Gender Bending – Roundup of Pedagogically Useful Photo Essays

Posted on Posted in Fun with Anthro, New and Interesting, Photography, Teaching

I just read a for-fun book that played with gender Ursula K. Le Guin-style (it’s okay to talk about her on an anthro blog, because she’s the daughter of an anthropologist, and is even participating in a multidisciplinary conference organized by an anthropologist. Right? Right.). Le Guin uses all male pronouns in The Left Hand of Darkness to portray a non-binary gender system– there were more than two genders in the book, in other words, but she referred to them all with the same pronoun. In this book that I just read, called Ancillary Justice, author Ann Leckie distinguishes between two genders– as far as I can tell. It’s difficult to determine just how many genders there are, because the language the main character uses doesn’t distinguish between genders at all, so there could be a million different gender identities and you wouldn’t know it as a reader. The protagonist instead refers to everyone using female pronouns, even in the rare case that the person’s gender is identified by some other means. This raises interesting issues with language, since the character interacts with many other people that speak languages where gender is distinguished, and continually misidentifies genders. Chaos ensues. Not really, but it makes you pause as a reader and rethink how you’re imagining the character (or would imagine the character differently) based on their presumed gender identity. (More on the book in this nice review.)

Lesson number one in the “gender” section of an Anthro 101 class is always (repeat with me now): Gender is socially constructed. This can be a very difficult concept to get across, and I know I’ve had some intense holiday discussions with family members on the nature vs. nurture aspects of one’s gender identity (don’t ask how I get into those situations, I have no idea).

Many people believe that X+Y= boy, and X+X= girl, and they get dressed in blue and pink, respectively, and play with swords and dolls, respectively. And girls’ desire to play with dolls comes from an innate “mothering” instinct attached to those two X chromosomes, while boys’ desire to play with swords comes from some innate “fighting” instinct attached to that Y chromosome. There ya go, gender in a nutshell.

Except not.

Sure, nature determines your biological sex, but even that isn’t necessarily a simple binary. Take Germany’s recent decision to allow parents to choose a “third gender” option on their child’s birth certificate, should the baby in question display both male and female characteristics. Then when you start talking about how a person identifies themselves, apart from their biological sex, suddenly gender gets a whole lot more complicated and interesting.

It seems that a plethora of new (to me) classroom appropriate examples of gender “bending” have been finding their way into my news feeds lately. As happens with these things, I started thinking about how I might incorporate them into a course syllabus some day. Hopefully, that will be more useful than just re-posting them on my Facebook feed.

(Sorry, but you’ll have to follow the links for the images. I’m squeamish about posting other people’s work on my page, even with credit given.)

The first is a photo essay by Jill Peters that features Albanian women who, for various social and cultural reasons, choose to live their lives as men. Sadly, the photo essay directs you to Wikipedia to learn more. A more useful scholarly article might be “Of Female Chastity and Male Arms: The Balkan Man-Woman in the Age of the World Picture“, which raises interesting points about perceptions of female sexuality, the foreign gaze, and visual objectification… all of which could go nicely with a discussion of the photo essay (but might be a bit hard to digest in article form for 101 students).

A couple of days later, Buzzfeed delivered another photo essay featuring muxes, men in Oaxaca who take on the traditional gender roles of women. Happily, Buzzfeed references anthropologist Lynn Stephen, whose article “Sexualities and Genders in Zapotec Oaxaca” nicely historicizes different concepts of sexuality and their relationship to class, ethnicity, and gender in that region.

And then Buzzfeed delivered again, with an intriguing photo essay where the photographer dressed one person as a man and woman in the same frame (with some digital editing help). The point being to demonstrate how even a single individual can represent multiple gender identities, and that gender identity is not fixed in stone (or DNA).

Finally, just today I came across yet another photo essay (yes, really. I’m sensing a trend in photography, here) where the photographer took pictures of fairly heteronormative couples (as in, they dressed how dominant society would expect men and women to dress) in their normal clothes, and then had them switch outfits and photographed them again. Larger images are available on the artist’s Tumblr. Personally, I find the second Buzzfeed example to be more effective than this last example, but they could go nicely together as multimedia lecture materials.

Something I’m noticing here as I’m compiling these links… they are all on the Gay/ LGBT sections of the sites in question! Is Gay/ LGBT studies the new women’s studies?

Tell me, fellow anthropologists, how do you teach about gender? How do you explain it to non-anthropologist friends and family (if it comes up at all)?

If you’re not an anthropologist, what do you think about all of this?

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