Sociological Images has a discussion thread about a Japanese car commercial that has been causing a stir on the internet because of its androgynous leading model.
I was nervous to jump into the discussion because I have seen passions run high whenever the nature vs. nurture gender debate is raised. There are those who feel strongly that gender is a cultural construct and that it is social indoctrination that produces stereotypical male and female behavior. This view sometimes infuriates transgender people who experience themselves as having a gender that is different from cultural expectations and social pressure.
This is another one of those false either/or debates. The relationship between socially constructed gender norms and the inborn sense of gender is complex. A person is born with an internal sense of maleness or femaleness, which may or may not correlate to the physical body. But no one is born with an internal sense that she is supposed to wear nylons. Rather, a person with a sense of femaleness looks to the world for instruction and affirmation on what one does to demonstrate and conform to male and female standards. A person with an internal sense of being “a girly girl” will demonstrate this by wearing a lot of pink even though in an earlier era pink was fairly randomly assigned as a color for boys.
We keep seeing variations of this ad because we never seem to lose our fascination with people who defy gender norms. In the 1980s we had Boy George. In the 1990s there was The Crying Game. More recently it-model Andre Pejic has caused a stir.
This ad poses a lot of questions, none of which have anything to do with the car for what that is worth. Is this strutting model a man who is dressed like a woman or is it a woman who happens to have a male body? Or is the idea that the appearance and dress is “female” simply wrong? Is the “true” gender the one presented outwardly to the world through its symbols or is it the one determined by the body?
These questions fascinate and sometimes frighten.
I would like to propose that the reason people react strongly to gender “transgression” has less to do with gender than it appears. Rather, the example of gender shines a light on an even greater question of identity in general. Is the self inborn or is it a cultural construct? How much of who I am is innate and how much is sculpted by the era and the culture in which I live? If my sense of self is in conflict with who you think I am, which one of us is right?
We– and by “we” I mean primarily people raised in Western culture, especially the United States– We like to think of the self as stable and consistent. “If I just do enough introspection I can uncover the real, authentic me.” But what “me” will I uncover? Was I my “authentic” self when I was 20? Or have I finally become my “authentic” self now? Does that mean the self that I will be at 60 is less “authentic” than I am today? Or am I my “authentic” self when I am in a good mood? When I am writing in flow? Or god forbid, am I my “authentic” self when my nerves are frayed and I’ve just told off the clerk at the store for no reason? How much of what I think of as my deep, inner self has actually been molded by the culture around me? Is my subjective experience my “self,” or am I more who I am in relation to others? When you start to really examine these questions, you might begin to conclude that we are all a bit identity fluid, we are all identity queer.
What if this self that I spend all my time reinforcing isn’t what I think it is? Depending on how you like to relate to the world, you will either find this notion liberating or frightening.