Friday, April 15, 2011

Tina Fey, the boy with the pink nail polish, and gender constructs

On the cover of her new book, Tina Fey’s intelligent elf face rests in a large masculine hand at the end of a beefy Teamster arm. It’s a wakeup moment, a doubletake – what’s not right with this picture? Fey does that a lot in her work on “30 Rock,” where she holds stereotypes up to show how insubstantial they are, then turns the light on the character who questions the stereotype, revealing the concepts and constructs under THAT view.
That’s what I work on a lot in meditation, deconstructing the assumptions and the roles that I think make me “me.” Who can’t take sitting in the posture anymore? Who can’t accept karma? Who wants to question the teacher – the good student, the defiant one, the person who feels defensive and stupid because she doesn’t understand, the one who wants affirmation, the one who really and truly wants to know in order in try out the concept.
On the first page of my current journal, started as I began an intense, week-long, silent retreat, I wrote, who am I without my roles? Eight months later, I still wonder.
Some roles are easy to discard – wife, mom, for example – because they’re social constructs. “Spouse” and “parent” lie on a deeper level because they have to do with connections with people I care about.
One of the most basic identities, it seems to me, is sex/gender. If you ask someone what they are, you can strip off the social roles fairly quickly and even the ethnic or class definitions. For most people, stripping off the man/woman label is a challenge.
The New York Times this week had an article about a New Jersey court that’s faced with defining what a man is. El'Jai Devoureau was fired from his job watching men pee into cups for drug testing after his employer learned he had been born a woman. Mr. Devoureau, 39, says he has identified himself as a man all his life, has had sex change surgery, and has a new
birth certificate that identifies him as male, as his New Jersey driver’s license does. The Social
Security Administration
made the change in its records. He's challenging his firing in court.
You could say it’s a matter of equipment, and that determining whether someone is a man or woman is pretty easy. Just look. But that’s sex; gender is something else – it has more to do with your internal self than your physical equipment. And gender can be flexible.
This is a true story:
A cisman (male sex, male identified – not that there’s anything wrong with that) whose car was stuck in a snow bank in a quaint New England town that had seen way too much snow this winter walks over to a nearby house and knocks on the door. When someone answers he explains his situation and asks: “Are there a couple of males who could help me push it out?”
The inhabitants of the house include a transfem, a gender queer, and an assortment of others, some with male parts, some with female ones, but you couldn’t tell which by looking at the selves they show the world. So who goes to help him push the car? One lesbian with a chip on her shoulder, ready to prove that gender has nothing to do with strength.
It’s second nature to invoke gender roles, even for people who are mindful in most aspects of life. I’ve been in conversation with a man when another man comes over and asks him for help moving something. I’m tempted to point out that I lift weights three times a week, that I’m taller and maybe heavier than the male they’ve asked for help, and that moving cushions and sweeping the floor is a task not tied to gender. Instead I just ask if I can see if I can be of any help and pitch in.
I don’t react with anger. I would have, once upon a time. I react now with curiosity: What is it about this task that requires a male? What do you mean by male? Does pushing the car require a penis? What if the person with a penis is dressed as a woman? Can women be strong? If I’m strong, am I less womanly?
Social commentators are all up in arms this week about a J Crew ad featuring resident and creative director Jenna Lyons and her son who's wearing pink Essie nail polish on his toenails.“Lucky for me I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink," the ad copy reads. Conservative commentators say she should be putting money aside for therapy because he’ll need it to address his subsequent gender confusion.
To paraphrase Sylvia Boorstein, everybody’s confused about something. As Buddhists, we work to clear away the confusion, the labels, the constructs, the things that define us and make us seem solid, and see the clarity and inherent goodness that’s present in everyone and everything. From an absolute view, we are all genders and none.
The question is, how does that manifest in the physical world?

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