The late 20th – early 21st century have been rich with various concepts beginning with “post-“. Postindustrial society, postmodernism, post-theism, postgenderism, posthumanism… The opinions on these, as well as the larger trends behind them all, are of course divided, but if anything, this only illustrates the point I’m trying to make.
I think that what happened is that as the barriers of communication fell down, as we learned more about different cultures and lifestyles, so did we realize that many social concepts formerly thought of as absolute and rigid actually weren’t. It will take another generation, or perhaps more than one, just to process this very idea to its fullest. We have come to realize that concepts and ideas, real or fictional, live in the historical and cultural context of their creators, and can only be fully understood in a relative rather than absolute way. No matter how many times literary critics say “death of the author”, you can’t abstract away from the fact that George Orwell had the political trends of early-to-mid-20th century in mind when he wrote 1984, or that J.R.R. Tolkien’s Catholic beliefs influenced the cosmology and tone of The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings.
Social ideas and norms are much the same way. Appeal to tradition, “it has always been that way”, is just about the worst argument you can make when defending an existing social custom, right next to “God decrees so”. Even if the God you believe in tells you that someone will go to Hell for the terrible, terrible moral crime of enjoying sex without the intent of procreation, it’s not your business to try and “save” them. Just act yourself the way your beliefs dictate. Hence the “post-“: not in the sense of rejection, but in the sense of outgrowing. A post-theistic society is not an atheistic society, but merely one that got over theism, a society where religion is a matter of personal choice rather than a shaping force in politics.
And yes, I realize that my own writing is influenced by my atheist bias, conscious and unconscious. While I cannot fully abstract from them, I can be made aware of them; let the unconscious become conscious.
So how does it all relate to the gender binary? Well, the way I see it, gender roles and religious dogmas have a lot in common — they are self-propagating memes. A good example to illustrate the problem is the origin of the Russian word for bear, “medved'”. It literally meant “honey eater” in Old Slavic and was originally created as a euphemism, because the real name of the animal was taboo. However, over time, this fact was forgotten and “medved'” became the only known name, and thus itself considered something to be avoided by superstitious hunters.
Religious fundamentalists take the words of their prophets and saints dropped here and there throughout their lives, often out of context, and declare them absolute, immutable truth. Proponents of the gender binary take emergent prejudices that shaped themselves due to a combination of circumstances, sometimes mind-bogglingly arbitrary, and declare them gospel. In any case, we are faced with codification, with social expectations and taboos shaped by minutae.
It’s like if a fictional character had their complexity stripped away and become defined by a single trait based on something they vaguely did in that one episode. Oh wait.
What originally prompted this post was a paragraph I saw while reading Andrew Rilstone commentary on some common themes and tropes in fiction, namely, the points made by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (itself subjected to gospelization: while Campbell himself was only writing about common themes in a distinct kind of stories, some of his followers went so far as to claim that the structure he pointed out was inherent in every story ever written). After a series of posts making logical arguments, the latest of which contrasted stories where the hero returned home with a boon from the travels with stories where the hero reached their destination and stayed there, when I kept going “Yes, yes, that’s exactly it!”, I suddenly stumbled upon this non sequitur.
When I did literary theory at college, it was a truism that stories in which someone set forth to achieve something – stories which rushed headlong to a dramatic conclusion – were Male (and therefore bad). Stories which reached no final conclusion, which described a state of being, which cycled back to the beginning and achieved multiple climaxes were Female (and therefore good). The cleverer students, the ones with berets, went so far as to claim that the whole idea of stories – in fact the whole idea of writing in sentences — was dangerously “phallocentric”. But one does take the point that boys’ stories like Moby Dick have beginnings, middles and ends in a way that girls’ stories like Middlemarch really don’t. The soap opera, which is all middle, is the female narrative form par excellence. You would search in vein for a monomyth in Coronation Street.
For a minute, I just blinked at the text in silence, trying to make any sense out of it. Wikipedia defines a truism as “a claim that is so obvious or self-evident as to be hardly worth mentioning, except as a reminder or as a rhetorical or literary device”. In other words, the author took this piece of essentialist drivel for granted so much that he assumed everyone else shared it.
Which made me think: what, exactly, causes people to assign concepts to genders in such an utterly arbitrary fashion? The answer, I believe, lies in the pervasive, all-encompassing nature of the gender binary. The human society, we are taught from infancy, consists of men and women. We know – some of us, anyway – that it’s merely an approximation in the same sense that Newtonian physics are an approximation of relativistic physics and the real world, one that is valid for most everyday uses but fails when we broaden the horizons of our knowledge. But the idea is tempting. After all, ideas, as Christopher Nolan helpfully points out, are the most persistent kind of infection known to humanity.
And as such, when we encounter a new kind of idea (in this case, a binary), it is tempting to explain it in the concept of another binary we know, even if the analogy makes no sense. The actual mapping is often hard to explain rationally. Ancient paganists knew about the day/night binary and their corresponding celestial bodies. As such, in many mythologies over the world, the gods or personifications of the Sun and the Moon are of different genders, but it varies which is which. On one hand, we have Helios and Selene, Apollo and Artemis; on the other, Sól and Máni, who no doubt inflienced Tolkien’s Arien and Tilion.
Sometimes, it’s not random. The earliest known examples of gender roles in prehistoric tribes, and such basic dichotomies as hard/soft, strong/weak, big/small, outward/inward, are probably influenced by real physical differences. From there, it kept fracturing, expanding since then. Perhaps many concepts declared “masculine” or “feminine” were not assigned randomly, but based on associations with existing concepts already sorted into the binary. The gender binary was not static, but, as geekfeminism.org pointed out, a fractal with internalized sexism (for example, while science itself is considered a “masculine” career, there are individual sciences perceived as predominantly masculine or feminine, etc.; even feminism itself could have contributed to such perceptions, if the “hairy-legged man-hater” stereotype is any indication). And not just a static fractal, but an ever-expanding, path-dependent chain of associations that solidified over time; what might first have been a helpful rhetorical device became unquestionable taboo.
What can be done to break this pattern? Feminism contributes to the reverse process of conflation, of removing gender association stigma from logically unrelated concepts. But a true breakdown of the binary, I believe, will only happen when people en masse change their fundamental patterns of thought, and cast off or at least become aware of implicit assumptions underlying their arguments and actions. It is in the nature of the human mind to think in opposites, but the process of exposing the context can move the mental opposites from socially harmful areas and place more focus on, say, personal beliefs, ethics, and political ideologies – ideas that people choose to accept instead of being assigned to them by virtue of birth. And then, perhaps, we can outgrow the labeling of just about everything as masculine or feminine; in other words, walk into a post-binary world.