Aug. 20th, 2010 09:42 pm
scottahill: (Default)
I was reading a conservative editorial about Gay Pride events-- he thought it was illogical to be proud about something like homosexuality which is inborn (give him credit for acknowledging that bit): you can be proud of something you've written or something you've done or something you've said, but it seemed silly to him to express pride for something you had nothing to do with. And I have to admit that I had similar reactions myself to such events at Williams. But because the argument was coming from someone I wanted to disagree with, I finally figured it out: it's the wrong definition of pride. The "pride" in Gay Pride, I think, is not the pride of accomplishment so much as just the opposite of shame. When a group of people is told that they should feel ashamed for who they are or what they need, it is good to counter that shame with its opposite, and shout to the world that what I am is good. This puts an entirely new spin on this for me: for example, if I express pride in my skill as a teacher, I am suggesting that being a good teacher is better than being a bad teacher. But a Gay Pride event does not imply that being gay is better than not; simply that it is a good thing to be.

So for any past disparaging remarks I've made, particularly about Women's Pride events which particularly got to me: I apologize. I get it now. :)

Now, this author went on to wonder why we don't have Heterosexual Pride days as well (tongue-in-cheek on his part, because he thinks the whole thing is absurd). From my reasoning above, I'd say that being straight is a good thing and one should certainly not be ashamed of it. But I'd say that Pride events are only really appropriate when there has been some public shaming going on. Straight people, as far as I know, are never made to feel ashamed of their heterosexuality, and so no event is needed to counter such shame.

But how about men? I would argue that men have to face a lot of shame for being men: we are often seen as potential rapists, potentially violent, potential child abusers. Men's gender roles are, I would say, more proscribed than women's these days, which means lots of room for shame. Boys, who tend to be more rambunctious in class, are told they should behave more like the girls who are listening nicely. (I'm assuming that stereotype still holds true.) So being male is not quite like being straight: yes, both are privileged positions, but at the same time there is some stigma attached to being male, and so I'd say that one can and should talk about Men's Pride in the same spirit as Women's Pride: not that being male or female is better, but that being male or female* is good. (Or if you're in between, that's good too.)

Little boys

Feb. 4th, 2010 03:55 pm
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When I go with Miriam to play at the Montessori school, or at her daycare, I find myself paying extra attention to the little boys in the room. Part of the reason is that I've heard people insist that gender differences exist from this age, that boys are more this or girls are more that; as a feminist I'm somewhat doubtful of these claims, attributing most of the differences to the way the children are raised, and so I'm watching these little boys to see if they are fundamentally different from Miriam, thinking, "Miriam gets loud like that too, Miriam runs around, whatever." (Frankly, I haven't noticed any real difference.) A problem with this is that it starts to feel like I'm measuring Miriam up against the boys, which is a rather UNfeminist thing to do.

The other reason I pay attention is due to my theories about little boys, in that they are more constrained than little girls: constrained in what they wear, what they play with, who they can imitate. (As one person put it, a little girl in a Batman costume is cute; a little boy in a Wonder Woman costume is alarming.) That, combined with the fact that boys are supposed to be a little bit behind girls developmentally at this age, makes me see them as more fragile, somehow.

And so I look on these little male children almost as alien creatures, rather ironic given that I used to be one. (Ah, but I don't remember being 2 years old.)

It's a little disturbing to be so obsessed about gender in this case, when I'd much rather see young children raised in as gender-blind a manner as possible. Heck, I'm not even sure Miriam knows the difference between "boy" and "girl" yet (though she does know the words), and I've avoided the terms when it comes to adults; I'm not a "boy" but a man and Jen isn't a "girl" but a woman, and I normally refer to us and other adults as "big people": "there's a big person". I'm not insistent about it, I don't tell other people what to say, and she'll figure it all out in due time, but I'm hoping that I can delay gender awareness a little bit so that it isn't so ingrained in her thought processes. Maybe it's futile, I dunno. I think there are small biological differences which cannot (and should not?) be erased, but that doesn't mean they have to be enhanced via socialization.
scottahill: (Default)
Here's an interesting article which echoes the thoughts I've been having about being a male feminist:

The point of the article is that progressive men are defining their gender based on what they're NOT-- against rape, against violence, against homophobia, what-have-you-- but there isn't any good idea about what masculinity SHOULD be. Of course, one might suggest that looking for a definition of masculinity or femininity is needless stereotyping, and that one should just be who one is, regardless of gender. That's pretty much how I approach gender most of the time, it's how J approaches gender, how I'm trying to raise my daughter, etc. But one thread of feminism goes beyond this to celebrate femininity and find strength from it, and while this is partly an attempt to counterbalance the centuries in which men have had their say about everything, I think it is also an embracing of diversity: that even if men and women were equal in this world, some of these feminist authors and philosophers would still find strength and purpose in their gender, and that has a certain appeal to me.

