Monday, December 15, 2014

12-15-2014 Entry: Mongols, Genderization, and Power Imbalances

Happy Monday everyone!! Isn’t it just wonderful to crawl out from your weekend hole of joy, relaxation, and peace to rejoin the world as a barely functional, tired, bitter, under-compensated, worker-slave? Don’t you just love getting up and going to work for that pitifully small amount of money allocated to you by people who supposedly provide work that’s worth more money (here’s $100 for me, here is $1 for you. $100 for me, $1 for you….)? Isn’t it great to barely make ends meet, but always have just a little more you need before you can experience that coveted “comfortable” lifestyle??

Okay, sorry, my happy Monday train sort of got rerouted to bitter-town but what can one expect from me on a Monday morning? Obviously I am still bitter that my wife is “sick” at home while I’m slaving away for the man. I’m sure she feels just dreadful in her pajama pants, snuggled up in bed, reading her book in the peaceful quiet of an empty apartment building.

Okay, sarcasm aside (hopefully you could tell I was trying to be humorously sarcastic and not just a whiney baby; if not, go back and read it again with your newfound insight) I suppose I’d better start blogging about something interesting, right? So what is interesting… hmmm…

Well, over the weekend I got to embark on a few new journeys in the television realm thanks to Netflix and my mother’s borrowed amazon prime login info. The first of these adventures was with the show Marco Polo which just launched on Netflix (a Netflix original series). I found this show to be quite entertaining and interesting, although this might just be because I have a strange fascination with anything Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or (evidently) Mongolian as well as a limited familiarity with Marco Polo himself. It also helps that the production value of the show was quite high with its beautiful HD cameras catching the breathtaking scenery, Chinese/Mongolian architecture, and brilliant costume design; not to mention, of course, all the gorgeous naked people having sex! (definitely not a children’s show, btw). As for historical accuracy, I cannot say how close the show is to the actual life of Marco Polo but from what little I could learn from Wikipedia’s biography of Marco Polo, it seems somewhat on key so far (I could be wrong, though).

I suppose the things that caught my interest in this show were the socioeconomic and political undertones displayed in its representation of China/Mongolia in the 13th century, particularly with regard to gender (I know, you are terribly surprised I’d tie it back to gender, aren’t you?). I’m sure it will come as little surprise that the culture depicted in the show (accurate or not) was one of supreme patriarchy where penis = all the power and vagina = basically worthless with the exception of how it can make the penis happy. The women of the show are forced into roles of either queens/princesses (who have little to no actual power, or are used as political currency, respectively), concubines/prostitutes (who are sold to local whorehouses or kept in harems, because if you are going to have one concubine, you might as well have 60 of them living in a permanent orgy house, right?), or peasants (with absolutely no say or power). Needless to say, the show depicts a society that is highly gendered with dominate, masculine males matriculating to the top. The only access to influence or power for the females is through physical beauty and desirability (sexiness) and I don’t mean that figuratively. One of the female characters is specifically used by her brother for political gain and influence (he pretty much pimps her out… because you know, that’s what brothers are for right?) because she shows a knack for sensuality and desirability; something that is displayed early on in a sex scene where she assumes the role of a dominatrix over a local Chinese governor/politician. In this role she gets to exercise power over the men she has been gifted to by her brother, but as with all sexual power, it has its limits. She might be the dominating one in the bedroom, but once she returns to the political sphere she is moved around against her wishes by her brother (he even forces her to leave her daughter behind, the thing she loves the most, in order to fulfill one of his desires for political influence. Why? Because he has a penis, so why not?)

So, what can we learn from this show? Obviously the show is about a male historical figure and is depicting a time where patriarchy was the status quo, so it’s not too surprising that it fails the Bechdel test ( as none of the female characters talk to one another about anything besides men (unless you count a mother talking to her very young daughter, which I don’t). In fact, I’m not sure I’ve seen any of the women talk to each other at all, with the exception of the brief mother-to-very-young-daughter conversation. But setting the Bechdel test aside, I think we can learn an important lesson about gender and the pyramid of social power as it manifests in a patriarchal society, and that’s that as a society becomes increasingly gendered (closer to a true binary) it will also become increasingly unbalanced in its distribution of power between those genders.

