Chapter II:

How do I relate to all this gender stuff?

So, how does one become a promising young woman? Being born with a vagina clearly is not enough, as we saw in Bulgarian folklore - being a woman can mean being a samodiva OR being a golden girl. Bulgarian folklore's system of underlying values can serve as the basis for identifying the kinds of people that can exist in a society. Of course, folklore has plenty of limitations, as it is no longer evolving to reflect the values of today's society in Bulgaria. It is primarily contained in literature textbooks and written collections. Nevertheless, it gives an important pointer to some roles a vagina owner can occupy in society.

When we talk about gender, we immediately realize that there are many ways one can be this gender. Some ways are approved, and some are not. It is tempting to start thinking about what it means to be a certain gender? What does it mean to be a woman in society? What role does that prescribe to you?

One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman

To begin my ponderings about gender identity and how it comes to existence, I would like to focus on Judith Butler's 1986 essay, Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex, where this quote comes from. As a secondary source explaining de Beauvoir's thoughts on gender identity, infused with Butler's own interpretations, I would like to take it as an anchor point to think about the concept of gender and what it means in our social world. I will use some quotes from the essay and relate them back to how I perceive they relate to my own experience. Overall, Butler is talking about how de Beauvoir takes gender as a "project," something that an individual builds throughout their life that interprets and then acts on certain social norms, it is a choice and acculturation. I find de Beuvoir's take (through Butler's words) a very important framework for me to think about gender as a medium through which one's body communicates with the past and the future of society.

[...]her theory of gender, then, entails a reinterpretation of the existential doctrine of choice whereby 'choosing' a gender is understood as the embodiment of possibilities within a network of deeply entrenched cultural norms. [...] As a condition of access to the world, the body is a being comported beyond itself, sustaining a necessary reference to the world and, thus, never a self-identical natural entity. [...] gender is a contemporary way of organizing past and future cultural norms, a way of situating oneself with respect to those norms, an active style of living one's body in the world.

This formulation of how choice plays into gender identity resonates deeply with me. The idea of the body as a medium to interpret the past and contribute to the future gives an excellent context to think about gender norms and how there is a choice about how to develop your gender identity, but the choice is constrained by what is already accepted in your society. And the idea of the body as a "medium" exists on so many levels. On the one hand, the body is a medium for the individual to express themselves intrinsically, then, it is a medium for the people surrounding the individual to interpret and impose their own conditioning, and then, the body is a medium for expression (or the demise) of larger societal structures, a communicator about what was in the past and how that carries on to today. The idea of gender "expression" has never meant anything to me because I have never felt that there is anything that needs to be expressed, so this formulation of gender as a medium and the broad interpretation of it by de Beauvoir/Bulter makes it much more relatable to me - it is still an expression, but it expresses way more than merely my idea of myself. So, in my animation, this shines through. Baby Ivana is guided to see how the various characters express their genders. Those "expressions" are vessels for the social norms that those characters portray, and so, Baby Ivana sees them as instructive of "different ways one can be a woman or a man" and struggles to figure out how she wants to respond through her own body.

Later on, Butler describes the logical connections that de Beauvoir makes to try and figure out how female people should reclaim their freedom and reasons through various formulations.

The language of "transcendence" suggests, on the one hand, that Simone de Beauvoir accepts a gender-free model of freedom as the normative ideal for women's aspirations. [...] On the other hand, insofar as transcendence appears a particularly masculine project, her prescription seems to urge women to assume the model of freedom currently embodied by the masculine gender.

They respond to this further in the essay, but the way they formulate seems a bit confusing to me. However, this part of the essay poses some questions that resonate deeply with the core of my animation: Girl wants to be free and live her best life. Man seems to be free. Therefore, girl should identify with the way men live their life to be free. That way, baby Ivana rejects the perceived ways one can be a woman and tries to go to the ways one can be a man to achieve that. Essentially, baby Ivana tries very hard to embody the cultural norms that define men in pursuit of transcending her gender and living an exciting life within the socially acceptable bounds. Later on, older Ivana realizes that and is still trying to fix it (and thus the existence of this project).

