Thursday, January 7, 2010

Seeing Male and Female

The chapter "Toward a Theory of Gender" by Suzanne J. Kessler and Wendy McKenna in The Transgender Studies Reader edited by Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle provides an interesting discussion of how people attribute gender that is useful for transgender women and men. The authors' main argument is that people use a schema when seeing someone as male or female, the schema being that you "[s]ee someone as female only when you cannot see them as male" (p. 176). When reading the gender of others, male is the default gender that is seen, and people try to eliminate all male characteristics before seeing someone as female. The presence of any characteristics designated as male identifies the person as male for most people, even when confronted with contradictory information. The penis is the most powerful indentifying characteristic and is often enough to override other characteristics.

The authors conducted tests to determine how people attribute gender to others. In the first test, participants where allowed to ask 10 questions to determine the gender of an unknown and unseen person, without asking "Is the person male/female?" Questions typically dealt with physical characteristics like height and weight with occasional questions about social perceptions of gender, such as clothes worn and having a job or not. Secondary sex characteristics, such as prescence or lack of breasts and development of biceps, were occasionally asked about but genitals never were, which was seen by participants as tantamount to asking if the person was male/female. The interesting thing about this test was the way people were able to adjust the information they were provided with to fit the gender they perceived for the unknown person, for example thinking that a person over 5'8" would be male and then adjusting that perception to include tall women when presented with the information that the person has protruding breasts and wears skirts.

The second test involved plastic overlays of characteristics, including short/long hair, body hair/no body hair, wide/narrow hips, breasts/no breasts, penis/vagina and gender neutral clothes/lack of clothes, over a neutral face. The test again found that characteristics identified as male or female were not enough to identify the sex of the figure; information was usually made to fit the perception of the figure. Being able to see the genitals of the figure produced interesting results. The presence of a penis was enough to override all other characteristics identified as female (long hair, wide hips, breasts, no body hair) but the presence of a vagina was not enough to override characterstics identified as male (short hair, narrow hips, no breasts, body hair). This supports the authors' argument that male is the default gender seen by people, with the male characteristics needing to not be present to see someone as female. These characterstics are, of course, determined by the culture and not biologically.

The authors argue that the working of this schema is the cause of the difficulty faced by transgender women in "passing" as female; as others examine the transgender woman to determine her gender, the presence of some male characteristics override more obviously female characteristics, like breasts, hairstyle and dress. "The relative ease with which female-to-male transsexuals 'pass' as compared to male-to-female transsexuals underscores this point" (p. 176). Because of the tendency to see male as the default gender, "[i]t is rare to see a person one thinks is a man and then wonder if one has made a 'mistake.' However, it is not uncommon to wonder if someone is 'really' a woman" (p. 176).

While this tendency may seem difficult to overcome, the authors also point out that first impressions of gender are essential; we often work to support our first perceptions of another person's gender and find it difficult to discredit that perception. It is even difficult for other people to see transgender women as men if they have never known them as men. The authors argue that the first impression is crucial for transgender women and men, much more important than trying to maintain the image of the "perfect" woman or man. "If transsexuals understood these features of discrediting they would (1) focus on creating decisive first impressions as male or female and (2) then stop worrying about being the perfect man or woman and concentrate on cultivating the naturalness (i.e., the historicity) of their maleness or femaleness" (p. 177).

I will be interested to test the importance and effectivess of first impressions in the next couple of weeks. While I have taught and attended classes as a woman in the past, this will be the first time I will be starting a semester as Lucy. In the past, I began the semester as a man and made the switch to living as a woman during the course of the semester; it may have been difficult for my students and classmates to overcome their first impressions of me as a man despite the fact that I began living as a woman. I wonder what impact only knowing me as Lucy will have on my reception by and interaction with my students?

1 comment:

  1. A very interesting post, Lucy.

    It is interesting that there is no mention of voice and mannerisms in this study. I remember going to a talk given by Julia Serano (The Whipping Girl). I had never seen a picture of her. I arrived early and the talk started late. There were, perhaps, about 30 in a large lecture hall at a college. I kept looking around the room trying to figure out who she was. The room was filled with many transwomen and male and female college students.

    When she came up to the podium, I was quite surprised and I must say that I would never have picked her out of the crowd. She was dressed as the college professor she is (jeans, flats, etc,) and completely blended in as a woman. Her voice may have been lower than the average woman but her inflection and mannerisms were 100% female. I never would have picked her out of the crowd.