THIS is what I've been waiting to say about our obsession with gender.
It's a more interesting, spicier version than the edited piece that appeared
How do I live as a woman in this wild corner of the world
? I couldn’t answer that when I first came to the Alaskan wilderness as a 20 year old bride of a fisherman. I couldn’t even ask the question, mostly because I did not consider myself a woman. Nor did I think of myself as a girl. I didn’t think about gender much, partly because I was raised in a genderless household, and partly because of the culture itself.
I came of age in the 70’s, when men and women alike wore bell bottoms, parted their long hair in the middle and clogged about on platform shoes.
Science and media pundits told us that gender differences were purely social constructs---we were all a product of our environment.
If we just controlled the environment properly, male and female were far more alike than different The most progressive parents gave their young daughters trucks underneath the Christmas tree and boys were given dolls. Even middle-aged and elderly couples could be seen walking down the sidewalk in matching outfits, hand in hand.
My husband and I bought it all. In our dreamy stage, we decided we would work together in commercial fishing, and then we’d go ashore and cook dinner and wash dishes together. It was a dream that I woke up from quickly. Only half of that happened. (I’ll let you figure out which half!)
In this last month, the split image of Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner’s own exaggerated versions of first masculinity, through athletic prowess, and now his hyper-femininity through surgery, hormones, heavy makeup and a titillating photo shoot reveal, among other things, how far we’ve moved since the 70’s. In the three decades following, advances in science and particularly neuroscience delivered round after round of breakthroughs, leading to the conclusion that---gird your loins---men and women were different! As in profoundly distinct from one another from in utero on. In physiology, brain function, hormone pattern, communication style. Nearly every branch of science cataloged, and is still cataloging the astonishing ways that men and women are distinct from one another. They’re so far apart, in fact, one of the most popular books of the 90’s placed the men on Mars and the women on Venus.
In the space of less than two decades men and women moved from matchy matchy hand-in-hand to inhabiting entirely different planets.
The neuroscience has been helpful, as far as it goes. Remember the immense relief we all felt when we discovered our spouse (or our sibling or our parent) was not aberrant or defective but actually fairly normal for his or her gender? I own a popular Christian marriage series that sends its audience of thousands rolling in the aisles at the male species who can’t multi-task to save his life, who speak 17 words a day (actually studies say 7,000), who have no clue as to their actual emotional state, to start the list, and then we hit the female version of deficient and cue the same laugh track: women speed-talking their 20,000 words a day, ranging dissociatively between topics, fixating on minute details, on and on. These are now assumed commonplaces, particularly in the Christian community: men are rational, women are emotional. Men are lone wolves, women are cooperative, men are single-track, women multi-task, and everyone reading this can add a dozen more to the list.
Predictably, we have swung entirely from one pole to the other, from nurture to nature, now enthusiastically endorsing gender stereotypes with the officiousness and blessing of science.
The genders have been so parsed and catalogued, I believe, we’re feeding the current crisis in gender identity and expression.
I’m not minimizing the difficult reality of Jenner’s condition, gender dysphoria, and others like him, but we’re all experiencing, in some way, the consequences of a cultural fixation on gender.
A man or woman, a boy or girl who tends toward the features considered “the other” may question his or her identity in a way that may not have happened a few decades ago.
It seems to me that men are hit particularly hard on this, from two directions. Women and girls enjoy a generous allowance that encourages the athlete, the supermodel, the CEO and the mother as equally valid expressions of femaleness. Many parents, like me, encourage our daughters to be pitchers and point guards (and fishermen) rather than princesses.
But cultural expectations of masculinity are far more stingy.
If a man is gentle, compassionate, artsy, empathetic, cultivates beauty in his life, talks with his hands, enjoys the friendship of women, his masculinity and sexuality is instantly questioned.
Nor are the stereotypes themselves gender equitable. After suffering generations of sexism, women fare much better than men under the current spotlight. Women are lauded for their neural plasticity; are seen as flexible, cooperative, compassionate, honest. Women outpace men in higher education, in employability, and in a score of other measures. And at the movies, they’re as glamorous and sexy as ever but they’re also Avengers, superheroes, as kick-ass as the men. Angelina Joli, all 100 pounds of her, can flick a 300 pound villain over her gorgeous head. Women can do and be it all.
