kaigou: you live and learn. at any rate, you live. - doug adams (2 live and learn)
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Over dinner tonight (and this is a normal dinner conversation in this house), we got to talking about gender-flipping in stories. CP noted that the trope is, of course, if a guy suddenly wakes up as a girl, his first expected reaction is to stay home and play with his new breasts. But seems to me, based on stories about women facing breast cancer, that this isn't just flippant, it's the complete opposite of what's likely. I mean, I've read plenty about, and by, women who've had to have radical mastectomies. Even knowing that removing one's breasts might be the chance for survival, women still grieve. And even those that don't emphasize loss of the organs per se, still speak of having somehow radically changed, of going through a time of questioning whether they're still women without breasts, and coming to grips with a changed sense of 'what it means to be a woman' and just how breasts do (or don't) figure into this.

I'm not saying that full mastectomies automatically equate to losing one's sex/gender/identity, but that those secondary sex attributes (breasts, genitals) get tied up in so many things of self-identity. That on top of the sense of loss that comes with amputation/body-part loss, there's also the shift in recognizing how much we emphasize, as a culture, something formerly taken-for-granted. That we don't realize -- until it's made obtrusive, impossible to ignore -- how much we make synonymous 'having breasts' with 'being female'.

(To the point that there's also a trope for girls complaining about being A-cups, with the subtext, sometimes text, that small breasts makes them 'less' of a woman. But then, the male version of that is the worry that a too-small penis makes a man 'less', too.)

Anyway, my point is I'd expect that a guy, waking up one morning to find his dick and balls gone, might spare a few seconds for the breasts but only after a serious amount of time panicking and/or denying and/or feeling lost about the body parts exchanged. I mean, I'm not even sure I'd see it as an 'exchange' in a sense of equivalency, since possibly the focus would be on "I don't have parts that are so much me that I never even thought about them except in passing, and now they're gone, I can't even fathom who/how I must be, or could be, without them" and only secondary "what the hell do I do with this other part of me". I guess sort of like waking to find you'd lost an arm but gained a tail... the tail was something you'd never lived with before, so it's not "you" but that arm? That was "you".

But the other side of that would be the person, I think, who never felt truly at peace in the body, perhaps? So to wake and find secondary sexual characteristics flipped... might be a shock, followed by joy. Wouldn't this be sort of like, say, being born with, I don't know, a third eye in the middle of your forehead and it never quite felt right and you were always off-balance... then you wake one morning with only two eyes and everything fits. Would you feel suddenly like the body had shifted, it'd all fallen into place, and now you could finally start taking your body for granted?

That's entirely my guess, extrapolating from one of the few areas where a body might change substantially but not necessarily as a result of desire. That is, mastectomies aren't only efficacious because the woman secretly wishes she lacked secondary female sex attributes or secretly wished she were male or some similar hogwash. It's one of the few instances where such removal is medically life-saving, but it still raises the questions and the aftermath.

Since it's a huge spoiler, I won't mention the book's title, but I recall a SFF novel in which the protagonist was (for her own protection) magically genderflipped into a boy. When puberty kicks in, this breaks the glamour, and she discovers she's really a girl. As I recall, the focus after this reveal is on her heartbreak over her best (male) friend's sense of betrayal and shock. What I recall of her part, though, was mostly resignation or acceptance for herself, and grief for her friend's denial/rejection. So the aftertaste (and why I didn't read the rest of the series) was that this massive change focused not on her own reactions but on wow, the wangst of the male friend. 'Cause, y'know, it's mostly about him.

And further, I don't recall much foreshadowing or hints about how she felt uncomfortable in her body, discontent in any way. It read like a usual coming-of-age story in which boy is spirited away from family enemies and grows up in idyllic freedom with best buds, and that could be anything from the Prydain series to The Once and Future King. So looking back, I realize now that what I expected to see, on parallel with women dealing with loss of secondary sex facets, was for this protagonist to do the same over loss of what had been 'her' (his) secondary sex attributes. For some level of grief, denial, confusion, imbalance, maybe even anger, but definitely loss. I mean, you spend all your life with your perception of who-you-are, and one morning it's not there anymore, wouldn't you wander around for awhile feeling like you'd lost an arm, or all the toes on your left foot, or some other equally disconcerting and possibly terrifying and identity-changing thing?

