Sunday, October 29, 2006

Gender Genie

Via Little Red Boat, (which I must get around to blogrolling), comes the Gender Genie, a way of finding out whether what you write in characterised by masculine or feminine keywords.

I just checked and seven out of nine of my most recent posts came across as 'male'. Particularly odd because I thought the last week's subject matter, detoxes, writing, cooking, pole dancing has all been deeply girlie, (unusually so for me.) I checked out some other posts from the 'best bits' sidebar - all 'male' too. Then I stuck a few chapters from the book into the Genie. It comes out 'male' as well, though only just - about 52% male and 48% female, whereas the blog posts are much more definitely male. So when I write, I am mostly a bloke, it seems. How confusing.

I'm not sure that people must remain 'in gender' at all times - that their gender informs and affects and defines every aspect of their life, the internal as well as the external. It has never occured to me that gender defines how people think and write and communicate. Maybe for some people it does, and I may have underestimated quite how much, but for so many people, myself included, it seems to be a lot more fluid. I certainly don't think of myself as writing 'as a woman' or 'as a man' when I start typing: I just write.

I was talking about this recently to a female friend who is a professional writer, and she was saying that one of the publications she writes for has a policy of not giving writers' bylines but simply listing all the contributors at the end in alphabetical order. This, she said, gave her a great sense of freedom, as people could read her work (which, for this publication, is is political commentary and satire) without filtering it through a 'oooh, a woman wrote this' lens first. She says she writes 'like a man' anyway and that everybody she knows thinks so too. (I will put some of her stuff through the gender genie and find out if the programme agrees.)

There are some people who do seem to make a very conscious effort to write 'as a woman' or 'as a man': having just read the Sunday Times I was particularly annoyed by the inane twitterings of colunist India Knight who was banging on this week about women and shoes. Again. Are women all really obsessed with shoes? (Or with chocolate for that matter, the other great cliche that keeps doing the rounds in opinion columns?) I know quite a few men whom I would say are pretty damn fixated with trainers, one guy I know posseses over fifty pairs kept in their original boxes. I know plenty of men who are obsessed with records, owning thousands and thousands of them and spending hours on the decks mixing them.

I cannot ever recall meeting a woman who is fixated or fascinated with shoes, or who buys shoes as 'therapy'. Yet this 'all women love shoes' thing keeps appearing in print. But could it be just me? It could be that the women-shoes-chocs-thing is actually true, not just lazy journalism. Perhaps my habit of forgetting that I have been given a box of chocolates (I tend to shove them in a cupboard ''for when visitors come round'' only to find them years later when moving house), means I am an anomaly amongst my female peers, who according to the popular wisdom of columnists, are unable to get a box of All Gold without devouring them all in one go, preferably whilst reading a magazine about a celebrity's cellulite problem. (Though when Allan at Green River chocolates sent me a wonderfully kind gift of some of his wares, my friends - male and female - and colleagues - feasted with much joy and gratitude. They were quite spectacular.)

Maybe the fact that I habitually buy two pairs of knee length boots each winter, one pair with a heel, one flat pair, and wear them day in, day out, with everything - until it gets warm enough to go back to wearing sandals - means I am not a proper woman. Possibly that is why no woman has confessed to me that she lies awake at night fantasising about malibou mules: I must give off an air of being a lost cause to the shoe-fetishising secret sisterhood. I like clothes, but I absolutely hate shopping for them. I know what suits me, I work out where I can probably find it, and then I go in and get it and come straight out again. I tend to find one shop which has a lot of stuff I like and get what I need from there all in one go, then belt straight home. Sorted for six months. Apparently this is ''how men shop''. (I thought it was just how people who don't like shopping, shop. ) Perhaps I am in denial and a trite newspaper column and a linguistics software programme has made me start to realise a truth about myself that I never recognised until now. Perhaps I am not a normal woman.

