Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Scary Things About Human Nature and Views On Gender

Well, I've been scanning the the Social Sciences shelves of the library again (the Dewey 300s) and picked up a couple of not-particularly related books that all made me think "People are messed up." Now those are just about the only things these books have in common: that they make you see the worst of everday humanity.

The first book was Trisha Meili's I Am The Central Park Jogger: A Story of Hope and Possibility. I was 16 in 1989 when the story of the Central Park Jogger was splashed all over the news: a twenty-eight-year-old woman jogging after dark in the famous New York park was beaten, raped, and left for dead. She was found with a body temperature of 85 degrees and blood pressure so low the hospital people couldn't get a reading for it; this may be what made her stand out from the other twenty-eight other rapes reported in the same city that week. She was not named in most of the reporting on her case because of most media outlets' policies -- women who have been raped are not named to avoid contributing to the "stigma" traditionally associated with being raped. (Frankly, I think anyone who would look down on a rape victim needs help themselves, and perhaps having real names to associate with people who have been raped would make it seem more like human beings being hurt than stereotypes identified only as "jogger" or some other single characteristic.) The book is interesting because Meili does not remember the events of that evening; such traumatic amnesia is common after such extreme violence and physical brain trauma. She talks about her everyday life before April 1989, when she was an investment banker, an anorexic (though to a milder degree than one normally hears about, never needing hospitalization for her self-starvation), and a dedicated runner -- and then about coming out of a coma in a hospital to relearn the use of her body. The medical care needed to bring down her swollen brain to its normal size, to fix one eye back into its proper place, and much more, before Meili had any likelihood of coming back to normality, and after she regained consciousness, there were months of therapy before she could walk, button her shirt, or remember what was on the previous page of a book after turning to the next. Some damage was permanent, such as her loss of the sense of smell. But Meili continued to push on, relearning or rediscovering as much as possible and eventually returning to a near-normal life (and indeed, better than before the attack in one way -- the urge to starve herself was gone). She testified at the trials of the five accused attackers, a group of minority teenagers who were said to have just gone out to have some fun "wilding" -- but with no memory of the evening of the attack, her testimony was largely about the extent of her injuries and the amount of work needed to recover, plus a few details to knock down a wild theory that her then-boyfriend had been the attacker. (In 2002, Matias Reyes, a man serving 33 years to life for murder and other rapes, made a confession that he was the only attacker, and the other convictions were vacated. If true, and there's no way to prove that it is or isn't, this changes the disgusting creepiness of a group of guys going out to attack a woman for fun into the differently disgusting sickness of a single man who would do attack many women. I don't know if one is any better than the other really, but it's a little less disturbing to think that a few messed-up perpetrators exist than that there are enough of them in any location to band together.)

But at least in Meili's case, there was a huge outpouring of support from strangers near and far, definitely enough to counteract the very small number who felt that the issue of a white woman being attacked by black or Hispanic men was a witch-hunt of minorities, and called her a slut or said she must have been in the park to meet a drug dealer. She talks a great deal about everyone from the nurse who cared for her daily to one man out of the many who wrote to her and how all these people's support and prayer helped in recovery and adjustment. And she was eventually able to pass on that support to people in need of physical rehabilitation after injury or emotional support after rapes by working with various organizations -- and by publishing this book to show what kind of recovery is possible.

In Gender Shock: Exploding the Myths of Male and Female by Phyllis Burke, the stories are of children without support, children whose families send them to therapy and sometimes to mental institutions for being too much like the opposite sex is supposed to be. A boy who doesn't like sports? He could have coordination problems that make him bad at sports -- but no, he must want to be a girl. He'll grow up gay if we don't do something! A girl who doesn't want to wear dresses! She needs to be fixed! OK, I identify with this a bit because I was not a girly-girl; I was a bookworm rather than a tomboy, so I guess I lucked into a stereotype that isn't associated with a particular gender, but I climbed trees to have a place to read and dresses certainly would have been a handicap. Not all of these cases were back in the 1950s , either; some of the attempts chronicled here to fix children who weren't broken took place in the late 1970s and '80s, right when I was growing up. The idea that a tomboy might be "at risk for transsexualism, adult homosexuality, neuroticism, personality disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, an unstable work record, depression, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts and schizophrenia" seems particularly ridiculous when you read Sharon Lamb's The Secret Lives of Girls: What Good Girls Really Do -- Sex Play, Agression, and Their Guilt and find that "almost half of adult women remember themselves as tomboys." Society is even harsher on boys who might come across as "girly," and yet we wonder why so many of them turn to violence, still seen as a manly pursuit. The truth is that on any scale of supposedly masculine versus supposedly feminine characteristics, the sexes overlap a great deal, and some of the distinctions listed on some checklists seem pretty random.

