Gender: Nature vs. Nurture 5: Elmo is queer

December 15, 2015

12191998_10154313855379307_7264347706468764757_n

It’s funny how we look for gender clues in toddlers. When Cozy wears my old baby clothes or the Atlanta Falcons gear my dad bought her, people don’t hesitate to make her male (although he did also buy a Falcons cheerleader outfit for her). When she’s pretty in pink, it’s all good in the Ladyland hood. As a sociologist of gender, I keep looking for it and wonder what, if anything, is innate about gender. She watches her dad cook and clean house. Will she see those as male activities? I’m the nurturer, wiping her butt and a face every five minutes. Her Mexican mom is much sterner so there’s the authority in the house.

Cozy turns 16-months-old in a few days and she’s fully into imitating behavior now (which means I need to watch my fucking mouth). The three-year-old girl on a flight to Atlanta taught her Peek-a-boo and that’s her jam now. She imitates me washing dishes (that’s a good hobby), but she really loves to imitate her mother. Especially when it comes to make-up. Maybe it’s the just the feel of the brushes on her face, but when mom is at her make-up table, Cozy is wrapped up in a lesson from the master.

12292708_900450840042217_892072871_n

The other night Andrea was at an art gallery, hanging out with some beatniks and Cozy and I were home. Cozy climbed up on to mom’s vanity and looked at herself in the mirrors. She picked up different lipsticks and brushes and I could see it starting. “This what I do to be like mom.” Now, first of all Andrea doesn’t have to do any of that but she’s an artist and has really created an amazing look for herself. And secondly, a little boy of the same age could also find his way to mom’s make-up table and be as fascinated by all the candy-colored treats.

I found myself wanting to pull her down and shove her beloved Elmo doll under her arm. Say what you will about Sesame Street going to HBO and PBS running only the too-short 30 minute versions of the show (Abby’s Flying Fairy School just got gentrified the fuck out of this neighborhood), there is salvation in Elmo. Elmo is my daughter’s security blanket and a link to something close to baby bliss.

Elmo first stumbled on to Sesame Street in the early 1970s as “baby monster,” so the little red thing should be firmly in its 40s by now, instead of perpetually 3-and-a-half. But the one thing that’s consistent about Elmo is Elmo’s non-gender (and maybe the fact that Elmo bizarrely is unable to refer to himself or herself in the first person). Most see Elmo as a boy monster but there are plenty of little girls who see Elmo as a girl monster. Elmo is gender-queer. I was just in New York City and saw four Elmos in Times Square. Were there males or females in those costumes? It really doesn’t matter as long as they were fairly sober.

Elmo is a blank slate that we write gender scripts on to. In a patriarchy, the fallback assumption is male and Sesame Street exists in patriarchy so there are some who refer to Elmo as “he,” but are you really sure about Elmo? He/She doesn’t wear pants so there should be some extra red fur down there. Yeah, you might see Elmo dressed like Indiana Jones but also wearing a tutu. Singing hard with Elvis Costello and later singing softly with Norah Jones. Elmo doesn’t expect Elmo to be masculine or feminine. Elmo is just Elmo, free of gendered norms.

hug-book-elmo-christmas-hugs

So, even though her Elmo doll is probably made in a Chinese sweatshop, I’m happy Cozy feels a connection to the little red monster. Her Elmo is not a baby doll with lessons about mothering or a Barbie Doll with a dozen problematic messages about body image and heteronormativity. Elmo comes with one message, Elmo loves you. Elmo’s like Jesus but a lot cuter. Maybe if Jesus was a genderless furry monster baby, some of his followers would stop shooting up women’s health clinics and closing doors on refugee families and just being, in general, dicks. Elmo would never do that shit.

Cozy imitates her mother in many wonderful ways. She likes to draw and cuddle and she’ll take off my mopey music and put something Latin on so she can dance. And she knows when I’m trying to BS her. Her hat obsession comes from me, but her love of boots comes from mom. And someday Cozy and Andrea will have long discussions about how to do your eye liner like Amy Winehouse.

EmeElmo

For now I’m just gonna try to keep her in the Elmo zone for a little bit longer, though, if that’s okay.

Gender: Nature vs. Nurture, Round 1

Gender: Nature vs. Nurture 2: Ain’t I a Black Girl?

Gender: Nature vs. Nurture 3: How babies queer gender

Gender: Nature vs. Nurture 4: She’s gotta be free!

 

NBC’s The Island – The Myth of Punch-You-In-The-Face Manhood

May 26, 2015

Well, I was working on a blogpost on baby brain development last night when, for some reason, I started watching this new NBC show, The Island, and my own brain exploded. What is this shit? asked my baby brain. Oh, it’s the latest backlash programming, said my feminist brain.

