understanding gender Male and female may mean less today than ever, but they still mean plenty
THE FISHER-PRICE kitchen came into our lives when the eldest boy was three and the youngest was about six months old. It was the late ’80s and, by God, we were going to do this parenting thing right. No sexist male louts for this family. No preconceptions based on gender. Our boys would be sensitive and non-violent, Gandhi-like in their demeanour.
There’d be no weaponry. Even the purchase of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figures was a wrenching compromise—the first of, oh, a few over the years. (Hey, you try to find a Gandhi action figure.) The toy kitchen, however, represented the high-water mark of our ideals. It was a multicoloured, metrehigh monument to our vision of the new masculinity: a world where you can drive a fire truck and bake a cherry pie.
The new masculinity, in a naive young father’s view, would be no different from the new feminism—aside from the anatomical goodies. Differences in gender were used for millennia to divide, exploit and isolate women. So, eliminate the differences. Who in Western society could seriously argue, after the angry gender wars of the 1960s and 70s, that the ongoing liberation of women is anything less than a crowning moral achievement.
The way forward seemed clear enough to two young parents. Our sons would rip down the wall between genders and build bridges— using tools commonly found in the kitchen. And Fisher-Price had provided everything: major appliances, pans, utensils, a sink, a nutritious assortment of plastic foods. There was a folding table on a swing-out leg—who could have known this would prove our
downfall? As we saw it, the table was a focal point, a place where our boys—and their gender-balanced assortment of friends— would gather to trade witticisms and debate the pressing issues of the day.
Sure they would. I can say now that young boys, in the main, don’t sit still without the aid of duct tape. Or unless they’re building something really neat, like a weapon of mass destruction. “They work at acting like boys,” Margaret Atwood once noted of the gender in general, though she could have been describing the scene in our rec room. “There always seem to be more of them in the room than there actually are.”
A funny thing happened for some of us on the road to equality. Gender may mean less today than ever in history—in our society, at least—but it still means plenty. Boys and girls—and a whole newly vocal rainbow of gender variants in between—may be heading today toward the same bright future, but they continue to travel on a divided highway.
This theory, of course, doesn’t win universal approval. The nurturing of parents, the impact of friends and the crushing influence of popular culture all have a huge impact on gender roles and expectations. But so, too, does nature. A growing body of genetic research and its link to behaviour makes it difficult to sustain the view that kids are pliant pieces of putty. They have a core, of which gender is one significant part.
“To ignore gender,” argues Montreal native Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “would be to ignore a major part of the human condition.” His latest book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, includes a thoughtful dismembering of the notion that all sex differences, other than the anatomical, are the result of parents, friends and society. He makes the case for expanding the impact of biology. The genders, he says, “do not have interchangeable minds.”
Switching sides—the gains and the losses
Aaron Devor, 51, is the dean of graduate studies at the University of Victoria. Until last fall he was Holly Devor, a self-described “masculine” lesbian. As Holly, Devor was a professor of sociology specializing in the study of gender, sex, sexuality and the “gender-blending" world of transgendered or transsexual persons. All societies at their root distinguish between male and female, he says. “Everything and anything flows from that in ways you don’t realize until you start to challenge it.” Vancouver Bureau Chief Ken MacQueen spoke with Devor about the cost of switching sides. Does society treat you differently as a man? In many ways life is not all that different because of the way I lived my life as a female. I was very masculine. Your average person would have a much larger gap.
What are the differences you’ve experienced or observed in your research?
There is a tendency on both sides of the gender divide to give more credence to one’s own sex. The areas where men ignore women have on the large scale a whole lot of powers associated with them. And the areas where women ignore men have a whole lot of powers associated with them on a personal scale. Women discount men’s capacity to be knowledgeable and effective on an emotional level. Men discount women’s capacity to be knowledgeable and effective on a political, societal and economic level.
Is this a learned behaviour or reality?
I think it’s learned. This is something I’ve observed with great amusement and some disappointment. I observe this personally, people changing their behaviour in regards to me. Even among people who know full well what
my personal history is. It’s that ingrained. Aren’t some of those changes welcome?
Some of it’s welcome, like being given more credit in a business context. Not that I did badly at all there; I’ve done very well for myself professionally. Unwelcome is being discounted: all of a sudden I don’t know anything about intimate affairs and emotional life.
Are there other advantages to being male?
