Monday, July 11, 2011

The "Gender Neutral Masculine's" Harm to Men

Because the use of the so-called "gender neutral masculine," whereby all humans are referred to as "men," invisibilizes girls and women and sometimes leads to inaccuracies and ambiguities in meaning, I regularly take issue with it here in Fannie's Room.

What I have considered less is how the "gender neutral masculine" can be a detriment to men by invisibilizing how men, like women, live a gendered life experience. I quote Adam Jones in Journal of Human Rights:

"A Canadian reading an account of the horrific massacre of 14 young women at the École Polytechnique in Montreal (1989) would be surprised and probably offended to see the victims -- or their male attacker -- referred to as 'Quebeckers' or 'students' or 'young people' [and the gender of the victims and perpetrator not mentioned]. But for male victims, displacement of the gender variable is rather the rule. 'The male is defined by some trait or label other than gender -- even when gender obviously, or apparently, is decisive in shaping the experience or predicament being described' (Jones 2001)."

Jones goes on to cite an epidemic of murdered cab drivers in New York City and how reports failed to mention that all of those murdered were male, instead reporting the victims' geographic locations and occupations. Thus, he concludes, the "victims remain invisible as men."

While I agree with his ultimate conclusion in the piece, unfortunately, Jones fails to clearly articulate (what I see as) the primary reason for this invisibilization of the murder victims' gender: The human norm and the male norm, in our society, are collapsed into one and are seen as identical. The gender of the cab drivers was not mentioned in the article because it is taken as a given that they were male. Had they been female, that is- a deviation from the human norm- the cab drivers' gender would have been noted and gender-based explanations would have been sought for the crimes.

Indeed, Jones himself notes that "'Gender' has standardly been deployed in the human rights discourse to designate rights violations that target women and girls"- the implication being that women and girls experience gender in some unique way while men and boys do not.

So, while Jones argues that media accounts render male victims "invisible as men," I would argue that if gender isn't mentioned, we can usually assume the humans in question are men. What is problematic about the "gender neutral masculine," then, is
that it implies that a man's gender is irrelevant to the media account.

And yet, gender is not irrelevant to the story. Men are, for some reason, more often cab drivers than are women. And, I'm guessing that reason has less to do with men being better drivers than women and more to do with the hazards associated with that job.

So, I agree with Jones' ultimate conclusion:

"Examining the scale and character of the challenges and threats confronting men will be extremely difficult until the gender variable assumes greater prominence in the analytical equation."

As a society, we need to be better at recognizing that men and boys (a) experience gender in a unique way, as a result of the gendered roles, stereotypes, and responsibilities that are placed upon them, and (b) that, therefore, men and boys do not experience the world in a generic, "universally human" way.

Jones takes "feminist scholars and activists" to task for the "downplaying or ignoring of men's gendered suffering," and I do think some of his criticism is deserved. At the same time, it is cheap and easy to single out feminists, of all existing political groups, as being primarily responsible for this scenario instead of giving the social conservative, gender essentialist, military-industrialist, and the religious right activists who assert that women are frail, innocent beings while men are expendable, violent wildebeests their fair share of the criticism.

Gendered language shapes our minds and the way we think about the world. Men and boys will not be seen in our society as en-gendered until we stop using the same words to signify male humans that we do to signify generic humanity.

1 comment:

Chantelle said...

I think this is a really great point (that men are invisible as MEN).

I think the same is true of race often as well. Depending on the race politics of a particular country, white people are invisible as white people - they are just people. Richard Dyer talks about whiteness in that way. Also, a few years ago there was an experiment in Britain where this guy (black) used cosmetics to pass at white. He did that for a week. One of the first things he said was that he felt invisible. No one watched him in shops or followed him around etc.

If you bring it back to gender, women are women first and then human. As women, we can never get away from our femininity - it is a feature of everything we do.

And this is why language is so important!