Gender and the Greek Ideal

One of the surest ways to get yourself in an awkward or aggravating situation these days is to bring up the topic of gender. Gender, once exclusively the domain of grammar, not biology, has become a political issue of the most taboo kind, especially if you are in university. In fact, the gender debate played a large role in my decision to withdraw from my PhD candidature and leave the academic environment. It wasn’t because I wasn’t interested in the ideas surrounding gender, but even though I was fascinated in the topic, and wanted to explore it, I did want to explore the topic in directions completely different to what is currently considered acceptable on university campuses.

The traditional view of gender, if there is indeed such a thing, is a difficult concept to pin down. I often muse to myself that maybe grammatical conventions started it all because words with a pretty ending were generally called “feminine” while words with a strong ending were called “masculine” and if people couldn’t agree if an ending was sufficiently pretty or strong to be either then it was “neuter”. I bet those early grammarians had no idea the chaos that would be unleashed on future generations thanks to their colourful scheme used to classify nouns. But I digress, let’s suppose for the sake of argument that there is a traditional view of gender and that femininity is emotional, empathic, relationship focused, and receptive. Conversely, masculine nature is rational, assertive, systematic, and mathematical. Yes, many people, myself included, would dispute these definitions as being too narrow, but this is just for illustrative purposes.

Now, let’s ask ourselves: how many men and women actually have genders that match these descriptions?

Certainly, there are plenty of men who are rational, assertive, systematic, and mathematical; who have no time to talk about their feelings and relationships. How often do men talk about how emotional they felt when their favourite character in a TV show experienced a tragedy?

Likewise, there are plenty of women who are emotional, agreeable, empathic, and receptive to others. How often do women bring up graphs and statistics in their conversation with their girlfriends and talk about the performance enhancing features they would like to implement on their cars next summer?

However, there are exceptions to these rules. William Shakespeare was a man, yet completely unmasculine by this measure. While Margaret Thatcher and Phyllis Schlafly were women who were at home discussing statistics, reason, and evidence in order to communicate their ideas; ideas they expressed very assertively. Should we say that Shakespeare was feminine, while Thatcher and Schlafly were masculine? It might be tempting to do so, but I would urge caution that you might be falling prey to a false dichotomy. If you think a person has to be either masculine or feminine then you are ignoring other possibilities. I’m not suggesting neutral either, but rather, let’s consider another option: the Greek ideal.

According to the Greek ideal, everyone has both masculine and feminine traits, however you may wish to discriminate between those two categories, but a person doesn’t flourish into a fully formed adult until they are comfortable with all the parts of their nature, including the masculine and feminine. The people I mentioned earlier were all extraordinarily intelligent, accomplished, and refined people, people who probably embodied all the different qualities ascribed to both aforementioned genders. Sure, Shakespeare talked a lot about feelings, relationships, and aesthetics like women do, but I’m sure he also liked talking about religion, politics, war, machinery, and money like other men do too. While Thatcher might have had a fierce public face as Prime Minister, she was a mother and a family woman too, and she cared deeply about children and the quality of education they received.

Now, I didn’t just come up with this idea entirely by myself, I first encountered this idea years ago when reading a paper on the subject, which I have no idea where it is at the moment, I might look it up after posting this. This study was looking at gender and income. It found that men and women who earned a low income tended to have traits that could be considered an exaggeration of the social norms the so called “manly man” stereotype of the masculine male, and the “girly girl” stereotype of the feminine female.

However, the men and women at the high income end of the scale couldn’t be divided into either masculine or feminine categories. These men and women were equally comfortable discussing their feelings, relationships, and being receptive to others as they were to talking about statistics, politics, and being assertive about it. They could “switch” between masculine and feminine modes whenever the situation called for it.

Those of you familiar with the correlation of IQ and income levels might already be wondering if high IQ means low gender identifiability and low IQ means high gender identifiability, and I don’t know if there has been such a study, if there is, please comment and let me know about it. But it would make sense if it did work like this, because a person capable of being both masculine and feminine has more abilities and more ways to influence the world.

In my own experience, I have found this to be true, intelligent women tend be comfortable talking about stereotypically male topics like religion, politics, and mathematics, while intelligent men tend to be comfortable talking about their feelings, art, character develop, and their relationships. It is the men and women who are less flexible in their thinking who tend to be strongly masculine or feminine, and in turn limited in their range of self-expression.

So when it comes to gender I would really like to think that I don’t have any at all. Instead, that I am well rounded person capable of being receptive, empathic, and agreeable when I need to be, and assertive, systematic, and rational when the situation requires me to be. Certainly, I am biologically male, but being “male” is about my sex. Gender, I believe, has nothing to do with sex bar an etymological relationship between the words “male” and “female” with the words “masculine” and “feminine”.

So that’s my view. In a nutshell, I think what we call “gender” is merely a lack of self-knowledge whereby one is limited in one’s self-expression because one doesn’t know how to be different. While more developed people, both male and female, lack a discernible gender because they’re well round and adapt to the needs of the situation they are in.

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