Gender – Poltergeist*

*What I’m saying is, gender might be something insubstantial that we made up, but it still manages to throw shit around and break things.

I received a detailed and thought-provoking comment on my post Bending Gender – Until it Snaps, which made me realise I may not have been expressing myself clearly in that post.

So, some clarification:

When I use the term ‘sex’ in this piece, I’m not talking about sexual intercourse, I’m talking about anatomical gender, as in does someone have a penis or a vagina?

Also, I’m not at all trivialising gender or claiming it is ‘fluid’. Quite the opposite – gender is a huge (and, IMHO, VERY problematic) part of our constructed performative cultural system. It is EXTREMELY rigid, but that doesn’t make it REAL or innate. Gender identity (as opposed to the sexed body) is a socially constructed idea, and we are all to some extent bound by its expectations. Even if we choose to subvert it, we feel its ramifications, as Lacey Roop did when she was asked if she were a ‘dude or a dyke’. A man cannot simply chose to wear a dress casually in our culture without attracting stares. A woman can’t step out without makeup without being accused of lacking in pride in her appearance, as though a woman’s worth is only in her aesthetic.

(Check out Lacey’s quite frankly AWESOME spoken word performance Gender Is a Universe)

What I’m saying is that gender as a set of behaviours and cultural expectations is actually made up – it has no real basis, no relationship to ‘nature’. In simplistic terms, there is absolutely NOTHING about my body, with its breasts and womb, that insists it must be clothed in soft lines and flowing fabric and framed by long hair and enhanced by make-up. But this is certainly what the dominant culture expects of me. And I, personally, actually conform to that. It doesn’t bother me in my own life, but there was a time when as a ten year old child I cut my hair off like a boy and wore overalls because I was a rough-and-tumble kinda kid and dresses and long hair just weren’t practical, and at the age of TEN I was teased as a lesbian. Apart from being confused about why being a lesbian should be something to tease someone about (we were a very liberal family, and whilst I am straight, I copped the ‘lesbo’ teasing throughout my schooling because I am a little bit different) it shocked me even then, as a child, to realise that people would draw such huge conclusions from the way I cut my hair and dress. Our culture is profoundly gendered, and it is a problem because gender – the behaviours and dress styles and demanours we culturally associate with anatomical sex – is actually arbitrary, i.e. made up.

To further complicate the matter, when we look into the science of it and realise that anatomical sex is not even a fixed thing in nature, that this division between the male body and female body is, like gender identity, an arbitrary binary that we have imposed on nature and not innate to biology, then gender and all the cultural implications of it is revealed as a farce.

Sexuality is one such cultural implication. Seeing that gender is a farce illuminates sexuality as a similarly flawed concept, because it is dependent on gender. How many children suffer brutal teasing at school on the grounds of sexual orientation (in my case an orientation I didn’t even identify with!)? And when we understand that sexuality is just nomenclature, a collection of categories that respond to the presumption of the REALITY and INNATENESS of gender and anatomical sex, we see that homophobia (or, indeed, heterophobia, which I have seen in full flight! Or bisexual individuals copping it from the gay community for ‘not picking a side’ or from the hetero community for being supposedly promiscuous) is not only ridiculous on humanitarian grounds, but competely divorced from reality.

I would go so far as to say that gender is a construct designed over the milennia to control people, much like class systems.

I agree that in the short term, helping people ‘reassign gender’ (in this case gender meaning anatomical sex) seems like the best solution, but the culture needs to shift in the long run, and I’m not convinced that gender reassignment doesnt actually hinder this shift by giving the culture a get-out-of-gaol-free card.

In summation, what angers me so much about this phenomenon is realising how much pain people suffer, believing that they are somehow wrong, when the standard by which they are measuring their ‘correctness’ is in fact a milennia old cultural LIE.

You realise that’s going straight to your waist waste, right?

This isn’t the first time this has been said. It has been said so many times it is almost trite. A truism. One of those things that make the listener glaze over, internal monologue muttering “you’ve only just realised this, O Enlightened One?” And this isn’t the first time I’ve noticed it, or thought of it, but it is the first time I’ve experienced it first hand.

America, and everything about it, is BIG.

Everything is big from the continent itself, to the walkways, to the buildings, to the attitudes and energy, to—you guessed it—the people. Winding through the streets of Las Vegas on our courtesy shuttle to the hotel, gazing up in naive-small-town-wonder at the monstrous buildings covered in glittering lights, I had to wonder how such a vibrant big place, so full of energy and enthusiasm, could foster such, well, bigness. The average American, in my limited experience, is so present, their everyday rhetoric so commanding and reverberant, I wondered that calories didn’t just evaporate the moment these people began to speak. And I mean this in the most complimentary way: America truly is inspiring in its optimism.

