Thursday, July 1, 2010

Perplexing gender talk from my childhood

So, I'll admit up front that I spent a good chunk of my childhood reading books that were maybe a little old for me. I just read everything there was to be read, so once I had read all the kids books I started in on the non-kid books too. I mean, we went to the library at least once a week, but sometimes you just need to grab a book off the shelf and read it. And I grew up in Seattle where it rains a lot, so you read. And my dad was an English prof at the time, so we had lots and lots of books available, overflowing the shelves and stacked on the floor and in boxes around the house. So I was reading Austen and Hemingway and Dickens and Steinbeck and Hawthorne and the Brontes and Salinger by the age of 9 or 10. There was a lot of stuff in these books that I didn't get, but I understood enough of it to keep me interested, and my dad refused to restrict our reading, although my mom worried about it a bit. Although when I think about it now I realize that certain books (Lolita, for example) were never really in plain view until we got much older, so I suspect there was a little more filtering and censoring going on than met the eye. But I digress.

So I read all these "adult" authors and was exposed to all kinds of different cultural concepts as well as language that was foreign to me. And it was really really good for me I think. But I often came across phrases that puzzled me, and I carried them around in my head and intermittently puzzled on them whenever I was stuck doing something really boring, like sitting in church. And one of these phrases was "of the female persuasion" or "of the feminine persuasion."

First of all, I couldn't make much sense of characterizing gender as a persuasion - as if it were a mental frame of mind, or a chosen stance. Ironically, this makes much more sense to me now, and I think it's probably a great metaphor for the process of becoming one gender or the other. After all, one must be persuaded that one is a woman in order to properly internalize all the social constructions surrounding womaninity, right? Of course, I don't assume that this necessarily has anything to do with the origin of the phrase, particularly since people who would be likely to use the phrase undoubtedly had a much more essentialist view of gender than that.

But what was even more puzzling to me was the fact that you never hear the phrases "of the male persuasion" and "of the masculine persuasion." At this point in my life I would explain this as an indication that "person" implicitly means "male person," just as it means "cis person" and "straight person" and "white person." It's the old norming and othering phenomenon in which male is always the default sort of human while female is the other. But this norming/othering interpretation doesn't quite jive with the social construction view in which both genders are socially constructed and socialization is a process of properly ensconcing individuals into one or the other of the boxes. In other words, in the social construction view, both men and women have to be "persuaded" of their masculinity or femininity, while in the default/other view, men are just people and women are "of the feminine persuasion," in which case "persuasion" here has nothing to do with the process of being socialized into the proper gender. So maybe the phrase reflects both of these aspects of gender in our culture, or neither. I'm thinking we'd have to know the origin of the phrase to know, and I'd be interested to hear about it.

10 comments:

  1. I just had to hop on over from my RSS feed to say that those women in the picture don't look like they're being persuaded very successfully! Mostly they look blase about the whole dilemma :).

    It's an interesting question and I'll have to poke around a little in my reference sources and see if anything comes up. Depending on the era in which the books were published (Austen vs. Steinbeck for example) the phrase may have carried different connotations? Because "feminine" itself, and ideas about how one acquired gender/sex evolved significantly across the span of years between the early 1800s and the middle 1900s!

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  2. Lizzay7/01/2010

    I think it's fine that the two interpretations don't jive very well. One relates to a developmental dynamic and the other is a cultural way of valuing. Not that the two aren't related in some ways, but they are distinct phenomena.

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  3. I think this might be a related linguistic structure: my grandpa used to describe preachers as being "of the ministerial persuasion." Maybe the phrase had a history of applying to lots of different characteristics of a person where the adjective was interchangeable, but it fell out of use except for the "of the female persuasion" form. And if that's true then "of the feminine persuasion" would actually be more correct.

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  4. MelbaToast7/01/2010

    I've read the term "of the naval persuasion" somewhere to describe sailors too.

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  5. Anonymous7/01/2010

    Hmm, so it looks like this is just an antiquated way of speaking. But the interesting point remains that 'of the male persuasion' is never used, so the male as default point is still salient.

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  6. Oh, I had never thought about this before. I think it's telling that you never hear the male version of this phrase, and I agree with your interpretation of it.

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  7. So there are these other examples of this manner of speaking, but in those cases it identifies a personal characteristic or choice made - like being a sailor or clergyman. But then the question is how did being a woman get lumped in with these occupational choices?

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  8. Good question. Given the fact that most people probably had a very essentialist view of gender back when this phrasing was common, using it for gender seems kind of like saying "she's of the left handed persuasion" or "he's of the blue-eyed persuasion." Which is rather different from saying "he's of the naval persuasion." But maybe the word "persuasion" here is just confusing us.

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  9. Cinnamon7/02/2010

    I think that's a Gibson girls pic, right? (in response to Anna's comment) :-)

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  10. Meg'n7/03/2010

    First of all, I can't believe you were reading those books at such a young age, and second, I can see why you became a philosopher/feminist theorist. I never noticed stuff like this at such a young age, but it's certainly interesting now. And these kinds of linguistic artifacts are never really neutral in terms of the message about gender, are they?

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