Women love shoes and shopping, or so the stereotype goes, but since I prefer tramping the moors in my walking boots, I can’t be one of those. But, given that I’m not so keen on getting drunk while watching football, I can’t be a man. That’s the problem with binary categories, they don’t allow for “a bit of both”. They reduce the world to black or white, no room for shades of grey.
We have to choose sides with gender or, more often, it’s chosen for us at birth. And most of us don’t think much about it; what we are seems less of a choice than a given. But having spent over seven years contemplating the enigma of femininity for my novel, Sugar and Snails, I must admit I’m confused about gender and, the more I think about it, the more my confusion grows.
The title of my novel is derived from the rhyme that tells us little girls are made from “sugar and spice and all things nice” and boys from “frogs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails”. A definition few would take seriously, though not much more fantastical, in my opinion, than stereotypes based on shopping and football. I wanted to explore the fluidity of gender and what might happen when we try to mix and match.
As highlighted in one of the guest posts on my novel’s blogtour, I still think of gender in the manner artticulated towards the end of the novel by Venus, my main character’s best friend:
I always thought gender studies was a load of nothing, like doing research on The Very Hungry Caterpillar or The Gruffalo … Of course it’s humongously complex … In fact it’s such a fuzzy concept, so hard to pin down, it ought not to matter a jot. But it does. Tremendously. Like God and the square root of minus one. (Sugar and Snails, p318)
(I’m assuming God requires no explanation but, for those who aren’t mathematicians, the square root of minus one is a hypothetical construct that vastly extends the number system and is fundamental to many developments in geometry, physics and engineering.)
For a few years, I travelled on a passport that, due to an administrative error I’d failed to notice, had me identified as male. Yet none of the immigration officers at various border crossings batted an eyelid. In some traditional cultures, where men and women lead highly segregated lives, a girl can be transformed into a boy or a woman into a man by dint of a haircut and a change of clothes. On the other side of the same coin, an increasingly visible minority undergo radical surgery to make their bodies conform to the gender they are in their minds. The writer of fiction doesn’t need to go to such lengths to switch gender; in my second novel, Underneath, I adopted the voice of a man. Yet I can’t say for sure why I make one character male and another female.
The field of gender is moving quickly, and what seemed radical in 2004 when my novel is set is more familiar to us fifteen years on. As transgender enters the mainstream, more and more of us are going to be asking what defines a man versus woman, and whether it’s possible to be something in between. If that means I can stop being defined by my attitude to shoes and shopping, there’s a bright future ahead.
If you want the scientific position on gender, you couldn’t find a better person to explain it than Cordelia Fine.
“What are you having?”
“Isn’t it obvious? A baby!”
“Hah, right! Boy or girl?”
“Gosh, sorry, if you don’t want to tell me … I didn’t mean to intrude.”
“It’s fine. I don’t mind.”
“So, er, which?”
“We’ll find out when they’re born.”
“Didn’t you have a scan?”
“Of course I had a scan. Had to check they were okay.”
“They? You’re having twins?”
“Just the one. Thank God!”
“But you don’t know what it is?”
“Like I said, a baby.”
“But, but, what colour outfit do I buy for it?”
“Who cares if it’s chosen with love?”