Then, to talk about this role that Baby Ivana starts to assume at the end of the animation, I would like to transition to Butler’s own 1988 essay, Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory, where they explore the idea of gender as a set of performative acts. In this essay, they arrive at the idea that gender is an identity that comes through the stylized repetition of an act. This formulation is the logical next step of my ponderings about the body as a medium, as discussed above, because it provides more thoughts about how one uses their medium from a first-person perspective. Butler uses the analogy of a play. According to them, the actor repeats those acts that constitute someone’s gender, and the mundane social audience (including the actor), believes this performance:

The act that one does, the act that one performs, is, in a sense, an act that has been going on before one arrived on the scene. Hence, gender is an act that has been rehearsed, much as a script survives the particular actors who make use of it, but which requires individual actors in order to be actualized and reproduced as reality once again.

Another aspect of this performance is that it is fueled by social sanctions. If you fail to perform within the bounds of the play, you are punished by society. Another important point that Butler makes is that gender is not an individual choice, but also it is not imposed on the person. There is some room for improvisation, but one should not get too far away from the script. The body can interpret its role within the confines of the script.

Butler also gets into the idea of expressive versus performative aspects of gender. She says that if we consider expression, that presupposes that there is something true to be expressed. When we talk about performance, that implies that the act is not based on a deeper truth. They say that,

That gender reality is created through sustained social performances means that the very notions of an essential sex, a true or abiding masculinity or femininity, are also constituted as part of the strategy by which the performative aspect of gender is concealed.

So, when we talk about my animation, it is important to consider this idea of gender performativity. From Butler’s essay, the relevant takeaway is that gender is a social performance; one can choose how to perform their gender identity, but the room for improvisation is confined. Through the animation, I show how as a child, I identified three ways I can perform being a female person in the world. One is to perform the good daughter/housewife, then I could be a strong independent woman that does not subscribe to the pre-approved norms of her society, and the third is to try to embody the characteristics that are usually ascribed to men. With my current social conditioning at the time, it seemed like the good role to play is to be a moderately masculine girl.

What are the confines of the play?

From my child’s perspective, the confines of the play are what my parents approve, what my extended family approves, what my outside social circle approves, and what the media I consume approves.

My father plays the perfect role of a husband and father. He is strong, he is smart, he is adventurous, he cares for his family. He knows how to operate various fun tools and has wonderful taste in music. My mother is a shy, pleasant lady. She is fun to be around, but she doesn’t occupy much space. She does her chores, and she is a good caring mother. My aunt is a bit of an outlier, she is a single mother, and she is incredibly independent and self-sufficient. But she is alone (and depressed). Therefore, from the family list of confines, it seems like the way to go is either to be like mom or like dad, not like my aunt because she is depressed (i.e. she is punished for exiting the confines). So, I picked up on a binary opposition (a very unnecessary but understandable one), that there are only two kinds of people that I am allowed to be and that they are necessarily opposites. I chose to be more like my dad because society told me that it is more fun to be a man. It seemed like the confines of the play allowed for this interpretation of my role. From that, I perceived that the ultimate decision-makers of the confines were men and boys around me because my dad had more weight in the decisions and evaluations in my day-to-day life. So the approval of the male actors seemed to be the first important sift of what kinds of gender performances are allowed. I guess there are some actors that you look at when you are playing and some that you don’t pay as much attention to.

This rendition of the gender performance that I unconsciously chose seemed to be the best of both worlds. I was still partially performing the accepted girl role, I was interested enough in girly things like playing with dolls, but I spiced it up with an adequate amount of masculinity -, I demanded that my parents buy me a car for my barbies or a treehouse, etc. I was also adequately interested in things that boys perform - I used to beg my father to buy me a hammer or to teach me how to operate his various woodcutting tools. That way, I managed to customize my role to a place where it was still acceptable but could reap the benefits of boyishness. Upon hindsight, it appears to me that I very much agree with Butler’s thoughts on a personal level because I don’t think I ever felt like this act is an expression of something intrinsic. It was a play, and it still is. I used external validation to guide me towards becoming a good member of society that plays an appropriate role there.

