Friday, January 12, 2007

The Practicalities of Critique & Criticism 3: Gender

Can you tell if a poem is written by a woman? or a man? Can you tell if a critique is by a man? or a woman? (This applies to general writing life, not just online, I believe.) Do men and women have innately different writing and critique styles? "You have your Robert Frost, and I my Emily Dickenson."

It's a question that comes up every so often. It's based on some underlying assumptions about gender innateness that are problematic, if not downright questionable. Whenever these gender-based discussions come up, I have to bite my tongue a lot, as no matter what I say it tends to start a firestorm. But to be blunt, I think gender determinations in these matters are a load of bollocks. Most assumptions regarding gender determinism are questionable, in fact.

As a poet whose writing is often perceived as experimental, wild, and creative, by this criterion, according to some of these usual assumptions about gender, I'm a woman writer. I get a lot of pedantic "corrections" about grammar and punctuation practically every time I submit a poem for critique. Granted, these mostly come from folks unfamiliar with my writing; and there are many poets, men and women both, who have far more formalist views about punctuation, poetic form, and grammar, than I do myself. (My usual reply to questions of grammar: you can safely assume that my use of punctuation is conscious and deliberate, not haphazard; you can also safely assume that if I break any rules of prose grammar—which haven't a damn thing to do with poetry, anyway—that it was deliberate.) Questions about punctuation and grammar in my poems seem to come equally from men and women critiquers. So much for gender determination.

Having lived in more than one non-Western culture in my lifetime, I have to say (again) that our ideas about gender roles are a load of stereotypes. Back in the pre-technological days, which is where many of these stereotypes originate, there may have been a point to them: men do have greater upper-body strength, and women do have stronger lower bodies; that's self-evident biology. But in this technical era, it's perfectly possible for men and women to be equally adept at, and have equal attitudes about, their activities, because many work-related activities are no longer directly tied to physical ability. It seems obvious that this includes writers—writing if anything, is a cerebral, largely non-physical occupation, so it may be even less likely to be gender-determined. (I'm sorry, but all that neurophysiological theory about gender differences in the brain remains unproven, still only theory.) So, logically, any lingering differences between the sexes, in the critiques they give and the poems they write, are purely cultural and no longer biological (if they ever really were). Most gender differences that have been cited as biologically-based, even as recently as 50 years ago, are in fact cultural rather than innate. My experience living in non-Western cultures has led me to believe that nurture means more than nature, in these and many other situations; because the "rules" about gender roles and actions in non-Western cultures, are incredibly diverse and different. If our women have different intellectual approaches to reading and writing poetry, it's because of the way our culture raises our children. Period.

I see the positioning of "creativity, wild abandon, the original voice of the poet" as itself setting up a gender stereotype, in that it positions the "male critic" as the one most likely to object to the wild, original voice of the poet: in other words, the patriarchy is inherently conservative. Whitman was certainly wild and original; he received many criticisms along these lines, in addition to praise. Since virtually all the published poets writing reviews and critiques at Whitman's time, that seems to imply that some feminine men praised him (Emerson) while others derided him (I'd have to look those names up, as they're largely forgotten). I question if this is an accurate portrayal of literary critiquers, even statistically, since it may well be a case of an observer being sensitized to a trend to the point of exaggeration. (For example, for years I drove a sedan; when I switched to a pickup truck, I suddenly noticed how many trucks were on the road, what make they were, what color, etc. In other words, prior to owning a truck, I was not paying attention to them, even though they were surely there all along. This is a kind of cognitive sorting, of tagged awareness.)

I think the reality here is that critiques do not come from a gender bias except where gender bias overlaps with gender stereotypes. The truth is that grammatical pedantry, for example, comes from a mindset that has little to do with gender, and much more to do with issues relating to self-esteem, personal happiness and security and safety, and fear of the unknown and undiscovered. (I will bite my tongue here, for now, although I have much more to say on this particular aspect of the argument.)

I think that Jung was correct when he said that the fully-human, fully-developed person has integrated both masculine and feminine personality traits in him or herself. To be fully-human, fully-integrated means having both male and female aspects to one's personality, and being in balance with them so that they arise spontaneously and appropriately in whatever situation one finds oneself. Thus, an integrated man can be nurturing caregiver, and an integrated woman can be a take-charge business executive.

Many of my closest friends could be called "third gender" people, even the heterosexual ones, and I mean that in several different ways: for example, one close friend is a straight metrosexual man who is a professional musician and pretty good at interior decorating, and he likes purple (and is not gay); several others are what you'd call "butch fairies," i.e. gay men who know who to use chain saws, lesbians who drive pickup trucks; a few others are what you'd call "femme," effeminate, soft, non-athletic. As a gay-identified pansexual/bisexual male, I drive a pickup truck, know how to use a chainsaw, and yet by the criterion of gender-stereotyped literary criticism I write mostly feminine poetry! So much for gender stereotypes. We all contain contradictions: the path to personal integration is to resolve those contradictions into balanced coexistence.

