In an effort to examine gender from a different perspective, about 50 students attended a TEDx event on Wednesday titled “Deconstructing Gender Assumptions,” organized by What the F, a feminist magazine on campus.
To gauge varying views of gender, the event took a sweeping view of sex and gender from a biological, literary, social and personal light. It began with a screening of Northwestern University Professor Alice Dreger’s TED talk “Is Anatomy Destiny?” which introduced the idea that on a biological level, males and females are not very different; instead, gender is a societal idea. However, this viewpoint then becomes muddled when considering intersex individuals.
The TED talk was followed by a reading of Jamaica Kincaid’s short story on gender roles in the 1970s titled “Girl.” It listed normative statements that her mother told her while growing up like “Always eat your food in such a way that it won’t turn someone else’s stomach” and “This is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming.”
Following the presentations, audience members talked about their experiences with gender acquisition, with the discussion facilitated by What the F staff. Gender acquisition is the process through which children learn gender.
At one table, LSA senior Bella Gaeta said when she got a black belt in martial arts as a girl, her aunt encouraged her to practice more feminine activities. LSA freshman Iris Partlan’s response addressed the contradictions in that statement.
“It’s interesting in that example that that sort of thing isn’t feminine, but yet as you get older women are expected to know self-defense,” Partlan said.
All of the attendees at the table pointed to middle school as a time in their lives when they felt that they had to conform to traditional female standards of beauty and practice.
“I hate pink, I’ve always hated pink, and for some reason in middle school I wore pink,” said Public Policy junior Becca Manery. “I straightened my hair, and it was just things that I haven’t done since then and didn’t do before then.”
“Everyone is going through some big changes, and everyone’s so sensitive to how everyone else perceives them, and I feel like it was a time when even if people weren’t saying anything to me, I was perceiving what other people were doing and I was copying them.”
Attendees described how in elementary school the competition they experienced was often between boys and girls to prove their superiority over the other gender. But after middle school, the girls said that they felt the most competition with other girls. Several discussed the name-calling and shaming that occurred in their high schools.
“We’re all products of our social environments,” said alum Colleen Smythe, addressing her high school experience. “Just the idea that you pick this ‘right’ way to be a woman and shame everyone else who supposedly isn’t that.”
Other women described an internal struggle between doing stereotypically feminine things, such as wearing makeup and dressing up, while still being against objectification.
Several attendees also noted feeling that they need to look good for boys while maintaining feminist ideals. A fundamental question of the discussion was whether they were spending time on make-up and outfits because they wanted to or because they felt it was a requirement.
“Are they doing it because of gender norms or are they doing it because they want to?” Maner said. “They should be able to do what they want to do, and I shouldn’t have any power in judging them for it, whatever their motive is, but it’s hard to distinguish even for myself.”