"If the distance between the buttocks and the back of the chair was four inches or more, 'away from the back of the chair' (keyed as masculine) was scored. Otherwise, 'close to the back of the chair' (keyed as feminine) was scored."
-- Dr. David Barlow, Barlow Gender-Specific Motor Behavior Form
For that matter, what's the big deal if a few of these kids do grow up to be gay? Homosexuality is no longer in the psychologist's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Very few gay people are transsexual (meaning that they actually want to have the body of the opposite sex from what they were born into). But many of those diagnosed with "Gender Identity Disorder of Childhood" are neither gay nor transsexual as adults, and they are often given that diagnosis as children not because they say they want to have the body of the opposite gender but because someone else thinks they don't act the right way. Truly scary to know this happens anywhere, but particularly in the Land of the Free. Other stories in the book, such as the surgeries performed on children with intersexed genitals, are equally disturbing, but there are a few things discussed that allow (at least for adults) some freedom from gender roles defined by stone walls with a no-man's-(or woman's) land in between; I hope that someday more children will have an easier time if they want to inhabit the zone in the middle.

Colette Dowling's The Frailty Myth: Redefining the Physical Potential of Women and Girls is much more optimistic than Gender Shock; the completely ridiculous ideas are largely from the past (the Victorian idea that a girl should not attend a school taller than two stories as she would not be able to manage the stairs during her period, for example). However, this examination of the reality of women's bodies and the capabilities they share with men's bodies (just about all capabilities, really) does point out how many beliefs are still current about female frailty, even after such advances as the Title IX amendment to the Civil Rights Act. This landmark said that no organization receiving Federal financial assistance can discriminate on the basis of sex, and it has led to great changes -- particularly in education, including physical education. Women's athletics are supposed to be funded equally with men's at American public schools, colleges, and universities. (They aren't yet, but there has been great improvement since 1972 when Title IX became law.) And coming back to the beginning of this review, Dowling discusses how the myth of women's physical frailty supports their fear of rape and assault, the tendency to hold oneself back rather than go into a risky situation, and even condemn others for taking those risks, as some people did in the case of Trisha Meili jogging at night in Central Park.

The thing is, women shouldn't have to fear. It is not right that anyone thinks that it's OK to commit rape, and one of the things that creates rapists is the fixed gender role idea that men are violent. It is not right that women don't think they could escape or fight back, and I hope that the idea that women are the weaker sex is dying. Women are just as capable of toughness as men; men are just as capable of tenderness as women. All it takes in either case is permission and practice, and these books give examples of the good that happens when people have the opportunity to be both sides of themselves as well as the bad that happens when one side is choked off.

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

I finally got around to reading David Brin's 1985 novel The Postman. It won the Locus & John W. Campbell Awards and was a nominee for both a Hugo & Nebula award, and Kevin Costner thought highly enough of it to make a movie out of it. However, I wasn't much impressed (with the book -- I've never seen the movie). For one thing, this nearly-20-year-old book has not aged well. Some SF stories do and some don't. It's odd, really, how some science ficiton that was clearly written several decades ago, because of the technology uses, assumptions made about people, and overall atmosphere, can still feel like a realistic possibility (even if its existance would require an alternate universe). But some other SF of comparatively recent authorship can seem so outdated, and this is an example. The Postman does so first by referring to things that happened in the 1990s -- quite futuristic when it was written but so very quick to pass. And though the real 1990s did see survivalists hiding out in the woods, they also brought so much new computer technology that the book's idea of a lone room-size supercomputer, or the astoundingly simple video games, both seem at least an extra decade out of date.

And, frankly, the book struck me as a bit sexist. This is odd considering that a) I rarely consider books widely derided as sexist, such as Robert Heinlein's later works, to be sexist, and b) one of the Amazon reviews of The Postman seems to feel that the portrayal of women in the book is meant to appeal to feminists: "Brin's version of feminism seems designed to win bonus points with female fans, but its heavy-handedness and condescension are no less alienating than outright sexism." To me, though, so much in the book's plot hinges on the plans and actions of women, but all female characters are so briefly introduced and then fade offstage, their accomplishments heard of only second-hand. Not that protagonist Gordon, the man who falls into being a U.S. mail delivery man when the U.S. is 16 years collapsed, isn't important, but he's only half the story.

As I said, I haven't seen the movie Costner directed and starred in, but I really can't see the story from the book working as a film for a a related reason -- there's just so much happening "off-screen" and spread out across an entire state worth of land. What reviews I've read of the film indicate that its plot is somewhat rewritten, but perhaps that problem was part of the film's failure at the box office.