But if the loss were less consequential and the gain (of alternate sex attributes) comes with such ease (or any ease at all), wouldn't this have been something you'd have spent your life, up to then, feeling like you were missing? Wouldn't you have spent a good chunk of your life feeling like your body was 'wrong' or at the very least, just didn't 'fit' you? I mean, if you're content and take the shape of your body for granted, then a sudden change would throw you. But if that sudden change were to not throw you, then I'd expect that previously you were not content and did not take the shape of your body as a for-granted natural state of things.

I don't think an author can have it both ways, is all.

(There might be a few rare souls who disregard the body to such degree they're not imbalanced by the body, before and after, but seems to me those few souls would be very, very rare, indeed. And I'm not sure I'd even care to read about a character who disregards the physical so completely as to have no connection to, or investment in, his/her/hir own body. Unless I wanted to read about 80-year-old celibate Zen masters, or something. Which I don't. But I think even antique Zen masters would be disconcerted by the loss of body parts, if those body parts had always been contently part of the person's self-identity, even if the body's sexual aspects were virginal for life.)

I've been spending the afternoon alternating on trying to motivate myself to translate, trying to motivate myself to move the fridge and re-install the fridge cabinet, trying to motivate myself to dig open a mysql database and tweak, and mostly... ending up wasting time fixing to get ready with no real getting ready. But that's meant plenty of time to think! Which is where all ya'll come in, since even if it's not something you've thought about before, I'm sure plenty of you might have thoughts about it, now. I hope.

So. We're speaking in the context of fiction -- in case it's not obvious, since I'm pretty sure there aren't any medical, real-world cases of spontaneous secondary sexual attribute changes -- but trying to keep it still somewhat grounded, as in: if whatever fictional case were to happen in real life, what seems like how a reasonable person would react? And so on.

To some degree, then, it seems relatively clear (if maybe kinda obvious) that each of us learns, pretty early on, to identify our body's shape with our gender. And if our body's shape doesn't fit our gender, then we're going to spend our lives at odds with that shape. Either you connect, or you disconnect. Like I said, obvious, but I might be totally wrong on that assumption, so speak up if that should be extended or clarified or could be put some other way.

And gender -- here is where I'm starting to think out loud (in pixels?) -- is, like it or not, tied to secondary sexual characteristics. Or, hmm, that our behavior, dress, speech, roles, are the give-away in instances where secondary sexual characteristics are masked or cloaked in some way. (I'm emphasizing secondary, because primary -- whether you produce eggs or sperm -- is kind of irrelevant, I think; after all, you don't lose your penis just because you have a sperm count of zilch, or lose your breasts when you go through menopause and can't have babies anymore.) Back to characteristics: a woman of fair height dressed in a big yellow jumpsuit with the mask and protective booties (whatever they wear in movies about modern scary plagues) would still be identifiable as a 'woman' by some combination of clues. She uses female nouns/verbs to refer to herself (in some languages), or it's the way she defers to the men, maybe, or the fact that you can see she's wearing lipstick, or the style of her eye-glasses. Or the way she stands or walks.

Come to think of it, even in situations where gender makes no difference in one's ability to do a task -- say, being a chef, or a teacher, or a doctor, it seems to still be pretty universal to continue those gender-clues. I know, this is a lot of socialization and culturation going on here, and the over-compensation seems to be slowly stepping down (at least in the urban areas and/or industries I've worked in). But it's still there, as if to remind the onlooker that despite the task being gender-neutral, and the uniform possibly also, that the gender (read: implied secondary sex characteristics) is still identifiable.

As opposed to sexual-characteristic-reliant tasks, like, hmm, being the bass voice in the choir versus the alto soprano, since it'd be a rare woman who could manage the first and an equally rare man who could manage the second. But I don't know, since I'm not in a gender-specific industry. If one's tasks or speech or a specific behavior were clearly pegged as gender-identifying, would there be less emphasis on gender-identifying clothing (to indicate the secondary sex characteristics underneath)? I'm reminded of the sub-threads we had going on a previous post about textiles and garments, and that in the west, gender-coded clothing diverged dramatically starting around, hmm, by 1400, maybe? (When men's tunics went short and stayed short, and women's tunics dropped to the floor, though working-class in the fields tended to be more gender-neutral, come to think of it.)