Maybe on the surface that doesn’t seem all that revolutionary of an idea, but let’s dig into this thought some. Nowhere in human history (at least that I’m aware of) did any truly gendered (binary) society ever distribute power evenly across both genders. Almost all highly gendered societies distributed the power primarily to the males, but even in the very rare instances where the opposite was true, there was still an imbalance. If we take the “amazon women” idea as a serious scenario we find that the observation still holds true that the highly gendered society was inherently imbalance in its distribution of power and resources because under such circumstances there is still a favored and disfavored gender (women over men).

So if we continue with this train of thought and start looking at what implications such an idea or hypothesis has we begin to see something that truly is revolutionary. If the imbalance of power peaks in a perfectly gendered society then does it stand to reason that the imbalance of power will approach zero (perfect equality) the less gendered a society becomes? Were I a researching social scientist with some grant money and graduate students to help me I would try to conduct a social experiment under specifically androgynous circumstances to see how the balance of power was distributed. I’d hypothesize that we would find that power would be determined on factors completely separate from one’s sex or gender and we’d find that that distribution was ultimately more equal.

Obviously sex and gender are not the same thing, but the act of genderization is almost inherently an act of mental categorization based on sex, so in the social context for the above experiment it would be nearly impossible to separate the two. The experiment would fail almost immediately if the biological sex of any of the participants was known by another because the socialized genderization process would come into play, intended or not, and would affect the interactions. The knowing participant would automatically begin to think of and treat the sexed individual based on socialization of gender. Were the sexed individual a female, and the knowing individual a male, the knowing individual would automatically begin to interact with the female under such circumstances and would, ultimately, alter his perception of her personality to more readily conform to his assumptions of what “female” means. He might begin to describe her using more traditionally feminine terms than he might if he did not know her sex (and thereby her assumed gender) and would possibly start to treat her as man might a women (assuming he held a traditional “male” gender) by altering his interactions with her (holding the door for her, telling her she looked nice, trying to protect her in aggressive situations, ect.).

Unfortunately I am not a social scientist conducting research, but that doesn’t mean I (and we) can’t begin to test this hypothesis out under less controlled circumstances. Just because the government, a company, or some private interest group doesn’t want to throw money at me to see if what I’m suggesting has any merit, doesn’t mean that the research isn’t important or that it won’t have a large impact on the world. If enough of us started deliberately treating one another outside of the context of gender and started raising our children outside of the context of gender, then eventually our little social experiment could become a social phenomenon.

So how do we do that? How do we start to look at and treat one another outside of the context of gender (and sex)? Well, the first step is to start to recognize when gender rears its head in our thoughts and perceptions of others. Start to notice when you meet someone or talk to someone the almost automatic categorization your brain does of placing them in one gender or another. Start to recognize how your interactions with a perceived male or perceived female differ from one another. Did you do something or say something you would never do or say if they were the other gender? If so, why did you do it, and why wouldn’t you with the other gender? If you come to find that what you did or said was a propagation of the imbalance of power based on the gender binary then try to critically think of ways you could approach the situation differently in the future.

When you interact with another try to notice if they treat you through the lens of gender, and how that manifests. Did their genderization of you empower or disempower you? If it disempowered you what could you do differently next time to limit that disempowerment? If what they did was empower you, try to notice if their action was gender based or fell outside the realm of gender; in other words, did they treat you like a man/woman, or did they treat you like a human?

When you interact with another, try to notice what things you do that might signal your gender to the other person. Did you choose to act in that way, or was it more of an automatic response? (a good example for me is holding the door open for women, it’s an almost automatic response) If it was an automatic response can you find the root cause of the response? Was it something you were socialized to do because of your assumed gender? If it was socialized, what purpose does it serve (does it empower you or disempower you?) and do you really want to keep doing it?

