My post today has to do with a direct question asked by one of my MA students (to what extent is gender natural?) and with issues raised in the paper proposals of my Victorian Literature students, all about Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. So, here we go.
As you will recall, if you’re familiar with Dickens’ novel, the blacksmith Joe Gargery is constantly abused by his wife, Mrs. Joe, who is also psychologically and physically abusive towards her own youngest brother, Pip, whom she has raised in the absence of their dead parents. In relation to this, one of my students quotes a passage from an article by Judith Johnston which reads: “Mrs. Joe’s given name is never revealed in the text, significantly she takes the patronymic, Mrs. Joe, rather than any female name, because Mrs. Joe is a violent woman, possessing a violence more usually male than female” (1992: 97). So, violent women are not really feminine but masculine, hence her name. To begin with, we learn eventually that this woman is called Georgiana Maria like her mother and I have still known in my time women identified by their husband’s names, for instance in the name cards on mailboxes (Sr. Juan García and Sra. de García).
I would say that ‘Mrs. Joe’ is either old 19th century low-class usage or this woman’s way of showing that she owns her husband and not the other way round. I see however no sense in the description of her violence as “more usually male than female” because it sounds like an attempt at exonerating all women from the charge of being violent: Mrs Joe feels masculine, therefore she is violent; if she were really feminine she would not be violent. Sorry but violence is violence and if it is committed more often by men in couples this is because usually the balance of power falls on the husband’s side. In Mrs Joe’s case she has claimed all the power over her abused husband Joe, who not only does not resist the situation but seems, like many other victims, even complicit with it (he does try to excuse Mrs Joe on the same grounds battered wives excuse their husbands). If, as Johnston does, you claim that a woman who abuses her partner is being masculine, then you are saying that victims are always feminine or feminized, thus associating femininity with victimhood. You are also denying women’s capacity to inflict violence on others while being no doubt feminine women. And their victims manly, as Joe is.
Let me give you a chilling example of violence committed by women, which left me reeling with shock this week. In Málaga they have judged a young single mother in her early twenties who abandoned her seventeen-month-old baby girl to die of starvation while she lead what has been described as a frantic night life. Obviously, baby Camelia is not only the direct victim of her mother but also of the social values by which this young woman convinced herself that her right to have fun every night went beyond her duty to take care of her daughter. The mother had been offered help by the local authorities but she neglected to claim it. Instead, she got into this routine of abandoning her daughter every day for long hours, until she locked her in a filthy room for good, to die alone.
There is no way this type of violence can be coded masculine yet if we code it feminine, which it appears to be in view of the mother’s gender, we are emphasizing that caring for children is a typically feminine ability which this woman is somehow lacking. In fact, the readers’ comments in the newspapers where I have read about this crime always emphasize that poor Camelia’s death is doubly heinous because her mother, who should have cared for her, abandoned her to die. The father, a violent guy banned from seeing his daughter under a restraining order, is never mentioned, though presumably he also had the duty of taking care of the baby. My point is that if caring for others were truly natural in biological women, as growing breasts is, this young mother would have naturally taken care of her baby. Her disinterest, and cruelty, show that there is nothing natural in mothers’ caring for babies, but plenty of socializing since childhood, when we girls are all given dolls to learn the ropes. By the way, the young mother appears to be mentally healthy, she is no psychopath, though we no doubt find her behaviour monstrous.
Were am I going with all this? I’m expressing my tiredness with the way we attribute human behaviour (not only violence) to supposedly gendered traits. If a woman in assertive, then she is masculine. If a man is caring, then he is feminine. This persistent binarism is an obstacle for progress because for as long as individuals identify with a gender and that gender is identified with a set of traits there is no way gender can be reconfigured for good. I am beginning to think that Judith Butler’s notion of performativity works fine in theory but very poorly in practice.