And men? Yes, athletes and superheroes, but not much else. They’ve been lame pathetic fathers in sitcoms for more than 20 years. The moral failures of male politicians has come to feel like the norm. Physiologically, men are critiqued for their single-lobed rigidity, for their lone-wolf leadership style, leading one social observer, Hanna Rosen, to her 2010 provocative cover story for
In my day, many girls wanted to be boys, myself included because the boys held all the power. No longer. Now it is men who want to be women: three times as many men as women are undergoing sex reassignment surgery.
(Just today, this story, of a 3 year old boy Jack who 'wasn't happy being a boy" so his parents are letting him live as "Jackie"
I’m not explaining away Jenner’s transformation on the media-ized ascendency of women in our time, though it may be a contributing factor. That double image of Bruce and then Caitlyn is a fitting poster for the increasing gap between the genders. But even more than this, Jenner’s interview and his Vanity Fair coverage poignantly highlights that our sexualized obsession with gender is failing us.
We seem to recognize societally that we have a problem, but there’s no consensus on resolving it. One response has been to identify the issue as an obsession with “binary categories,” and to fix it with more categories. Facebook provides more than 50 choices for gender identification, as do many LGBT groups. But drawing more lines and sorting people into ever-smaller boxes only augments the larger issues.
Our identity and self is neither fully contained nor fully explained by our manness or womanness or any shade or stripe in between. Indeed, we have spent so much time dividing and defining our sexual identity, even in the church, we have lost our most essential identity and with it, our sense of unity.
Who are we? We are all God-made beings who share the imago dei. Yes, God made woman and man different, but that’s not the end of the creation story: Man was made by God, Woman was made from Man, and Man is born from Woman.
From the very beginning, we are a part of each other. We long for each other. We mirror each other. We reflect the image of God to one another. (But we can misinterpret these longings. Might it be possible, at times, that the God-created longing for union and connection with the other is mistaken for the desire to “be” the other?) And
the New Testament overflows with all that we share in the kingdom of God: we are joint-heirs, co-laborers, fellow citizens, fellow children of God, all indwelt by the same Holy Spirit of God
Our central concern is not whether we or others measure up to the current cultural notions of femininity or masculinity or anything in between, but whether we measure up to the person of Christ.
Christ was indeed a man, but his primary identity was not his manliness but his relationship with God.
Men and women alike are called to be conformed not to the pattern of the world but to the pattern of Christ himself who commands us to live as he did: to love God with all our being, to “renew our minds,” to “be united in love,” to “be in full accord and of one mind,” to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”
Our aim is not manliness or womanliness but godliness, which includes compassion, kindness, mercy, strength, perseverance, courage, submission, and many other virtues, traits too long parsed out to one gender or the other.
In almost 40 years of marriage, when my husband and I struggle, we have discovered that it is not our designation as woman or man or even husband or wife that divides, but rather sin and selfishness. (And, after all these years, we finally do work together in fishing and then share in the dishes.)
I’m not attempting to usher us all back to the extremes (and bad fashion) of the unisex 70’s to pretend we are all alike, or that gender doesn’t matter, but gender has mattered far too much.
A settled identity as a man or woman or homosexual or transwoman or genderqueer or any of the other 50 LGBT designations will not answer our deepest human longings---to know and be known, to love and be loved by the one in whose image we’re made
. Nor do all the careful and ever-changing delineations for gender provide a way forward for living in our shared humanness and createdness. When we are inhabited by the Holy Spirit, and moving toward God-like-ness, these virtues not only heal the dissonance we often feel within ourselves, but also heal the differences and divisions among us and between us.
This is my hope, that whoever we are, we will be known not for our gender category but for our mercy, our wisdom, our kindness, our humility, our grace, and our love. If we allow the Holy Spirit to do this in us, we will be exactly who we were created to be, inside and out.
I write this for the Church most of all: We have
far too much of gender, creating
unnecessary divisions---and we've not made enough
of Christ. When we get this right, we’ll come
as the whole, beautiful body of Christ.