Compared to, say, the yukata, which has certain clues to tell you gender -- pattern, width of the obi, color -- but the body-shape is... Not androgynous per se, but it certainly doesn't emphasize the major differences in the secondary sex characteristics. I was reading something yesterday about wearing the kimono and how if your breasts are too big, here's how to flatten them, because you don't want the front gaping open. Plus the whole three or four layers and whatnot around the waist, all designed to give a woman a columnar look, rather than a defined breast-waist-hips curve. And outside of those really fancy samurai coats with the huge exaggerated shoulders, much of the men's clothing doesn't really seem to emphasize male secondary sex characteristics, either (wide shoulders, hips/waist near to same but smaller, etc). Actually, looking back at the hanfu (in China) and the early qipao -- I think that's what it's called? -- before it went majorly tight-and-emphasizing as the cheongsam, that is -- that's also clothing that's not quite so gender-emphatic, too. Okay, the teeny-tiny bound feet and the pained expression would probably tell you right away that it's a woman, and I'm sure there were also patterns and colors, but the relatively straight-cut garments still didn't play up the secondary sex characteristics, not like western clothes of equivalent eras.

I meander on in that, because I'm wondering: if the gender roles (what 'a woman can do' versus 'what a man can do') are really well defined, does that mean the clothing can be less so? You can't tell at a glance, at a distance, that person is male or female but if the person is doing X versus Y, then unquestionably, the person must be this gender or that? To the point that a woman could dress in male clothing but if she uses female verb-endings, then clearly, this trumps all, she's female. Or if the person is wearing what might be female-coded clothing but also, I don't know, leading a crew of oxen or carrying a length of lumber, that this trumps the visual gender-neutral clothing?

Although I doubt that's universal in the real-world, because by that standard, western dress would've developed to compensate for women and men doing similar tasks. Such that you'd need the clothing to be the gender-role signal, and I'm no historian but I'm still pretty sure everyday tasks were sex-divided in the west, too, for most of western history. But in fiction, seems to me that it's a question you could raise: if what-you-do is regimented strongly based on gender roles, then how-you-look (or how-you-talk, or how-you-dress, or whatever) could be secondary or even non-existent as visual identifiers.

Hmm. Does that mean: if a character from a dress-as-gender society visits a role-as-gender society, the person would be quite confused. If you didn't know that only women draw water and only men are bakers and only women are teachers and only men are cart-pullers, you could end up baffled. Then again, if the role-as-gender person visited the dress-as-gender society, the person might be constantly thrown by seeing clearly clothing-based indicators of secondary sex characteristics (seeing cleavage? male leggings so tight you can tell what religion he is?) that doesn't appear to have any correlation to what people actual do.

I didn't grow up in a gender-neutral-dressing society (maybe sort of close, but still, women's jeans and women's t-shirts are cut differently from men's, and the time I spend in cargo shorts and a tank-top only barely outweighs the time I've spent in blouses and slacks cut for a woman's body). So I'm having a hard time dividing it, but... seems to me that if you grew up in a society where the clothes de-emphasize the secondary sex characteristics, emphasize a more androgynous and/or unisex-ified appearance, how would that change the experience of -- back to the original questions -- waking up and finding your body had changed? Thinking that over, seems like you would still go through a "this is not me" or a "oh, finally, this is me". It just might not be tied quite so tight to the "and now I question my female-ness" or "now my body finally fits my internal male-ness". I mean, if "having breasts" weren't the way you were ever taught to see (yourself or others) as being female, compared to, say, whether you're a doctor or a teacher or someone who wears this color or that color. Outside the body-adjustment (that we'd all go through for any major body change), it'd be like any other amputee, perhaps? Because losing your leg below the knee doesn't mean you can't still wear green, or still be a teacher.

