Femininity: Measuring Up

– By Sunny Zhang

Sunny Zhang is a Ph.D. student in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

My parents did not love me less because I was a girl.  I was eight years old when I learned taking off my shirt in a martial arts class was inappropriate for a girl. It wasn’t until then that I paid attention to the gender comportments.  When I was nine, my mom finally overruled my dad, who always liked to keep my hair short, saying I should have long hair because I’m a girl.  When I was 11, on the Henan wushu professional team, I started to accept that boys were stronger than girls and that it was okay for boys to be better than me.  Even in my early twenties, trying to pursue my academic dreams, my mom attempted to dissuade me from applying to Master’s and Ph.D. programs because I was a girl. She cited a litterateur from 400 years ago who said, “Not having too much knowledge is the virtue of women.”  These behaviors, derived from gender differences, do not originate from the anatomy but are the cultural constructions of a society.

As a female, I am aware that I am regarded differently than men, but am I really that different from a man?  In my view, men and women are largely identical with only minor differences.  Sexual dissimilarities, although they are fundamental, immutable, and irreducible biological differences, do not determine the identities, characteristics, and experiences of individuals that society seems to indoctrinate.

Physiological constructs take on meanings that emanate from particular social contexts and vary greatly over time. For example, pursuing a muscular body to show masculinity and dominance is deeply rooted in contemporary American Gym/fitness culture and highly valued in Western patriarchal society.  However, in China, where slim is the beauty standard for all genders, being physically TOO big is devalued and seen as “abnormal.”  “The body” is seen as an unfinished phenomenon, whereas femininity and masculinity both seem to be learned bodily styles and normalized by social practices.

The phrase “mattering is more important than matter” (Ausch, Doane, & Perez, 2000) indicates that the body is not simply a matter, or substance, but involved in a process of transformation (Grosz, 2008). This phrase is particularly interesting to me and makes me think about a show I watched, Star Trek: The Next Generation–Measure of a Man.  An artificial life form, Data, is seen as simply a passive programmable machine, “a [glorified] microwave”, and therefore there is no need to endow him with rights equal to that of a human.  However, it was shown that although Data’s appearance and preconceptions of what he was differed from the norm, he demonstrated the only relevant qualities which define sentience and, in turn, humanness: “intelligence, self-awareness, and consciousness,” thus awarding him equal rights.  In modern societies, often times people are placed into specific roles and held to differing standards based solely on established boundaries and appearance (the biological body). Similar to Data’s experience, the physiological body (or in this example, the mechanical body) simply represents a shell which embodies the unique culmination of experiences and shouldn’t be limited by structural influences. This is demonstrated by the message presented in Measure of a Man.  The body is not simply materiality, but an unfinished phenomenon undergoing a process of continuous change and transformation, using both natural and cultural experiences to shape individuality.

We should stop defining humans by what we are not, and instead, by who we are. We should refuse to promote the articulation of social differences, with discourses that use tools of exclusion and disqualification.  These only serve to exacerbate the problem of oppression. We should instead encourage inclusion and similarities among humans.

References

Ausch, R., Doane, R., & Perez, L. (2000). Interview with Elizabeth Grosz. Found Object9, 1-16.

Grosz, E. (2005). Time travels: Feminism, nature, power. Duke University Press.

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