Imagine a world, a future, where our sons will not be feared and our daughters will not have to be scared. A culture where we will not be defined by labels attached to rigid cages of single identities. Everyone will be free to express themselves fully; to bring their gifts to the world and choose to do what feels enriching and valuable for themselves and therefore society as a whole.
In a surprisingly underused space, I experienced a taste of what this would be like. Through honest communication between a circle of men and a circle of women, a dialogue was opened up about what it’s really like to grow up in a world with the crushing pressures of gender stereotypes. For the purposes of discussing the issues with single identities, and the need for us to communicate about the damaging effects of stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, I will be using the terms man/woman and boy/girl throughout this article. This is based on the experience of this particular workshop, but it’s important to highlight the fact that there are many people who are not born, or choose to be defined, as neither ‘male’ nor ‘female.’
I would like to invite you to share this experience as I retell some of the themes that came up, in the hope that others will consider the importance of spaces that allow for open conversations between the sexes. Of course, men and women are not so different; the crux of the matter is that we have a shared human experience. It is the ideological gender constructs of patriarchy which divide and position us against one another.
We currently live in a patriarchal society, whereby the leading drum beats in time with ‘masculine’ systems. Every single person, whether they define themselves as man, woman, un-gendered, transgendered or any other form of self-identification, is affected by patriarchy to varying degrees. In order to bring about real change in the world, we need to balance the scales between the masculine and feminine. There are many issues to tackle, from putting an end to violence against women, creating a more sustainable future alongside nature to protecting a child’s human right to water. Whatever we’re facing, we need to work together.
Ideologies surrounding gender can be experienced before a child is even born, with the stereotypical blue for a boy and pink for a girl. Toys are gendered from a young age with active hero action figures for boys and sexualised passive Barbie dolls for girls. Something this simple points to the wider problem across society that affects boys and girls as they grow into men and women. How we begin to address such deep rooted inequalities between the sexes, and the varying expectations of either gender, is an important issue that young people face today when navigating a path through the rocky terrain of gender constructs.
Communication and honesty are key but in what spaces are boys and girls, men and women, invited to communicate truthfully with one another about what it means to be male, female and any other or neither, in today’s society?
In our women’s circle, we each discussed what it means to us to be women, what we celebrated
and what we were hurt by. Upstairs, there was a men’s circle where they discussed what it means to them to be defined as men. Then something truly inspiring happened. Each circle came together and witnessed the other’s discussion as we fed back to the other group.
First, the women sat in a circle to share, with the men sat in a circle on the outside, to listen. Then we swapped and the women listened to the men. It felt liberating to be able to open up to men about the issues women face today in society, and have faced throughout history, and to have them really listen. The women spoke about being tired of taking responsibility for the damage of patriarchy. But by the end of the witnessing circles, it felt as though we were not carrying the burden alone and were actually sharing it with the men, who were there to take some of the weight and walk alongside us.
Other themes that came up for the women were validation lying in the body which we are so often taught belongs to male society where women’s bodies are policed. Some expressed the feeling of being treated ‘like a piece of meat’ in a night club, of being fearful or finding it difficult to trust men. Most experienced a sense of body shame or insecurity growing up and frustration at being made to feel objectified as a female. We discussed pornography and how it has affected us all, whether explicitly or inexplicitly. We expressed the need for humanities collective wounds to be healed together and the importance of educating young people and teenagers about sex, sexuality and gender constructs.
When the men spoke, it also felt liberating, as we discovered just how many problems are faced by men as they try to become a man in such a confused, damaging society that teaches boys ‘real men don’t cry’. The men discussed a feeling of it being easier to open up around women and feeling able to express themselves more freely with women than with men. There was a shared sense of insecurity growing up, about failing to fit society’s stereotypical masculine qualities (strong/serious/unemotional). They spoke of ‘lad’ culture shaping boys into less confident humans unsure of what it means to be a man.
Because of the destruction that has come from men abusing their power, some expressed a feeling of disconnect from their own empowerment as men. Others felt ashamed of being a man or feelings of self-loathing. They talked about bearing a huge responsibility of being a man but there being no certain guidelines that come with it. Some felt a deep longing for supportive men’s spaces where they are able to engage with their authentic masculinity and honour the feminine together.
As another man opened up, and was truly present and honest, another woman in the witnessing circle began to release tears. The men’s circle closed with one contributor discussing how he sees the women support each other and be there for one another, he said ‘That’s ours if we want it.’
It was touching to see such authenticity and to experience a deep connection within and between the women’s and men’s circles. Personally, I wept for all the times that connection was not realised or has been lost, for all the times men and women have abused one another or have been abused
and lacked the communication needed to understand. For every woman across the world who is or has been treated as an object belonging to man, her autonomy as a human being denied.
Femininity and masculinity are not confined to any one particular definition; both have been twisted up, used, abused and constructed to fit the rigid cages of patriarchy. But we can reclaim the feminine and the masculine. We can unite the innate goodness of human qualities across the gender spectrum. If we want to see a future where labels no longer hold us back, where we accept the failure of the single identity, and the masculine and feminine are celebrated in their union rather than wounded in their disconnect, then we must learn to grow together. We must open up and listen to one another, allowing for honest communication because only together can we heal from the collective damage of patriarchy.