For two semesters now, about 60 students have registered for my class on the sociology of gender. They've arrived, some of them with their jitters quite visible and others with what appears to be a cultivated indifference. Hand over hand, my syllabus skates through the rows, and they eagerly thumb through the pages—even the indifferent ones. I imagine many of them are contemplating whether to drop my class and take their chances on the waiting list of another section, so I encourage them to take their time. Perfunctory introductions, then a deep a breath, and at last we launch headlong into the sociological study of gender.
Teaching sociology is akin to playing Morpheus to a group of students who haven't yet seen how deep the rabbit hole goes, and I am convinced that fewer classes are more challenging to teach than gender. I approach the topic most identifiably from a culturalist perspective and draw most notably from material many would identify as falling within the jurisdiction of the sociology of knowledge. Time and again we return to the social and historical processes behind the construction of values, beliefs, and other intellectual structures. How are they built, sustained, recreated, and manipulated? I set as my first task excavating a level of deep culture by asking them to consider how gender is socially constructed.
Students are of course more than capable of parroting such constructivist sentiments as Simone de Beauvoir's remark that “One is not born but rather becomes, a woman.” What is needed to transform students’ thinking is to dislodge their foundational assumptions—the premises upon which they begin to think. It is necessary, then, to begin by cultivating uncertainty, or by forcing them to interrogate and articulate their own common sense understandings of the world.
A recent discussion from the class stands as a good example. In it, students took aim at unequal beauty standards and exaggerated swaggers as the constructed implements of a gender stratified society. Not surprisingly, most students were at ease with rejecting any natural affinity between women and domesticity; however, the timeless truth that homo sapiens are naturally divided into two distinct types—men and women—remained unscathed.
Cultivating uncertainty, I pressed them, "So what do we make of the fact that some societies count three genders?"
"There are always exceptions," came one response.
"By this logic, your schema renders exceptions. Why not modify it?" The student conceded that he believed his model was based on what was most clearly given by biology. Thus at last the premise underlying so much of his certainty was exposed. This student and others couldn’t disagree more with de Beauvoir’s assertion. For them, one is born a man or a woman and does not become one—not really.
Having identified this premise, I marked it on a placard and propped it up on the table at the front of the classroom like a life-sized, pop-out book. Biology—if we're being honest—is not given as a clear binary but exists as a spectrum. Women and men cannot just be identified by disrobing and neither will a snapshot of a person’s chromosomes yield a definitive answer. As Cary Costello asserts in his comments regarding the spectacle surrounding athlete Caster Semenya in 2009, "Dyadic sex is a myth—sex is a spectrum. Hormones, chromosomes, genitals, gonads—they are all arranged in many complex ways, and imposing a binary onto them is arbitrary. It's as arbitrary as saying all fruit is either sweet or sour."
Class discussion desperately moved from the macro to the micro, from the genitals to the genome; each student in turn attempting to retrace what they once believed was an impenetrable basis upon which they invested so much of their thinking. But they were on a threshold, for they were wrestling with something very unsettling: our dyadic gender claims to be based on biological sex, but in fact, dyadic sex is itself a myth. This moment of dislodging a foundational premise is not simply akin to that feeling of disorientation when awakening in an unfamiliar place; rather, it threatens to be more permanent and irresolvable. It is something like being unable to discern whether you were just now a person dreaming you were a fish, or all along a fish dreaming you were a person.
Coaxing students into this uncertainty, this zone of indistinction, is the beginning of the teaching moment. However, collective uncertainty is no place to dwell for an entire semester. If my claim is that they can no longer uncritically draw upon their usual common sense to evaluate the world—if that way of knowing is to be cast in suspicion—then what am I proposing as a replacement? What will they use to evaluate their common sense?
Beginning photographers are often told they must learn again how to “see” light, which is really a process of paying attention to the way light paints their subject matter. Student photographers must all come to terms with the fact that they were never able to truly “see” the objects which populate their world, only the light reflected from those objects. This is more than elaborate explanation because learning to “see” is really learning to see through illusions. It is about (re)learning that sugar, dove soap, and snow are not necessarily white. Where these objects fall on a grey scale is contingent on how much light they are reflecting back in a given composition. To learn to “see,” photography students are shown photographs and they are shown how to reproduce such photographs. This process is not dissimilar to the one sociology students of gender must confront.