But can one create a positive progressive image of masculinity that does not detract from women? Maybe it's not possible at this stage of history, with so much misogyny remaining in the world, but I think we have to try: gender is an important part of most people's self-identity and certainly important in how one interacts with the world, and if one's self-definition is largely negative-- I am not this, I am not that-- then this makes it harder to grow, because you don't know where you're going, you just know where you're not.

(This idea of defining oneself in terms of what one is not ties in surprisingly well with my previous post, where I discuss my tendency to see myself up as a misfit in every group I belong to.)

Being male

Mar. 26th, 2009 03:43 pm
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This is a followup to my previous post, since it's not really about feminism.

I recently read the book Self-Made Man by Norah Vincent, in which she recounts her adventures while passing as a man in various male-dominated scenarios: a bowling league, strip clubs, a monastery, a high-pressure door-to-door sales job, etc. What surprised me a little, as I turned the pages, was that while I recognized the types of men she was describing, they really had little to do with me. Now, one could argue that she was aiming for the most masculine environments, but then again there aren't a lot of women physicists.

Now, in a lot of ways I am undeniably, stereotypically male. Physical appearance for one: I'm 6' and big with a beard: hairy and proud. :) I'm often loud and unempathetic. I have the stereotypically male disregard for housework or grooming; I am glad as hell that I don't have to contend with hairstyles, uncomfortable footwear, makeup, or shaving. Everything in my wardrobe matches, by fiat. My wife isn't particularly feminine, and yet I can't understand why even she feels the need to own and wear six pairs of shoes. In short, this isn't some sort of transsexual coming-out post: I like my gender as it is, more or less.

But I've always had more female friends than male; in fact, I would feel intimidated about hanging out with a group of men. It's not just the jocks either; even at Bethans reunions, when the guys (Z and C and C and H etc) get together, I feel a certain awkwardness, as if I'm trying to pass.

At the risk of sounding prejudiced against my own gender, my guess is that a lot of male bonding occurs through playful insults, practical jokes, and friendly competition. Unfortunately, those same things can look like unplayful insults and unfriendly competition when turned against someone you dislike, and I got my fair share of them when I was growing up, as a priggish nerd whom the teachers and other grownups adored. I associate these things with hatred, not pal-ing around. I HATE practical jokes, I get royally pissed off if someone throws a snowball at me, and I dislike my competitive side so much I swore off board games for years and play racquetball by myself (though some of that is shyness, to be discussed in another post). My theory is that guys go through a transition period where they learn to give as good as they get, they see past the hazing and whatnot, and they end up bonding with other men who have been through the same rituals and harrassment. I, on the other hand, decided at some point that the whole thing was childish, and refused to play, and so I was never really inducted into "male culture".

There was an article I read a few years ago (2006), in an online magazine called the Escapist, about guys who play as girls on MMORPGs. One part stuck with me:

The archetypical male heroes, from the big blonde swordsmen to the plucked-from-obscurity, chosen-by-fate losers, have gotten old. But the age of Buffy and Veronica Mars has just started, and they make much more exciting heroes. Geek guys don't look up to the high school quarterbacks that smacked us in the locker room; we're more impressed by the complicated but confident geek girls, who actually talked to us in the library and always seemed more sure of themselves than the rest of school, no matter who teased them. And now they can slay giants. Who wouldn't want to be one of them?

That's it: I've hung out with the geek girls, ever since high school.

Which could be fine and good: it's who I am, no biggie, right? Well yeah, except that I end up seeing my gender as an obstacle rather than as anything positive (outside of my marriage, that is). Being the one man in a group of women (at, for instance, a playdate) can feel kind of awkward, like I have a big beacon strapped to my head. If I invite a new female friend to have lunch sometime, will she be suspicious of my motives? And there are certain topics I have to tiptoe around with women I don't know well, particularly anything to do with feminism (other than saying "Rah rah rah!").

I had a chat with a female physics student at UD last semester about gender. She said that while she had a number of male friends, and she got along with them just fine, it was often easier to talk with her female friends, because of the shared context. That sounded really nice, and really alien to me. One might say that this is due to women's supposed superiority with language or empathy or what have you, but Norah Vincent described the same sort of comfort in the bowling league she joined, among blue collar men. And so I've been wondering recently whether I'm missing out on something, if maybe I'm suppressing some part of who I am-- not that I'm going to start drinking beer and playing poker tomorrow, but is there *something* I'm missing? I've been thinking about those banners that would fly from Chapin every year: "Women's Pride". Pride? I can understand contentment, but pride in one's gender is a foreign concept to me. Is there something I'm missing? I haven't figured that out yet.