And yet, I absolutely feel like a woman, and I love being a woman. A woman who dislikes shopping for clothes and shoes and who is not very interested in chocolate. A woman who apparently writes like a man. Argh.

This is all is making me explore my attitudes towards what I understand by 'gender'. I have never understood the taboo about the crossing from one gender to another, whether as a playful experimental visit, or a desire to find and honour one's true self. Gender has always seemed a label, one of many labels, rather than the main definition of who a person is.

Pondering it, I think that I have always seen something magical and powerful about moving between genders, and it has just occurred to me that since I was a teenager I have constantly had one or more friends in my life who are TV or TG ( transvestite or trans-gender). I never really thought about it until now, but it's possible that my 'masculine' writing style is a clue. Perhaps I have a masculine thinking style too? Mind of a man, body of a woman? Do I like mixing up the kaleidescope of gender and sexuality and labels because I am somewhat 'mixed up' myself? But it doesn't feel like that at all. It just feels like I don't fit a bunch of popular stereotypes. And, frankly, nor does any else one I know. Surely the definition of gender and sexuality is far more interesting and complex than how it is usually presented to us, and, to use a well-worn phrase, we can 'think in colour not black and white. And maybe that is why I've always had friends who are from all the shades of the spectrum; and I think of myself as lucky, and honoured, to know so many interesting and wonderful people.

Last night I was out with J and my friend Jane, and a good friend of ours, whom we have known for about eight years, and who has recently started being more public about his desire to dress up. So 'Deborah' my friend's alter-ego has been making more appearances recently, first at parties or meals at friend's houses, then in public. We went to the Black Cap ( a gay pub) in Camden, where it turned out that there was a Halloween party going on ( damn, I could have dressed up as well in my fallen angel outfit with my red feathered wings and my ace wig, if I'd known). Afterwards, J, Jane, and Deborah came back to our flat and drank tea and gassed on 'til about 3am. Deborah bemoaned her lack of money and wardrobe, asked if Jane or I were thinking of taking any clothes to charity shops, if so, could she have a look first? So I had a rummage, and I found Deborah some clothes which were too big for me - a beautiful black trouser suit, a black skirt with a knee-flounce, a couple of V necked sweaters, two dresses, and also some Clarins and Boots makeup and skin care samples which were not my skin type or colour but which were just right for my friend. And Deborah was absolutely delighted and went home in a new outfit and swinging a big bag of goodies. And I was delighted to see my friend so happy ( and to see my clothes looking so good on someone else!)

For Deborah, dressing up in feminine clothes and wearing make up is something compelling, frightening and wonderful. It's about freedom and self-expression and playfulness and courage. Being Deborah is a means of expressing something very powerful. I feel honoured that Deborah feels she can express herself so happily in my company. I enjoy being with Deborah and I also enjoy being with my friend when he is in his everyday identity ( earlier in the day we went to Arsenal together to watch the team play in the new stadium and drank lager and sang along with the chants, drinking in the atmosphere of blokeish bonhomie).

So it's all mixed up, and I think that is a good thing. I am glad that it is this way, my life feels richer and more truthful and satisfying for not conforming to these media stereotypes and for being full of friendships with people who do not conform either. If the price I pay is getting utterly fed up with columns in Sunday newspapers, and being regularly puzzled by published definitions of ''masculine'' and ''feminine'' self-expression - art, music, writing, whatever - then it is a price worth paying, to live happily in a rainbow world.

18 Comments:

Blogger Clare said...

That's great that Deborah feels happy to express herself in your company :). You must be a really good friend.

Hope you had a nice weekend.

October 29, 2006 8:52 pm  
Blogger Woffle said...

Good column, good points. But I think you're a bit unfair on the journalists. More often than not they write what they're told to. If an editor wants a column about shoes, a column on shoes it is...

October 29, 2006 9:12 pm  
Blogger Grey said...

It has never occured to me that gender defines how people think and write and communicate. Maybe for some people it does, and I may have underestimated quite how much, but for so many people, myself included, it seems to be a lot more fluid. I certainly don't think of myself as writing 'as a woman' or 'as a man' when I start typing: I just write.

