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Who You Were Born as May Not Be the Person You Were Meant to Be

Don't let anyone define who you are.

The definition of a person, let alone a gender, is fluid—who you love, what you were, what you stand for, and the life you choose to lead. Yet society seeks to oppress and silence the masses of women, young people, lesbians, gays, and transgender people. I read/watched three pieces that were all founded upon the central idea of gender and gender roles. The first piece is a spoken performance by Chimamanda Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists; the second piece is Bros Before Hos: The Guy Code by Michael Kimmel; and the last piece was A Powerful Poem About What It Feels Like to Be Transgender by Lee Mokobe. These three pieces all assemble into a puzzle that connect in order to highlight the gender and gender roles struggle in current day America.

In the first piece, We Should All Be Feminists, a Ted Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an established novelist, Adichie talks about feminism, the gap between women and men, and many other things. She opens her talk by detailing a story about her and her late friend, Okuloma. They were in a heated argument about a topic she cannot remember and Okuloma called her a “feminist”—a word she did not know the meaning to, yet she could tell Okuloma did not mean it as a compliment. Adichie then goes on to talk about her life and accomplishments, such as writing a novel, a feat she is immensely proud of. She encounters a reporter who basically tells her that feminism is not anything to be proud of, and Adichie then goes on to talk about other encounters she has had with people who say similar remarks. One Nigerian woman she encountered told her that feminism was not a part of her culture and was especially not African. The term "feminism" has such negative connotations and Adichie address this negativity by using personal stories of her own. She also addresses the stereotypes and differences between women and men through these personal stories such as wanting to be class monitor yet despite her high score, the position was given to a boy. She addresses the differences between men and women in all aspects of life: work, home, relationships, even who controls/earns the money—specifically the difference between the two genders and their specific “places” in society. Yet despite the differences between women and men, Adichie explains that there is common ground as she leaves the audience with the central idea of her speech: “A feminist is a man or a woman who says, ‘Yes, there's a problem with gender as it is today, and we must fix it. We must do better'.". Men and women might be different, especially in the eyes of society, but if we rewire society’s expectations, the gap can close and the feminist agenda will emerge victorious.

The second piece, Bros Before Hos: The Guy Code, by Michael Kimmel, an author and sociologist, highlights what it is to be a boy/man and how society defines being a true “man.” Kimmel conducts several workshops and assemblies around the country and the key factor he sees among boys is that being a man/boy is defined by a rigid set of rules defined by their peers, brothers, fathers, coaches, and other male figures in their lives. The idea of a man/boy is specifically labeled and defined by society, not by the specific boy or man even if they do not fit the mold society has set forth. The “true man” refuses to show weakness and emotion as that is seen as failure, not the social norm, and can be connected to homosexuality, which is seen as unmanly. Kimmel addresses this fear of homosexuality as he says, “Homophobia is even deeper than this. It’s the fear of other men—that other men will perceive you as a failure, as a fraud” (613). Kimmel approaches the idea of masculinity and manhood by talking to young men about their beliefs, stories, and ideas about being a man. He addresses the desire of boys to go beyond the box they are shoved in, the desire to try things that are seen by the world as weak and not typical of a man. Men are told to be strong, reliable, in control, aggressive, loud, successful, risky, and many other attributes that are putting pressure and fear into the boys of the US. Kimmel addresses the connection of homosexuality to behaviors that are weak and vulnerable and address the fact that the use of homosexuality as a negative label humiliatingly spotlights a particular boy and isolates him. Kimmel uses his piece to explore the meaning of being a man/boy, the fear of being anything but what society says a boy should be, and the oppressive nature of being a young man in America.

