Sunday, August 22, 2010

Flash Forward: A Note Regarding Gender

I was reading a book today when I became cognizant of something.

This dude has a serious problem with women. Or rather, how he portrays women since I would hate to presume regarding the nature of his biases.

Here is a classic example:

He [Jacob] knew what she looked liked naked. Of course -- of course that was twenty years hence. She was about his age now, twenty-two, twenty-three. She'd be in her early forties two decades from now; hardly run down, hardly a hag.

Or, how about this one:

Lloyd tried to roll away from the hag, but his body refused to cooperate. [. . .] The breast was soft and shriveled, the skin hanging loosely on it -- fruit gone bad. [. . .] And then it hit him. This hag, this stranger, this woman he'd never seen before, this woman who looked nothing like his beloved Michiko, was his wife.

The woman who is described in the first quote describes Jacob thus:

[G]eeze, he should take better care of himself. He looked like he'd aged decades since I last saw him.

This was before they realized they had gone twenty years into the future.

Here is how Lloyd describes himself when he finds out the truth of things:

He was old.

Of course, this realization is preceded by a physical description:

What hair was left on his head was entirely gray; that on his chest was white. His skin was loose and lined, his gait stooped.

Compare Lloyd's description to the woman's physical description of age:

She was old, wrinkled, her skin translucent, her hair a white gossamer. The collagen that had once filled her cheeks had settled as wattles at the sides of her mouth, a mouth now smiling, the laugh lines all but lost amongst the permanent creases.

Lloyd tried to roll away from the hag, but his body refused to cooperate.

Notice the difference? Lloyd is just old -- but she's a hag, which is a word with a distinctly negative connotation. The collagen and the breasts also attach themselves to her perceived sexuality -- I wonder, were his testacles shriveled fruit too? Oh I don't know -- they're not mentioned because his sexual appeal is never called into question.

Whereas Lloyd is just old, it is to be assumed that he is still sexually desirable. I assume this because, though the men are described as older, the author portrays the males' aging in a natural, neutral manner -- their sexualities are never questioned nor are their appearances labeled with negatively charged words. Women, however, are directly marked: they are not just old (or older) as the men, they are hags and sexually undesirable. Because their age is not portrayed in a similarly neutral way, there is an idea of worth attached not only to their physical appearance but their sexual desirability -- a burden the men (who have also aged 20 years) do not have to bear.

This is reinforced because the reader does not experience the point of view of the women. Do they experience similar gut reactions as their male counterparts? It is doubtful because, what little female perspective the author does provide, seems to imply that the women do, in fact, find the aged men just as sexually desirable. For example, the woman with whom Jake so harshly judges, seems at first okay with waiting for the passionate night of love making twenty years in the future (thereby indicating he wasn't too mean on the eyes). As for the woman with the aged Lloyd - the reader doesn't even know who she is yet.

There is a clear though subtle divide between how women are portrayed in this novel. And it irritates me that men can be "old" but women have to be "hags." It's the same with words like slut. Say the word "slut" into a vacuum and what do you think of? Women.

Say the word "whore" into a vacuum and what sex comes to mind? Female.

There is no corresponding word for men; there are no male versions of hag, whore, or slut. Man-whore doesn't count because it is still attached to the female derogative -- and it is only because of the female derogative that it is an insult.

So why is this important? Because as long as men can be neutral and women are othered by being labeled as slut, whore, hag, or some other female centered derogative, true equality or true respect will never be achieved.

And how can it when natural acts that happen to everybody regardless of sex (such as aging and lovemaking) are qualified with these gendered portrayals, laden with all of the unspoken, dangerous assumptions regarding the worth or nature of a particular sex?