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Signifying Gender

Language has for a long time been one of my big passionate interests. In addition to simply feeling an intuitive draw to it, intellectually, it also strikes me as one of, if not the, most distinct feature of human beings. It and semiotic systems in general, anyway. Lots of animals can use tools, but only human beings can pass that knowledge and innovation along, and build upon it across generations, such that we don’t need to quite literally reinvent the wheel every time we wish to roll something. Lots of animals have societies, but only human beings can record and share those social structures, adapt them into and through signs and messages and rituals and myths, build them into a culture.

Language and semiotics are, perhaps, what makes us human.

I’m drawn to it, to learning about it, to thinking about it. I love its hidden structures. I love its relativity. How much it means despite being so arbitrary and nonsensical in what is “really” there (squiggles and tongues and teeth and pixels and paper). I love its fluidity. I love its breadth. I love how it is both social and yet intrinsic, both structured and emergent, both arbitrary and indispensable, both mutable and inevitable. And in all those contradictions and paradoxes of language, I never really feel lost. It always ultimately makes sense to me. The contradictions always balance out.

That’s why I use it as an intellectual touchstone a lot of the time. A way of indicating how what is seemingly contradictory or paradoxical can actually be just fine, or how what is subjective, social or arbitrary isn’t necessarily meaningless or controllable, or how there can so easily be inversions or alternate interpretations even in what seems incredibly simple and fixed. Such as, to paraphrase Alfred Jarry, we could just as easily have initially described the theory of gravity as the ascension of vacuum towards periphery as  the attraction of mass to itself.

Recently, I’ve been involved in some conversations about gender that have involved discarded the layered assumptions and political necessities to try to build a new working  theory from the ground up. Some of those conversations ended up getting very frustrating or difficult, hitting up against many of the same contradictions and nuances that have been tricky for all of us all along. The questions, for instance, of how much of gender is socially constructed, how much is essential, how much is prescriptive, where there is a “gender identity” and where there is “gender role” and where there is “sex” and how we can really draw any lines between any of those things. What is a woman? What is a man? What does any of that really mean anyway?

As always, when faced with complicated things, I leaned on my old stand-by of language as an analogy. Initially, this was just to help work through some basics, like how something being culturally relative doesn’t necessarily render it meaningless, under our control, or divorced from a phenomenological reality. All languages, for example, have a different word for water, the moon or the sun, but there is definitely real, immutable phenomena those words refer to. I found, however, that the deeper I leaned into the analogy, the more things clarified for me. And I ultimately found myself considering the possibility that it isn’t quite an analogy at all. That perhaps gender almost literally is a semiotic system, a “language”.

Human beings can’t not be semiotic creatures. It’s an aspect of what we are. To create a “language vacuum” would necessitate raising a human being in total, complete isolation (I can’t remember whether or not the rare real life instances of this resulted in those people developing semiotic systems for themselves anyway). But the very moment you were to introduce another human being into the equation, ways of signifying things to one another, in absence of the signified, would begin to develop. There’s no way around it. Once a social situation is created (“social” in its more liberal definition… that is, any number of human beings interacting with one another) semiotics, language, inevitably follows. The exact way it occurs can vary: sounds, gestures, pictures, whatever. But it happens.

I’ve been considering the possibility that gender might work the same way.

One of the common hypotheticals of feminist theory is the supposedly “gender-free” human society. In this utopia (or dystopia, if your perspective is at all like my own), there are absolutely no codified roles or assumptions, and we all simply are who we are. I believe, however, that this society literally could NOT exist, no matter how aggressively we pursued it, and to believe it could is to make a fundamental error in understanding what gender is. It could not exist any more than a “language-free society” could exist. It’s actually a logical impossibility. To do away with language, or gender, would require simultaneously annihilating society.

Imagining gender as a semiotic system, and an inevitable product of human relationships, we can see it as an inherent quality of any human social interaction at all. So long as we exist in relation to other human beings, we will attempt to understand, define, and ultimately express, ourselves (our selfhood itself) as it exists in contrast and comparison to those other human beings. We will see what of ourselves is present in them, and what of ourselves is not. Amongst the vastly diverse range of things we’ll attempt to understand, define and express will be those that are tied to sex and sexuality. That is to say, gender. So long as there is another human being, who we will gender in our perceptions, we will gender ourselves in contrast, and, in all likelihood, attempt to express that understanding.

Imagining some stripped down hypothetical situation where two adult human beings are meeting in the absolute, total absence of a cultural understanding of gender, we can nonetheless imagine gender occurring anyway. Differences or similarities in sexual anatomy, sexual desire, sexual behaviour would all begin to be understood between the two individuals, and they would find ways to express that to one another. For instance, one might be attracted to the other and desire a submissive sexual role, and then proceed to try to communicate that desire to the other. Simple and basic as it may be, that is a form of proto-gender-expression, and not terribly dissimilar from what we do with our far more intricate and culturally coded forms of gender expression.

