National Geographic special issue on the Gender Revolution

National Geographic Gender Special Issue Covers

Back in the early 1960’s, I found out real quick that acting the least bit girly made me a big disappointment. And often, subject to violence. So I tried, and failed, to be as masculine as I was expected to be. Hold that thought, and I’ll circle back around to it in a minute. I want to talk about this magazine issue first.

Y’all saw the National Geographic gender issue, right? The one with a teenaged transgender girl on the cover? Or, if you bought it on the newsstand, with a group portrait representing several gender identities.*

From it’s founding in 1888, the National Geographic has always been about human culture, including an understanding of gender. If you read issues going back to the beginning, there is no shortage of photos and prose describing how other cultures handle the differences between men and women. This was just fine as long as it didn’t hold up too big of a mirror to us.

But in the January 2017 issue, they focused on changes in the Western understanding of sex and gender, pointedly comparing to other cultures around the world. And hoo-boy did that raise a ruckus. I mean, people wrote in, and they were not happy.** “Cancel my subscription!” they said. “Stick to geography!” they said. “You’re promoting child abuse!” they said.

Well, calm down, angry National Geographic readers. People keep finding different ways to be human. Go read your back issues – every subscriber has them – and you see this is nothing new. Maybe it’s the first time a whole issue has been devoted to it, is all.

The issue compares gender norms and variations all around the world. There’s a brutal article about manhood rituals. The issue examines the risks of nonconformity, and those of simply being female. There’s a glossary. And a whole bunch of 9-year-old kids speak about their experiences.

But most importantly, the issue grapples with gender as a social construct. That one takes a while to sink in: Your gender is an artifact of your culture. It means meeting a whole lot of social expectations. It is by no means set in stone. Or in your genes.

Being a man, or a woman, is a very different thing in different societies. For some, the distinction is not so sharp, or even necessarily binary. In other cultures, including our own, the line between Venus and Mars is marked by trench warfare. You are either male or female, and that is defined by what your doctor saw when you were born, and that’s it.

You know how men constantly accuse women of being hormonal and irrational? Our civilization is about to die from testosterone poisoning. Aggression is mistaken for ‘leadership’, and the ability to deny facts is some kind of strength. That binary, “man _or_ woman” with no variation, is killing our country and our planet. And it all starts when we are children.

Most of the anger at National Geographic seems to be generated by the issue’s portrayal of transgender kids. The gender binary would suggest that all kids are born either male or female, and that if a boy puts on a dress or paints his nails, his parents must have put him up to it.

In our culture, the opposite is true. For example: you can say “she’s a bit of a tomboy” about a girl, and for the most part people won’t think much about it. But if a boy is accused of being a bit girly, well… stand back. And, I’m speaking from experience here. As a kid I didn’t know there were non-toxic ways to be a boy; I just thought I was a failed boy. A disappointment to everyone. I’ll tell that story sometime, in another post.

Most distinguishing human characteristics fall on a spectrum. The train from “He’s all boy!” to “She’s such a girly-girl!” has a lot of stops along the way. And kids of “both” sexes are on it.

You know what happens to kids who don’t fit their assigned gender identity? It depends on whether their family and friends accept them.

One of the parents in the magazine took their child to a doctor, and the doctor asked her: “Would you rather have a happy little girl, or a dead little boy?”

So I’m saying; by all means read the special issue of National Geographic. It probably isn’t perfect but it’s pretty damn good. Above all, if you have kids, just think about it, OK? Give yourself time to make sense out of it, and really listen to your kids.

NOTES:

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  • *Subscribers got the cover on the left. The cover on the right was put on the news stand edition. They forgot to include a CIS female, and then flubbed the answer when somebody asked them about it. Just once I’d like to see someone say; “We forgot! It probably means what you think it means, and we’re incredibly embarrassed about it!”
  • **Anybody else think some people protest a bit too much? Arguing in favor of our chains. Who knows what we might realize if we start thinking about it! Dangerous.

The performance of masculinity

SOG multitool ad
“Look Like A Guy, Feel Like THE MAN”
Swiss Army Knife
The original multitool

I carry a pocketknife with me everywhere , and always have. That’s something not a lot of men do anymore, but to me a pocketknife is simply an essential creative repair tool. I use this one, equipped with a small blade, can opener, couple screwdrivers and an awl, many times a day. So naturally when I found out SOG had made a new multitool I wanted to check it out.

Until I saw this ad, that is.

Don’t get me wrong; I love cleverly designed tools, and by cracky, I have the skillz to use them. But I am absolutely done with this ‘masculinity as anger and violence’ model. Its only value is as proof of the hard-won realization that gender is a social construct.

Let that soak in: how we understand being a man is a performance, a set of social expectations. And it’s mostly for the benefit of other men who might be watching. Men constantly insult other men by calling them women. This is so pervasive it is used in advertising; you can get your ‘Man Card’ reissued by owning a particular kind of assault rifle. And, apparently, if you carry this well-designed SOG tool.

The term for this performance is “Toxic Masculinity” and it means you have been raised with a very narrow range of permitted emotions. Or for that matter interests and careers.

Frozen in carbonite
What it feels like to me

This works out fine for men who are comfortable in the mold, but not everyone wants to get their whole lifetime supply of oxygen through a tiny opening in their emotional range.

Men are allowed to be ‘tough’ but not tender (which is funny, because NASA tests, not to mention history itself, demonstrated long ago that women are just as tough as men). Men are not allowed to cry but they can shout in anger. Manly sports must be violent, and children who decline to participate are shamed. No amount of personal damage is too high a price to pay for this cultural essential.

I was, in fact, a pretty effeminate boy, but that aspect of my personality was relentlessly punished. Today, decades later, I am stuck there, with wounds so habitually defended I have no idea how to uncover them or treat them.

Look around for a few days. Listen to other people talk, especially to children. Look at advertising. Look for the gentle boy on the playground and see how he’s treated. And spare a moment to appreciate people who break the rigid gender roles into which their assignment at birth had encased them. Think of them as pioneers, opening up a world where we could all breathe a little more easily.

NOTES:

  • Discuss this post on Facebook and Twitter
  • My ‘standard kit’ consists of eyeglasses, pen, index cards, watch, keys, minimalist wallet, Swiss Army knife, magnifying glass, and phone.
  • You’re darn right there are constricting counterparts in the social construct of being a woman. Start with women in STEM fields and politics. It’s a big topic.
  • The ad appeared in the July 2017 Wired magazine.
  • Terms for inadequately ‘masculine’ men: ‘pussy’, ‘mangina’, ‘little girl’, ‘girly-man’, ‘cuck’, and various constructs of lacking ‘balls’. And nearly infinite variations of all those.
  • Feminism and gender expression are too big to fit in one rant about a stupid ad. I’m creating a new category on my blog to write about it some more.
  • Just to be clear, pioneering is often dangerous. Non gender-conforming people are often discriminated against, shunned, assaulted and even killed.
  • You can find many articles claiming that gender is strictly or mostly biological, but sex and gender aren’t the same thing.