The gender genie doesn't require that you try to write like one sex or the other, it just picks up on the relative frequencies of the words that the sexes tend to use differently. If you examine the words it's looking at, you will see that none of them are stereotypically male or female.

October 29, 2006 10:24 pm  
Blogger silver_flight said...

Tehehe. I just put one of my chapters on the Gender Genie, and I came up mostly male too.

I believe that really we are all a mixture of genders. To divide everyone into a dichotomy is too simplistic to cover the diversity of our species, even if you're just looking at the habits of those of us living in the wealthy West.

I sympathise with Rachel's confusion about the stereotypes as well. I hate having to go shopping (unless I'm getting presents or books), and have approximately three pairs of shoes in my possession - man size because I have big feet. It's very rare to see me in a skirt. Flowers? Bog off. My husband, however, could not exist without his regular shopping spree. (OK, so it's usually books, video games or CDs, but you get the idea.)

Personally, I think the gender response is a learned thing - we are always told how we are supposed to react, with the aid of the media and our parents, and we do it. Also, we are still only one or two generations removed from households where men were the breadwinners. This is probably where much of the association between women and spending comes from.

October 31, 2006 10:19 am  
Blogger Glamourpuss said...

Fascinating stuff. I tried three posts - two male, one female...

Gender is weird stuff. I must confess I do love shoes, but I also love clothes, lingerie, make-up and anything else that makes me feel luxurious. The chocolate things ebbs and flows - probably hormonal.

I have always taken the view that we are all 'The Whole Catastrophe' and that goes for our gender, too. At times, I feel quite butch, at others, impossibly girly. I like that. I would also be suspicious of anyone who claimed to feel the same way all the time about their personal identity - such rigidity cannot be healthy!

On a serious note, society has a number of gender sterotypes that are arguably becoming redundant as we become more comfortable about expressing ourselves. If we look at the qualities we define as ultra-feminine, they are primarily based on weakness and ineptitude. True female power, the goddess if you like, is anything but weak. It has suited patriarchy to supress this aspect of femininity but I truly believe is is resurging - and our pole dance classes contribute to that. I like to define myself as womanly - I am a grown-up, not a weak, inept child. I feel incredibly empowered most of the time and extremely comfortable with my body, my sexuality and my strength. Traditionally, femininity has been about receptivity and passivity and masculinity has been about action and pushing out into the world. These characteristics are logically not gender-specific and so if women adopt a more proactive approach to life, it makes sense that the traditionalists will view this as a move to the masculine. I don't believe it is. I believe it's quite the opposite - a return to our true state of being as women.

Maybe this sounds like trite, pseudo-feminist clap-trap, maybe it doesn't. I speak only from my own experience.

Puss

October 31, 2006 11:18 am  
Anonymous Tina Louise said...

If your attitude to shoes and chocolates (ditto...even the two pairs of boots for winter, one with a heel and one flat) makes you less of a woman - then I am in your company and so is my sister, daughter, mother and most of my female friends.

Actually, there is one, Sarah and she really does have an Imelda Marcos style shoe addiction and another, won't name her (!) finds chocolate hard to resist...but no more so than crisps, soft drinks and all other additive laden junk food. Are they more woman than us? No, just more broke and possibly rounder :)

I entered some of my writing on the Gender Genie - I was female the first few tries and then I entered a long entry I wrote when I introduced people to Arms Against War (www.armsagainstwar.info) and that was quite definately male! I guess I write like a man when I talk of war and like a woman when I chat about peace and poetry - seems almost right.

I am glad I encountered your site....can't think how I ended up here, but it is proving a pleasure.


Namaste,
Tina Louise
www.armsagainstwar.info
www.tinalouise.co.uk

October 31, 2006 1:56 pm  
Blogger Leighton Cooke said...

Perhaps you should write more about shoes?

