Tag: Gender Stereotyping

Nail Polish Does Not a Woman Make

Dear Mom,

In 1976, after Bruce Jenner won the decathlon, he transitioned into the role of a sports mega star, the (as many commentators called him) World’s Greatest Athlete, gracing the covers of many magazines, newspaper, and yes, even the Wheaties cereal box.

I remember that cereal box well.  I was eight years-old in 1976, and although I didn’t have the words to name it, I knew that in some fundamental way I was different from most other boys my age.  I saw Jenner’s image in the morning and was fascinated.  To me, he personified all that was male: chiseled features, handsome face, and those well-defined muscles.  He was definitely a sex-symbol, one of the first public figures I secretly drooled over.

DATE TAKEN: rcvd 1996---The 1976 Wheaties box featuring Bruce Jenner after he won the decatholon at the Montreal Summer Olympics. ORG XMIT: UT24783
DATE TAKEN: rcvd 1996—The 1976 Wheaties box featuring Bruce Jenner after he won the decatholon at the Montreal Summer Olympics. ORG XMIT: UT24783
Or maybe at eight I wasn’t drooling, but I was certain that I felt differently about this paradigm of manhood than Mark, who was sitting next to me at the breakfast table.

Forty years later, Jenner is again in the public eye, this time gracing the cover of Vanity Fair as a sexed-up babe named Caitlyn.  What strikes me about this photo is not just that she is buying into a certain version of what it means to be female, which may or may not fit for all women. Rather, it is also that once again, this individual is the extreme: hyper-sexual, completely stereotypical, a sex-symbol.  Except that this time, it’s the exact opposite of Wheaties Bruce from 1976.

I spoke with Colette about the Vanity Fair cover this week, and she pointed out that nobody really looks like an Annie Liebowitz photo, particularly one on the cover of a popular contemporary magazine.  “Good for her,” she said.  “If you look that great at 65 and they’re willing to splash you over the cover of Vanity Fair, more power to you.” Perhaps, she went on, what women should be focusing on is the fact that, for the first time, a 65 year-old woman, who happens to look really great, is gracing the cover of the magazine.  Why not fight for more representation of older women (cis- or transgender) on the cover. Where’s Helen Miren? Susan Sarandon? Meryl Streep?

I also spent some time this week watching the interview that Bruce gave to Diane Sawyer on 20/20. What I heard and saw was an individual who struggled for years—a lifetime really—grappling with the issues of gender identity.  He described how, after placing 10th in the 1972 decathlon, he trained every day with the singular goal of winning the gold in 1976.  He discussed how he was also determined to prove his own manhood, as if becoming strong, athletic, and a medal winner would somehow convince himself as much as others of his essential male-ness.

I heard in that interview an acknowledgement that, of course, it ended up proving nothing, at least to himself.  The struggle to understand his essential gender identity lasted years and years, and was fraught with fear, depression, and anxiety.  What should he tell the women he loved? Would he lose the love of his siblings and parents if he expressed the inner feelings of discomfort with his male identity? If he lived his life as a woman, would he risk hurting, and perhaps even losing, his children?

Over the course of ninety minutes, Jenner does make a few comments that seem to reinforce traditional, perhaps outdated stereotypes. He mentions that his “brain is much more female than it is male” and that he wants to wear nail polish until it chips off.  But these are isolated moments in a long conversation about his experiences as one human being struggling to come to terms with this elusive concept called gender. I was moved by his story of struggle and survival as he ultimately found a path to an authentic life in an obviously imperfect, sexist (homophobic, racist, and on and on) society.

I’m sure many women—like yourself—look and Caitlyn’s photos and cringe, thinking “Really? After all these years, this is what it means to be female?” But the (then still Bruce) Jenner in the interview was describing a process of trying to figure out how to come to terms with his soul as a human, and how that could be expressed.

He was—and still is—a work in progress. He made repeated references at that point to “she,” the woman he would become publically in the near future, and yet started the interview by telling Sawyer that, for all intents and purposes, he was a woman.  He offered to dine with Sawyer as “she,” but would only do so off camera.  He promised to speak with Sawyer again in a year, recognizing that it would be a year of many changes.