EDIT: I should have added that I don't feel particularly unique in this regard. I know plenty of men who don't fit the general stereotypes, whom you could never picture heckling someone or being overly competitive, let alone drink beer and watch football or something. And I get along with them. But I don't feel any particular connection with them because they are guys. Maybe we are all exiles from traditional male culture, and most of us have just made our peace with not having a gender culture. I get the impression, on the other hand, that even nontraditional women feel a bond with other nontraditional women. Maybe I'm mistaken there. Or maybe this is part of "male privilege" that I am able to ignore gender, just like I can spend most of my life oblivious to race. But maybe it's also due to the fragility of the culture of boys: boys are terrified of being labelled as girls, so there's not a lot of flexibility in the definition of "boy". This doesn't leave a lot of room for alternative definitions of masculinity, in the way that feminism has created a number of alternative definitions of femininity.

EDIT 2: Now I'm worried that this sounds like an existentialist crisis, and it's not really. I've gotten along pretty well with my equalistic approach, and will continue to do so. Maybe I'll learn to embrace my competitive side, or at least not feel so awkward in all-male company.
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* I have now successfully changed a car battery. Yay for me! Our car's battery died Sunday morning; we got a jump from the neighbor and it seemed fine. Well, yesterday evening we were headed out and...again, no start. No lights were left on or anything. This was 7:30 and I had a homework session to run at 8, so I ended up walking to campus (2 miles)-- I tried catching a bus, but because of a local construction project the bus routes are all messed up and seem to change based on the whim of the driver, so I ended up standing on the wrong corner. Oops. I ended up doing the 2 miles in 30 minutes, a pretty good walking speed, but the fronts of my ankles are still sore. Jen called AAA for a jump (our neighbor's car couldn't do it, not strong enough) but the AAA guy took one look and said we needed a new battery because of a battery acid leak. AAA was going to have a truck come by with a new battery which we could buy from them, but first the truck didn't come last night because of a snafu, then the truck couldn't come this morning because they didn't have the right battery. They wanted to come tomorrow morning, but I thought we might try to do it ourselves. So before class this morning, I figured out how to take the battery out of the car, then while I was at class Jen and Miriam walked 2 miles to Autozone to buy the new battery (she pushed it back in Miriam's stroller while carrying Miriam), and then I put the battery in when I got home.

I don't think of myself as being particularly handy, and Jen and I don't normally follow stereotypical gender roles, but I do seem to find myself doing these sorts of things. It's certainly very satisfying.

* Speaking of gender stereotypes, it's my goal to raise Miriam (and any other children we may have) with a minimum of emphasis on gender, for as long as possible. I know that eventually she'll have her own opinions and may disagree with this plan, but meanwhile we try to keep pink to a minimum, I tend to shy away from dresses and "dainty clothing" for her, going with more rugged clothing instead. She only has two toys which might be classified as dolls. I wonder sometimes, though, if my idea of "gender-neutral" is actually "like a boy". Maybe so. Maybe it's even good to err on the side of the opposite gender, to counterbalance the inevitable cues she'll get when she's older.
But this is all relatively easy for a girl. Thanks to feminism, there's nothing a girl can do or wear which is so masculine that it triggers a feeling of "wrong" in most people. The lack of pink throws people a little bit, but that's it. It seems to me, though, that raising a boy in a gender-neutral way would be much tougher. Would we go so far as to dress our infant son in frilly pink? In a dress? I'm not sure I'd be brave enough; it would not be met well by other people. If Miriam dresses up as Superman one day, it would be cute; if our putative son dressed up as Wonder Woman, people would worry. This does stem from a leftover feeling that the feminine role is inferior to the masculine, so that pink on a boy is emasculating while a girl with construction toys is empowered. I know that's true. And yet, it seems like the boy is the one who is at a disadvantage due to this prejudice, not free to do whatever he wants to do or be whatever he wants to be, lest it be seen as demeaning.

* I promised myself that I would only spend 5 days on Optics this semester, because my colleague suggested that, if I moved Optics to the beginning of the course (instead of the traditional end position), I would spend half the semester on the subject (because I move slowly) and not have time to cover the more complicated electricity and magnetism material. Well, I did in fact spend too much time on interference and diffraction (partly because I had never taught it before seriously, so I was learning as I went), and so I have one class left to teach images and lenses. It seems much too short a time, and I may have to be ruthless about what I cut in order to make it fit. Don't know if I'll make it, but I'm reluctant to give in on my pledge. Things will hopefully go more smoothly once I get to electricity; I've taught that more often and so am more comfortable with it. I do need to be a little more ruthless there too, though: do I really need to belabor Gauss' Law? Finding the electric field by integration? I don't know. One might try to ask "What is really important for the students to know?" but the problem is that these aren't physics majors for the most part, so that question is rather deep. What physics topics are most important for an economics major to learn? Does it matter, so long as they are exposed to the scientific method? Unfortunately, the feeling I get from the department is that I should just teach faster, and I don't feel comfortable talking about these things. Hopefully I will find a department which is comfortable with a slower, more in-depth approach, and these discussions can be had.


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