Archive for the ‘Gender’ Category


Consider the Bower-bird

February 21, 2009

by Anne Alexander


With twigs, leaves, and grass stalks, he builds a symmetrical sculpture around an elegantly formed space. To adorn it, he flies for miles, seeking just the right items, small miracles of nature and manufactured artifacts of humanity. He brings back hundreds of stones, shells, leaves, flowers, glass shards and plastic shreds. Each bower-bird has a favorite color, usually blue.

When the bower-bird is away, perhaps stealing a bright shiny treasure collected by a rival, you can sneak and move some of the objects he has already placed. When he returns, he’ll know. He’ll move each component back to its spot, add the newest acquisition, and spend hours rearranging everything all over again, until reality and his vision are aligned.

The partly enclosed, partly open thatched space is just the right size for an interested lady bower-bird to relax in. From this vantage point, she reviews the three-dimensional work of art created by the male, and gives due consideration to his other forms of persuasion. Will she hook up with him? Or move on, in search of a partner with more compatible aesthetics? It’s her call.

Both of them are seriously playing their assigned parts, saying “come hither” in their different ways. It’s a courtship ritual. The building of the bower and the appreciating of it are both essential.

Scholars tell us “courtship” derives from the ancient word gher, which seems more like an escapee from Talk Like a Pirate Day, or possibly related to Robert Heinlein’s grok, a word that for Sixties people meant sex and drugs and rock’n’roll; peace, love & understanding. In old Indo-European, gher meant to grasp or enclose. How appropriate, to the embracing walls of the bower-bird’s creation.

What is courtship all about? In the animal kingdom and the human realm, it’s pretty much the same basic theme with variations. With animals, it’s usually but not always about reproduction. With humans, it might be about reproduction but usually it’s about one, or several, of a hundred other things. For humans or animals, the intended duration can vary from a brief encounter to a lifetime.

Courtship is always about hooking up, at one or many points along the emotional – intellectual – spiritual – physical spectrum. It’s specialized behavior, the experts say, designed to entice another into believing you’re the ideal mate, whether for a night or for decades. A demonstration of good faith; a spelling-out of exactly why the other should wish to get next to you, just as much as you want to get next to her or him.

The parallels aren’t all exact. The male bird constructs a bower, and the female decides if the structure is worthy. Humans are different. Both women and men build mythic edifices to attract a like-minded someone. With humans, it could be either of them, contributing most or all of the energy. Or both might refrain, and sit back waiting for the other to do the work.

Across the species, many features are the same. Courtship is part of a logical sequence: after meeting, but before commitment. The object is to get as acquainted as possible, from a distance, and then to incrementally close up that distance. A shrink might say courtship is a series of actions that encourage progressive intimacy. It’s an incitement, an invitation, a sales pitch. Certainly, through varying degrees of communication both verbal and non-verbal, affection is sought. The object is to dissolve both physical and emotional barriers – though we don’t know how many emotional barriers animals might have. The object is to create intimacy of a quality probably not experienced by birds – although you never know. The object is to establish some kind of an alliance.

Among humans, courting used to mean no sex. It still means that to a lot of people, especially the formally religious. Times change, and now courtship often includes sex. The thing about courtship is that it ends with a commitment of some kind: To have sex once or many times. To form an exclusive bond. Or the only commitment might be to the probability that reproduction will take place, or it might be to the ideal of forming a team that sticks together whether there is any reproduction or not. It could lead up to a lot of things, but the point of it is, that it leads up to something. The goal of courtship is the making of a decision.

The building of the bower becomes a very extended metaphor, for what humans do in courtship. It’s a gradual process that involves weaving together many small strands of interest, caring, empathy, rapport, commonality, charm, generosity, and occasional enchantment. With humans, the object isn’t necessarily sex, or exclusive linkage over the long term. Courtship has echoes, too, of courtliness and elegance, of the relationship as an art form.

Often, human courtship is slow, for reasons either of caution or delectation. Sometimes there is time to build a structure of attraction, decorating it and the mental landscape around it with interesting and funny and all kinds of other bits of stuff.

Being courted is the opposite of being swept off your feet. It isn’t an event, it’s a process. An accretion of kind favors and little considerations and small moves and almost unnoticeable steps; the accumulation perhaps of shared references that add up to a private language; the invention of jokes only the two of you get. Courtship isn’t a big flashy deal; it isn’t a showy dramatic gesture. It’s not an explosion of fireworks but a structure built one brick, or bottlecap, at a time.

Dedicated to Senor el Tecolote Loco

Photo by 91RS, courtesy of this Creative Commons license

Courting Status Code Definition (geek humor)
Courtship: Quotations



January 7, 2009

In Praise of Androgyny
by Miriam

I’ve been accused of “thinking like a man.” I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean, but if I did, chances are I wouldn’t be offended. I’m in favor of intellectual and emotional androgyny. Some of the most astonishing people I’ve met had one thing in common: she or he combined within one personality all the best qualities of both sexes.

The other side of that coin is, other people combine the worst qualities of both sexes, a recipe for disaster. But let’s stay with the positive. Mental androgyny is a very good thing. The positively androgynous person is the most highly evolved form of human.