Adding to all the uncertainty were distinctions about sexual orientation versus gender identity, the fear and uncertainty involved in discussing these issues with his ten children, and the deplorable harassment he received in the last several years at the hands of paparazzi and comedians. All of this because the experiences and histories of transgender individuals are only now something that many—perhaps Sawyer and her audience, along with a great many in the LGBT community—are beginning to understand.

As a gay man dealing with my own struggles to come to terms with my sexual orientation over the last 40 years, I identified with the language that Jenner used in that interview.  I recognized his struggles with depression, his tentative steps to accept his difference (he was on hormone therapy for 5 years in the 1980s), his relationships that ended in a great deal of hurt for a series of women, and the relief and freedom found in acceptance.

It seems to me that Jenner and other transgender individuals have a great deal to teach us.  We all need to be thinking and discussing what it means to be male, what it means to be female, what it means to be human.  Without the willingness of the Jenners and Laverne Coxs and our friends and neighbors to try to explain the crazy territory of what gender identity means (not gender expression and not sexual orientation—all three of these are separate characteristics), we will never come to a new place of understanding, a new place of acceptance.

This week the Supreme Court will most likely release its opinion in the case it heard this spring on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage.  Many court experts expect that there will be at least some form of victory for same-sex marriage.  Of course, it is my firm hope that is the case.  My worry, in the aftermath, is that the wonderful discussion we have been having in society around sexual orientation will fade if civil marriage rights for all individuals regardless of sexual orientation are affirmed.  There is still so much understanding that needs to happen, still so many misconceptions, so much hate.  Just as with Jenner, we need to keep having that difficult discussion, not closing ourselves off into our respective camps.

I think before we close the doors on identity—whether it be sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression—we need more people like Jenner who are willing to open doors.  My hope is that Jenner will use her public platform to bring more attention to issues of gender in our society.  The Caitlyn Jenner I have seen thus far is doing just that.  I hope she does more than just appear as a sex symbol on the cover of a magazine, but given who she is and the way her journey through life has unfolded, I’m not surprised that was her first appearance as “she.”

Love Christopher

Gender Performance and Ms. Jenner

Dear Christopher

Back in the 1980s and 90s when I was a high school English teacher you know I loved teaching Shakespearean plays. When my students saw Shakespeare’s portrait they were sure he was gay because of his long hair and earring. (Styles were more circumscribed then.) I loved telling them about wealthy men sitting on the Globe’s stage to show off their elaborate dress and their tight stockings, albeit with a generous well placed codpiece.

imageIt shook up their expectations, which I thought was important. I hoped it helped them to not be so judgmental. Then we would read that very violent play, Macbeth. So men in those times in fancy clothes and with poetic words could be as bloody and violent as the action heroes of today. A dubious achievement to be sure.

In Elizabethan times men wore rich clothes and wrote elaborate love poems to their male friends. Marrying was often seen as only their duty to their families to produce an heir. But love went to their male friends. Maybe that acceptance helped men feel more comfortable in their sartorial choices. Of course life for women then was pretty miserable, but that is another story.

Which brings me to Caitlyn Jenner. Her coming out as a trans woman in that cover in imageVanity Fair is troubling to me. Why? As a mother of a you, a gay son, you know I want to promote acceptance for all. As a feminist, I am happy for someone who can proclaim to the world who she is. And I am. If this is what she needs to feel whole, then good for her.

But the photo bothers me, as do aspects of Jenner’s famous interview with Diane Sawyer. It bothers me that she proclaims that male and female brains are different. For decades we feminists have been protesting that very regressive idea. Each human’s brain may be different but to essentialize male and female brains is wrong-headed.

imageIn addition, to say to be “woman” is to wear certain clothes and present in a glamorous photo op is troubling. According to the interview, Jenner claimed a desire to wear nail polish till it chips off. Is this how she proclaims femininity? Too many of us in the 70s fought for our right not to be defined by what we wore or how we groomed. Of course it is important to be welcoming and inclusive. But also we must be careful to affirm the rights of all women no matter if they wear makeup or nail polish or choose to wear their hair short and wear men’s shoes, ala Alison Bechdel, the lesbian author of Fun Home.