I had heard of the bigness of American servings from friends, and so when my first meal was served up (‘Traditional Belgian Waffles’ with whipped butter, maple syrup and optional side of fruit) I wasn’t entirely surprised. I ate half of it, politely pushed the rest aside, and concentrated on enjoying the watery black stuff that was my ‘coffee’ (this takes considerable effort for one who will send a flat white back if it has more than two millimetres of foam…). I was forming an idea: the key to staying thin in America, which some people are managing to do, must be to learn to say ‘no, thank you’ and eat only half of what is put in front of you. With $5 All-You-Can-Eat buffets in every casino (not to mention poker machines in every spare square foot, including food halls) will seems to be a quality of the divine in Vegas, the deficiency of which the place depends upon.

Las Vegas is a strange little town. As you fly in, you notice immediately that it just stops. There is no dwindling suburbia. There is the obvious high-rise of the city and the casino strip, and then the city just dies at someone’s backyard fence, and then the desert stretches out. From the ground, the place feels much the same: The heart of Vegas is obviously The Strip, the main drag of casinos and gentlemen’s bars, where pimps and their hired ‘promotions teams’ are not choosy about at whom they thrust escort calling cards ($65 is the average. I’m not sure what that includes). Casinos like Cesar’s Palace and The Bellagio are encrusted with the trappings of gaming wealth, and it seems somehow indecent to even casually calculate how much money must flow through their machines each day. But then, you reach a certain point towards the end of The Strip, about where Circus Circus Casino is, and the place falls to rack and ruin. The sparkling glamour and aesthetic riches of the carefully crafted city fall away almost instantly, revealing run-down back streets, bordered up houses and closed down smaller casinos that just couldn’t compete, populated by women who can’t quite call themselves ‘escorts’ and men who sleep in bus-stops having gambled away their reason long before their money.

This is the dichotomy of Vegas: Incredible wealth in the heart of incredible poverty. Waste girt by wasteland. Suddenly I feel silly for sending back that flat white.

Nevertheless, one quickly forgets all this as the bus nears The Mirage, and the magic of the place has you convinced that nothing at all exists beyond the flashing lights and the blipping poker machines. Suddenly what really matters is finding a good meal and a poker machine with the X-Files on it (I never did find one…)

On our first evening in Vegas, we ate in a nice restaurant called Nobs Hill in the MGM, and I decided in advance that I would not order an entrée, nor desert, and unless they made ‘specialty coffee’ (‘specialty’ meaning plain old espresso) I’d say ‘no, thank you,’ to that too. We placed our order, and were promptly served with a selection of breads and a pleasant blend of olive oil, garlic, vinegar and various herbs in which to dip the breads. I almost informed the waiter that we had not ordered bread, but realised my own error just in time to save myself from looking like a cultureless buffoon.

The next day I decided that I had to eat a hot dog in America. It’s like having escargot in France except less… ah… well, you get my drift. So I followed a sign that promised me a foot-long hot dog for $1.99 (very reasonable, even without the generous current exchange rate) and planned to order a regular size hot dog.

They didn’t have regular size hot dogs.

I ordered my foot of processed off-cuts, bread and ketchup, gave half of it to my father, took a photo, and ate the rest. Had my father not been hungry, I probably would have thrown it away.

On our final night, we ate at Samba, a Brazilian steak house in The Mirage. Having learned our lesson, we ordered one main and one entrée, and planned to share. As I had come to expect, a complimentary selection of breads arrived shortly after we ordered. Then the entrée came. It could have easily fed me and left me quite full. Even shared, it was enough to satisfy. Still, we ate it all, and settled in to digest a little and wait for our mains. As if by magic, the moment our entrée plates were cleared, a waiter appeared by our table with salad for us both. He served it up, and left us alone. I didn’t touch it yet, assuming it was to go with our mains. After a little while my father leaned across the table and said, “I think we’re supposed to eat it now…” Sure enough, when the waiter returned, he asked me if I would like to keep my salad. I said I would, and he left to fetch our mains.

“I think I get it,” I said, “why they have such an obesity problem here… they just don’t let you stop eating, do they?”

Then the main dish arrived. And the complimentary side dish dishes. Generous servings of sweet potato, fried bananas, some kind of spinach and cheese based dip (delicious), black beans and rice. The side dishes alone could have fed four Australians with an average appetite.

Needless to say, we left most of it on the table.

Outside, up the strip, away from the revealing lights, those women who weren’t quite ‘call girls’ turned tricks so they wouldn’t have to dig our leftovers out of the garbage, and men who had nothing to sell, did get our leftovers.

I’m not suggesting all Americans start consuming everything they are served, then the obesity epidemic would cease to be an epidemic and become the simple norm (if it isn’t the norm already), but it is food for thought, if you’ll pardon the pun. If this culture of waste extends beyond food consumption, I wonder if it is too great an extrapolation to consider that the very same cultural phenomenon that serves a foot long hot dog with no downsize option, might have contributed to the economic crisis the USA now faces?

Just a tiny bit?

Maybe even a big bit.