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The Codes of Gender – Identity.docx

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Willow Scobie

The Codes of Gender – Identity + Performance Pop Culture Codes of Gender  Our ability to recognize someone as either male or female is absolutely fundamental to our ability to interact with them. There is nothing natural about that recognition. It is based on signals that position people in categories, that make sense to us  If we can’t properly understand/read those signals, the it is almost impossible to proceed to any other social interaction  Those people who present themselves as androgynous pose a challenge to a cultural system that is dependent on those categories being clear o If clarity is not achieved, then things will fall apart  If we want to fit in and function normally, we have to learn how to send out the right signals and how to read the signals that are being sent out by others  One of the richest tools for understanding the way our visual culture links up with larger issues of gender and power comes from the work of late sociologist Erving Goffman How the Communication of Gender takes place  What appetizing tells us about ourselves  We are always playing what we thing is an appropriate role to our gender in everyday life Sex and Gender  There is nothing natural about gender identity  It is part of a process where we learn to take on certain attributes we thing are appropriate to our understanding ourselves in gender terms  We have to analyze how society constructs the categories in which we fit  We have to first make the distinction between sex and gender  Sex – different biological characteristics at birth  Gender – the way those differences are made sense of within culture - The cultural differences given to the physical differences  In most cultures, its male or female - Further define by characteristics as masculine and feminine  This does not mean that everything is about culture. The point is that while we are born with a set of different individual, physical and biological characteristics, these traits are then made sense of through the categories of culture  In this way, there is nothing natural or biological gender identities, we learn to inhabit the gender category that we have been assigned from outside Cases of Individuals being born into the right sex, but the wrong gender category  Male characteristics but female gender  They grow up as that gender, despite that original origin  Middle sex o In some cultures, people who are neither male or female o Shaped by the culture and society we grow up in  Most often 2 sex and 2 gender categories  Challenges from transgender and transsexual individuals o Socially created, not natural  Consequences our ability to recognize someone as either male or female is absolutely fundamental to our ability to interact with them, and that there is nothing natural about that recognition. It's dependent upon certain signals being communicated that allow us to position people in categories – male/female – that make sense to us. If we can’t properly understand or properly read those signals, or if they're not being sent out in ways we can understand, then it is almost impossible to proceed to any further social interaction. And so those people who present themselves as androgynous – ie. as not fitting cleanly into the typical masculine and feminine gender roles of their society – pose a challenge to a cultural system that is dependent upon those categories being clear. In fact, if this clarity is not achieved, then everything seems to fall SUT JHALLY: So, if we want to fit in and function “normally,” we have to learn both how to send out the right signals and how to read the signals that are being sent out by others. SEX + GENDER SUT JHALLY: Goffman argues that there is nothing natural about gender identity. That is, we don’t just pop out the womb with our gender identities imprinted in our genes; that it is part of a process whereby we learn to take on certain attributes that we think are appropriate to our understanding of ourselves in gendered terms. Therefore, we have to analyze how the society constructs the categories within which we fit. And to understand how that takes place, we have to first make a distinction between the terms “sex” and “gender.” Sex refers to our different biological characteristics as we come out of the womb. Gender refers to the way those differences are made sense of within culture – in most cultures, by assigning it to one of two categories: male or female. And then each of those categories is further defined with a set of characteristics – that seem to be mutually exclusive – that are labeled as masculine and feminine. This does not mean that everything is about culture. The point is that while we are born with a set of different individual physical and biological characteristics, these traits are then made sense of through the categories of culture. In this way, there is nothing natural or biological about gender or our gender identities. We learn to inhabit the gender category that we have been assigned from outside, from the culture. There are some interesting cases where individuals born as one sex have been assigned to the “wrong” gender category. That is, someone born with male physical characteristics but assigned to the female gender, and they then grow up as that gender, despite the