We can think of our own genders as emerging in somewhat the same way. There are aspects of ourselves that are related to sex and sexuality, and we need to find ways of communicating and expressing those things in the social context we find ourselves in. Unlike the hypothetical gender-vacuum couple, though, we are born into cultures that have long histories of developing and codifying concepts of gender and sexuality. So our deeper, underlying desires… our desires in regards to who we’d like to have sex with, how we’d like to have sex, what kind of body our desires wish to be expressed through, where we see ourselves in the larger sexual dynamics that culture presents to us… all of that is something we’ll try to express through the “language” of gender we inherit from our culture. Someone who, presented with a range of genders, sees themselves and their desires and needs most reflected in that concept of “woman” would then wish to express themselves through however that culture has codified the gender expressions of “women”: playing with dolls, wearing dresses, etc.

Of course, it isn’t even remotely as simple as that. There is an enormous range of behaviours, actions, modes of dress, modes of speech, body languages, verbal language, and so forth that any given culture will end up gendering, which creates a “lexicon” of gender as broad as the lexicon of that same culture’s written languages. This allows an individual to express their precise sense of self and desire, to manifest a gender expression, just as individually as one might compose a paragraph. Those gender expressions may also be coloured by particular accents, dialects, tics, idiosyncracies and even “speech impediments”. Furthermore, along with the range of possibilities presented in the expression of self through gender, a given culture will also present a range of baggage: roles, prescriptions, taboos, expectations, prejudices, stereotypes, etc. As such, the person who initially comes to understand her self as resonating most strongly with the concept of “woman” she inherited from her culture may also find herself keeping that understanding of self as a private, secret shame as she instead communicates her gender expression in the “language” of men and masculinity, as expected. Alternately, she may express herself as woman in highly subtle, nuanced ways, vastly divorced from the clichéd dolls and dresses. She may feel dolls and dresses repel her just as strongly as “womanhood” resonates with her. We each compose the poems of our gender using whatever combinations of words we have available, whichever work for what of ourselves we wish to communicate when we wish to do so… adapting verse by verse.

Ultimately, however, it boils down to the fact that we have a sense of self, desires, and a need to understand and express them in relation to other human beings. The expressions of both that are tied to sex and sexuality, mediated by the “languages” we inherit from our culture, are what ultimately manifests as our gender. It’s a semiotic system, an arranged (in varying degrees of intentionality) combination of behaviours, actions, modes of speech, modes of dress and so on, that ultimately add up to say “here I am, this is me, this is what I am, this is what I desire, as I exist in relation to you, and to our culture”.

Of course, we don’t always get read correctly.

What I find most compelling about this model, the concept of gender as functionally a language or semiotic system, is how many of the contradictions and difficulties it resolves or renders moot. It provides a model through which gender can be understood as both socially constructed (or, more accurately, socially emergent, like language) and yet also an inevitable aspect of human social identity. How the precise iterations through which gender is communicated (like long hair, skirts, pink) can be intensely arbitrary, shifting dramatically from culture to culture, year to year, at the same time as being intensely and legitimately meaningful for those expressing their gender through those iterations. How there can be both an underlying neurobiological origin (the self and the desires we opt to express) without essentializing what is ultimately social and mutable in nature. How we can understand gender as mutable without seeing it as really under our control. And perhaps most importantly, it provides us a framework for directing our energies into adapting our cultural frameworks of gender into something that is more compassionate, free, open, livable, diverse and non-prescriptive in a way that doesn’t demand sacrificing the value and significance that gender can have for us, as a means of a self-determined expression rather than a mere adaptation to inherited roles. It provides a framework for writing new books instead of burning old ones.

The thing is, syntax is not the same thing as grammar. Language is not the same thing as “a language”. English is not the same thing as “Proper English”. So long as meaning emerges from a semiotic system, we’ve communicated. The structures we use to try to describe, prescribe, normalize and codify our languages don’t have a monopoly on those languages or their use. Instead, the move fluidly, adapting to the needs of those who speak them. We don’t need to live by the prescribed rules of gender in order for gender to be meaningful and important and beautiful for us any more than we require the mastery of “Proper English” in order to speak to one another, to write our letters, stories, poems, essays, blog posts…

To riff on Joyce, this blog post was plagiarized from the English language. With or without the formal systems of grammar, my run-on and fragment sentences and all, I didn’t create these words. What I’ve done is arranged them to express myself. So too can we maybe find a way to move past whatever shame is associated with the cultural understandings of “feminine” and “masculine”, and the strict and limiting roles they’ve been used to enforce. I’m not the one who decided long hair is feminine, and if I lived in a culture where long hair was understood as masculine, I probably wouldn’t want to wear it this way. But it’s not the length of my hair that matters. Those 14 inches or whatever is exactly as arbitrary as the squiggly pixels that make up this sentence. But just like the sentence, it’s not the shapes of the squiggles that matters, nor the length of the hair… what matters is what it is I’m saying through it. Every aspect of my gender is plagiarized from our cultural codes. But the self I’m communicating is my own, and I refuse to feel ashamed of what I’m communicating it through. Just like I refuse to feel ashamed that I’m writing in the same language that wrote “The Transsexual Empire”.

Like everyone, I want to be understood. There’s nothing shameful or destructive in that. Only what makes us human.