56f4eae07bf8c29408db33ea1a07a090_600x400

If you haven’t seen the set up, apparently “manhood is in crisis” (Here we go again) and the solution is for survivalist Bear Gryllis to take 14 “American men” to a deserted island in the Pacific with cameras and not much else and say “Good luck, boys.” The lead-up shows how unmanly American society as made these once proud Ninja warriors. Technology and women have stolen their “survival instinct.” One is a 28-year-old attorney who sheepishly admits that his survival tool is Google. In the bunch is a 43-year-old stay-at-home dad who worries he’s “gotten soft.” What a bunch of wussies! Welcome to the jungle, baby. You’re gonna die.

iron_john

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the basis of Robert Bly’s 1991 book, Iron John, and the subsequent “Men’s Movement” that followed. Supposedly, modern society has turned once mighty men into a race of simpering mama’s boys who need to reclaim their “inner king” by finding their “deep masculinity.” In the 1990s, feminists like Susan Faludi and Michael Kimmel observed how this was just a lot of hooey in the service of restoring patriarchy after modern feminists put tiny ding in its door. The rise of the pink collar workforce and sexual harassment suits could be countered “real men” running through the woods with mud on their faces, rescuing their warrior within.

I remember the appeal of this thinking when I was young. In 1980, I was 16-years-old and, according to the TV, America was being held hostage. Actually, it was just 52 Americans who were being held hostage by some radical Iranian students. One of those hostages, Col. Charles Scott, was from my hometown. President Carter sent in a Delta Force rescue team on April 24th on a mission called Operation Eagle Claw, but sand got into the rotor blades and the helicopters crashed in the Iranian desert. Eight servicemen were killed. You would have thought that Jimmy Carter, a liberal Democrat, had caused the crash himself.

Unknown

Into this void stepped Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan. While not a military veteran (unlike Carter), he had played a war hero in movies and that was good enough for us. Reagan the Cowboy promised to “reclaim American greatness” (like back when we slaughtered the Indians) and knock the shit out of anybody who pushed us around, unlike that pansy peanut farmer. I was in the bag. Bye-bye Jimmy. Reagan got America’s dick hard and he won in a landslide. On his inauguration day, the hostages were released, as if just the presence of Reagan near the Oval Office made those nasty Iranians back down. (I should point out that by 1982 I was regularly wearing a “Reagan Hates Me” T-shirt and now have pissing on his grave on my bucket list.)

So we’re seeing this reactionary impulse all over again. In a world of gay marriage and metrosexual body waxing, comes another fake “crisis of manhood.” And shows like The Island are meant to “fix” men by turning them loose in the wilderness. But these people don’t know much about gender. They reduce it to biology and cherry pick cartoonish moments from history to back up their claim of the essentialness of a masculinity that is (somehow) differentiated from femininity. Kimmel and Michael Kaufman commented on it in 1995 by writing:

Bly and others wander through anthropological literature like post-modern tourists, as if the world’s cultures were an enormous shopping mall filled with ritual boutiques. After trying them on, they take several home to make an interesting outfit – part Asian, part African, part Native American… All totally decontextualized.

Men don’t need to separate from the feminine to become better men. Evidence shows that way leads to war and suffering. The men in prison that I study do that. We call it toxic masculinity and it ain’t good. I don’t want my daughter living in a world where this mythology of warrior men still is embraced. Recent evidence has revealed that half the Viking warriors were female. This silly cartoon of “cavemen” clubbing their cavewomen over the head to have cave sex (now, rebranded as “rape” by those ball-busting feminists) is a grand lie men tell each other and women. Hunting and gathering societies were a lot more gathering than hunting and evidence shows us that both tasks were split evenly among gender lines.

NBC-The-Island_Bio-Image_15_1455x1455_AC

So what is the value of The Island? There’s a 25-year old radio producer who screams at everyone to “Man up!” or he will punch them in the face (that’s his cool picture to the left). There’s a 50-year-old military guy who wants to name the band of brothers, “The Conquistadors” (a group that knew something about rape, murder, and slavery), and a variety of others who are struggling to hold on to their masculinity while their  women receive marching orders from Hilary Clinton’s underground lair. It would be almost comical if it didn’t reinforce the single biggest piece of human bullshit ever told, that men and women are “opposite” sexes.

But maybe we’ll find these guys rejecting the refuge of this bogus idea of masculinity. Mr. I’m Going To Punch You In The Face was taken off the island after the first episode when his little tantrum bit him on the ass and his male body shut down. Maybe for every snake they kill, they’ll have two conversations about their true emotional selves. Maybe one, instead of saying he was wounded by his father leaving the nest (as Bly contends), will say he was saved from being raised by an asshole. And maybe, when they are on their last drop of fresh water and crying out their children’s names, they’ll be rescued by some badass Amazon women who live on the next isla.

I’m just tired of the notion that there is a singular definition of masculinity and a set of rules for “real” men. That’s not an idea of gender that helps my daughter succeed. If you want to be a real man, put down your machete and your war paint and listen to a woman. For a change. You can’t “survive” without women. Monday nights are “Reclaim the Phony Masculine” on NBC, I guess. American Ninja Warriors (Don’t get me started on that one) and The Island. Where are Cagney & Lacy when you need them?

agney-and-lacey