The final piece I analyzed is A Powerful Poem About What It Feels Like to Be Transgender, by Lee Makobe, a South African slam poet, Makobe addresses being a transgender man. Makobe was born as a girl, but from an early age, with the reassurance of his mother who told him he could grow up to be whatever he wanted to be, decided to live life as a boy. Living life as a boy was okay until he began to develop and began to run into ridicule and oppression from family, friends, and peers. Makobe’s fear and confusion is evident in the beginning of his piece as he says, “The first time I uttered a prayer was in a glass-stained cathedral… I asked Jesus to fix me and when he did not answer I befriended silence in the hopes that my sin would burn and salve my mouth would dissolve like sugar on my tongue, but shame lingered as an aftertaste,” Makobe was met with harsh, cold judgement, and despite the desire to stay in his comfortable environment, was outed by his classmates in school. This outing made Makobe really take a step back and look at his life, what he wanted, who he was, and what he needed in life. This was an epiphany for Makobe and a turning point—Makobe realized that as a transgender man he was more of a spectacle than a person. Makobe addresses the craze and circus show of being a transgender person and how society puts you on display, not for support but for the headlines and to showcase someone veering from the social norm. People are scared of speaking out and expressing themselves because of this spectacle that is made of people who are different from everyone else. Makobe is highlighting the struggle of being transgender and the lack of support, the oppression, the silence, and the isolation.

All three of these pieces approach the topic of gender and gender roles, what it means to be a man or woman or a person in general in different ways, yet they all centralize on the same topic. Society suppresses emotion, expression, and liberties that defy the social norm that people are conditioned to live in. The pieces all focus on the ideas of oppression of emotions, voice, liberties, the freedom to be whomever a person chooses to be, the negative use of labels like feminism and homosexuality, and society’s desire to pressure people into conformity. All three authors, Makobe, Adichie, and Kimmel address the use of labels to negatively pressure a person. Adichie details an argument she had with her close friend Okoloma. During the argument he calls her a feminist which she says, “It was not a compliment. I could tell from his tone, the same tone you would use to say something like ‘You’re a supporter of terrorism',” (Adichie). Kimmel makes the connection between weak and vulnerable behaviors and homosexuality. When talking to young men, he says, “What happens if you refuse or resist? What happens if you step outside the definition of masculinity? Consider the words to describe you… wimp, faggot, dork, pussy, loser, wuss, nerd, queer, homo, girl, gay, skirt, Mama’s boy, pussy-whipped” (Kimmel). Makobe details his outing of his true personality by his classmates and he says, “Naturally I did not come out of the closet. The kids at my school opened it without my permission. Called me by a name I did not recognize, said ‘lesbian'” (Makobe). All three of these pieces connect on the idea of turning around words that people find pride in, feminist, gay, lesbian, dork, nerd, etc. into a negative word intended to humiliate or embarrass a person back into the shell of societal conformity.

These pieces also connect on the idea of oppressing the voices, freedoms, emotions, and liberties of people. In Makobe’s poem, he speaks of a time in which his aunts oppressed him as a boy, the gender he chose to live as. As he grew up and began to develop yet still maintain his desire to be a boy, he says, “It was met with nostalgic aunts who missed seeing my knees in the shadow of skirts, who reminded me that my attitude would never bring home a husband, that I exist for heterosexual marriage and childbearing,” (Makobe). Despite Makobe’s desire to live life as a man, his family sought out to remind him of his gender as a woman and the role that gender forced him to be apart of because society said so. When Kimmel interviews a young boy, the young man says, “'The first thing I think of is my coach,' says Don, a twenty-six-year-old former football player at Leigh. ‘Any fatigue, any weakness, any sign that being hit actually hurt and he was like ‘Waaah! [fake crying] Widdle Donny got a boo boo Should we kiss it guys?’ He’d completely humiliate us for showing anything but complete toughness’” (Kimmel). This boy, who was justified in expressing emotions, was suppressed from these emotions because as a man, men are not conditioned to show emotion unless it is within their gender norm. Because he is a man, he is unable to feel any sort of feelings that make him weak, like feeling pain.