physical sexual origin. And there are some cultures that actually recognize a “third” sex, or a “middle” sex, with its own set of gender characteristics. For example, in the culture of the Indian subcontinent, there is a whole class of people, who are called “hijrah,” who are neither male nor female but a third intersex category. They have a recognized and legitimate role to play in the society, and it is estimated that they number close to a million people. If nothing else, these examples show that our ideas and attitudes about gender are shaped by the culture and society we grow up in. But while potentially, and in actual real life, there could be many different categories of genders, western culture mostly operates with the two sex/two gender distinction. It is starting to break down a little as transsexual and transgender people have challenged this binary distinction and insisted upon having a legitimate place in the culture – not on the margins but at the center of the society. And their example shows us that the two sex/two gender distinction is a socially created one – not natural. However, a clear and unambiguous two sex/two gender distinction is obviously the norm, and a couple of consequences have resulted from this. First, the neatness of this distinction has functioned to downplay similarities between the sexes – that is, the things that men and women have in common as human beings in favor of highlighting their differences. And second, this distinction downplays the variability within each sex. It papers over the differences between men, between different ways of being a man, as well as the differences between women, and different ways of being a woman, so that it is presented that there is only one dominant and normal way in which to be feminine and only one dominant and normal way to be masculine. And what Goffman is interested in is how the two sex/two gender categories – these codes of normality – are created, and, more importantly, maintained and held in place. He makes us see that because these distinctions are not natural but created, we all have to learn how to send the signals to others as to how we want to be understood in socially recognizable gendered terms. That is what Goffman means by what he calls “gender display,” the process whereby we perform the roles expected of us by the social conventions that surround us. In this perspective, our gender is not assigned by birth or by nature but is the result of an active process whereby we are performing it by learning a script or internalizing a set of shorthand codes. So we can understand the term “code” in a couple of ways. First of all, it refers to a kind of shorthand language, that everyone shares and understands, through which we can communicate some larger ideas. And secondly, it refers to a set of rules or ways to be in the world – like a code of behavior. SUT JHALLY: So the human body – for example, the way we walk – becomes the medium through which we communicate. And because these codes are so deep – so deep they almost appear natural – it is difficult to even see them, or consciously recognize them in operation, until they are pointed out. That is one of the main things that Goffman wants to accomplish – to make visible what seems to be invisible, or at least below our level of conscious perception. And while he's really a student of interpersonal behavior – that is, the way people talk and interact face-to-face – he thinks the best place to clearly see the codes is somewhere else: in the culture; in one of its most concentrated, exaggerated, and distilled forms: advertising – and, by extension, other popular media. He actually calls advertising “commercial realism” – that is, it is trying to present the world in ways that could be real. And because advertising is usually operating in a context where audiences are quite resistant to being exposed to commercial intrusions, as well as being bombarded with messages from other advertisers, they need to communicate in a way that is quick and which is deep at the same time. And using the codes of "gender display" fulfills both those requirements. They reference a deep aspect of individual identity and can be communicated quickly – at a glance – because they're so familiar. So Goffman focuses on advertisements not so much because of their impact or effect on us – not because of how they make us act or what they make us buy – but because of what their seeming normality tells us about ourselves. In fact, Goffman says that perhaps the most negative thing that we can say about these gender displays in ads is that they do not look strange to us – that is, as depictions of reality, they do not look peculiar or weird. They actually look kind of normal. It is only when we start to look at them carefully that we begin to see how strange and weird they actually are – and begin the process of thinking independently, for ourselves, about what the culture holds up as normal. In this way, according to Goffman, to see one of the deepest aspects of our identities, we have to go outside ourselves to the messages that surround us. We have to become, in a way, visual anthropologists, looking at a world that seems very familiar and natural – advertising – in a way that provides some analytical distance from it. If we can do that – deconstruct the smallest details of the commercial environment that envelops us with the same meticulous