When I first started uni my wildcard course was Anthropology. I loved it. The lecturer was brilliant, a very terse Brit with a Gatling gun delivery style.
One sunny afternoon I was helping my Mum lift some heavy things for the church fete and saw my lecturer slope across the driveway.
“What’s he doing here?” I asked Mumsy, who told me that my lecturer was a member of the Presbyterian church.
I was stunned. Why on earth would a man who’d peered beneath the curtain of humanity’s Stupid Beliefs willingly adhere to one himself?
I still had, in my mind, a very modern approach to social sciences – that is, I thought they were actually ‘a science’. Watching Dr Gatling unloading boxes onto the church’s cold front porch was like watching an epidemiologist tipping lavender oil into a vial of polio vaccine.
Of course, Mr Gatling knew something I didn’t. As an anthropologist he knew that silly cultural artifice is the defining characteristic of our humanity. He went to church because it was a culturally relevant institution that integrated his personality, his family life and his sense of purpose. It made him knowable, accountable and relevant to himself. Being Presbyterian was part of his identity, and intersected with all the other bits of himself, like being a man, a father, a worker, a socialist and everything else.
Let me tell you another story. Recently I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with young teenagers. ‘Interacting’ might be pushing it, but imagine the kind of shepherding that one might undertake with an algal bloom in a strong tide and you’re getting close.
I like teenagers, the more difficult, the better. And it strikes me that we’ve done something peculiar to the current batch. We’ve told them, their entire lives, that the most important thing in life is to be an individual. Be yourself, screams the television into their cherubic young faces. There is nothing better than being an individual, and what’s more, if you try not to be, you’ll end up UNHAPPY.
Spoiler alert; a lot of them are pretty unhappy.
What we need to tell kids is that culture is important. In fact, there’s very little of ourselves that isn’t mediated through our culture. I’m not saying anything that millions of others haven’t, everyone from Noam Chomsky to Levi Strauss to Jordan Peterson. We, as humans, respond strongly to social roles. We are unmoored without them. It’s bad enough when the roles change because of structural reasons, (think, rust belt unemployment), but when we’re told to abandon them as inauthentic to our true selves, that’s harder still.
I’m realising too, as the gender wars kick into high gear and scores of young teenage girls decide they don’t identify as Pole-Dancing Barbie, and are therefore, obviously, not female, that gender is where much of this comes home to roost.
Gender is socially constructed, and yes, it does have a passing acquaintance with biology. Sex is binary, obviously, Otherwise we would have male/female/slime mould. It is also not a scale. When I say binary, I mean discrete categories. There are humans, of course, whose sex is ambiguous – about 0.018% of the humans. This alone is used to determine a ‘spectrum’ model of gender that we tell our children is based in biology, but isn’t.
Gender, on the other hand, is social and malleable. This is of course completely straightforward. And it stands to complete reason that in all of humanity there will be humans who do not feel that they are living ‘in the right body’. These humans must have the same human rights as everyone else. Currently, they do not, and are subjected to the kinds of violence that women have been familiar with for generations.
What we should not do is conflate biology with gender, but that’s exactly what we tell our kids.
It’s scruffy, because kids are being told that that biology is determinative and a big confusing mess that they can make sense of themselves. I think what I would like to say is that we’ve told young people that they should know how to be gendered young people on their own terms, without any cultural reference point. It’s like handing them the fabric and telling them to make a pair of pants, with no pattern, no advice, other than just, ‘Whatever YOU think they should look like, it’ll be GREAT because YOU’RE AWESOME”
Even the ebullient language is enough to bring on a crippling bout of depression.
All other social animals watch their family and community for cues about how to behave. Expecting humans to be so drastically different is both astonishingly arrogant and foolish.
I say this as a parent. I never, ever thought that I would engage in any kind of feminine silliness. I inwardly judged mothers who claimed that their girls were just girly because that’s how they came, fresh out of the box. I am not girly and have lived a very masculine life, but that’s largely because there was little time for anything else. My culture dictated that I be useful, and in the absence of any other option, that meant being able to drop a Salisbury diff out in an afternoon.
I’ve thought a lot about the type of femininity I model for my daughter. And as she gets older, I’m embracing and encouraging her in ‘things girly’. Partly, this is as a way to fit in, and partly, it’s a way to let her know that her femininity can be her own thing. But mainly, it’s because there is value in sociality, it’s what makes us human, and smart people, like my anthropology lecturer, know full well that resistance is futile.