The gender problem

A hundred years ago, the gender question was about equality, or the lack of it. Today, there is a broad consensus that the sexes should be treated equally, but increasingly agonised debate about what gender actually is. The transgender phenomenon is only the most extreme expression of uncertainty about the relationship between biological sex and gender as it is subjectively experienced by ourselves and others. More quietly and prosaically, many of us simply wonder from time to time if men and women are fundamentally different, or whether such differences as are apparent are no more than the legacy of a less equal society.

When I was writing That Existential Leap: a crime story, I was vaguely conscious of the politics of gender in literature, the tendency of male writers to see maleness as a kind of default, and to consign female characters to supporting roles. Given that my two main protagonists are men, and the main female characters are their paramours, was I writing a one-sidedly ‘male’ novel, and failing to do justice to the whole human experience? (There is no point in writing novels unless you’re going to be ambitious.)

I resolved this question to my own satisfaction at least by putting the ‘gender problem’ front and centre of the opening strand of the novel, which is narrated, and in part ‘written’ by the hero’s girlfriend. Even as she is infatuated by Siegfried, she worries about it: ‘I was conscious that Siegfried had very quickly become the most important person in my life, and frankly I almost resented it. I was afraid of losing myself, and unsure if he was really worth the risk.’

‘Mrs Joseph Klapp (Anna Milnar)’ by Thomas Sully (1814),
as seen on the cover of the 1998 Penguin Classics edition of Jane Austen’s Persuasion

Dependent but unsatisfied, Koshka, or Nisha, or Claudette – her many names reflecting the instability of her identity – becomes the subjective embodiment of what she calls ‘the incompleteness of Siegfried’s own ambition’. That ambition itself arises from what I believe is a more universal experience of adolescent crisis in the postmodern West (see Brexit – existential leap or crime story?). Certainly it is one shared by Koshka. And I don’t think it is a gendered experience, though of course it might be coloured by gender and gender inequality. Koshka wants to be more than somebody’s girlfriend, but the important part of that proposition is the ‘more than’. Everybody wants to be somebody.

So, in acknowledging the gender problem in terms of equality, I was also asserting something about what gender is, or is not. I was wagering that a male writer can write a convincing female character as well as a male one, on the grounds that our shared experience as people is more profound than our particular experience of gender. This is not terribly controversial in the terms of our quiet, prosaic conversations about gender. Someone might wince at a particular thought or phrase – ‘only a man would write that’ – but in general we agree that a skillful writer can inhabit characters of the opposite sex.

The more agonised the debate becomes about gender, identity and transgenderism, however, the more this assumption is thrown into doubt. If gender is an essence cast adrift from biology, is it actually harder to transcend than if it is a set of cultural practices and assumptions derived from an historic division of labour based on merely biological differences? Or is the latter view of gender – broadly, the secular progressive one – hopelessly naïve in its dismissal of essential differences between men and women, biological or otherwise?

Koshka holds a fairly extreme version of the secular progressive view, which she shares in the form of short excerpts from her high school writings on the subject.

Excerpts from Towards an Asexualist Manifesto, by Claudette Dasgupta

…The division between the genders in modern society serves no useful purpose beyond the technical matter of procreation, and there is thus no reason for its prominence in culture. The division of labor along gender lines must be completely abolished in the home as well as the economy, in order to liberate individuals from gendered identities. Masculinity being the ‘default’ gender, free individuals of whichever ‘sex’ will tend to resemble men in dress and bearing, though not to the extent of styling themselves in overtly ‘masculine’ ways in sharp suits and 1980s hair and such. Conventional heterosexuality being a function of the division between the genders, sexual relations will be affected too. For a start, there is no reason in principle to discriminate between the sexes in forming attachments. Instead of being the playing out of an archetype, sexual relationships, like all others, should each be unique, determined by the particular circumstances rather than abstract categories…

…A corollary of the above is that there is, in a sense, no such thing as sex. The use of common names for sex acts should be discouraged, tending as it does to diminish the significance of particular relationships as well as promoting vulgarity. Sex education should be limited to biology, so that young people are free to ‘invent’ sex as a cultural practice for themselves and in their own way…

