A Quick Thought on Gender

Yesterday, while my boyfriend was in the shower, I was just hanging around on the internet, as I am prone to do when given free time. Following a trail of links that began on Tumblr, I found this article which then linked to this article. I thought both of them made good points, and when my boyfriend came back I asked him to read them so I could see what he thought.

Now, my boyfriend is a genuine certified Good Guy. So when I showed him the first article, his response was essentially to say ‘Yeah, I agree, but isn’t it all stuff we’ve heard before?’ On the one hand, it gives me hope that not all men are awful, but on the other hand, he also said something else. When I tried to assert to him that feeling the urge to catcall women on the street or otherwise provide unsolicited commentary on their appearance is misogynistic because we live in a world where women’s bodies exist for the benefit of men, and thus any presentation of the female body must automatically be an invitation upon men to provide judgement, he simply said, ‘construction workers aren’t that smart.’

I might be about to engage in some serious misrepresentation here, but I want to try to explain boyfriend’s point. He told me that men don’t think about cat-calling women in the way that women think about it. I said I’d been shouted at on the street a number of times, and he used a particular example of a bunch of young men in a ute. According to him, men don’t yell at women because they feel the need to compliment the individual woman; in fact, the individual woman is more or less irrelevant. The men who cat-call women in front of their friends do so as a show of dominant masculinity; a demonstration of strength and manliness designed to maintain or further their place in the social hierarchy. It’s not about respect or disrespect towards women, because women are seen as ‘other’. The men simply aren’t considering the feelings or reaction of the woman at all when making the decision.

As I pointed out to him, this is a great example of the patriarchy: the men may not intend to cause any harm in what they’re doing – they’re just not thinking about it very deeply – but if we were living in a culture which really valued women, we’d have been teaching men since they were small children that disrespecting people in this manner, regardless of their gender, is not okay. But regardless of who is right in this particular argument, one thing really stood out to me in the way that he had phrased his point: women are ‘other’. Further, they are not a part of the male social hierarchy and thus don’t understand how the act of harassing women fits in. Then I read this article about religious gender segregation and got thinking again.

We hear it all the time: opposites attract. Women and men fit together in a way that women and women or men and men simply don’t. Children need a mother and a father. Men are from mars, women are from venus. Men are leaders, women are nurturers. That’s all just off the top of my head and I could probably go on for hours. Why are we so obsessed with highlighting ‘differences’ between men and women? Why is it so difficult for us to see validity in people who choose to be somewhere on the gender spectrum that isn’t strictly ‘man’ or ‘woman’? Why is it only now that we’re starting to see equality of genders? Why are we unable to recognise that we are all people and that the similarities and differences between individuals are far more pronounced (and probably more interesting) that the broadly generalisable ‘differences’ between genders? So much of what we feel and think and experience is shared that it seems somewhat ludicrous to try to divide people into two ‘opposite’ groups based on their reproductive organs.


Why I Love Sociology

I don’t make new friends very often, which is sad… but that is a subject for another post at another time. So, when I do meet new people, it’s kind of a big deal for me. Recently I met someone new and we got to talking. Among other things, he challenged me a few times to justify what it was that I found so compelling about the discipline of sociology. I declare my love for it often and loudly, but when I tried to explain to him the basis of this love, I seemed to come up short. Perhaps this was because I was inebriated at the time; perhaps it was because I seem to steadily be losing my ability to accurately express myself. Regardless, it has been bothering me for some time now, and I think I’ve come up with an answer that I’m happy with.

An acquaintance of mine once said that she joined the ALP because she simply couldn’t bring herself to believe that ‘poor people are poor because they just haven’t worked hard enough.’ Forget about the political affiliations and the debates we could be having about that statement: the truth is that this is exactly why I like sociology. I refuse to believe that we are a product only of our ‘choices’. We are shaped as human beings by external factors, to a huge extent by the society and the culture in which we live. I love people, I find them fascinating, and I love trying to figure out why they are the way they are.

Each of us is shaped by the choices that we make in life. But the choices that we are given – the opportunities that we have access to – are shaped by much larger forces. I was born into a middle-class family with loving, supportive parents; I have had numerous and wonderful opportunities provided to me, not least access to a very high standard of education.

The level playing field is a myth: even before we are born, we have differing chances in life. The location of our birth and the socio-economic status of our parents are some of the most determinative factors in our lives. Children who fall behind in health status or educational development in the first six years of their lives are unlikely to ever catch up. Having parents who work long hours or are otherwise unable to help with learning, having parents who are drug addicts, having parents who are unable to afford adequate healthcare, having parents who can only afford to live in disadvantaged neighbourhoods is never the fault of the child. But it will significantly affect the opportunities that are available to them throughout their life, and it will affect the choices that they make.

I could probably use sociology to explain why it is that I wear the clothes that I wear, or read the books I read, or like the TV shows that I like, but I won’t. Suffice to say here that people are not simply a product of their personal choices. Society may be an abstract concept, but it is an important one. By understanding the ways that society affects individuals, we can start to change the structural barriers that exist to prevent everyone having the same opportunities to live their lives that I and my friends have had. Knowing what we’re up against in terms of disadvantage and discrimination is the first step to overcoming it.

  • Things about me:

    My name is Mel, I'm a final year law student from Australia. I'm interested in politics, feminism, sociology and science, among other things. You can find my Twitter account below; I am more active there than here.

    Feel free to share my posts anywhere you like, provided appropriate attribution and link-backs are given. Respectful comments always welcome. I like discussion.

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