In my own personal experience there is not any kind of significant change because of the kind of female I’ve been. But your average male has a lot of freedom of movement. There’s an ability to walk down the street, think your own thoughts, walk in a straight line and go wherever you’re going. Your average woman cannot walk in a straight line down a street that has other people on it because a man will walk right into her. Women are trained to, and learn
to, walk a zigzag. Can a woman look a man in the eye? Absolutely not. That’s an invitation. Then there’s the sexual assault factor, which every woman is thinking about all the time. I cannot emphasize enough how it constrains women’s lives. It’s like living under terrorism. Now you’ve got the better end of the equation? It depends on what you value. It is a rare man who can have a kind of interpersonal intimacy that is very common among women. There is a kind of easy laughter and camaraderie and trust that comes very easily among women, and doesn’t require a lot of testing before you can reach it. Whereas, among men, you have to go through a lot of testing with each other to find out if it’s safe to expose that you have feelings, and that nobody is going to ridicule you or take advantage of you. I miss that. That is a really major advantage that women have.
Among a long list of differences: most women are more sensitive to sounds and smells, have superior depth perception, are better spellers, use the language more fluently, are more adept at reading facial expressions and body language, and “experience basic emotions more intensely, except perhaps anger.” Men, he says, citing studies, are better at solving mathematical word
problems and at mentally rotating objects and maps, have a higher tolerance for pain, a greater willingness to risk life for status or attention and a greater tendency toward violent competition. These differences are not justifications for discriminating against women, he stresses, though they may explain a male propensity for engineering or heroically stupid deaths. “Would we really be better off,” he asks, “if everyone were like Pat, the androgynous nerd from Saturday Night Live}”
Perhaps we’re already there. Look at the ads in most fashion magazines and you’d
be hard-pressed to tell if the emaciated, pouting figure is male or female. Not even the Playboy magazine pin-up is exempt. A study of the magazine’s first 577 consecutive monthly centrefolds concludes that time has run out for the hourglass figure, as epitomized by Marilyn Monroe, the curvaceous star of Playboy’s first issue in 1953. After calculating the body mass and vital measurements of every pin-up, Austrian researcher Martin Voracek and Maryanne Fisher, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at York University, concluded in the Christmas issue of British Medical Journal: “Centrefold models’ shapely body characteristics have given way to more androgynous ones.”
‘Even as a young child I wanted to be a girl’
Nina Arsenault, 29, is a Toronto screenwriter and actress, and a featured subject in the documentary series Kink on Showcase. She used to be Rodney, a theatre director, until undergoing more than 30 plastic surgeries to emerge in the late ’90s as “she-male” Nina. Ken MacQueen asked about her transformation.
What about the male gender didn’t feel right? I didn’t know the word transsexual but I could articulate even as a young child that I didn’t want to be a little boy. I wanted to be a girl. Was that nature speaking or nurture?
It was so early that I just assume it was nature. I mean, how do you really know? My whole take on the nature-nurture debate is, I don’t really care. I choose not to contest my gender. Did you require the physical changes of surgery to feel you’d become a woman?
I always felt I was a woman or a girl, but I had a lot of plastic surgery to feminize the way I look, because that makes my life easier. Unfortunately there is a transsexual double standard-most people will accept you more easily if you’re feminine-looking and pretty.
You haven’t been surgically castrated?
No, I haven’t done any of that. Your body is programmed. It doesn’t know at the cellular level or the level of your chromosomes that you want to be a female. When you almost completely annihilate testosterone production in your body [Nina took drugs to suppress testosterone], you’re changing your personality. You’ve seen both sides; do men and women experience different emotions?
I can’t speak to how women see the world; I can speak to how I was on hormones and off. I found that all those horrible stereotypes about men and women-testosterone and es-
trogen-are true for me. When my testosterone level went down and I was on lots of estrogen, I wanted to create a little nest. I wanted to have a boyfriend, and that was all-consuming. I was really sensitive. I was definitely less aggressive, less outgoing. I did have mood swings, depression. When I’m off hormones and my testosterone level rises, I’m definitely more aggressive, creative and outgoing, and not interested in having a relationship so much -more interested in getting laid all the time. For the last six months I haven’t been on [female] hormones at all, and I feel great.
But living as a male was intolerable?
I would be either dead or really, really bitter. It wasn’t that my life wasn’t successful as a male. I had two masters degrees by the time I was 24.1 had top marks in every academic venture. I had a career as a theatre director in
South Africa and Australia. I got pats on the back and manly handshakes. In fact, I sacrificed many things to start living as a female.
What did you lose?
When I was a guy, I used to roll out of bed and be out of the house in 20 minutes. No one ever judged me. When you’rea female and you roll out of bed and you don’t look put together, people judge you. I worked in an environment of mostly men in senior positions. I’m sure none of those guys consciously excluded women. But when it comes to going out after work for a beer, you talk about guy stuff and get close to your bosses, and there’s a boys’ club there. Again, it’s these horrible stereotypes. As a woman I wear low-cut tops at a bar and get drinks bought for me or pick up guys. On the other hand, those things don’t seem as important as the privileges that men get.
