Gender identity is more complicated than society likes to admit. Does it remain a valid means of classifying human beings?
“I’m sorry, but I do hate this differentiation between the sexes. ‘The modern girl has a thoroughly businesslike attitude to life’ That sort of thing. It’s not a bit true! Some girls are businesslike and some aren’t. Some men are sentimental and muddle-headed, others are clear-headed and logical. There are just different types of brains.”
Society has traditionally defined gender by anatomy and physiognomy. We have divided ourselves into male and female groups and assigned acceptable roles and attributes to each group. These assignments were made long ago to further the bearing and raising of children and to ensure human survival. With over seven billion people on our planet and natural resources that are diminishing, the need for procreation is lower than it has ever been. This has contributed to a world in which people who have more complicated gender identities can recognize and explore those identities. That isn’t to say that such exploration is easy.
Here is a wonderful, valuable human story of a person born male, who despite a “manly” career as a pilot in World War II and considerable success in life, never felt male. When Robina Asti decided to be herself, others had a very hard time with it. Despite the struggle, Asti found herself in a meaningful, loving relationship. Then, at the age of 92, faced with the death of her beloved husband, she found her gender questioned again.
Why are we so uncomfortable with allowing people to be authentic in their expression of gender? People like Asti and Patton do us no violence by living their lives in this fashion. Perhaps our culture has a guilty conscience and fears that stories like this will invalidate our journeys and our faiths. We should know by now that only we have the power to do that.
Our tradition has difficulty understanding people who are not completely male or completely female, and yet such people are born every day. Biological gender (and this doesn’t even take into account other aspects of gender) is determined by five factors: the number and type of sex chromosomes, the presence of ovaries and/or testicles, sex hormones, and both internal and external reproductive organs. If, at birth, all five criteria do not register as male or female, that person is intersexed and does not fall into either category. Some are hermaphrodites, having characteristics of both sexes while others simply don’t have all of the criteria present. Often these babies are “corrected” immediately. But what if gender is not an either or, but a biological continuum, with male at one end and female at the other? Our words have failed us.
Competition is distilled from survival instincts. Ironically, it may destroy our chance for survival. Can the arts help change this?
The mbira, or thumb piano is a traditional musical instrument found in many places on the African continent. It consists of a wooden board fitted with metal tines which are plucked with the thumbs, producing a sound not unlike a music box. Due to the rhythmic complexity of mbira music, some listeners get the impression that more than one instrument is being played at the same time.
The national instrument of Zimbabwe is the mbira dzavadzimu, or voice of theancestors. It originated among the Shona people and is identified by them as a sacred instrument, used in ceremonies that communicate with the dead. These ceremonies are called bira. Led by mbira music, participants enter a trancelike state in which the dead speak through them and may answer questions that pertain to the welfare of the tribe. Buttons, shells or bottle caps called machachara are attached to the mbira to create a buzzing sound that is purported to call ancestral spirits. For greater resonance, the instrument is placed inside of a hollowed out calabash squash, called a deze.
During the course of Zimbabwe’s history, the mbira dzavadzimu was taken up by missionaries and converts to Christianity. A genre called mbira gospel resulted, as people combined their traditional music with new beliefs, enlisting the soothing power of the thumb piano to spread their message. This has created two camps of mbira musicians: Shona and Christian, both of which consider themselves the traditional art form and both of which are resistant to new, western inspired innovation and technology.
Here is a traditional performance by mbira artist Hope Masike. The song is called Hondo, or War, and is a lament for those who have suffered from political unrest, military action and AIDS/HIV. It is heartrending in its understatement and transparent beauty, highlighted by the calls of animals along the lakeshore in Johannesburg, South Africa. It makes me misty-eyed.
Video via Werner Puntigam on YouTube.