October 31, 2006 7:16 pm  
Blogger Jetstar Boss said...

Hi Rachel,

I tried 4 of my favourite posts and came up 3 male 1 female.

Though I am inclined to agree with grey though...............

Jetstar

October 31, 2006 7:29 pm  
Anonymous Dave Hill said...

In my immodest view the more relaxed the individual and the society about blurring the boundaries between what we call "masculine" and "feminine", the better for both sexes in the end. Regarding journalism on these matters, it tends to suit both the hacks and the publications they work for to emphasis difference rather than overlap between the sexes. That is because it is deemed "controversial" to take up a polarised position (the truth, of course, is that it so deeply conventional) and to generally adhere to a trite "sex war" agenda. It also suits consumer magazines to address peoples' insecurities about being "proper" women or men because it helps to generate advertising for products purpoting to still those anxieties. And, of course, in fiercely reactionary newspapers such as the Daily Mail - the Daily Sharia as I call it - there is a non-stop implicit policing of demaractions between the sexes for ideological reasons - they can't bear the thought of women or men being free to live outside their gender boxes. I mean, what the world be coming to if there was more freedom for individuals rathher than less?

Best Wishes!

November 01, 2006 9:16 am  
Anonymous rk said...

There is a fashionable belief that most of gender stereotyping is nurture rather than nature but there is some evidence against this position. Experiments involving giving monkeys ‘human’ toys showed that male monkeys preferred ‘male’ toys and female monkeys preferred ‘female’ toys. I did a quick look on google and found this link

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2002-12/tau-tca121002.php

and another showing that even some traits logic would suggest were nurture have a strong nature element

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2003/12/031204075330.htm


Having said that there is a biological predisposition I think society re-enforces these and places constraints on us to stick to our predetermined gender roles. Edges that should by nature be blurred become stark and hard to cross. It is not as simplistic as a patriarchal society suppressing women. I feel that there is also pressure by women on men to be “masculine” and “butch” and that although some will claim they want their menfolk to have a feminine side they don’t mean it ... or maybe I've just attracted the kind of women who like their men that way.

November 01, 2006 11:01 am  
Blogger Tim Worstall said...

There's an interesting series of ideas all about this from Simon Baron Cohen (No, not Ali G, his cousin, who is a researcher at Cambridge).
Those things that we regard as typically male (say, the use of language, 3 D spatial awareness etc, systemizing) and typically female (using language another way, empathy, etc....you can make up your own list of stereotypes) are not actually attatched to the XX or XY chromosome pair.

Rather, they're determined by foetal exposure to testosterone and lead to people having something along a spectrum, from autistic (extreme male brain) through male, balanced and female type brain.

The important thing is that (while obviously, no one type is better than another, absent perhaps the autism) being male or female does not necessarily mean having the male or female type. In fact, some 17% of each sex have the other type.

The Guardian used to have the tests up as a questionnaire or they are also available here:
http://www.eqsq.com/eqsqtest.php
(Yes, I do get paid to write there so this is a plug but only a very small one :-))

It would certainly be interesting for me if those whose writing was marked at male (or female) also turned out to be so by these tests. Give me something to write about over there at least, if we got 5 or 10 results on each test.

November 01, 2006 12:24 pm  
Anonymous Linda said...

I'm with you on the just go to one place and stock up and 'shopping like a man.' But I have ahard evidence that many women do fantasize about shoes! A sister site of a blog I contribute to (oh okay it's about Coronation Street) is called Shoewawa - www.shoewawa.com - I love its style and energy - but am miles away from being a target reader.

November 01, 2006 11:22 pm  
Anonymous Nicodemus said...

Firstly Deborah is lucky to have a friend like you, who is non biased and understanding, and I think you are lucky she only pinched a few things.

As a male who is exactly as Deborah is, I find that mass perceptions over my 'ism' and it's expected behaviours versus individual experiences of it vary wildly.
By and large there are a whole set of expectations that a cross dresser has to confront when either discussing the matter or having to face the realities of wanting to do what we want to do when exposed to the general public. Sometimes that is confronted when purchasing things, wishing to express these emotions outwardly, or commenting on the media (like this).