These piece also focused on the idea of conforming to society’s standards and set gender roles. Despite Makobe’s desire to be seen as a boy and to live life as a young man, he is “put in his place” by his overbearing aunts who declare that the only purpose of being a girl, Makobe’s gender at birth, is to bear children and find a man (Makobe). They overlook Makobe’s feelings and the life he is choosing to lead and remind him of what is expected of him by society; they pressure him and ignore his feelings for the sake of conformity and being a woman. In Kimmel’s piece, this pressure to conform to what society says is acceptable and expected of a man and a woman is present as Kimmel talks about the connection of homosexuality to vulnerable men and emotions of men. Kimmel interviews a young man named Jeff who says, “‘It’s not like I want to stay in that box… But as soon as you step outside of it, even for a second, all the other guys are like, ‘What are you, dude, a fag? It’s not very safe out there on your own… now in my fraternity, on this campus, man, I’d lose everything”’ (614). Young men are so nervous about the possible social, physical, mental, and emotional consequences that could result in their diversion from the social norm and to step out of the box they are confined in because they are men that they suppress those emotions and activities. The idea of being see as different from others is scary for boys—they could be ostracized for those behaviors and would rather be accepted than who they might truly want to be. The picture society paints of a “true man” is rigid and strict and if someone does not conform to this, they are isolated and reprimanded by society until they “fix” those behaviors and rejoin their group.

Through reading and watching these three pieces, I have gained immense knowledge about gender roles and the struggle of gender acceptance. Through this assignment, I was able to take a step back and make connections that I would not have made on my own accord—this assignment gave me a new and useful academic skill to further my education. These pieces, individually were different, yet they all connected to one issue which I found interesting. This assignment was almost like a puzzle for me to solve. It was interesting to connect and synthesize different works into one concise form of work, which in turn produced my assignment. Out of the three pieces, I found Adichie’s performance and Makobe’s performance to be the most informative in terms of this assignment. These pieces stretched me to fully acknowledge all of the parts of gender inequality. It is not just women, or just boys/men, or just one single group. It can be anyone and sometimes as a society, myself included, forget that. These pieces showed me how, despite the different people and different situations, oppression and inequality is rather universal, something that is disheartening to realize. We live in a nation that cares more about image than about the person itself; people fight to silence others and pressure children from birth to stay in “their gender lane” and if they do not, they are wrong. It makes the world a very cold and unwelcoming place for those who want to live their true lives that happen to fall outside of society’s rules. These pieces were emotional, powerful and gave me insight into aspects of the gender roles topic that I had not considered.

The topic of gender roles is something that I have being emerged in directly and indirectly for a long time, yet it took this assignment for me to analyze my own life and the connections. Some of my friends that I grew up with fought hard against society and peer oppression to be their own person. One of my best friends from elementary school began to live his life as a transgender man and I could not be more proud of him—he was ostracized by his own father and it was a very difficult time for him. When Trump was elected, I know several friends and family members who were scared for their lives because of his views on women and transgender people. The way that society pressures people and tells them they are not good enough if they do not stick to the rules of their gender assigned at birth, even if they choose to be something different, is sickening. I agree with Adichie when she says that feminists are not just women, they can be men, too, and if men join this movement, it will power through and make a bigger impact. I think people need to get with the new status quo. People are people no matter what they decide to label themselves as, and universal acceptance and love is achievable. We should all work to accept women, men, lesbians, transgender men and women, and anyone else as equals and people—we are all affected directly or indirectly by this issue and we need to get over what society wants and make a new expectation.

References:

Adichie, Chimamanda: “We Should All Feminists.”, TedxEuston, TED, www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_we_should_all_be_feminists/transcript?language=en.

Kimmel, Michael S. Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. Harpercollins,

2009.

Makobe, Lee. “A Powerful Poem About What It Feels Like To Be Transgender.” 7 Nov. 2017,

TEDWomen 2015, TEDWomen 2015.

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