If the Summer of ‘21 will have an abiding memory – apart from playing Covid Quarantine Bingo, McDonald’s ran out of milkshakes, Nando’s out of chicken and you started your Empty Shelves Brexit Diet, or the completely predictable Afghan refugee emergency that absolutely no one didn’t predict – it may well be the curious multiple assaults on what it is to be a woman.
It was the summer in which the first transgender woman competed in the Olympics against… what shall we call them? Tradgender women? Rather than face the growing cultural storm around gender identification, the IOC decided that the true definition of “woman” was anyone who identifies as one, and can show that their testosterone levels have been below ten nanomoles per litre for at least a year before the competition.
It was the summer in which Plymothian Jake Davison brought the term “incel” to general consciousness. This “involuntary celibate” wandered his city with a pump-action shotgun shooting random people because, at the age of 22, he felt that women had ignored him for too long. Their role, according to his YouTube rants, was to shag and adore him. They failed. They had one job for Christ’s sake! The internet manosphere he inhabited radicalised his sexual frustration and resentment until half the world’s population were not sentient consensual humans but just conceptual objects that refused to submit to him.
It was the summer that saw the Taliban stroll back into their strongholds in Afghanistan, as they do after every invading force leaves. And, according to the media hysteria, their greatest threat was not so much to liberal freedoms, religious tolerance, dissenters, democracy, anti-terrorism efforts or gay people, but that it would set back Afghan women’s vocation, education, and liberation. The women must be saved. Much like the incels, Talibs want women to stay at home, shut up and be obedient submissives to men. But the twenty year mission to liberate the women of Afghanistan had been brought to them by soldiers (mostly men), Presidents and Prime Ministers (also men) and Government officials (mostly men again). So, however medieval the Taliban may be, the allied mission was also based on a creakily ancient concept: that it’s the job of men to save women. Women aren’t able to liberate themselves; they need a hero, a male saviour, to vanquish the dragon and save the princess. It’s “woman” as fantasy; conceptual woman.
If I was a woman, or maybe identified as one, I would be spitting mad at all this. According to both oppressors and liberators I’m pretty much just an object to simulate, shag or save. Autonomy is a delusion.
But maybe the real problem is this drive to identify, as an individual, with what is, after all, a classification. Or, put another way, a massive generalisation.
Last year, J.K. Rowling got into hot water with the ‘trans community’ when she suggested that an ad talking about “people who menstruate”, would once have (and possibly still should) simply used the term “women”. And though she wasn’t expressly excluding anyone who didn’t menstruate from also being known as a woman, this was a red flag to the bullish, if not testosterone-fuelled, righteous trans community who massively trolled her on social media – some even declaring they would burn her books. Her supporters hit back, some speculating that, if people who got themselves deep tans insisted that they were “black”, the fury would be in the other direction. J.K. responded more eloquently, with an essay, in which she said, “If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives.”
She’s right, that the way we’re perceived and treated due to our sex is an important part of our stories. But can any discussions about our lives ever be truly meaningful, if they’re about the extent that we have, or haven’t, fit into the norms expected of a particular classification? J.K. and the trans campaigners are fighting for their right to be part of a club which is at best nebulous, and at worst reductive. Being classed as a “woman” or a “man” does not, or should not, confer attributes or privileges or even identity.
The problem of being defined as a woman goes right to the heart of Rowling’s own public identity. She erased “Joanne” to become “J.K.” because there was a fear that boys would not spend money on, or read, the adventures of a boy magician if they knew it was written by a woman. Her other pen name is Robert Galbraith. Perhaps, as a writer of fictional characters, the traits associated with a particular group of people are important – the first place a writer looks in character creation is to the genera like female/male before drilling down to individual characteristics. But what if that was the very last thing we considered?
The expectations of gender can be toxic. Boys like guns, girls like dolls, boys are goal orientated, girls multi-task, boys are rough, girls are fragile, boys have one-track minds, girls are complicated, boys are stoically silent, girls talk and share. Even if our chemical makeup may influence us to meet some of our assigned gender roles, there’s then a pressure to mould ourselves to fulfil the others.
Pisces, according to Shelly von Strudel, are dreamers, creative, pacifiers, conflict avoiders and drug addicts. I sometimes wonder whether that is an uncanny description of a few of my more dominant traits – which challenges everything I believe about astrophysics – or whether, once I knew about these qualities, I grew towards them and allowed them to slightly define me. The fault is not in our stars but in our desire to belong and be part of a larger group, even if we must deny some of our individuality to be part of it. “And that’s why the officer found a kilo of smack in the back of me motor yer honour.”
The problem faced by anybody attempting to identify with a generalised classification is it’s never possible to completely square the individual with the generic.
For some in the LGBTQ+ community the ultimate goal in non-gendered pronouns and defining more and more genders is to have so many, that eventually it becomes impossible to distinguish people by this taxonomy; when we won’t need pronouns because the only noun we are is “human”. Then we might just ignore it as a valid part of the way we judge others.
Imagine a job interview in which neither the interviewer, nor interviewee, are silently fighting all the biases and preconceptions that come with gender: “he might be aggressive”, “she might go off and have babies”, “he’ll struggle to multitask”, “she could buckle under pressure”, “he’ll want to dominate”, “she’ll want to prove herself”, etc.
So maybe the Olympic Committee has a point. Maybe the world would be a better place if we stopped seeing men and women, and started seeing humans. And if we have to divide them up, it might as well be by the chemicals, or the physique of the individuals rather than what does, or doesn’t, hang between their legs.