constantly open to interpretation, reevaluation, and transformation based on fluctuating cultural sensitivities. He notes that most often in human history biological males are considered cultural men, but the exact definition of ‘man’ is variable. To showcase this difference, Harari uses the gender definition of women in fifth-century BC Athens to women in twenty-first-century Athens. Fifth-century Athenian women were considered comparable to owned livestock. Twenty-first-century Athenian women can hold political office. Both are still female.
So what does it mean for biological males and females to be raised with a conception and expectation of gender and how can an awareness and understanding of this fiction be helpful?
Generally, societal gender fiction lumps human characteristics into either masculine or feminine. For example, a common gender fiction holds that sensitivity, compassion, vulnerability, and weakness are feminine. Likewise the same fiction model dictates that masculinity is tough, rugged, stern, strong etc., etc., the list goes on. As well, the gender fiction imposes a feminine preoccupation with beauty and decorum, while men are allowed to burp and fart. Raised within these gender fictions, young girls are practically taught to live naked, helpless and pretty, while young boys are forced to start building a suit of armour in which they will resemble a hardened man.
But societal gender fiction also presents femininity as fierce and vengeful and devious and masculinity as ambitious and ravenous and abusive. And again, the list goes on. And so it’s complicated. All that appears even remotely clear is that gender fiction offers a myriad of human characteristics that are each marginally divided between the sexes, while necessarily imposing a requirement for males and females to fulfill a certain set and therefore identify as either man or woman. The result is an endless mess of expectations, actions, consequences and a species of confused, half-identified individuals.
A boy who is trying to be a man lashes out in violence because society tells him to be strong and brave when in his heart he is weak and vengeful. A girl who is trying to be a woman gives in to petty gossip and cruelty because the world she lives in wants her to be a caring wife and mother but truly she is ambitious and ravenous and tough.
This issue may not be the cause of wars or global crises, but it is very plausibly the root of most domestic violence, especially sexism and sexual education debates, and many other daily struggles that arise from an inability to understand and express one’s self among others.
So how does it help if we recognize gender fictions? The answer that emerges most immediately and intimately from my own experience is that an awareness of gender fictions stands to make a person more accepting and communicative. And I think it is already happening.
We live in a moment of western cultural malleability in which ideas of gender can be mixed and mingled. Essentially, we are witnessing the idea of co-gendered sexes. And it’s not reserved for sexual orientation alone, or only for individuals who are directly struggling with sex/gender identity, but rather the awareness of gender fictions can permeate the contemporary conversation on sexuality in a calm, positive, contemplative manner. It’s the idea that a biological male can carry a felled-tree over his shoulder Schwarzenegger-style and still cry like a girl and be a stay at home dad.
A biological female can be a compassionate and sensitive friend and also spit and belch like a boy and run a Fortune 500 company. Both of these are acceptable ideas of man and woman, among a multitude. The awareness of gender as a fiction allows for the understanding and acceptance of endlessly varying descriptions. It’s the idea that maybe both males and females can break free of gender fictions and simply be humans.
I have noticed that all of my dearest friends are co-gendered, meaning they whole-heartedly embrace a combination of qualities that society otherwise considers distinctly masculine or feminine. Each of them still identify as either a man or a woman within this society, but they recognize that both sexes have innate and comparable knowledge and strength from which to educate and fortify one’s self. They draw influence, or they strive to draw it, less from culture and society and more from nature and biology. We are born either male or female with the vast array of human capacity and characteristics at our fingertips. Why limit the development of your ‘self’ to only 50% of humanity’s awesomeness?
[i] Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harper Collins: New York. 2015.