She/He/They/Me (2019) provides readers with a unique opportunity to explore the many concepts and phenomena of gender. Weaving anthropology, global history and gender studies into a fascinating blend of empirical information and theoretical speculation, author Robyn Ryle opens our eyes to the sheer vastness of the possible forms that gender can take.
Before we set off on our journey to explore the possibilities of gender, we first need to lose some of our baggage. Otherwise, we’ll be carrying too much weight to travel freely.
To lighten our load, we must set aside the simplistic, conventional notion of gender that can drag down our thinking about the subject.
Let’s start by laying it out on the table and examining its logic. Gender is typically thought of as a natural, objective distinction that divides people into one of two categories: male or female. If you’re male, you normally have a penis, and you act in certain ways people call “masculine” – like being dominant and feeling sexually attracted to women. Conversely, if you’re female, you normally have a vagina, and you act in certain ways people call “feminine” – like being passive and feeling sexually attracted to men.
That’s more or less the “common sense” understanding of gender in modern Western society. Notice what’s baked into it: a set of unexamined assumptions about what’s “objective,” “natural” and “normal,” coupled with a series of black-and-white, binary oppositions, like masculine/feminine, penis/vagina and dominant/passive. All of these assumptions and oppositions are highly questionable, for reasons we’ll look at in the course of our journey.
With this conventional notion of gender, we can also notice a lot of conflation going on between concepts and aspects of reality that should be distinguished from each other. In thinking about gender this way, we’re mixing up biological sex, gender assignment, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation – blurring them together into a confusing mess of ideas.
We’ll unpack all of these concepts in due time. For now, the important thing to note is simply this: the conventional notion of gender is pretty reductive – and deeply problematic.
As we’ll see, the reality of gender is much more complicated. It involves many other factors, dimensions and possibilities, which are overlooked or even outright obscured by the “common sense” understanding of gender.
And, as is often the case, this “common sense” may be common, but it doesn’t really make much sense, at least in terms of capturing the complexities of reality. In the journey ahead, we’ll be striving to do these complexities better justice.