In Vancouver, the same conclusion was reached by Kevin Taylor, who sells Playboy back issues from his Hollywood Cowboys poster and magazine shop. “Look at Playboy in the 70s—man, they looked fantastic,” he says. “Look at them now, they look like they come out of a clone.” Aside from the manufactured quality of some body parts, Taylor contends Playboy is reflecting the changing “ideal” of feminine beauty. Consider low-rider jeans, he says. “You have to be built like a guy or they don’t look right.
It’s interesting where we’re going, everybody is going to end up being one sex.” Gender remains a bundle of contradictions. Lines are blurring any number of ways, in sports, in education, in careers. At the same time, scientists are citing ever more behavioural differences based on sex. Meanwhile, an ever-widening spectrum of gender identity is being celebrated as never before. Typical of the complex reality of sexual and gender issues is the University of British Columbia’s Positive Space Campaign, to foster a “welcoming atmosphere” for the campus’s LGBQTT population. For the unini-
tiated, LGBQTT is an acronym that strains to encompass the “lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, transgendered, two-spirited, intersexed and questioning” community. Doors have swung open, and who knew modern society had so much closet space?
Among the champions of gender and sexual diversity is Aaron Devor, the University of Victoria’s dean of graduate studies. His research as a sociologist and author—and his life experience—all point to the fact that society is defying reality by insisting there are but two genders, two sexes and “only slight variations on two basic sexualities.” Devor, 51, lives as a man but until last year, he was Holly Devor, a lesbian. Then, as now, Devor is an internationally respected expert on gender, sex and sexuality.
He sees no contradiction in celebrating gender differences while at the same time seeking common ground. “There are physiological differences between the sexes that are well-documented and are real,” he says. “The question is, what do we do with them as a society? Do we amplify them as much as we possibly can? Or do we minimize them?”
Devor cites one impact of feminism over the past 50 years: that clothing worn by males and females is now often indistinguishable. Behaviour has also blended to a degree, he says. “It’s possible for males to show their more sensitive side, and get less abuse for it. It’s possible for females to be more self-actualizing and get support for that.” But don’t be fooled, he’s told students for years, “there’s really a long way to go.”
Even painfully correct Fisher-Price toddles into the minefield of gender in the compendium of parental advice on its Web site. “Little Girls, Little Boys: Some Differences” is the title of one article on the theme. “By the age of three or four,” it notes, “many children show a preference for traditional male or female toys. Many (but not all) boys of this age are more active in their play, and many girls are more nurturing.”
Conversely, in “Boys Will Be Boys!” Kathleen Alfano, Ph.D., informs Fisher-Price customers that parents and peers greatly influence the style of play and choice of toys. “In recent years, we’ve seen the play preferences of girls and boys move closer, especially regarding play with sports-related toys and pretend kitchens,” she writes. “Boys, as well as girls, will just as quickly want to prepare a pretend meal as they will kick a soccer ball!”
Sure they will, Dr. Alfano! Just not my boys. Unless the pretend meal was the target of a well-kicked soccer ball. Still, she has a point—gender preferences are ever closer in play and work. There are any number of headline-grabbing examples, some inspiring, a few rather sad.
It took less than a week into the war in Iraq before the faces of captured and missing American women soldiers were broadcast around the world. It was a haunting reminder that their expanded role in combat
is an advance that comes at a high price.
In the far safer arena of sports, Hayley Wickenheiser, the star of Canada’s goldmedal-winning Olympic hockey team, offered a more edifying example of inter-
LINES ARE BLURRING in sports, education, careers. At the same time, scientists are citing more behavioural differences based on sex.
gender play during her winter as a thirdline centre on a Finnish men’s roster. Her solid play earned the confidence of her coach and team, but it rattled the governing International Ice Hockey Federation. It’s better for players like Wickenheiser to be “idolized as stars in women’s hockey,” said president René Fasel, “and not as banged up, and maybe hurt, pioneers in a provincial thirdlevel men’s league.”
Why Wickenheiser is any less a role model for having the guts to try a men’s team isn’t
clear in Fasel’s argument, although that wasn’t her prime motivation. She wanted to prove, she’s said, “that I, as an individual, can play at this level.” Her logic is unassailable. Why would any elite athlete willingly stop short of her potential? The same applies to the world’s best woman golfer, Annika Sorenstam. When she tees off this week at the Bank of America Colonial tournament in Texas, she’ll be the first woman on the male PGA Tour in 5 8 years. It’s billed as the greatest sports battle of the sexes since Billie Jean King whupped male tennis hack Bobby Riggs in 1973. Yet Sorenstam, too, seems determined to test her abilities rather than to make a grand gender statement.