Hope Masike is a marvelous singer and gifted song writer. She is steeped in the traditional music of her native Zimbabwe, specifically mbira music, but reaches out to include more modern elements, incurring the wrath of those who would prefer to keep the traditional art “pure”. She is Christian, but sees great value in reaching across the divide to unify mbira music and to move people of differing faiths to prayer.
Video via Hope Masike on YouTube.
This song is Huyai Tinamate, or Come, Let us Pray, a stirring example of mbira gospel. The video couples words from the Bible that exhort the believer to pray through hardships with African mythology concerning the struggle between good and evil. Masike portrays both a benevolent spirit in white and a dark witch companioned by a serpent, as if to say that our best self is always at war with our worst self. This stunning video crosses borders. The world of the Shona and the world of the Christian is acknowledged to be the same world. Both groups seek survival and peace. Can we not find common ground as human beings? Could we pray together?
The requirements for our evolution have changed. Survival is no longer sufficient. Our evolution now requires us to develop spiritually – to become emotionally aware and make responsible choices. It requires us to align ourselves with the values of the soul – harmony, cooperation, sharing, and reverence for life.
People leave family farms and traditional local businesses to venture into the city every day, some excited by new technology and new possibilities, some simply trying to survive and provide for their families. The search for a better life has been one of the engines driving the United States for much of its history, drawing immigrants from all over the world. It is a wonderful thing to be able to start again in a new place, but there are dangers as well. Prejudice stalks from without and within. This video from BRZZVLL, Mind is a Jungle, is a wonderful illustration of the reality of displaced people all over the globe. BRZZVLL is a wonderful band from Antwerp, Belgium, with playful funk and jazz grooves that recall the 1970s. The track also features Anthony Joseph, a poet, musician and novelist from Trinidad. It’s a whimsical look at community life that challenges us to look deeper. Who are these people costumed and camouflaged in a way that hides their individuality? Do you feel threatened by their costuming and their actions?
When we feel homeless, we try to create familiar conditions, clinging to traditional behaviors and cultural norms that may no longer serve us. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t honor the past and the traditions we came from, but those traditions can make us blind to both the useful and the toxic in our own background, in the ideas of others, and in in progress itself. On the other side of the coin, people who don’t understand our background (and who does?) will make assumptions of us dependent upon their concept of our ethnicity, religion, and culture. As a result, communities become mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually segregated. How do we build empathy and break down these boundaries? It’s important to realize that this isn’t a third-world problem. All cities have dissatisfied souls, and at any given time we may find ourselves among them. From New York City to Beijing, London to Lagos, Sao Paulo to Sydney, people are finding that there isn’t as much room in the city as they hoped. This is true not only for immigrants, but for any resident. We may find ourselves too old, too young, too unskilled or just in the wrong place to be successful. Moving to a new place can give us a new start, but only if we allow ourselves to think new thoughts and achieve a relationship with our new surroundings.
Main Street, Florin, CA, 1942 Dorothea Lange
Maybe your mind isn’t a jungle. Maybe it’s a small town, a desert, a cotton farm, or even a busy city. The more you learn how to navigate your own thoughts, the more chance you have to navigate the world around you with empathy and sensitivity. The form that the cities of the future will take is dependent on the projections, dreams and prejudices of those of us who construct and inhabit them.
The Ural Candle Factory lies in Yekaterinburg, Sverdlovsk Oblast, Russia, a city of roughly 1.5 million people straddling the border between Europe and Asia. Known for many years as Sverdlovsk, after a high ranking Communist party official, it reverted to its former name, which pays homage to the wife of Czar Peter the Great, Catherine I, in 1991. Founded in 1723 as one of Russia’s first industrial centers and raised to prominence by Czarina Catherine the Great in 1781, Yekaterinburg has seen its ups and downs. It was here, in the Ipatiev House in 1918, that Czar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra and their five children were murdered to seal the Soviet Revolution. Treasures of the Hermitage Museum were stored here during World War II, when Leningrad was deemed unsafe. In 1991, Boris Yeltsin, a native of the city, made Sverdlovsk reserve capital of the crumbling Soviet Union, but it was too late.