care and attention to detail that their makers put into creating them – then we may be able to see ourselves in a new light. THE FEMININE TOUCH SUT JHALLY: Goffman starts his analysis of gender display with something seemingly simple and trivial – the way that hands are represented in advertising as male or female. He argues that female hands have a different relationship to reality than male ones. Female hands are shown not as assertive or controlling of their environment but as letting the environment control them. So, for example, when women are shown holding something, it often looks as though it is just resting there – not being held in a strong manner. Female hands are shown just tracing the outlines of an object, or cradling it – rather than carrying it and being in control of it – or they are presented as just using the ends of the fingers to hold objects, delicately and lightly, rather than using the whole hand. When this feminine touch is applied to other people – men – it is also light, soft, and caressing. Goffman says, like the interaction between two electrically charged bodies. In contrast, the masculine touch is powerful and assertive, presenting a different relationship to the world. Instead of tentative, the male touch is utilitarian, controlling, and bold. Male hands are shown as manipulating their environment, molding it to their desires. And when applied to others, the touch is commanding and firm. Sometimes you can see the difference in one image, where masculinity is about power and strength, and femininity is superficial and weak. Goffman further argues that the soft feminine touch can be extended into what he calls self- touching, which conveys a sense of the body as being a delicate and precious thing. In fact, women are constantly shown touching themselves – and there really is no part of the body that is off-limits. Whether it is the shoulder that is being utilized, or the face being touched in this soft and caressing manner, or the neck – symbolically connected with vulnerability and openness – there seems to be no end to how women will touch themselves in the world of commercial realism. Women are also shown in a kind of breathless posture – though the world around them is too much for them to cope with – or holding themselves protectively, as if the body is a delicate thing that needs support. These are undoubtedly conventionalized positions of passivity and acquiescence to whatever else may exist in the immediate social situation. One of the interesting aspects of looking at these images is how rare it is, in comparison, to find men touching themselves in these ways. In fact, Goffman suggests, as a thought experiment, that we imagine men instead of women in these postures, and then monitor our reaction. If we are startled by the result, then it shows that an expectation has been breached and reveals the degree to which these images that suggest fragility, softness, and powerlessness have become almost exclusively defined as feminine – in direct opposition to what is considered authentically masculine. In this way, even though all of these are merely poses, even though there is nothing inherently natural or biological behind any of it, we are conditioned to believe that men utilizing these postures are not “real” men. THE RITUALIZATION OF SUBORDINATION SUT JHALLY: With this idea that the body is a text, a means of communication, that body postures carry deeply significant meanings, we can get to the heart of Goffman’s analysis – what he calls the “ritualization of subordination” and of how female bodies, in particular, are used to demonstrate the broader social idea that what the culture defines as feminine has a subordinate relationship to what the culture defines as masculine. The starting point is his observation that women, with far greater frequency than men, are very often shown lying down in a recumbent position. Goffman makes two important points about the significance of this pose. First, he says that in this position, it is difficult to defend yourself, and that therefore you are dependent upon what he calls “the benign-ness of the surround.” That is, the reclining position that women are placed in gives them no defense against possible threats. It is a submissive and powerless position, utterly dependent on the world being risk and danger free, and Goffman’s point is relatively simple – this is a posture that communicates submission and powerlessness, and women are overwhelmingly featured utilizing it. In fact, Goffman’s suggestion that we imagine a man in these body postures, and monitor our reaction, is particularly effective here. The second point that Goffman makes about these displays of female powerlessness is that they have become sexualized. He says they are also a conventionalized expression of sexual availability. In this way, commercial realism shares a great deal with the world of pornography in its expression of female sexuality, in that it is overwhelmingly coded as submissive, powerless, and dependent. And when feminine identity in the culture is predominantly equated with this version of sexuality, then femininity itself, as a whole, is defined as submissive, powerless, and dependent. Viewed through this lens, the difference between femininity and masculinity is stark – a difference illustrated very clearly when men are pictured in the scene. The men are active, alert, ready