As a rule we tend to run into pigeon holes and prejudices - none of which are largely justified becasue we are all individual. (I guess some are more individual than others? :-) ).

On an personal basis however, when we are not being seen as a member of the 'public' by the 'public' people see me, and the complex variations that make up my 'ism' as completely individual, and can contextualise my personality with the behaviours I exhibit. So it seems perfectly normal that i would be a shoe fanatic (I am - completely) and like racing across europe on a motorbike (That too).

On a broad brush 'public' basis - they are diametrically opposite. When someone knows me - they see both motivations in the context of my personality.
Case in point - the last person I came out to about my cd-ing only comment was that she wasn't at all suprised - despite never having any visual clues - and knowing me through one aspect of my life (boat racing.)

Gender behaviour lables are usually a generalisation, but when we are commenting on society in general it is very difficult, I imagine, to make anything other than generalisations - as trying to cover every permuation and shade in between would end up tying ourselves into terrible knots. But then I am not a journalist, and I am not paid to do such things!

Individual experience trumps fed opinion I guess.

All the best
N

PS - just started my own blog on this and many other matters. Bit new to all this lark so be gentle!
N

November 02, 2006 2:00 pm  
Anonymous Maria said...

Hmmm...I'm not a big fan of chocolate, I hate shopping...but I love shoes! I have not one but THREE pairs of pink shoes, my fave being My Ridiculously Sexy Pink Leather Shoes. Several pairs of black, brown, one white, heels, flats, sling-backs, ankle-straps, you name it. But - I have a male friend who is a shoe freak too. He used to have shoes delivered to the office so that shi wife would not find out he'd bought yet another pair on line! haha

November 02, 2006 6:06 pm  
Blogger Nicodemus said...

Woah - that is serious. Saying that I order three pairs last night on line.

November 03, 2006 10:22 am  
Blogger Rachel said...

I don't think a love of shoes has to be gender specific. I love shoes and have many pairs, but so does my boyfriend, his best friend (also male) as well as countless other friends.

Not really sure what my point is, and when I read your post last week I had many more things to say. Sadly it's been an extremely busy week and I have not had chance to even write my own blog, let alone remember what I wanted to post in response to this! Sorry...

Hope all is going well with your project. R x

November 03, 2006 3:49 pm  
Blogger Rachel said...

I don't think a love of shoes has to be gender specific. I love shoes and have many pairs, but so does my boyfriend, his best friend (also male) as well as countless other friends.

Not really sure what my point is, and when I read your post last week I had many more things to say. Sadly it's been an extremely busy week and I have not had chance to even write my own blog, let alone remember what I wanted to post in response to this!
Sorry... (although I do remember that when gender genie looked at my blog it thought I was female (I used my post 'a woman's right to shoes')but when I entered a more factual article that I wrote for a magazine, it thought it was written by a male...)

Hope all is going well with your project. R x

November 03, 2006 3:51 pm  
Blogger Karol Cross said...

"...it's all mixed up, and I think that is a good thing."

Me too!
For years all I wanted to do was conform, to be part of the masses, to belong, to be like you.

But I'm not. And although I've taken my own sweet time getting there, I have to say that I'm very happy about that. My life is enriched greatly by the diverse and interesting people that I've met because I'm, well, different.

I was at a party on Saturday and throughout the night a number of women approached me to say that they couldn't believe how feminine I was. "But you're more feminine then me!" laughed our hostess.

But what is "feminine?"
I was rather worried that I was perhaps coming across as a characture. But I was assured that I wasn't, and I think that perhaps that was why they were so intrigued.

When reading Glamourpuss's comments I was reminded of something a female friend said to me years ago when I first started venturing out "If you're going to be a woman, be a strong one!"

November 07, 2006 10:50 pm  

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