Pictured above, you will see the Genderbread Person, and its corresponding system for thinking about and discussing gender, posted a few days ago on Everyday Feminism. It was originally posted on it’s pronounced metrosexual and was created by Sam Killermann.
I want to start out by saying, a couple of things. The first thing is that Everyday Feminism is not my favorite website, and my general complaint about many/most of the things I see on their site is that they over-simplify issues, sometimes to the point of getting them wrong all together. I love that they are trying to explain these issues in a way that is accessible to everyone, but sometimes if you go too far in the direction of trying to make it “easy to understand” you lose sight of the actual thing you trying to explain. So maybe the person can understand it easily enough, but the understanding they come to is not actually accurate, because surprise, the truth is not simple. That’s why my blog is called “I have complicated feelings about that…” because the truth is complicated, and feelings are complicated, and humanity is complicated, and compassion even, is complicated.
The second thing is that the first time I saw the Genderbread Person, I was really, really, incredibly, excited about it. I really liked it, and it was probably the first thing on Everyday Feminism that I got really stoked about. Why did I get so excited? Well, it has to do with those double line graphs. See, in the earlier version of the Genderbread Person, everything was explained on a spectrum much like the kinsey scale (as an aside, I was completely obsessed with the kinsey scale when I was 15). The two parallel graphs reminds me of something a vet I hired to perform acupuncture on (one of) my cat(s) said to me (aaaand this is the part where half of you decide I’m nuts and close the window, that’s cool. Her regular vet thought she had asthma, and it was the treatment that a) had proven results and b) didn’t involve forcing steroids into her lungs with an incredibly expensive inhaler. If you still feel all judgey, go ahead and leave). She looked at the symptoms that Blanche was having, and said that, from a Chinese medicine perspective, Blanche either had “too much hot or not enough cold”. And when I cocked my head and said “aren’t those the same thing?” she said very definitively that no, they are not.
The two parallel graph lines for each category allow me to describe, for example, how much I am feminine and how much I am masculine, as two separate things that are not necessarily dependent on each other. And I feel like that’s a really big step in the ways that we talk about gender. Because on the old model, if we see gender presentation as one straight line, to say that I am masculine at all takes me further away from being feminine and closer to being genderless. And that simply isn’t true (for me). My presentation is generally pretty feminine, I read as a girl. But there are also things about me that are masculine. I have a hyper-masculine walk that comes out as soon as I feel threatened, even if I’m wearing a dress. But on the old model, you don’t see that. All you see is a girl that isn’t as girly as some girls, I’m not allowed to be on the masculine side of the graph at all. So I saw this, and I was totally stoked. Here is a visualization that allows me to discuss my gender in a way that is slightly more representative of me! Maybe it’s also more representative for lots of other people! How very very exciting!
Ok, now that all of that’s out of the way.
A conversation in the comments section led me to think about a lot of the limitations of this kind of tool/infographic (both in specific and in general) so get yourself a cup of coffee because we are going to talk about some of that now. I’m going to talk about the criticisms that I heard both on that comment thread and other places, the ones I think are totally legit and the ones I kind of disagree with.
1. Genderbread Person was made by a cisgender person.
That’s totally true! And it is also totally true that trans* and genderqueer people can probably do a much better job of explaining their particular interaction with gender than cis allies can. However, I don’t think that, in itself, makes it irrelevant. You see, one of the biggest pieces of privilege is often not having to talk about a given issue. I’m a cisgender lady, so I can choose not to speak up for trans* people whenever I like. If I hear a horrible joke about “trannies” that joke isn’t about me, and if I want to, I can lower my head and shuffle on.
But being an ally means recognizing that and choosing to do something else. One thing that all of my trans* and genderqueer friends have complained about is the fact that cis people feel that they have the right to just ask trans* and genderqueer people all kinds of questions about their bodies, their sexuality, and their identity, often in wholly inappropriate situations. I see part of my responsibility as any ally as to educate other cis people whenever possible, that way it DOESN’T have to be solely the job of trans* and genderqueer folk to talk about these things. So when I see another cis person talking about how varied gender can be, I don’t think “oh whatever they’re cis it doesn’t count” I think “YES THIS IS WHAT WE ARE SUPPOSED TO BE DOING LETS GET TO WORK.”
