You walk on the Commons. A man in a blonde wig, dressed in fishnets and a low-cut halter lurches by, pushing his bike. A few steps behind, two women stroll arm-in-arm, proudly displaying their unshaven legs and armpits. A prototype of gender bending, these three people would turn heads in decades past. But today in Ithaca, such examples of nonconformity are becoming more expected. Still, in one of “the most enlightened towns in America,” it’s hard to tell if we’re seeing just the local environment or a greater national trend toward looser conceptions of gender.
To some degree, traditional understandings of gender identities reflect reality and serve an important function in society. The biological differences between men and women are obvious, and then there are the differences that come from socialization, which – even if constructed – are experienced as real. These differences are at least recognizable enough that generalizations like “women are more emotional” or “men like to fix things” sound something like the truth. But as obvious as some of these distinctions are, it’s also impossible to deny that gender and sexuality are more complex and fluid than boy-girl, man-woman or gay-straight.
As we try to transcend the gender roles that have been handed down to us, we tend to create new ones. Where homemakers were once expected to have dinner on the table by five, women are now discouraged from embracing domesticity at a young age. Where girls were once praised for their chastity, they are now over-sexualized by our media. On the other side, men are no longer just emotionless breadwinners. Generation Y has marked the decline of the auto mechanic and the rise of the metro-sexual.
Even as some of our ideas about gender and sexuality may have become more progressive, pop culture seems to be reinforcing stereotypes as much as ever. No one emerges unscathed; women are objectified, men are belittled, both homosexuals and heterosexuals are hypersexualized, and our schools, families and lives fall into the sinkhole of self-fulfilling prophesy. Gender and sexual identity are still defined and complicated by social influences and expectations.
The more we rely on sexual caricatures of men and women, the more we alienate all those people who fall outside the new ideals of gender and sexuality. Similarly, as we focus on the growing LGBT and women’s rights movements, we must be careful not to forget that gender stereotypes are imposed upon every member of our society. As one anarchist poster says, “For every girl who is tired of being called oversensitive, there is a boy who fears to be gentle, to weep.”
Either way, we understand that gender is not as black-and-white as it used to be. It’s clear that sexuality and gender roles still affect our lives profoundly. They surface ubiquitously in our media, our speech, our actions, our perceptions of ourselves – even our memories. And so we offer up The Gender Issue, an examination of one of the more complex issues of our day. We hope you find it as thought provoking as we have.