A number of years ago, when my nephew was four we were at the community pool near his home in a very upwardly mobile suburban enclave in the Pacific Northwest. I was wearing my one-piece speedo swimsuit and a pair of cargo shorts, sitting on the edge of the hot tub where he was enjoying a soak and roughhousing with a couple of friends. He looked up at me as I dangled my legs in the bubbling water.
“Auntie Pammie,” he said, “are you a boy or a girl?”
I looked back at his wide open and innocent face, and I could tell immediately that he was genuinely puzzled, that his four-year-old awareness of what made a boy a boy and a girl a girl was in direct conflict with what he saw represented in me. In his world, girls did not have short hair and wear cargo shorts. In his world there was one way to be a girl and another to be a boy and he could not figure out where to put me.
“It must be confusing,” I said to him. “You don’t usually see girls with such short hair or wearing clothes like I wear. But, I’m here to tell you, I am a girl, buddy. I’m definitely a girl.” I smiled at him and thought about all of the ways I could identify myself as a female. I had big boobs for one thing but I wasn’t going to go there with a four year old. I wore diamond earrings, but that didn’t make me a girl anymore, not like it did 25 years ago. I shaved my legs. I was, in fact Auntie Pammie, not Uncle. I tried to think of how else I could convince him that I was a girl, beyond the obvious. My genitals were not up for discussion. Not poolside, not without his parents’ permission. Probably not ever.
“Okay,” he smiled and went back to playing with his friends in the water.
I breathed a sigh of relief, and his question has become a bit of family folklore. Also, it has jangled in the back of my mind since that day. I was not like his mother and the other mothers in the neighborhood. I didn’t wear make up, heels, ruffles, dresses or skirts. I didn’t even wear girl jeans or shorts. I wore t-shirts and shorts—I dressed more like his dad, my brother. I drank beer with his dad when I visited. I did not sip wine with his mother. I worked with computers for a living. I drove a Jeep. My brother and sister-in-law were slightly mortified when I relayed the question to them later, but once I started explaining his confusion, they began to understand. He wasn’t being impolite. He had no social construct for me. (if you haven’t seen Ash Beckham or iO Tillet Wright’s TED talks on gender, check them out here).
I have to write a paper by tomorrow on one George Kelly, one of a dozen or so theorists of the last 100 years or so who have impacted the field of psychology. In one of the classes I’m taking, our weekly papers go along the same lines each week—choose one of the theorists concepts (our favorite concept) and write up a paragraph on it, summarizing it. Then we write another paragraph in which we analyze another source on the same concept.
I started the quarter loving this assignment—first of all it was pretty easy initially to pick and choose concepts that intrigued me from among the early theorists. For Freud, I chose to analyze his theory that anatomy is destiny. I took him to task on that. I had no trouble finding other sources out there on the world wide web to support me in my analysis of his so-called theory. I ran across a TED Talk by Alice Dreger entitled Is Anatomy Destiny which nicely expanded Freud’s discussion on the matter.
In her talk, Dreger, an anatomy historian and advocate for patients whose body types challenge social norms (i.e. conjoined twins, dwarves, intersex folks) refutes Freud’s “anatomy is destiny” assertion. Dreger posits that there is “no such thing as stable anatomical categories that map . . . simply to stable identity categories.” She goes on to describe how science is now revealing that gender and sex categories are overly simplistic.” For example, Dreger describes a patient who presents as male: looks like a man, acts like a man, has apparent anatomy that is typically male but who has a uterus and ovaries due to androgyne insensitivity syndrome. Dreger has patients whom surgeons want to “normalize” in her words, “not because [the surgery] leave them better off in terms of physical health” but because “they (the anatomically atypical patients) threaten our social categories.” In other words, our cultural, like Freud (and maybe partly because of him) doesn’t know what to do with people whom we don’t understand.
Which brings us nicely back to George Kelly, who in spite of not having written very much, basically established the entire concept of social cognition. Social cognition is, according to our text (Feist’s Theories of Personality) the examination of “the cognitive and attitudinal bases of person perception, including schemas, biases, stereotypes, and prejudiced behavior.” In other words, people make judgments and base their opinions on what they believe to be true—they form their opinions based on their experiences, how they were raised, their backgrounds, their way of being in the world. They form a social construct.
When Kelly’s theories were used to measure how people viewed gender, it turned out that most people use gender as a means of categorizing other people. Among those who do have biases about gender were more likely to apply gender stereotypes to strangers in social situations. And finally, the study concluded that those who stereotype strangers are more likely to ascribe stereotypical gender behavior to family members, friends, and acquaintances.
What’s the issue, you may wonder? The problem is that gender isn’t binary. According to Dreger and other researchers, gender occurs along a continuum. We might like to neatly categorize people as male or female and attribute behaviors thusly, but I would posit that gender behavior is a social construct foisted upon us by a culture interested in easy answers and quick categorizations. When we judge people according to our own narrow beliefs, we limit them and ourselves. When we believe our dreams are not valid because they fall outside of the gender norms, we cannot reach our full potential.
We are really touchy about gender. Nothing makes us more uncomfortable than not being able to place someone as either male or female. Even me, a lesbian, who despite being of a certain age, has a wide-open mind and tries not to stereotype anyone, still squirms a bit when I am faced with gender ambiguity. Even me, who spent a large portion of my 20s and 30s being called sir (I attribute the confusion to my then narrow hips).
But, the next revolution might be in the offing as transgender rights begin to take center stage. A new discussion and awareness is beginning and I am looking forward to a new unpacking of gender stereotypes and some talk about what it means to be male and female. Imagine doing away with our social constructs around gender—imagine a world in which a four year old doesn’t care if his Auntie Pammie is a boy or a girl, or have to worry about if he likes “girl things” or “boy things.” Imagine a world in which we truly are not judged by the sort of women or men we are, but on our humanity and on the ways in which we treat one another regardless of differences. Freud might be rolling in his grave, but I think George Kelly will be proud.