Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Dude looks like a lady

I've always maintained that there's a song for everything, for every moment, and I often use them in my uni essay titles. Among others, I've used song and album titles from the likes of Blam Blam Blam (There is no depression in New Zealand), Sex Pistols (Never mind the bollocks), and Elvis Presley (All shook up). I have an article (soon to be published), about the pop music played at the 2007 Netball World Championships, that quotes the Andy Williams song, 'Music to watch girls by' in its title.

Today's song is appropriate for a number of different reasons, as it echoes a theme that has been featuring in some of my recent work.

Earlier this year I had to explain and define the notion of 'alternative media', and the approach I took was to rate the various media types along a continuum from mainstream to radical, much like Alfred Kinsey did with his Heterosexual-Homosexual scale of sexuality.
Kinsey's research took place in the late 1940s-early 1950s, and these days it seems that many of us are well accustomed to thinking of sexuality as a continuum rather than a binary straight/gay divide. This is not to say that society as a whole is so enlightened that discrimination and assumptions based on sexuality are now historical concepts, but we do appear to have a deeper understanding and appreciation of these matters.

But is it the same for gender issues? This is a potential minefield for many a researcher or writer, as the preconceptions and assumptions in this area are proving a little harder to shake off, despite the openness and visibility of some brave souls who share a little of their lives with the rest of us.

There are few high-profile people like Chaz Bono (currently appearing in Dancing With The Stars), who are willing or able to show, and discuss, exactly who they are. I read a very touching article recently about a former surfing champion, talking about her former (male) self in the third person. Even here in little ol' conservative Christchurch, I know people who are no longer living or presenting as the gender they were assigned at birth based on their external form.

And yet, when it came to collecting demographic information for my survey, although I spent significant time selecting and sorting the options for ethnicity, I gave zero thought to the issue of whether the traditional male/female binary option was even appropriate anymore. When my supervisor pointed this out to me, it really was a bit of a <headdesk> moment, and the survey was adjusted to include an option for 'transgender/other'. This simple act resulted in some very pleased local residents, who were really happy to be acknowledged in this way.

The assumptions that we have about various things in life, especially gender, are not confined to a particular age group, income bracket, or education level. Some of my students were taking a survey recently, and one of them made a loud and sarcastic comment about being asked whether he was 'male, female or other'. Gender is no longer a binary option, and it seems that tolerance, open-mindedness and appreciation of difference is something that needs to be addressed in all walks of life.

It will not be a short process, that's for sure. For example, the distinctions, roles, and expectations about men and women are still subject to age-old assumptions, even among those for whom communication is their bread and butter.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been corresponding via email with a reporter for Fairfax (who publish the Chch Press & other papers), about the results of my survey. Even though his article had a political angle that was different to the focus of my research, there was still plenty of information gained from the respondents that was applicable and relevant. The article appeared in print and online today. There's nothing wrong with his quoting of the information and comments that I sent him, but I appear to have had my gender reassigned by assumption. It's not quite so obvious in the print version of The Press, as their naming conventions see me referred to by my surname alone for most of the article, but I'm still described as 'he'.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not angry. I'm somewhat amused (& bemused) that this sort of assumption is still in play. That, for whatever reason, the non-gendered correspondent & researcher on the other side of that email exchange was presumed, by a reporter, to be male. Perhaps if I was still using the name given to me at birth, my gender might be more apparent in written conversation... but still... the question was never asked.

It seems that, despite the efforts of all those who "burned bras" and liberated Barbie dolls, there is still a long way to go in terms of gender assumptions, equality and choice. Just don't get me started on the clothing options for young girls...

yours etc,
"Mr" V.

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