Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

I done went and did me some gender.

To most people gender is not a particularly difficult concept. Men are men, women are women, and life is good. Of course, this really isn't the case since we also have individuals with ambiguous genitalia and transexuals, not to mention that sex, an aspect of biology, is different from gender, an aspect of social life. Thus while a male may be unambiguous from a biological standpoint, possessing all of the standard features, a man is a particular social role that can be occupied by males. Or females, as it happens, since there have been times in history when the role of a man was successfully performed by someone who was biologically female. Sometimes this works out well, but other times... not so much. In any case, sex and gender are not as easy and clear as folks like to think.

It is because of this duality of sex and gender- what we are born with and the performance that we must master- that sociologists talk of "doing gender." One isn't simply "a man," but must learn to behave in a way that convincingly portrays a man. Likewise, females learn to be women, adopting the behaviors that are expected of them by society. Sometimes these behaviors are fairly trivial, such as my holding doors open for women, sometimes they are quite significant, such as perceptible differences in writing styles, and sometimes doing gender can be a difficult and dangerous experience.

This last case, when gender can be a threat to life and limb, is exemplified by a recent post from Tara Smith, proprietor of the fine blog Aetiology. She comments on one aspect of doing gender: the Brazilian wax. For those who don't know what a Brazilian wax is, I invite you to click on the preceding link, but if you're faint of heart allow me just to assert that it's probably one of the most painful things I can imaging doing to myself that doesn't involve a belt sander. In any case, the purpose of the wax is to remove as much hair from the pubic region as possible, since this hair is judged as "non-feminine" in many western societies. As aesthetic practices go, uncomfortable but not dangerous, right? Um... not so much. Smith comments on a recent article describing just how badly this kind of thing can go:

The particular individual described in the case report, however, already had untreated type 1 diabetes--a risk factor for a number of infections, including those caused by group A streptococci (Streptococcus pyogenes). This is the bacterium responsible for "strep throat" as well as serious invasive disease, including streptococcal toxic shock syndrome (STSS) and necrotizing fasciitis (the "flesh-eating disease.") In the days following her bikini wax, she came down with a fever, and had swelling and pain in the waxed region (along with a "copious vaginal discharge.") Still, she didn't seek medical attention for another week, when she was in really bad shape. She presented to the ER with not only "grossly swollen" external genitalia, and pain so extreme that she had to be put under general anesthetic just so her physician could perform a gynecologic exam. She was so swollen that, according to the legend to Figure 1 (which you can find online, as the article is freely available), "she was unable to pass urine, and the vaginal space was obliterated by edema."

Now doesn't that sound great? Amazingly, however, there's more:

You might think the story ends there. You would, of course, be wrong:

Six months later, the patient again attempted to remove her pubic hair by shaving herself; however, she had difficulty visualizing the area. She subsequently developed a recurrence of herpes and cellulitis of her vulva. She was readmitted to the hospital and was treated with valaciclovir and penicillin, and her condition improved...Despite her traumatic experiences, the patient was keen to undertake further removal of pubic hair.

The paper is as much about the psychology of beauty and the lengths one will put themself through as it is a report of the infection. STSS can be a deadly infection, especially when it is complicated by necrotizing fasciitis. Yet despite her recurring streptococcal infection, she was "keen to" submit to future hair removal procedures.

Smith is, obviously, correct except that this paper isn't about the psychology of beauty so much as the sociology of gender and role expectations. If doing gender was optional, and not all that important, it seems likely that this individual wouldn't continue undergoing procedures that threaten her life. Yet, here we are, with a patient who gives new meaning to the old slang "fire crotch."* This is not an individual psychological aberration, but simply an expression of the pervasive and overwhelming pressure to do gender- pressure that leads to other disorders like anorexia and bulimia, not to mention acute numbnutsitis. In our society we are often terrified of being mis-identified as the incorrect gender and go to considerable lengths to avoid such a fate. On those rare instances when we can't identify a person's actual gender, we often become quite uncomfortable. If you don't believe me, just think about that old Saturday Night Live skit, "It's Pat!"

Only rarely do individuals manage to capitalize on a certain amount of gender-bending and, when they do, it's almost always just a smidge disconcerting. A prime example of this is the Russian pop singer "Vitas," who is supposedly male, yet effectively sings soprano. No, really:

Is he male? Is she female? Does it matter? No, not really- if he produces good music his sex is irrelevant and yet... yet, our minds continally return to that point: what is his/her sex? Is he doing "male" or is she doing "female?" It is a sign of just how bound by gender we are that indeterminancy is so distracting.

I'm not going to suggest that doing gender is good or bad and I'm not going to talk about sexism: readers of my blog doubtless already have an idea how I feel about sexism. Instead, I just want to say this: people often complain that things are more complex now. They say that, in the past, men were men and women were women. Now, supposedly, that's not true anymore. They're right, of course, it isn't that simple anymore, but you know what else?

It never has been that simple.

* Seriously, people, you do understand how difficult it was for me to get this far through the post without making a horribly inappropriate joke, right?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is not "Western" societies. Removing all but a little strip is Brazilian. The women who remove it all are mostly North African and some Arab women, IN fact

Saturday, July 07, 2007 11:09:00 AM  

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