‘Gender is the issue of our time’
What does it mean to feel atypical — to be a square peg in a round hole, a man inside a woman’s body, a little girl who prefers G.I. Joe over Barbie?
“Gender has suddenly become the issue of our time,” says William Bukowski, a professor in the Department of Psychology and director of the Centre for Research in Human Development.
Bukowski has seen the conversation around gender accelerate from a fringe topic to a daily issue. Now he’s organized a conference at Concordia with 13 of his North American contemporaries, including academics, sociologists, psychologists and medical doctors, to talk about gender, typicality and human development on October 16.
One needn’t go far — really, just look at Twitter — to see the public role gender has had in recent years.
Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox are transgender women on magazine covers, and Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian are self-proclaimed feminists. The American Supreme Court ruled in favour of gay marriage, and there has been an ongoing, very complex conversation about rape culture on social media.
“It’s a great time to be a sociologist of gender,” says Marc Lafrance, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia. He will be talking at the conference about rethinking our collective definition of masculinity and what it means to be a boy or man.
Lafrance points out that masculinity is tightly regulated and patrolled in our culture. Showing vulnerability, taking care of children, expressing a desire to communicate are not necessarily seen as masculine qualities or actions. “We need to expand the range of personal and behavioural options for boys and men."
Talking about men at a conference about gender and atypicality may strike some as strange — after all, men have always been the dominant gender. However, Lafrance says adverse reactions to discussing men’s issues publicly for fear of pushing feminism out of the spotlight is a “zero-sum game.”
“For the most part, the study of gender has concerned women and their identities, and there are good reasons for that,” he adds. “But I think now scholars mostly agree that it’s really important we bring men into the conversation.”
Emer O’Toole, an assistant professor in the School of Canadian Irish Studies at Concordia, says these public conversations about feminism, gender and sexuality are fascinating and invigorating, if at times infuriating.
“There are so many heated debates happening because these issues mean so much to people,” she says.
O’Toole will be speaking at the conference about feminism and gender in the public consciousness.
More and more, gender is becoming a matter of performance, she says — something learned through repeated actions and not merely an assigned or assumed sex.
“There is a system in place that rewards us for doing our gender right, for performing our gender correctly — and punishes us for doing it wrong,” O’Toole says.
“The more you’re bombarded with the typicality of sex roles, the more you’re likely to conform,” Bukowski adds.
Is ‘feminism’ still a dirty word?
O’Toole is comforted by a growing awareness and sensitivity to feminism, even if people don’t totally understand it.
“Five years ago, if I walked into a classroom and asked, ‘Who’s a feminist?’ I would have had two people put up their hands,” she says. Today, she’d have half the room.
O’Toole says the online presence of feminist talk has, in a world made up of separate cultural and social communities, given women of all political stripes a meeting point where there was none before. Still, talking openly about women and women’s issues is still met with palpable defensiveness from people untrusting of feminism’s motives.
“When it comes to women, we’re integrated with the oppressor in the most intimate way.
Men are the people we love and have children with, and we are the children of men … The relationships are intimate, so if they don’t see the complications, they don’t see anything at all,” she says.
Gender, Typicality and Development: A Multidisciplinary Conference and Webinar is free and open to the public. It happens on October 16 from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Loyola Jesuit Hall and Conference Centre (7141 Sherbrooke St. W.) on Loyola Campus. Register and see program details here.
Find out about other events in the Faculty of Arts and Science.