Having coaxed students to suspend their common sense and having plunged them into a pit of indistinction, a fleeting moment arrives where they are more open to a critical alternative. It is at this juncture that the pitchman (in my case) must finally demonstrate his product, lest the crowd disperse. Like the photography students who were shown that snow is sometimes black, I must demonstrate by example how gender is socially constructed.
The process of social construction has been theorized in a number of ways, but focusing on the way it happens through media representation and signification works well as a particularly vivid example. To this end, Jean Kilbourne's 1999 documentary, Killing Us Softly, continues to have an impact on students. The film chronicles pervasive representations of men and women in the media. The problem here is that many of my students were ten years old when the movie was made, leading to the oft heard dismissal, “Thank God that doesn’t happen anymore!” There is also the more sophisticated critique that many of the examples deployed are “one-sided,” or that the evidence was hand-picked by Kilbourne to invent a story about objectification. Students presumably dismiss the film's objectification thesis once they have identified that plenty of images exist where women are not objectified.
Thus the problem confronting teachers is that students of sociology need to be shown how gendered messages are continually asserted through popular representation, and this needs to be demonstrated in a way that cannot be easily dismissed as an artifact of a regrettable past or a biased simplification. So there could be no question as to how current the information was, I drew upon an advertisement for the new iPad from Steve Jobs and company. The ad pretends to be a casual chat with four of the creative tech geeks at Apple, who just love what they do and are gushing to talk about this cool thing they invented.
Women are conspicuously missing from this eight-minute clip; yet I would argue that even among women the ad is largely successful for Apple. While questions have surfaced about how truly innovative the iPad is, fewer have questioned the natural affinity depicted in this commercial between male logic and technological innovation. Hearing the epithet "computer geek," we in the U.S. mostly think of men, and that is precisely who we want designing our high tech gadgets because we associate men with logical integrity. Perhaps Apple intuitively understands that if they featured an exuberant woman in the ad, it would suggest that the iPad’s programming is logically flawed.
This analysis baits controversy among my students, and almost immediately hands are raised. A flurry of remarks ensue, each insisting on counterexamples which demonstrate that women are definitely also represented in our society as having technological prowess. Plenty of visual representations suggest that they too belong to the symbolic universe of high technology. “This is true,” I tell them, “but consider the technology women are typically paired with.”
Here I turn to play a second short clip, this time taken from TED Talks, a non-profit which hosts presentations related to ideas of technology, entertainment, and design. Jane Chen, the CEO of a company called Embrace, recently gave a presentation for them which caught my attention. In it, she promotes a life-saving and inexpensive incubation technology for premature infants, which her company invented.
While this spot is about a high technology, it is presented exclusively by a woman, and therefore begs a corrective to my earlier claim that technology is the privileged domain of men. It's not that women have no place in high technology; they clearly do. Rather, this clip demonstrates that we want women involved with technologies related to nurturing and saving the lives of newborns.
The take-away for my students is really twofold and recalls the idea that a lot of popular thinking about gender is informed by a common sense which continually attempts to link gender to biology. This affinity between woman and incubator works because it conforms to the pervasive assumption that nature produces two distinct types of people, and one is naturally more nurturing than the other. We are primed, in a sense, so that certain messages resonate with us, while others seem odd or inappropriate. By that same token, these clips and the institutions that built them are implicated in continuing to replicate distinct pairings of gender and technology. Noteably, commercials which claim to be exclusively about technology, make significant contributions to people's common sense about gender.
I mentioned above that collective uncertainty is no place to dwell and that if teachers ask their students to be suspicious of their common sense, they are obliged to offer their students an alternative. I don't know if an alternative can be cut from whole cloth, but modifications are certainly possible. To this end, I try to conclude my class by encouraging students to discuss the way their assumptions about nature and biology have informed their own thinking. I encourage them to reflect on the way these regimes of representation have invaded their own evaluations of the people in their lives. Ideally, this particular teaching moment concludes with students comprehending the way their common sense is always informed by a larger culture which envelopes them.