I hope there will be a broader acceptance of a variety of gender roles and gender identification, that we will move away from self-definition by appearance. The proliferation in the global village of photos has only exacerbated this trend. We are even more defined by how we look. (Which is a problem for those of us getting older I must admit!) Maybe if men and women could more easily dress how they wanted, then gender issues would not cause so much internal upheaval.

I wish we could bring back the elaborate choices of dress and self-expression open to men in Shakespeare’s time, but also leave women freer to not conform to glamour shots so common in the today’s media. I wish that a trans woman did not feel that the only way to show femininity is by push up bras and nail polish. I wish we could all be judged by the “content of our character”.

I want to say to Ms Jenner, I hope you start to say that loud and clear from your very broad media perch. You have an opportunity to really be a voice for courage and acceptance. And not just for the narrow view of appearance only.


Love, Mom

Gender Busting Roles

Dear Christopher,

“June is busting out all over.” That song was the bane of my life in 7th and 8th grade. It is from the musical Carousel (for you younger folks who would not carousel-movie-poster-1956-1020197127recognize it) and it was part of our music class repertoire in elementary school. The boys would joyously sing it to me whenever a teacher was not looking or listening since my last name was “June.” And I was definitely not busting either physically or emotionally.

Like most girls at that age I was interested in boys but uncertain how to react to them. My mother wanted me to go to an all girls’ high school. Keeping me away from boys was her goal I am sure. But I did not question that, nor what the future held for me. I was raised in the 50’s and a woman’s role in life seemed clear. Even in college I wanted to marry and start a family. Teaching was just a brief way station before the children came. In fact when I was pregnant with Mark, I resigned from the school district; sure I was going to be a stay at home mom.

But things changed radically. In the 60’s and 70’s it seemed that everything was changing around us. Some of my college friends opted to stay in the work force even after they had children. When you were in kindergarten I took a part time teaching job. I remember sitting on the porch with you after I got home from work to be sure to show the neighborhood women that I was not neglecting my child.

Luckily my schedule pretty much matched your school schedule. Luckily I liked teaching and felt my brain was getting some needed stimulation. But there was lots of guilt. Was I giving you kids enough attention? Was my house clean enough? Luckily Dad was willing to be a co-parent and to help around the house. Of course I seethed when my mother praised his efforts. The fact that I was working full time seemed to escape her.

lots of candlesAll of my college women friends seemed to struggle with our roles. It was all new. Anna Quindlen in her memoir recounts how she struggled to make sense of it all. She is younger than me, but her struggles sound very familiar as she recounts them in her memoir Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. “But we were completely making it up as we went along, at work, at home, in our own minds, trying to be both our mothers and fathers simultaneously.” Yes, I tried to implement my dad’s work ethic, as well as keep up a home like my mom. Most times it did not work. And I wonder if part of this stems from our society’s emphasis on women’s childrearing roles. This emphasis on mothers affects not only us old gals, but young ones too. I see a lot of pixels spilled on mothering. And that also affects dads. Especially families like yours with two dads. When Isabella went to kindergarten she discovered what I call “mommygate.” It was all about the mommies!! And it still is from what I can see. Everyone imagines a stereotypical perfect mother. It’s easy to forget we are all people. It is easy to forget that nurturing is what children need and they can get that from two dads, two moms, single parents, or from grandparents or from teachers.

Still gender roles have changed dramatically in many ways. Dad definitely was a co-parent, where as my dad, sweet as he was, left all the real parenting work to my mom. And Dad did and does “help out” around the house. Just being able to accept that two dads can parent is a huge step. Twenty years ago when you came out you said you still might be a dad, I don’t think I really believed you. I had never seen a family that looks like yours back then.

Gay dads still have all the pressure of what a perfect parenting should be. So they have to try to live up to that, as we women still have that image of the perfect mother stereotype, even when we know it is bogus. Now if we could just burst that “mommy” balloon we would really bust out all over.

Love, Mom