Yekaterinburg is a place where tradition and modernity have clashed, a place that reminds us that modern is not always better. The art of candle making and carving has changed very little over the centuries. Hot wax is poured into a mold, cooled and then dipped by hand into colored wax. Layers of different colored wax amass, hidden beneath the outer layer until the candle is carved. Skilled carvers slice into the candle and twist and position the material that has been cut, creating fantastic designs. Pearls, marbles or other items may be applied and the candle dipped into lacquer. The video below is impressive, as we see the process from a camera mounted on the candlemaker’s head.
This second one is a bit more artsy, and also shows the wax being poured into the original mold. It the first is a bit too rock and roll for you, it’s also more sedate, and you get to see footage at the candle shop. Look at those beauties!
Kokoro, which can be translated as The Heart of Things, is a novel written by Natsume Soseki in 1914, at the end of what is known as the Meiji period in Japan. It is full of insight into how changes in culture can exacerbate rifts between family and friends while human nature remains, at the heart, the same. Emotions like jealousy, loneliness, awe and love are felt by everyone, but upbringing, personality and experience shape the expression of those emotions, sometimes rendering them unrecognizable.
Natsume Soseki Public Domain Image
Soseki was no stranger to the cruelties of society. At the time of his birth, his mother was 40 and his father was 53, which was considered disgraceful, especially since they already had five children. His parents disowned him out of embarrassment and he was adopted by a childless couple who divorced when he was 9. He was then forced to return to a mother who pitied him and a father who found him a nuisance, something that would set the stage for both a frustrated life and a flourishing literary career.
Kokoro is in three parts. The first deals with the friendship between a student and an older man, referred to as Sensei, or elder. The second explores the relationship between this young man and his own family. The last is a flashback to Sensei’s youth and the turmoil that wounded him for life. The novel is a slow moving, understated psychological drama that builds up a surprising amount of suspense before the revelation of its last few pages and its abrupt ending. Its form perfectly reflects its subject matter.
The Meiji, or Enlightened Rule, era extended from 1868 to 1912. During those 44 years, Japan transformed itself from a feudal society to an industrialized one. Rather than looking to China for guidance, Japanese leaders turned their gaze to the West, adopting a Prussian style government and sending young men and women to Europe and America to learn how to be competitive. The abrupt shift from a culture derived from the Asian mainland, which relied heavily on strict Taoist and Confucian codes for behavior, to a culture influenced by Western society, at best liberating and at worst cruelly opportunist, was earth shattering. The very meaning of being civilized changed within a generation.
The New Fighting the Old Artist unknown, ca 1870 Public Domain Image
Our narrator, the student, looks to Sensei for guidance, despite some serious red flags: this older gentleman has never held a job, has a strained relationship with his wife, and visits an old grave once a day which he refuses to discuss. It’s the undecipherable nature of Sensei that keeps the reader and the narrator engaged throughout the first part of the novel. There is something undeniably modern and nonconformist about him, despite his reserved exterior.
In the second part, the narrator’s father grows ill and dies, revealing conflicting visions of the future. He is pressed to go to Tokyo and get a job or to stay in the countryside and care for his aging mother. The first option is terrifying and severs his connection to his roots, while the second is stultifying and wastes the opportunities provided him by his education. This quandary is the same choice presented to Japan at the end of the Meiji Period, an ominous choice which Soseki does not attempt to answer. The novelist, a man squarely in line with Meiji thought, like Sensei himself, knows his time is passing. It is the youth who must change the paradigm.
Finally, in the third part, narrated by Sensei, we are allowed to see the emotions moving beneath the calm surface of the older man’s persona. We learn that he, too, experienced the disconnect between modern education and traditional upbringing, something which is by no means unique to early 20th century Japan. A stranger in his own home, he sought to make a new home, living as a boarder with an older woman and her daughter. After losing many of their rights during the Edo period (1615-1868), women were just beginning to own property once more. This was a new phenomenon and not socially acceptable, particularly since he was not related to these women. Things became truly uncomfortable when he invited a male friend to live with them.
