Gender stereotypes make me viscerally angry.
Good for you, you might think. Stereotypes should make us all angry! They’re lazy writing, lazy storytelling, lazy thinking. So this is news?
It’s not. I know it’s not news. But at the same time, how can it not be important when even though everyone knows stereotypes are wrong and we shouldn’t use them and we should treat people equally, etc. they just keep cropping up again and again in all sorts of popular contexts?
Here’s the example that prompted me to write this: I enjoyed Rizzoli & Isles. Really. It’s a fun, fluffy TV police procedural in which the buddy cops both happen to be women. But I finished watching their first-season episode “I Kissed a Girl,” which involves one of our heroines pretending to be lesbian* in order to catch a murderer. I admit, the range of lesbian women she met was more diverse than you’d see on most TV shows (though if you squinted, you’d miss the few butch-esque women relegated to the background — it’s difficult to tell whether the showrunners were scared of showing their audiences non-traditional ways of being female or trying too hard not to be stereotypical), and they were characterized about as well as any other non-recurring character. But a lot of the episode turned into: “See? Whatever their sexual orientation, women are still typically feminine, and men are still masculine, and when they’re not, it’s weird.”
This was particularly brought out in the character of Jorge, a male nurse** with whom Isles sets up Rizzoli earlier in the episode. Jorge’s a vaguely effeminate guy who wants to be a stay-at-home dad, and Rizzoli doesn’t like him at all. Fair enough. She’s not attracted to that kind of man: again, fair enough.
However, the story never explicitly goes into why this guy isn’t right for Jane. Even Isles doesn’t argue that Jorge’s style of masculinity is okay and perfectly attractive to some straight women. Through dialogue and cinematography, the episode makes it clear that, duh!, nurturing guys like Jorge are unattractive, because they’re not manly.
And then there’s the really uncomfortable scene where Rizzoli is wearing a wire during her fake lesbian dates (Why? Can’t they have actual undercover back-up female cops to protect her? Isn’t that kind of evidence inadmissible in court anyway?) so that her two straight male colleagues can listen in and occasionally pronounce judgments on the femininity of these members of the lesbian community. (“All they talk about is feelings.” = Yes, I accept that these people are legitimately feminine.)
As you can probably tell, I have a lot of problems with this episode***. I admit, part of those problems is me — I came to the series with high expectations: the main characters are women who work in male-dominated professions! They’re friends with each other! They’re routinely called the gayest not-gay show on TV!
But I guess I’ve learned my lesson: just because a show stars women, is written by women, and is produced by women doesn’t mean it’s going to avoid unhelpful messages about sex and gender.
See, at this point, for me, it’s not even about avoiding lazy generalizations. It’s about explicitly or implicitly judging people based on that laziness.
At this point, I should point out that I’ve got a horse in this race: a lot of the way I present myself is not generally accepted as feminine. My hair is short, I don’t wear make-up (except when I’m dressing up), and I prefer clothing that’s more androgynous. People frequently make assumptions about other parts of my personality based on how I choose to express my womanhood. It can be a frustrating experience, and of course that informs the way I interpret stories like “I Kissed a Girl.”
That said, let me break down my problem with what’s going on in shows like these: first, I understand stereotypes exist for a reason. Humans are pattern-seeking animals. We like to use our brains as efficiently as we can, so when we notice similarities between different members of a group, we make that into a shortcut: I’ve been stung by a couple bees and wasps, so I’m gonna assume all yellow-and-black striped insects sting. Every time I measure the fall of dropped objects, I notice their acceleration is roughly the same, so I’m gonna write down G ? 9.8 m/s2. And I notice ways a lot of the women I meet are alike, so every time I see a woman, I’m gonna assume she’ll dress and act a certain way.
But stereotyping creatures that understand stereotypes (i.e., fellow human beings) is problematic because stereotypes stop being purely descriptive — guesses at the ways people are — and start turning normative, into guidelines for how people should be. Unlike striped insects or falling objects, people can understand generalizations about the groups to which they belong and can change their behaviour in order to feel like they belong to that group. Stereotypes can quickly become conventions or even rules.
Even so, my major problem with stereotypes isn’t whether or not people choose to conform to them, or even whether people use them to assess first impressions of new acquaintances.
My problem is when people, in stories and in real life, forget that reality is the master, not the servant. When someone doesn’t match up to a gender stereotype, like Jorge in “I Kissed a Girl,” it’s okay to acknowledge that they don’t. It can sometimes be hurtful to make wrong assumptions about them based on those stereotypes, but most of the time, that’s still an honest mistake for which the culprit can take responsibility and be forgiven.
What is 100% not cool is to mistake generalizations for norms. It’s not OK to tell Jorge, who identifies as a man, that he’s not masculine. Who gets to define masculinity? Jorge’s way of being a man is just as OK as any other man’s way of being a man. How he expresses his gender is his choice, not that of potential lovers who don’t find his style of masculinity attractive or other men who choose another style of masculinity.
Likewise, although I understand that the showrunners of Rizzoli & Isles were most likely trying to dispel the stereotype that lesbian women don’t engage in traditional styles of femininity, hammering on that idea — especially by having straight male characters say so — misses the point. The point is that everyone’s style of expressing their gender is a legitimate way of being that gender. Butch women, androgynous women, femme women, and all other kinds of women are equally womanly, if that’s how they identify.
Basically, I think everyone should be allowed to express their own gender however they want without getting judged for it. Nobody’s normal — and that kind of means everyone is.
** Not to mention the teeth-gritting sequence in which Jane finds out he’s a nurse, not a doctor, in which the dialogue makes it clear that the latter is “worth” way more than the former, which is… aaargh!
*** And that’s leaving out what I find the most upsetting part, because I’m concentrating on gender and not sexual or violence issues: the scene in which the main characters find out that the victim was unconsensually penetrated with an artificial rather than biological penis and immediately stop referring to the crime as “rape.” Sorry, what? What???