The few women athletes competing with men may draw the attention, but the lasting advance comes from the fact that women are competing in ever greater numbers across a spectrum of sports, says Bob Philip, the University of British Columbia’s director of athletics and recreation. “Like the guys, they’re getting bigger and stronger, they’re working harder,” he says. Like the guys, they chase a growing pot of scholarship money. “Where it’s really having an impact is in the high schools, where a lot of girls don’t stand and watch now,” says Philip. “They want to play. They see opportunities that were reserved for boys before.”
Gender is everything or nothing, depending on the circumstances. As the English feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft said more than two centuries ago: “The two sexes mutually corrupt and improve each other.” The problem now, as then, is a failure to agree on terms. One person’s improvement is another’s corruption.
Consider one improvement, unthinkable in Wollstonecraft’s era: the majority of law students at most Canadian universities are now women. And yet, Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson ripped apart the legal profession this February while receiving an honorary degree from the Law Society of Upper Canada. The profession, she said, has been “built by men, for men, in a man’s world.” Women, she said, pay a heavy price for raising children. Male lawyers, aged 50 to 54, earn almost twice what women lawyers make at that age. “Following the rules of a man’s world has, to a certain extent, wrought havoc on women,” she said.
It may also be that women use a healthier criteria to measure success. The price they pay for having children has long been known, and, yet, many make that choice. Who’s the real loser? The woman who presumably is following her dream, or the male running like a rat on awheel, his self-worth measured in billable hours?
In Clarkson’s view, the corporate pecking order, the style of networking, the way things get done, “have nothing to do with the way women would do them.” She calls this the “12 per cent factor,” in honour of any number of polls in which women and men come down on different sides of an issue, including war with Iraq. This gender gap, she conceded, is a permanent condition. “The education to which we women have all been fortunate to have access, especially over the last 50 years, has given us the right to think.” she said. “But it has not made women into men. At least not yet. And I hope never.”
HALF OF ALL university graduates in 2001 were women, and the number is climbing. But choices of study continue to be circumscribed by gender. As to why, well, insert your favourite gender theory here, but give today’s assertive young generation
some credit, please, for personal choice and inclination. Women are a growing minority in the man’s world of university-level mathematics, engineering and applied and physical sciences. Women predominate in the more nurturing (and sometimes less lucrative) professions of social sciences, education and health. They now represent half of all medical students in Canada—in Quebec, a national high of 60 per cent of medical students are females. Nationally, women also dominate men in more general fields of study: fine arts, humanities, agriculture and biological sciences. Virtually equal numbers of women and men now fill university classes in commerce, management and administration.
Young men lead young women in one troubling statistic: 17 per cent of them have not completed high school, compared to 13 per cent of females. This persistent failure of school to engage some boys is frequently interpreted as a sign that girls are getting all the attention. But who says gender is a zero-sum game, where the advances of one sex come at the expense of the other?
The great downfall for many little boys is reading, which makes a recent study on male literacy all the more intriguing.
Kathy Sanford, assistant professor of education at the University of Victoria, and co-author Fleather Blair, who holds a similar position at the University of Alberta, tracked a group of elementary school boys for two years. Their conclusion: boys aren’t the illiterate louts they’re made out to be; they’re just literate in what interests them, be it sports, computer-gaming Web sites or collectible cards. There are developmental reasons for this, Sanford says. “Boys develop verbal skills more slowly. They certainly struggle with fine motor skills, which has a huge impact on their ability to read and write, and to sit still and all those kinds of things at an early age.”
By the time boys catch up, they’re often “pathologized” as poor readers. Schools, she says, would do well to augment traditional reading materials with items of popular culture, and not just to placate hyper little boys. It pains Sanford, a former English teacher, to admit, but computer literacy, and even the minutiae of sports, are marketable skills. “The skills that are saying, I can take any Shakespeare play or a novel and analyze it, those aren’t really all that useful in the marketplace.” The next phase of their research is to bring girls into the picture, to engage them in some of the things like computers that so animate boys. It’s important to share skills, says Sanford, “and not be continuously dividing ourselves.”
And that, class, may be as useful a lesson as can be learned from the confounding, confusing, constandy evolving boy-girl thing. The X and Why of gender is not simply about chromosomes versus social engineering. The gender differences, in wildly varying degrees, are there, no matter the current state of the nature-nurture debate. Such diversity can be minimized and sensitized, but not many of us, the Governor General included, want to wish it away.
As to the role Fisher-Price played in creating two nurturing, gender-blind sons? Not much, I fear. The sad truth is that the kitchen served up about two days of plastic meals before it was abandoned. Long months later, the eldest ripped off its table leg, which became the most popular toy in his collection. Held a certain way, with his brother in his sights, it made a splendid machine gun. lifi