Perhaps it takes encountering "third gender" alternative(s) first-hand to realize that the binary polarity of male-female roles is itself a reified, cultural construction, and not inherently biological. Nevertheless, it seems obvious to me that binary-polarity gender roles are far more fluid and far less fixed than generally presumed; numerous studies in recent decades validate this concept.

So, while one might indeed believe that there is a difference in the way men and women write, and critique, it is not an essential(ist) one, but rather a cultural one. In other words, the culture produces "subject positions" that we inhabit, or not, in various ways. Simultaneously, even given that there is male privilege in our culture, a sense of entitlement, that is still learned behavior, not something innate about men. Some men happen to enact that entitlement more strongly than others—perhaps because they are more tightly-bound to their tribal upbringings—and they often do so quite unconsciously, assuming that is just the way things are, without ever questioning their upbringing. But I don't think that there is anything inherent to gender that leads to these differences in behavior: this is the hinge-point of the distinction between biological gender and culturally-enacted gender roles.

Rude and harsh critiques are not exclusively male styles of critique; whether they come from a man or a woman poet, they have everything to do with that person's lack of social graces, and their probable lack of self-confidence as poet and critic. If there is any gender difference involved, again it's cultural, because women in Western culture have traditionally been taught to keep such rude thoughts to themselves because it's not "ladylike."

Books like John Gray's Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus series are a load of bollocks because all he does is recycle and re-emphasize culturally-based "traditional" gender stereotypes. I've read two of his books, and although he makes pains to say that his ideas are based on observation rather than a priori assumption, he cops out by providing not a single androgynous alternative, but only replays all the existing stereotypes. His observations are of those who are already inculcated in gender stereotypes, and his conclusions are therefore culturally normative and culturally reaffirming. He remains locked in binary-polarity thinking about gender, and ignores the broader range of gender enactment that Kinsey and others actually observed. This is what makes Gray's books regressive: despite his protestations to the contrary, they are ideological, not analytical. On the other hand, if you desire to have on hand a detailed list of normative cultural gender stereotypes, for research purposes, Gray's books are useful.

The cultural assumptions about gender obscure what is actually present in sexual difference, in its purely biological sense: sexual dimorphism, the biological observation that there are two and only two sexes—thus must be only two genders. In fact, this is demonstrably not the case. Sex is governed by several factors: genital, gonadal, hormonal, chromosomal, etc. There is, therefore, more of a spectrum, or continuum, to sexuality than we normally imagine. In John Gray's recycling of cultural assumptions (and not only in his), most people think that there are only two sexes; two only, and never the twain shall meet. (The whole point of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus to achieve communication between two opposites who cannot normally communicate with each other.) This assumption about dimorphic, bipolar gender arises because of the cultural conditioning that begins with early infancy, and is mandatorily reinforced in most educational settings. By the time we reach adulthood, we are thoroughly conditioned to see things this way—and books like Gray's depend on this conditioning for their existence, but also reinforce it. Only a few individuals escape this conditioning unscathed, and they are usually outcasts in some way or another—sexually, culturally, tribally, familially, etc.

It may be argued at this point that I am demonstrating the triumph of the idea of cultural constructivism over essentialism. That is true, as far as it goes. Yet I note that most gender theorists who argue for essentialism have little or no experience living in or studying other (non-Western) cultures, or even third-gender cultures within their own home culture.

Here's a few books I recommend for those interested in pursuing third-gender or alternative-gender studies, as an antidote to the strong bipolar bias most arguments about gender fall into:

Tim Bergling: Sissyphobia: Gay men and effeminate behavior

Suzanne Pharr: Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism

David Lowenthal: The Past is a Foreign Country

In the end this may be all about the poet's voice. The voice has many elements, only some of which may be assignable to gender.

Keeping in mind the constructions of culture: with that caveat, maybe some themes or motifs are more feminine, while others are more masculine. But a feminine or masculine motif can be expressed in any poetic voice. Flowers and baby things might be assumed to be culturally feminine, but any voice can express them. Perhaps, then, voice in poetry has no gender, although individual motifs might.

It’s been said that it takes many years to find your own unique voice as a writer, as a poet. The voice, when found, may be as likely to contain one element of poetry as any another: as likely to be lyrical as narrative, urban as pastoral, broadly satiric as confessional.

No two mature poetic voices are likely to be the same, whether they are two men or two women, or man and woman.

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