2. Genderbread Person actually glosses over trans* people.
I think this one is both true and not true. I think it’s complicated because when we say trans* it actually means more than one thing. Like many other words it actually encompasses a variety of identities that can be related and are bound together by some common experiences and struggles, but still maintain their distinct differences.
I feel like (from my cis perspective) TRANSGENDER people are represented fairly well using this system. There’s ample opportunity to use these charts to say “even though I am biologically male I am a woman” and I think that is awesome.
What it doesn’t do very well is represent TRANSSEXUAL people (people who have or currently are changing their SEX to better line up with how they feel about themselves). I just spent some time looking for a good explanation of the differences between these two things, and I haven’t found one yet. Feel free to share if you have a good one, and I’ll be sure to post it when I come across one. For now, I think if you have a basic understanding of the difference between sex and gender it should be pretty clear. And the genderbread person simply does not address the reality that people can and do change their sex. Not at all. And that’s a huge oversight and a huge problem. And it’s one I don’t know how to fix.
*EDIT: After discussing this issue (and the others) with Sam over email, I have the following to share: “the GP certainly does accomodate transsexualism, incredibly well, in fact. Taking sex off of a continuum where male and female pull from one another was crucial to this. For example, a person can denote an increase in their male-ness as a result of their transition, which, in some cases, may not decrease their female-ness. I spoke with a lot of transsexual folks in creating this new schema to make sure we could make something that would make sense for them as they consider their gender.
What the graphic does not accomodate, and what you (or whomever brought up this criticism) might be misattributing to an issue with transsexualism, is gender fluidity. And that’s just the nature of a static image. Some genderfluid folks have sent me examples of how they use the graphic, though (basically just marking the range they experience in each area), and it seems they’ve made it work for themselves.”
I personally think this makes a lot of sense, and I’m wondering if it is just something I missed looking at Genderbread before, or if it’s something that ought to be more obvious (perhaps highlighted with an example, something that says “this is how transition can affect this”) in the graphic.
3. Genderbread Person attempts to illustrate that sex and gender are not linear by showing them in a linear way.
It sure does! Jeepers, why are people always trying to show us that things are non-linear using linear models?
Maybe it’s because we are all taught and conditioned to think and view the world in a very linear way? Maybe it’s because even though many of us feel deeply that linear thought is NOT the best way we still have a hard time breaking out of the habit? Think about it for a minute. What would be the alternative way of trying to explain gender? A 3-D model? That sounds totally awesome to me, but that is partly because I’ve already spent a ton of time thinking about gender and trying to see the world in less linear ways (even though it’s crazy hard for me). I think that for cis people who have never had to examine gender (and never had the tools to do so) a 3-D model would just be overwhelming. And then they would look away. And then they wouldn’t learn anything at all. Besides, I think the plotting of information on multiple linear variables very clearly gives the impression that it is not a linear issue. That’s actually how most 3-D models are made in the first place.
And lastly, I just want to say that when I hear this argument, I kind of feel like it’s akin to saying that we shouldn’t speak English because it is a very gendered language (or French, or Spanish, or, you get the idea!) and maybe there’s a point to that, but when you are trying to explain something to someone who SPEAKS English, if you expect them to learn German before they talk to you, you aren’t going to get anywhere. You have to start with what you have.
4. By using small words, Genderbread Person is talking down to people.
I disagree with this more than any other point I’m going to bring up here. I do not think that it is condescending to try to offer an explanation in an accessible way, particularly when so much of the conversation around gender is SO VERY ACADEMIC that people who haven’t (and in some cases haven’t had the opportunity to) take a gender studies class are a) afraid to talk about gender or b) think it’s all elitist bullshit. But you don’t have to take a gender studies class to understand gender, and you shouldn’t have to! Explaining things in colloquial language is one way that we make them more accessible and the conversation about gender needs to be accessible. On the contrary, I think that when we hide our explanations behind a wall of academics, and act like it’s somehow beneath us to break it down in simpler language, then we are being condescending. I know I have a tendency to do that, and I am trying to learn how not to.
5. Ok, but that thing about oversimplifying sometimes missing the point entirely…
Yep. Sometimes when we try to explain something in a simpler way, we succeed in being simple but not in explaining what we meant to. Exhibit A, straight from the text that Everyday Feminism posted with the GenderBread Person, regarding biological sex:
Being female means having a vagina, ovaries, two X chromosomes, predominant estrogen, and you can grow a baby in your stomach area.