Furthermore, humanity in general is headed for androgyny. It is the next major adaptation of the species for survival. No longer is it necessary for men to fight wars or women to nurture children. We have no need for the division of sex roles and personality characteristics, and these anachronisms will eventually wither like the appendix. Gentle men and strong women are the hope of the future, the probable next-in-succession saviors of the world. This may be known as the Apotheosis of the Mentally Epicene.

Epicene? Yes. It’s a useful and abused word for gender that’s uncertain or blended, ambiguous, indeterminate, with characteristics of both sexes: intellectual qualities, and emo stuff too.

Women in the Western world have always found it easier to adopt allegedly male ways and roles, than vice-versa. On the other hand, it seems to have been easier in places like the Middle East and the Orient for men to adopt women’s roles, at least if they were entertainers or sex workers. It must be rough to be male in a society where testosterone poisoning is accepted as normal. It’s a wonder more men don’t become voluntary homosexuals, if their only alternative is to live 24 hours a day behind the macho mask.

Anais Nin in her essay “In Favor of the Sensitive Man” describes a new type of man: natural (in the sense of unposing), sincere, unassertive, gentle. He hates falsity and war; is more concerned with human values than ambition. This new man is not alarmed by awareness that both he and his partner have both masculine and feminine traits. He knows that neither weakness nor strength is a fixed quality – we all have our strong days and weak days, and he can adjust to this with “rhythm, suppleness, relativity.”

Actually this type of man is not so new. Andre Breton wrote that androgyny “offers man a view of himself as he had been in the past or as he will be in the future: more luminous, more close to harmony and to power than he is in his present condition.” Jean Cocteau wrote, “Art is born of coitus between the male and female elements of which we are all composed, and they are more balanced in the case of artists than of other men. It results from a kind of incest, of love of self for self, of parthenogenesis.” I hasten to mention that this “love of self for self” that Cocteau mentions is what we now call self-esteem, which is generally agreed to be a good thing.

“He’s the freest person I ever met,” wrote David Payne in Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street, “because he has the strength to accept the pain of his own doubleness, without murdering either half for the sake of a false peace.”

The theme of freedom is echoed by Sheila Sullivan, who says the feminine male is the truly liberated man, first because he recognizes that men and women are basically no different. Particularly, he knows that men don’t rank higher in the great scheme of things, simply for being male. Sullivan says, “The man lacking the qualities of gentleness, emotionality, personal charm, and grace is as unliberated as the woman possessing only these ‘feminine’ qualities.”

Actors and entertainers of the male gender have always been more in touch with their female side. Cat Stevens, in the mid-Sixties, told an interviewer that he envied the completeness and fulfillment of being a woman. “I have an amazing feeling of wanting to have a kid.” One of the most blatant androgynous beings of our time is Boy George, who always maintained that his image was not a theatrical, professional ploy. “I want to look like this. I think I look great.” “I’m just not sexy in the way David Lee Roth is,” says the Boy. “I’m not Tarzan beating my chest. I’m a different kind of sexy, far more interesting, I think.”

Clint Eastwood and John Wayne made careers of one-sided machismo, but it takes multifacetedness for someone like William Hurt to play the role he did in Kiss of the Spider Woman. Jon Voight told an interviewer, “I’m aware of the feminine aspects of myself. I’m encouraging them. It’s very positive to me. And I respect it in other men, because to me it makes other men more trustworthy, because they are more aware of themselves, and they’re stronger because they bend. They are less brittle.” Bob Hoskins freely admitted, “I learned most of my trade from women, because women can make you know what they’re thinking very quickly; men can’t. I love working with women.”

In the great Steppenwolf of Hermann Hesse, the character’s hallucinatory adventures bring him to an encounter with a woman who reminds him of his childhood friend. She suggests that perhaps she is a boy in woman’s clothing. The novel prophesies every one of the major preoccupations of the Sixties, when unisex clothing and bisexual behavior flourished. There is talk of the years of childhood when “love, in its first youth, embraces not only both sexes, but all and everything, sensuous and spiritual, and endows all things with a spell of love and a fairylike ease of transformation.” Pansexuality: very Sixties…

Poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West was spectacularly androgynous, so much so that Virginia Woolf wrote Orlando to celebrate the complex personality of her friend and lover.

Poets, of course, have always been stars in the androgynous firmament. Several years ago Shocks, a west coast poetry journal, published an androgyny theme issue which illustrates this point very well. In a Dick Lourie poem addressed to his anima (the Jungian term for the female part of the soul), the premise is that he keeps forgetting where his anima lives, keeps mistaking one woman after another for her. He asks his anima if it is too late for reconciliation – afraid that “the panic I feel in my stomach lately is you, trying to kick your way out, hoping that you come find someone more loyal to himself.” Stephen Vincent admitted, “There is a woman in me who keeps writing poetry.” William Talcott echoed this with “The woman in me is emerging as I write these poems.” Emmett Jarrett described his anima:

in me there is a woman
who thinks she is dark-haired
slender, with mysterious eyes…”

Anthony Burgess made a statement that about sums it up. “No artist will say, “I am a man” or “I am a woman;” he will say, “I’m a kind of hermaphrodite.”


Earlier version published in Salon: A Journal of Aesthetics #13


Hedwig and the Angry Inch

“Today, we either want our men tough or cuddly. We want them to be either gangsta roughnecks or sensitive emo boys. The third way, the middle way, no longer exists.”
— Nick Marino