The media I was exposed to provided a very specific outline of what is acceptable and what isn’t. The binary male-female existed really strongly and there was very rarely a third character (like the samodiva, or my aunt). I almost always rejected the overly feminine characters in movies. In Lady and the Tramp, I was not paying too much attention to the female dog, in the Aristocats, I was only interested in the boy cats because the girl and the mother were too feminine. Sometimes I thought the female is admirable too, so I still subscribed to some of - in The Little Mermaid, where Ariel is fun, goofy, and adventurous. I did think she was someone to look up to. So, with these mixed signals from the media and from my family, I managed to craft the perfect girl who cares about some girly things but also about a lot of boy things.

Later on, I realized something along the lines of my animation - that the role of my gender does not have to be that strict, that this desire stems from a misogynistic society that turned me into a tiny misogynist. That even though I had spent years of my childhood crafting the perfect mixture between boy and girl, the root of this was the aim to please everyone and to be liked by everyone. By being slightly boyish, I received the approval of my dad and of the boys at school. By being girly enough, I was still accepted by all the female actors in my life. I was essentially liked by everyone but at the cost of never looking at what I actually wanted, how I actually want to perform my gender, and my life in general.

Scaling up

This development of a misogynistic worldview and approach towards being a girl/woman seems to stem from places that go way beyond my interpersonal relationships. I, just like everyone else, am born into a system that favors men over anything else. I would like to zoom out even more for a second and talk about the institurional bias towards men as context of why I, and many other vagina-owners, developed this deep sense of intrenalised misogyny. A particularly enlightening piece of writing on that issue was Invisible Women: Data bias in a World, Designed for Men by Caroline Perez (2019). In this book, Perez lists systems in the current state of the world that were designed with men in mind and even when those decisions are based on science, they still largely favor men over women - from public policy to health and everyday products. An example that hit really close to home as I was reading the book was the fact that the default temperature of office/public space A/C was determined based on a study in the 1960s that looked at the resting metabolic rate of an average 40-years old, 70-kg man. Then, Perez proceeds to cite another more recent study that found that younger women have a significantly lower metabolic rate than men and therefore these spaces are often way too cold for women. This kept being a recurring theme in my childhood, my mother was always cold and my dad was always in his T-shirt. So, my mind automatically assigned her a “weak” label and him, a “strong” label. This is just one of the many examples where Baby Ivana fell into the trap of the data gaps and biases that come as a result of our very gendered society and assigned it a value that supposedly shows some sort of pre-determined intrinsic quality.

In an older and more academic piece of writing, Acker (1992), talks about the more overarching theme of gendered institutions and explores how the notion of gender is one of the core building principles of the establishment of politics, law, religion, education, you name it. She talks about how those institutions are, indeed, defined by the absence of women, and the ways they function further reinforce that pattern over time. An important identification Acker (1992) makes is that there is a strict divide between production and reproduction - and that our world today is intensely skewed towards the former, prioritizing business and industry as the sources of well-being. Thus, this puts reproduction (i.e. childcare, elder care, education) to be “viewed as secondary and wealth-consuming”. This relates to Tatar (2021)’s thoughts on the place of women in mythology and folklore, as she identifies that their role as caretakers and community builders is severely neglected in the priorities of the storytelling genres. The parallel, coming from Perez’s details and Acker’s overarching thoughts and the stories of different nations and communities is, unsurprisingly, very strong. It is interesting to see that on the individual, communal, and larger societal levels there are a lot of unfortunate similarities in the way young Ivana’s brain would come to be wired to favor the figure of the man over the figure of the woman and assign a lot of casualties when it comes to developing a sense of how the world is. I can’t blame her for choosing to side with the male’s place in the world. From the data that she gathered in the first years of her life, it seemed like it is both more exciting and easier to choose to reject femininity.

All of this being said, this animation is the result of many years of thoughts and conversations. It is an attempt to bridge those gender stereotypes and call for a more complex understanding of the self, one that sees and understands the stereotypes and the cultural norms and has the freedom to decide how to relate to them, if at all.