Sensei’s difficulties have been exacerbated by his inability to allow his wife, or anyone else, for that matter, into his thoughts. Young women of the Meiji period were encouraged to get an education, something which was, during the later Edo period, reserved for geisha, women who were unsuitable for the higher purpose of marriage and motherhood. While Sensei is not so conservative, he isn’t modern either. He’s afraid that acknowledging the ugliness he has lived through would destroy her, who is to him so spotlessly beautiful, and so he has kept her at a distance. Insulating her from the darker parts of his character costs not only her humanity and perhaps even the fulfillment as a mother that she once desired, but condemns him to a lonely existence. If there is any lesson in Sensei’s experience, it is that neither tradition nor competition will bring fulfillment in the absence of communication and empathy. The correctness of our views is far less important than how we engage others.
Harshitaa Chatterjee Deshpande is a filmmaker and fashion designer who made her fashion design debut at the Lakmé Fashion Week Winter Festival held in Mumbai, India August 23rd to 27th. Her freshness and youth come together with her interest in Indian history and revival to inform and shape her Ragas of the Charioteer Collection, a stunningly exquisite combination of color, texture, and form.
Video via Lakmé Fashion Week on YouTube.
These designs are inspired by the traditional clothing of princesses of the Maratha Empire, a warrior class that rose to power in India during the 17th century and flourished until it was vanquished by the British Empire in 1818. Members of this caste still have a proud national identity and heritage, although they no longer rule, and can be found primarily in the states of states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, and Goa.
Indian fabric in general is a marvel; the creativity and quality of execution exhibited in this handwoven medium is unmatched. Modern machines are powerless to equal the variety, subtlety and imagination found there. The tribal weavers of Paithani are some of the best of the best. They fashioned clothing for the Maratha royalty centuries ago and continue to work traditional patterns from that time. Deshpande worked with these artisans to capture this wonderfully detailed and elegant weaving that is recognized worldwide and blend it with new yarns and ideas from other parts of India, creating different fabrics which can be wed to contemporary forms and styles. It is this blending of cultures that makes this collection so unique. It is fascinating when traditions blend and boundaries dissolve, creating something new that honors its parent traditions.
We all have traditions. Sometimes the reason traditions fail to thrive is because we don’t allow them to change.
Tian-Ming Wu’s film King of Masks takes us to the China of the 1930s, where we meet an aged street performer, Wang Bianlian. He is a master at the art of bian lian, mask changing, in which silk masks are removed at dazzling speeds to reveal changes in mood or character. The mechanism and techniques behind this art are secret, passed on only to male heirs. Much to his anguish, Wang has no son. After turning down a serious job offer from a star performer of the Sichuan Opera, Wang decides to buy a child. He finds a feisty young thing who takes to him immediately and proves to be a hard worker. At last his dreams are coming true and he will be able to pass his skills to the young boy. But fate plays one more trick: the boy, affectionately named Doggie (a term of endearment in China), is really a girl in disguise. Surely he cannot pass his skills on to a girl, considered a liability by society! How desperate will Wang need to become before he will consider doing so?
Video via sonico67 on Youtube. This is a beautiful film which asks some deep questions about tradition and reveals the paradoxical need for change in order to keep it alive. The portrayal of women, or perhaps the lack of it, is shocking. The Sichuan Opera of the 1930s doesn’t employ women. Wang’s friend at the opera is a famous female impersonator, a man playing women’s roles, sighed after by generals. The stigma against women and against them having any sort of work outside of the home is so great that Wang would almost let his art die before teaching Doggie. Almost.
Here is a stunning excerpt from a more recent Sichuan Opera performance featuring mask changing. Note that one of the performers is female.