to respond to or to initiate action. The women are defenseless and in no position to initiate any action or to defend themselves. They are powerless, whether it is draped over an operating table, or on their knees tugging at a dress in front of a muscled male, or sitting on the floor at his feet looking up with a desire to serve. Again, Goffman’s point is that while occasionally we can see the reverse, what matters is that it is rare. The one place you can more readily find men in these postures is in some photography of gay men. So, for example, you can see images here of the ritualization of subordination, where men are lying down in much the same manner as women in commercial photography. What that should tell us is that there is nothing natural, in gender terms, about the action or the pose – that its link with femininity in the mainstream culture and commercial imagery is not inevitable or biological but profoundly cultural. In fact, what seems to connect these stereotypical feminine poses with these stereotypical gay male poses is the fact that they share the same presumed audience: men. In each case, the subjects of these photos, whether male or female, are there to be looked at by men, and so they embody cultural assumptions about male desire, about what men want. So rather than nature, we could say that one of the things that is being expressed is something that lies outside the frame of these images – the very cultural notion of the male perspective, of what the power of the one looking does to the one being looked at. In this way, it is not just femininity or masculinity that is being expressed but instead a relationship of subordination between watcher and watched. Advertising’s ritualistic display of the female body to communicate powerlessness is also accomplished when women stand with what Goffman labels “the bashful knee-bend.” He calls these “canting” postures – meaning the body is tilted – positions that take the body away from being upright and perpendicular and places people off-center. In fact, as with the other submissive positions, “the bashful knee-bend” projects a sense of the woman as ungrounded, less than fully prepared to react quickly and firmly to her surroundings. As Goffman writes: “Once again, one finds a posture that seems to presuppose the goodwill of anyone in the surround who could offer harm.” This posture is ubiquitous across our media landscape, so much so that it seems to define a core aspect of femininity. And once again, the posture has also been sexualized in the process, reinforcing yet again the notion that female sexuality is equated with submission and deference. Variations of this canting posture include the crossed leg position, which has the same effect of putting women into a defenseless posture, again presupposing that there is no danger in the surroundings. Similarly, women are posed holding their feet, or the heel of a shoe, once more leaving them off-balance, teetering, ungrounded, and precarious – as they stand on one leg, vulnerable and defenseless. And then there is the head cant, the head repeatedly leaning to one side, as women – rather than holding their heads up high, upright, and firm – are posed again and again with their heads in tilted and awkward positions, bent and angled – once again, off-balance and de- centered. An extension of this has the torso of the body itself being twisted and bent away from the vertical. Goffman argues that all of these head and body canting configurations leave women in a position where they seem utterly defenseless and, in this way, can be read as both an expression and acceptance of subordination, of ingratiation, submissiveness, and appeasement. The coy over-the-shoulder look, where the head is twisted to the side or sometimes behind, is also an extension of this body and head canting posture. At the same time, the pose is sexually suggestive, positioning women as the willing recipients of the look coming from someone else. While the most unnatural, and sometimes even grotesquely contorted, poses struck by female models may make us wonder what is going on in the minds of the creative directors and photographers who position them in these ways, it is perhaps more revealing that, for the most part, we go about our business and don’t even notice these images as being especially strange. It is only when we see them adopted by unusual people – men – that we notice how normal looking are the conventions that link being a woman with powerlessness and submission. And in perhaps its most extreme expression, the head is lifted upwards, exposing the neck in a vulnerable manner, calling to mind the positions that animals, like dogs, take up when signaling their submission to other aggressive creatures. Outside of the animal kingdom, in the actual human world women inhabit, it clearly signifies that the woman has surrendered her agency within the social world – and accepted her helplessness. And if there is any doubt that such images carry meaning, consider that the reverse is the very picture of masculine power – the face down and the eyes trained upward from below, suggesting an animal stalking its prey. Once again, the key here is that none of this is biologically determined or predestined. This is simply a story that the culture tells us about how femininity and, by extension, masculinity are to be performed. LICENSED WITHDRAWAL SUT JHALLY: In