Then why not a culture where one's gender is defined by what one is doing (or wearing)? Today, I am going to draw water from the well, therefore I use female speech and dress in female-coded clothing, and am effectively female despite having a Y-chromosome. Today I am baking bread, therefore I use male speech and wear male-coded clothing. And so on. What happens then? Would eventually the society become less gender-coded overall -- since wouldn't it eventually get ridiculous, because what if you baked bread in the morning and went to the well after lunch and then came back and baked some more bread? Or would the society eventually start to codify some other means to clarify who-is-what, and cut back on the fluidity between one and the next?

Practically speaking, after all, it's not like we're all going around, twenty-four hours a day, being sexual beings in the sense of, y'know, putting those primary sexual characteristics to use[*]. Okay, for nine months a woman is pregnant, and then for however long she might also nurse, but outside of that, and outside of the actual sex act itself, the rest of the time... what's getting used (if anything) -- in the sense of our self-identification, self-identity, I mean -- are those secondary sex characteristics. I don't know about the rest of you, but when I think of myself in terms of sex and/or gender, I don't think, "this is what I'm like in bed!" That's actually kind of the last thing I think of. I think of the pitch of my voice, the shape of my body, my height, my personality traits, whatever. I think of who I am when it's just me, going about my day, being me.

Although this raises questions in turn for self-identity for those characters in fiction whose day does consist of constant use of primary sexual characteristics. Wet nurses and gigolos and courtesans and, uhm, sperm donors. Do they eventually see their own sex/gender in different ways than those of us whose daily lives use mostly secondary means to self-identify?

Just checked with CP, and he says he'd not studied this enough (nor studied enough first-person, as opposed to outsider-anthropologists), so maybe someone else knows. But in some of the Plains (Indigenous American) tribes, one could choose to put away the sex-based gender role and take on the alternate set of gender roles. Biologically female, but the person would dress as a man, speak as a man, perform all the rites and duties of a man -- including taking one or more wives -- and for all intents and purposes, live and be respected as a man. And men could do the same, taking a female gender-coded set of behaviors, speech, duties, etc, including become someone's wife. What I can't recall is whether the person would then be known as "male" or whether the person would continue to be identified in some way, ie "woman who lives as a man" or "third sex" or some other signifier that means "not biologically male". I'm thinking (but not positive) that the Navajo separate it out, such that the cross-gender position becomes two-spirit, but I can't recall if there was a tribe/culture that didn't differentiate. Maybe one of all ya'll might know (and not just Native American, but anywhere else).

Of course, that comes with the caveat that there isn't a monolithic "Plains" culture or even any Indigenous culture -- it's not the 500 Nations for nothing. 500+ cultures will have 500+ ways of seeing things... but a real-world culture might provide patterns for seeing how such could be represented in fiction.

[In case you're wondering: do not use the term 'berdache', or I will smite you.]

fwiw, I'm not sure 'gay' or even 'queer' really applies here, either (does it?) -- since that's using a frame that doesn't really mesh. The Wikipedia entry has a nice way to put it (I think): that a relationship between a cisgender and a two-spirit is neither heterosexual nor homosexual, but hetero-gender.

A notion borne out by the mention also that in some tribes, two-spirits did not have sexual relations with other two-spirits. I guess in a way that's seen as a kind of homo-gender relationship? As long as the two people have differing genders, the primary sexual characteristics are, well, secondary?

Granted, we're talking about a world lacking today's surgical advances, and if you can't change your body to fit who you are inside... you could at least change the rest (behavior, clothing, the role you're expected to fulfill). And people would refer to you by your selected pronoun, if those changeable tertiary characteristics trump the primary characteristics.

But then, we're getting into the waters of sexuality (who you find attractive) and that can go in any direction with no regard to what's between your legs (or on your chest). Because being gay (liking someone of the same sex) does not make you 'female' even in a gender-sense, so I'm not sure how the real-world analogue of two-spirit meshes with someone who is quite happy being cisgender and cissexed but also much prefers others of the same cisgender and cissexed status. Since from the quick overview, it seems that the majority of two-spirit (or at least how it's generally defined) is as someone who merges both traditional male and traditional female gender roles, behavior, speech, etc, into a third gender. As opposed to being first-gender and only liking others of first-gender.

