Over the weekend, I read two blog posts, both of which contained phrases that made me cringe a little. Overall, I liked the posts. I thought both writers had good things to say. So my desire is not to be critical of the bloggers or their opinions. And I do understand the place they were coming from, given the fact that it’s really hard to think outside a small circle of personal experience. I also want to be sensitive to this issue of privilege, especially after turning my critical eye on a fellow blogger for how she treated the problem.
But here it is: Both blog posts had obviously cisnormative bias in their writing. Probably unintentionally so.
In the first, About a Boy, Meg Lawton talks with her son about the harsh words used against him at school. It is otherwise a beautiful, wise, gentle post both about the nurturing of our children and about the feelings we as parents experience when our children are hurting. But it contained the unfortunate phrase,
The only thing that makes you a boy, is your penis.
The second post was The church is not feminised – blow your noses on your man sized tissues and get over yourselves! The blogger, Jenny, writes about the tendency of some men (ahem) to complain that the church has been emasculated. I don’t entirely agree with her theology, but she makes a good point: Since men still have the bulk of power in the church, they can’t complain about it becoming “feminized.” This post, too, had a phrase that bothered me:
If you have a penis you’re a man.
Not to sound like I’m obsessed with penises, but what the heck, people?
Neither of the statements made by these bloggers is strictly true. Certainly, it’s true most of the time. But not all. It isn’t the penis that makes one a man. There is more than one reason a man might not have a penis, and more than one reason a person with a penis might not be a man.
As I said, I can entirely understand the bias of the writers. In their experience, the people around them are likely to be cisgender, and they are probably unaware of anyone whose medical condition necessitated the removal of the penis. They probably don’t know (or don’t think they know) anyone intersexed. So of course they are going to speak from that perspective. And in the case of the first post, Ms Lawton was also dealing with how to help her non-gender-conforming children process the world around them, which in itself is admirable.
In reading these posts, it occurred to me that I don’t have any idea what makes us men or women. Obviously, I personally don’t believe it’s the presence or absence of certain genitalia. Nor do I think it has anything to do with our interests. I have two non-conforming children, yet both of them (at least at this point) seem pretty clear that their outsides match their insides in terms of gender. So what does make us men or women or both or neither?
I don’t think I could tell you, even for myself. Because I’ve never had to struggle with this personally, I’ve never even had to think about it. I am the possessor of breasts and a uterus; I also just feel like a woman. Yet I wouldn’t be any less of one if I lost my breasts or uterus to cancer. I might miss those parts, but not because I had suddenly become a man without them.
It’s probably something worth considering, especially if I want to be able to understand how others think and feel. It’s worth figuring out why I feel so distinctly womanly, in the same way it was worth thinking about why I feel attracted only to men. (I think this exercise is worth it for any area of our lives in which we differ from someone else, in order to better understand their experiences.)
If anyone wants to chime in, feel free. When you think about your masculinity/femininity, what makes you feel that way? Is it just a matter of “knowing” who you are, or is there something specific?