addition to portraying women as having a distinctive physical relationship to the world around them, the gender codes of our society also posit a distinct psychological relation to that world. Women are often presented as not paying attention to what is happening around them, drifting from the scene in a dreamy fashion, off in a world of their own. As Goffman says, “women, more than men, it seems, are pictured engaged in involvements that remove them psychologically from the social situation at large, leaving them un-oriented in it and to it and presumably, therefore, dependent on the protection and goodwill of others who might come to be present.” So when women are presented in this spaced-out mode, they are not attentive to the world around them, not conscious of what is happening, oblivious to any threats that might be posed and apparently indifferent to any actions that may need to be taken. In this way, just as physically femininity is presented in ways that highlight subordination, so too psychologically it is defined in non-powerful or non-assertive ways – with women shown as essentially having checked out of the surrounding social scene, with their head down, eyes averted to whatever is happening around them. So that over and over again, we have women presented as essentially dazed, zonked out zombies. Or lying totally passive, naked on a bed. Or almost passed out. Or wandering around a field in a man’s white shirt, not quite aware of what is going on. And while they are barely conscious when awake, women are also frequently shown literally asleep – or perhaps even knocked out or dead. Awake, they are emotionally vulnerable – frequently nervous, biting their lip. Or holding themselves in a way that suggests fragility and emotional weakness or helplessness. And when they are not withdrawn, they seem to be over-engaged – with the same result: a loss of emotional control and restraint. Most of the time, this is shown as uncontrolled laughter – not just a smile but a much more extreme response. While men have to hold their emotions, women express them to the breaking point as a matter of course. In fact, perhaps the most interesting thing this particular feminine code signifies has to do with masculinity. Men are repeatedly presented in precisely the opposite way to this idea of withdrawal and losing control – as active, in control, aware of the world around them, in charge of their surroundings. And when men and women are shown in the same image, this different relationship to the world becomes even more explicit. As Goffman puts it, “women are shown mentally drifting from the physical scene around them, while in close physical touch with a male, as though his aliveness to the surround and his readiness to cope with anything that might present itself were enough for the both of them. At the same time, the male may well wear a wary, monitoring look.” So while women drift, men anchor and protect. While these images may appear strange here, as we isolate and analyze them, it is their seeming normality in our everyday lives that most interested Goffman. For it is in their normality that we begin to understand how imaginary and fantastic, and sometimes destructive, images on a page can come to affect and shape our experience of the actual world. In one particularly striking example, some very interesting research a few years ago found that men who had been convicted of some sort of physical assault on another person made choices about who a good victim of their violence would be. That is, they didn’t attack just anyone but picked victims who gave non-verbal cues – by their body postures – that they would be an easy target and not fight back. Tellingly, the way femininity is defined through these gender displays is precisely what the perpetrators said they were looking for in victims. In a perverse way, the mainstream media landscape, which seems so normal, so unworthy of our serious critical attention, actually reproduces and dangerously glamorizes images of women as weak and vulnerable in stereotypically victim-ready poses. It seems worth noting in this context that women’s self-defense classes teach almost exactly the opposite of what the culture tells us about femininity – that to be in charge of your own body and its safety, to be alert and autonomous, to not present yourself as weak and vulnerable, is the key to securing your safety. What does it mean when the visual culture that surrounds us repeatedly idealizes the polar opposite of this kind of feminine power and strength? INFANTILIZATION SUT JHALLY: Some of Goffman’s most intriguing insights about gender come from his analysis of the relationship between girls and women in the culture. He argues that while boys have to prove themselves in some rite of passage to signify that they have left childhood behind, women – even adult women – never leave girlhood behind. In a wonderful turn of phrase, Goffman says that “boys have to push their way into manhood, and problematic effort is involved while girls merely have to unfold.” In advertising, this is reflected in a couple of ways. First, little girls and grown women are presented as essentially the same, wearing the same clothes, having the same hair, doing the same things. In the world of commercial realism, women never seem to leave girlhood behind. In fact, it seems that all the
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