If you have children try to analyze the things you are teaching your kids both through your words and actions. Genderization can be a very subtle process and most often is the result of perceived rights and wrongs based on social queues that are usually unspoken, so this might take some extra work to realize how you are impressing gender on your children. The obvious avenues of genderization are toys, outfits and entertainment, so as you shop for your children for Christmas try to analyze how gendered the toys you buy are and what other options may exist that transcend gender. As you continue to provide clothing to your children as they grow up try to take into consideration the kinds of clothes your children want to wear as opposed to just shopping in the boys or girls section. If you are really brave, and I encourage you to be brave, why not buy some clothes traditionally worn by the other gender/sex and allow your child to wear them. If they are young enough, you can even sit back and be amazed at how much other people struggle with trying to place a gender on your children for you. You can also be amazed at how people react when/if they find out the sex doesn’t match the clothing-gender. As for entertainment, I know it is very easy to let kids just watch television but try to pay closer attention to the programming they consume and what, if any, genderization is occurring in that programming. Is your daughter only watching shows with princesses, pink, and ponies? Then try to get her to watch something geared more towards boys and see if she likes it. If she does like it, I encourage you to foster that interest and explain to her that it doesn’t matter if the show is intended for boys or girls, everyone gets to choose what they like and what they want. The same goes if you have a boy. The earlier you begin this dual-genderization of toys, clothes, and entertainment, the better because it will have a greater affect on their life. With any luck, if enough parents do this and we have a whole generation of children growing up having experienced both sides of the gender binary, we will eventually have entertainment programmers who understand the benefits of producing more androgynous or bi-gendered entertainment. I wish that existed now, but since it doesn't (for the most part) the only way to move in that direction is to transcend the current gender boundaries being set for us and our children. Why should Mattel, Disney, Nickelodeon and other conglomerations get to dictate our children's genders when it should be our children's job to do that on their own?

If you find that other parents you interact with insist on gendering everything about their child’s life I strongly encourage you to question them on their decisions. Chances are they never even considered the ramifications of gendering their children. Ask them why they believe it’s good for boys to be boys and girls to be girls (and smile knowingly at their befuddled responses). Really try to encourage them to critically think about what that does and how that affects their children’s lives as they grow up. Especially if they have girls, try to remind them of the consequences of the binary gender system and how it negatively impacts their daughter’s chances of gaining social power or access to resources. Again, they are unlikely to have ever considered the dangers of upholding the status quo because, like so many gender-based actions, it is an automatic socialized response.

Please do not confuse my message here. Expressing a gender is not wrong and anyone who CHOOSES to have a gender expression should be allowed to do so. What IS wrong is the imbalance of power that’s created by a socialized gender system that favors one gender (sex) over another by assuming a strict binary polarization, and the only way out of that socialized system is to start breaking the rules. What I’m suggesting is that you make your gender instead of allowing gender to make you. Pick and choose. Do you have a vagina but want to be the one who holds the door open for (insert sex/gender of choice)? Do you have a penis but want to talk about your feelings and your desire to be loved for who you are? Then do it! Forget what the gender police say about that being something only “real” men or “real” women do. Let them stick with their boring old ways of doing things, that just gives you more room to find out for yourself what gender really means to you; because in the end, you are only going to have one thing, the life you lived. Will that life be filled with adventure and the pushing of boundaries to find out who you really are, or will it be just another automatic existence firmly within the stratified system of mutually accepted beliefs?

I know which one I’m choosing, the life of a gender outlaw. Will you come with me?



p.s. I do note that I originally said there were two television adventures and I fully intend to blog at another time about the second show I started watching which is entitled Transparent. I just figure that show deserves a post all on its own as I delve further into it, so stay tuned my lovelies. =)

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