The Gender Fence

Apart from biological gender, is there a masculine or feminine mentality? Are men from Mars and women from Venus? In this era when gender identity is up for grabs, can one speak meaningfully about masculine and feminine ways of being and gender differences, apart from biologically determined individuals?

The very notion of gender choice is subtly tricky. For, it may be an essentially masculine idea—a result of social processes and intellectual traditions long dominated by men. Under patriarchy, after all, it is men (at least some men) who have had preferential freedom of choice over their lives. Of course, generalizations are generally suspicious. Exceptions always abound. Nevertheless, the fact of exceptions (outliers they are called in statistics) does not negate the validity of apparent patterns. It only raises deeper questions.

So, here’s my tentative and shaky idea, to take or leave as you please: for better and worse, men tend to be more individualistic than women. One way this manifests is in terms of boundaries. The need for “good boundaries” is a modern cliché of pop psychology. But this too is essentially a masculine idea, since men seek to differentiate their identity more than women. This inclines them to maintain sterner boundaries, to favour rules and structures, to be competitive and authoritarian,  to be self-serving. Women, in contrast, tend to be more nurturing, giving, accommodating and accepting because of their biological role as mothers and their traditional social role as keepers of the hearth and the domestic peace. Which means they appear to have weaker boundaries. They do not separate their identity so clearly from those who depend on them. They literally have no boundary with the fetus growing within, and a more nebulous boundary with the infant and child after birth. Giving often means giving in, and nurturance often means placing the needs of others above one’s own. Men have systematically exploited this difference to their own advantage. It is in their interest to maintain that advantage by maintaining boundaries—that is, to continue being self-centred individualists.

In many ways, this division of labour has worked to maintain society—that is, society as a patriarchal order. Yin and yang complement each other, perhaps like positive and negative—like protons and electrons? (Consider the metaphor: a proton is nearly 2000 times more massive than an electron and is thought of as a solid object, whereas an electron is considered little more than a fleeting bit of charge circling about it!) Traditionally, men have been the centre of gravity, women their minions, servants, and satellites. In the modern nuclear family, men were the bread winners, disciplinarians and authority figures, the autocrats of the breakfast table. One wonders how the dissolved post-modern family, with separated parents (ionized atoms?), affects the emerging gender identities and boundaries of children.

Gender issues loom disproportionately large in the media these days, in part serving as a distracting pseudo-issue in society at large. However, emerging choice about gender identity may be a good thing, with broader social significance than for the individuals involved. It may mean that the centre of gravity of individual identity is shifting toward the feminine, away from traditional masculine values that have been destroying the world even while creating it. Women have long had the model of male roles dangling before them as the avenue to possible freedom, whereas men have more been obliged to buck prejudice to identify with nurturance and endure persecution to identify with the feminine. To put it differently, individuation (and its corollary, individual choice) has become less polarized. It has lost some of its association with males and has become more neutral. In principle, at least, an “individual” is no longer a gendered creature to such an extent. That could also mean a shift away from reproductivity as a basis for identity, which would benefit an overpopulated world. But what does it imply for the mentalities of masculine and feminine?

Masculine and feminine identities are grounded in biology and evolutionary history. That is, they are natural. The modern evolution of the concept of the individual reflects the general long-term human project to deny or escape biological determinants, to secede from nature. But, paradoxically, that too is predominantly a masculine theme! “Individuation” means not only claiming an identity distinct from others in the group. The psychological characteristics of individuality have also meant differentiating from the feminine and from “mother” nature: alienation from the natural. Isn’t it predominantly men who aspire to become non-biological beings, to create a human world apart from nature and a god-like identity apart from animality? To seize control of reproduction (in hospitals and laboratories) and even to duplicate life artificially? Not bound to nature through the womb, men seek to expand this presumed advantage through technology, business and culture, even creating cities as refuges from the wild. However, their ideological rebellion against nature and denial of biological origins is given the obvious lie by the male sex drive and by male imperatives of domination that clearly have animal origins. Are women, then, less hypocritical and perhaps more accepting of their biological roots? Are those roots in fact more socially acceptable than men’s?

If the centre of gender gravity is moving toward the feminine, what could be the consequences for society, for the world? Certainly, a reaction by patriarchy to the threat of “liberal” (read: feminine?) values might be expected and is indeed seen around the world. We could expect an increasing preoccupation with boundaries, which are indeed madly invaded and defended as political borders. Power asserts itself not only against other power-wielding males, but also to defend against the very idea of an alternative to power relations. Men egg each other on in their conspiracy to maintain masculine values of domination, control, the pursuit of money and status, etc. Increasing bureaucracy may be another symptom, since it thrives on structure and hierarchy.

The human overpopulation and destruction of the planet should mitigate against men and women continuing in their traditional biological roles as progenitors and the traditional social goal of “getting ahead.” If so, what will they do with their energies instead? The fact that modern women can escape their traditional lot by embracing masculine values and goals is hardly encouraging. Far better for the world if they claim their individuality by re-defining themselves (and femininity) from scratch, neither on the basis of biology nor in the political world defined by men. On the other hand, one could take heart in the fact that some men are abandoning traditional macho identities. There is hope if that shift is widespread and more than superficial: if gay rights and gender freedom, for example, represent an emerging mentality different from the one that is destroying the world.

On the other hand, boundaries are sure to figure in any emerging sense of individuality, in which masculinity and femininity may continue to play a role. Can men be real men and women be real women in a way that meets the current needs of the planet? Or should the gender fence be torn down? As a male, I like to think there is a positive ideal of masculinity to embrace. This would involve strength, wisdom, objectivity, benevolence, compassion, justice, etc. Yet, I don’t see why these values should be considered masculine more than feminine. Nor should nurturance, accommodation, patience and peace-keeping be more feminine than masculine. Rather, all human beings should aspire to all these values. If the division of labour according to biological gender is breaking down, there is nothing for it but that a moral “individual” should embrace all the qualities that used to be consider gendered. “In the kingdom of heaven there is neither male nor female.” To achieve these ideals may mean transcending the natural and social bases of gender differences—indeed, to ignore gender as a basis for identity.