Being male means having testicles, a penis, an XY chromosome configuration, predominant testosterone, and you can put a baby in a female’s stomach area. Being intersex can be any combination of what I just described.
Oh jeez. So incredibly problematic! Where to even begin?
*Referring to zygotes and embryos as “babies” is misleading. They are not babies. It matters.
*Male people have no ability to put a baby in any part of anyone else’s body.
*Male people (generally) have the ability to perform the male part of sexual reproduction. That involves putting sperm (not a baby) into a female person, which, if a mature egg is present, can join with an egg to form a zygote. The zygote then MAY grow into an embryo if conditions are optimal with the nourishment, protection, and support, of the female person’s body. The embryo is literally MADE OUT OF the female person’s body. Only with the support of the female body can it ever become a baby.
*The idea that men PUT BABIES in women and women are merely vessels has been around a long time. It’s been very detrimental to women, is capital S Sexist, and do I need to even say this? IT’S PART OF THE PATRIARCHY PEOPLE.
*Furthermore, plenty of people who are 100% “male” or “female” (aka not intersex people) are infertile and unable to participate in this process for a wide effing variety of reasons.
*This made me really mad. Can you tell? You guys! It’s on a FEMINIST website! Argh!
6. Genderbread Person doesn’t talk about cisgender privilege.
Correct. I don’t think it intends to talk about cisgender privilege, and I think it has a very good reason for not talking about cisgender privilege. As we discussed before, I think it’s primary function is to explain gender to those that aren’t familiar with this discussion (which is lots of people!) and I believe that those people need to have a firmer handle on what gender is (and what it isn’t!) before they can talk about the privilege that their gender gives them. Otherwise, the conversation makes no sense.
7. Genderbread Person oversimplifies sexual orientation.
It totally does. The graphs for self identity allow that maleness, masculinity, and being a man, are all different. But in the sexual orientation section, it acts is if those three things are suddenly the same. So you can use this system to say “I’m a biologically male woman who happens to be incredibly butch/masculine!” but you can’t use it to say “I’m attracted to feminine men who are male!” Plenty of people are attracted to masculinity in women or femininity in men, and I really wonder how they managed to erase those people so completely? Bottom line, if we’re using this system to talk about sexual orientation, we need more graphs for it.
8. Why is Genderbread Person talking about sexual orientation at all?
Probably just to illustrate that it is not dependent on your gender? Like there are plenty of people who think that if you are a trans* lady, your need to be a lady must be because you want to sleep with dudes? So I guess it shows that that’s not the case, but in my mind, I see sexual orientation as so separate (and equally intricate) that it almost needs it’s own page.
In conclusion, I’m still kind of excited about the Genderbread Person, but it has a lot of issues and probably isn’t the BEST POSSIBLE WAY to talk about gender. However, if we are waiting for the BEST POSSIBLE WAY to talk about anything then we are never going to have a conversation at all, and then where would we be? I think it is a good way to talk about gender, and it is getting better, and that is important. It might not be particularly useful for trans* people, or people who have already spent a lot of time picking ideas about gender apart, but it might be useful to people who are new to the discussion, and could serve as a kind of introduction. I like that it creates a conversation about gender, and causes us to think about it more.
So how should we talk about gender? How do we create a conversation that is open and allows space for all people of all genders without simply throwing up our hands and saying “GENDER IS COMPLICATED, EVERYONE SHOULD JUST BE WHO THEY ARE!” (which often erases people’s personal and individual experiences)? How do cis allies talk about these issues without co-opting the conversation and selling our trans* friends short? How do we talk to cis people who are well meaning and compassionate, but haven’t had the opportunity to understand something as basic as the difference between sex and gender and therefore view trans* people as crazy or damaged? How do we call out our own privilege, and the privilege of those all around us, without minimizing the conversation?
I don’t have concrete answers for these questions, but I’m happy and excited to have the questions. I also want to share this TED talk, as a final thought, called Fifty Shades of Gay. I think it relates somehow and it’s worth thinking about.
In the meantime, I still really like the Genderbread Person, and I’m still probably going to print a bunch of them off and have fun with my friends filling them out to describe ourselves.
It takes forever for me to get my thoughts out. It’s 2pm and I am extremely late for brunch.