…Prom, and other institutional forms of conventional sexuality, must be abolished, along with the expectation that teens will ‘date’ according to prescribed rituals, from the sentimentalized ‘first kiss,’ via the vulgar so-called ‘bases,’ to marriage and children. To the extent that the family codifies such expectations, it must be abolished too, liberating individuals to pursue their own ideas…

It’s cute, if I say so myself, but also a little sinister. Koshka understandably objects to the idea that people should behave in certain ways just because of their biology, and yet not because their biology actually demands it, but because society expects it. She is not, like the comedy radical in The Life of Brian, demanding a man’s right to have babies, but she is insisting on a woman’s right not to have babies – or her right to vote, to be a CEO, and all the other things once denied women. Where Koshka is extreme is in objecting to all non-biological manifestations of gender – in matters of dress, bearing and sexuality as well as public roles.

She later discovers that sexual relationships do to some extent involve the playing out of an archetype, albeit more or less on one’s own terms. She might even concede that an institution like marriage is less a straightjacket than what the American writer Matthew Crawford calls a cultural ‘jig’ – a convention that guides rather than coerces, freeing us from the need to reinvent everything from scratch unless we particularly want to. But I like her instinctive disavowal of the superfluous trappings of gender. After all, it was mine before it was hers. (Good thing it’s unisex.)

In another respect, though, Koshka is far less extreme than she might be as a young woman questioning gender today. After all, she understands the distinction between sex and gender as being between a biological fact and the social expectations that come with that fact. Gender is as much a given as is sex; the difference is that its meaning is open to negotiation. For some trans thinkers today, it is gender that is a fact, and biology secondary. The fact of gender is thus not rooted in anything other than the individual’s subjective experience. And paradoxically, that means the definition of gender must be far more rigid than if it is a mere appendage to biological sex. Little wonder many more traditional feminists are troubled by transgender ideology.

This is not to deny the subjective experience of trans people, not all of whom necessarily subscribe to the ideology that has been invented to explain that experience anyway. But it is particularly strange to expect everyone else to think of gender in this way. The concept of cisgender – a positive conceptualisation of not being transgender – suggests the alignment of sex and gender for the great majority of people is a happy coincidence, a privilege indeed. We are expected to own our gender as something distinct from our sex.

Perhaps that explains why some young people now identify as ‘non-binary’. Like most of us, I suspect, they do not feel that strongly about their gender, but because gender identity has become such a big deal, they think this must be exceptional. Koshka’s ‘asexualism’ is a bit like non-binary identity, except she thinks it should be the norm. She sees gender as no more than a relic of inequality. And perhaps it is.

Historically, the most important non-anatomical ‘difference’ between men and women was that they were unequal – men dominant and women subordinate – and each had distinct roles, with women largely consigned to the home. Gender was a social reality as much as a subjective experience, and women’s liberation meant freedom from the constraints of femininity as it was traditionally understood – not from an unwanted body.

But Koshka’s gender problem is not that she is oppressed as a woman in a patriarchal society. Instead, she worries that she has chosen her own subordination by falling in with an older man for whom she can be, ‘no more than a blushing teenager, a girly curly brunette with a prettily awkward expression’. The accidents of her gender loom larger than she would like in her new life. And she has nothing to do but brood on the matter. A pivotal chapter, ‘Unbecoming a woman’, takes its epigraph from Jane Austen’s Persuasion: ‘We cannot help ourselves. We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us.’

Of course, Koshka is not an upper class spinster in Georgian England. She resolves not to allow her feelings to prey on her, but to take responsibility for herself. Young women today have more freedom than ever to do just that. And if the secular progressive view is right, that freedom, that equality with men, might mean gender effectively fades away.

Looking around today, it might seem that differences in dress, manner and bearing are going nowhere – not to mention a degree of continuity in gendered social roles – and perhaps reflect a more profound difference between the sexes that will survive equality. But the very idea of gender equality is historically new – it is easy to forget that it has been widely accepted, even in the West, for decades rather than centuries – and the truth is that as a culture we are still working out what it means to be ‘different but equal’. Koshka might yet be proved right.

Buy That Existential Leap: a crime story.