I have always identified as a man. Never have I questioned that identity. That certainty notwithstanding, I also always have believed masculinity and femininity are not exclusively binary. But American society (and most others) equates certain attributes with “maleness” and others with “femaleness.” Our culture encourages males to embrace “male” attributes and females to embrace “female” attributes. Like so many other aspects of reality, though, the extent to which a person feels “male” or “female” differs from person to person. But “pure” males are, by and large, just caricatures. They are artificial expressions of “macho-ness.” Maybe, after extensive behavioral reinforcement, gender-related contrivances morph into a stilted reality—but I doubt instances of extreme “maleness” or extreme “femaleness” are natural.

An attribute that, in our culture, is associated with femininity is a tendency toward emotional release—crying, specifically. Men who tend to be unable to easily control their tears find themselves mocked in cinematic portrayals of the “weak,” “feminine” male character. And it is not just cinematic portrayals, of course—actors learn to mimic and amplify real-world behaviors.  The reverse is true, as well. Women who rarely “emote” through crying sometimes find they are judged as cold and unfeeling—”masculine,” in other words.

The matter of masculinity and femininity is on my mind this morning in response to an article I read on yesterday. The piece addresses the ways in which members of “Gen-Z” view gender differently from the ways older people do. Gen-Z members seem to acknowledge the fluidity of gender. Rather than an “either-or” definition of maleness and femaleness, they seems to identify gender along a spectrum, according to the article. It is not that Gen-Z members no longer identify as cisgender or male or female. Instead, they are unwilling to accept that gender always is binary. This adjustment in attitudes did not occur suddenly with the emergence of Gen-Z; it was beginning to emerge in Baby Boomers and Millenials, but Gen-Z apparently is allowing the attitude to overwhelm the bigotry of earlier generations.

Though I remain somewhat mystified by the concept of non-binary gender, thanks to public explanations like that in the article, I am beginning to better understand the complexities of gender. And as I better understand those complexities, I am beginning to recognize how masculinity and femininity are not attributes that exist on two separate planes but, rather, are simply ranges at opposite ends of a spectrum. Most people, I think, find our identities clustered toward one end or the other, but few of us are at the extremes. We lean in one direction or another, but we tend to exhibit a few—or many—attributes more common toward the other end. That may explain why some men seem more emotional than others and some women seem more stoic than many of their counterparts. And it might reveal the reason some men prefer wide-ranging, intellectual conversations to discussions about sports. Of course, those preferences may have nothing whatsoever to do with gender; their basis may be entirely in upbringing and/or the environments in which they spend most of their time.

I suspect society, by and large, has long and successfully discouraged expressions of gender than are non-binary. Only relatively lately have young people, especially, been willing to shatter the stereotypes. I wonder how that process will unfold in the coming fifty or one hundred years? I won’t be around to see it, but it might be interesting to incorporate ideas about it in fiction. Or not. We shall see. We always do.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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