On a more positive note let me tell you about men and skirts. A few weeks ago a boy somewhere in Northern Spain, the equivalent of a high school senior, decided to wear a skirt to class, just to give it a try. He was taken to the school psychologist who, it can be surmised from the questions, treated him as a possible case of transgenderism, which he is not. Mikel, as the boy is called, was later punished by his parents, which led him to publish a TikTok video narrating that strange day in his life. The reaction was a collective protest by male students like him all over Spain who turned up the following day in school wearing skirts. The idea they supported, by the way, was not that each gender had the right to use other genders’ clothing but that clothing should be genderless. I still think we’re far from seeing young Spanish boys wearing dresses but, since girls wear trousers and nobody thinks today of them as men’s wear that might happen. We need time, and not only here. Look at the hullaballoo caused by ex-One Direction’s Harry Styles and his recent Vogue interview, in which he appears modelling dresses. “Anytime you’re putting barriers up in your life, you’re limiting yourself,” the cover blurb reads. And he’s right.
So, why do we limit individuals, telling them that what they do is ‘too feminine’ or ‘too masculine’ if they feel that is part of who they are? And the other way round, why do we limit persons telling them that they must be ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ for that is in their nature? I’ll insist again that though bodies are a biological fact (though much more open to interpretation than we assume), our gendered behaviour is a social construction, still too depending on stereotypes attached to gender roles that should have been discarded long ago.
At this point, then, perhaps I need to mention Minister Irene Montero’s new law to regulate official gender identity in Spain, also known as the Ley Trans. I must say that this is very similar to the Scottish law that caused J.K. Rowling to make a series of concerned comments after which she was accused of being transphobic. Basically, the two laws grant transgender persons the right to identify themselves in official documentation as individuals of a specific gender regardless of their biological bodies. As you can see, the intention is to make it easier for trans persons to be officially men or women just by stating their preference and without having to completely transform their bodies, if they choose so. Thus, a teen starting transition might immediately choose their new official identity rather than wait for years for a judge to grant that right on an individual basis, as it is done now.
The problem is that in areas in which biological sex is still determinant, such as sports, this may have negative effects for a biological male might apply to compete as a woman (by gender, not by sex). Leaving Rowling aside, I must notice that a group of what the press has dubbed as ‘historic Spanish feminists’ (Amelia Valcárcel Bernaldo de Quirós, Ángeles Álvarez Álvarez, Laura Freixas Revuelta, Marina Gilabert Aguilar, Alicia Miyares Fernández, Rosa María Rodríguez Magda, Victoria Sendón de León and Juana Serna Masiá) sent the Minister an open letter opposing the law (see https://blogs.elconfidencial.com/espana/tribuna/2020-11-05/carta-abierta-gobierno-ley-trans-igualdad_2820287/). They worry about the confusion between sex and gender in Montero’s projected legislation and about the new vocabulary erasing the materiality of women’s bodies, which “makes women invisible and erases us with the excuse of inclusivity.” In fact, what I find most interesting about the letter is the call to erase gender rather than to make it even more visible by law. Why not have official documents suppress all reference to gender? Having said that, it would be interesting to see what would happen if suddenly millions of women in Spain declared they want to be men officially, a point my feminist colleagues have not contemplated in their writing but that in principle the new law might sanction.
My rambling post, in short, wants to remind you of the fact that the more we think about gender, the less we seem to agree or even understand what is going on. I am currently working on quite a complex novel by Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312, in which most human beings are free to choose how to modify their bodies and in which the protagonists are a female-identifying gynandromorph and a male-identifying androgyn. This is 300 years in the future but to be honest I can’t even imagine how people will feel about gender in 3 years’ time. When this novel was published, in 2012, less than ten years ago, talk of non-binary persons was non-existent, whereas now it is all the rage (leaving by the way, Montero’s binary law quite obsolete). What is natural and what is biological in gender matter is harder and harder to decide. My hope is that one day we will stop being masculine or feminine in binary fashion, and even non-binary, to be just persons. That sex and gender, in short, could be factors as small in our lives as whether we like apples or pears. That would be a relief.
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