Over the weekend, I gave a talk at the Royal Ontario Museum, my old stomping grounds.
My task: to cover some of the changes that have happened in culture since I left the ROM in the early 80s.
How our culture defines women, that has changed immensely. But how immensely? How far have we got. I presented the following images as a way of suggesting that we have actually stopped defining women as women.
I ended this part of my talk with this slide:
And as I ended with this conclusion, a little voice in my head said “but is this true?”
It sounds plausible. Even as it is riddled with problems.
Someone is sure to object that gender is defined by nature. They are obliged to explain how many variations there are on the “women” theme in the world.
“Exactly!” others will say. “There is no single way of being female, but there are 12 (or 120) variations. So when you tell me someone is a woman, I can assume that she is defined by one of the 12 (120) variations. So gender still defines identity.” This might work. It might be a better argument.
But I think if we look at the trajectory, it probably fair to say that we are at least moving towards a time when knowing that someone is a woman won’t tell us very much about her.
Here are the slides with which I set up the slide above.
I started with Charlie’s Angels. Remember. These characters all came with an “identity.” One was the sexy one. One was the sporty one. One was the classy one. As if a woman had to choose. (Or viewers were so dim, you didn’t dare confuse them with anything more complicated.)
The next slide was this one: Sex and the City. This characters are still defined by a kind of character genre. (One is the sexy one. One is the classy one.) But the characters are more full blooded, more individuated.
Next up, I used this slide. When Charlie’s Angels was recast and presented as a movie, we got characters who were less defined by character (and gender) and still more individuated.
Perfect. These characters are not standing on ceremony. They are not constrained by gender expectation. They are not constrained by much of anything.
I ended with Girls. These women are wrestling with gender issues to be sure. But they are not much constrained by them. As Mary Waters says of ethnicity in America: it’s a matter of choice, not biology, history or community. These women have chosen who they are. And they are largely and increasingly free to choose who they are.
And today we end with a new feature. A poll to see what you think. Please vote!