But I meander. What I've been trying to puzzle out is actually more related to the issue of attraction. In that... we all have 'types' we like, granted -- preferring partners who are taller, or younger, or who dress in a girly fashion or drive big trucks, whatever. But that I've heard plenty of times in my life that even when finding someone attractive, superficially (ie, straight men admiring drag queens for being beautiful women), that ultimately the body-parts involved do matter.

I remember talking two women-friends (one gay, one not) who were drunkenly and rather forthrightly discussing what's required for "good" sex. Or for sex at all, really: for the hetero friend, to be really blunt (as she was), while sex doesn't always mean penile penetration, it still was something she felt she'd feel the lack, were it not possible with a partner. For the lesbian friend, penile penetration was irrelevant, if not somewhat eww-inducing. Like, nothing's missing, compared to the hetero-response of seeing that as missing.[*]

Something's going on there, and it's tied to what we internally crave in our partners, that defines our sexuality, and it requires certain secondary sexual characteristics. (Since fertility or even existence of things like sperm and ovaries aren't something you can see just looking at a person, if all the secondary aspects are in place.) Which means that on some deep-down level, we do require, I think, those gender-clues that help us determine whether -- when naked -- we'll get the parts we need to make us feel 'complete' within the sexual act. Our dress, speech, behavior, roles, whatever, are all clues we look for, and use to help others look for, how to know what we'll get when the package is unwrapped.

Seems to me that as long as there are two or more sexes (including trans and intersex), then we're probably going to continue seeking ways to clue others in on what's underneath. Or else we'd have to get used to a lot of disappointed or upset people when you discover that all the clues led you in the wrong direction[*], and now you're facing a less-than-expected, or just incomplete, sexual experience. That might sound cruel, but I don't think anyone (of any persuasion) can be, or should be, guilted for liking what the person likes, and I think it's only human to be disappointed when you find out that all the clues were leading you into liking someone that doesn't fully fulfill what you hoped.

(But then, this is true in other ways, like to meet someone you really like... and then find out the person is a reformed felon, or never went to college, or hates Korean food. If one of those is a major issue for you, then it's probably just as much a deal-killer as unwrapping the package and finding different body-parts than you expected. And it can feel just as misleading if the clue you got was no mention of jail record, or comments about attending classes, or assurances that the person likes all cuisine. And then to find out, well, not quite.)

Getting back to fictional worlds and extrapolation... the notion of a third-gender makes sense, because in a way it's acting as a clue that tertiary sexual characteristics (gender) and secondary characteristics (sexual) have a different relationship/paradigm. If someone absolutely requires body-parts A and couldn't find attraction for body-parts B, then third-gender clues mean less jumping to assumptions that "gender behavior A" automatically indicates "sexual status A".

Hmmm. But this still kind of... erases? or maybe just sublimates? or some other word?... biologically intersexed peoples. Since if, say, the world were reasonably limited (as if, but for the sake of argument) to two sexes, two genders, then someone presenting with two sexes (like androgyn-resistence, I think it's called? or over/under-virilization, when a man has feminized traits like breasts or a woman has masculinized secondary sex characteristics)... Anyway, that'd be two sexes, but if cross-sex status is represented by blending gender-clues into a third gender, where does that leave someone who presents with both (or neither)? How could a world be constructed to allow that person to also have the outward/tertiary clues to alert potential mates?

I mean, if life is one big mating dance[*], then I'd think it's important. I don't think it's fair to have intersex characters/people expected to be permanently celibate just because it's celibacy or twenty times of rejection from partners who'd expected slot A or tab B, not both (or neither). Rejection is still rejection. The potential partner can be all kinds of gentle, and it still hurts to be turned down[*]... and the chances are reduced if you at least know your slots and tabs are the kinds of slots and tabs another person wants. Then we're back to what kind of gender-clues might, in a fictional world, be used to signal that, to attract potential lovers.

Dunno. I'm sure some of you must have some thoughts, though.

So, uhm. Thoughts?
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kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
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to remember

"When you make the finding yourself— even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light— you'll never forget it." —Carl Sagan

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