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Hello reader,

I am confused.

Welcome back to jungwildeandfree, the vaguely anthropological/psychological/philosophical blog of an undergraduate student, a mixture of content which is either stripped from my academic journal or generated ex nihilo in cafes and coffee shops across the continental United states.

Let’s get this straight before I get started: I love academia.  It is my favorite place in the world, the place where I feel most at home.  There is nowhere else in the world where I can say “Geil is the dump truck!” and get a dramatic response.  Passive-aggressive academic critiques make me laugh my head off, and I would love to spend hours reading any collection entitled “Things Clifford Geertz Has Said Of Other Things.”   It’s full of people and concepts with complex names that are perfect for puns.  Pierre Bourdieu.  Cultural capital. Michel Foucault.  Archaeology.   The only other place in my experience that has such a massive wealth of in-jokes and stealthy puns is the internet, and I enjoy bandying about those memes as well.

Possibly it’s because I grew up watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

You’ve never heard of the Flying Circus?  Now I’m even more confused.

Let me explain.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus was a British television sketch comedy show that ran for four series and five years, created almost unilaterally by graduates of high-powered academic communities.  It was a sometimes surreal, often intellectual, frequently incomprehensible, completely hilarious show, and it was like (almost) nothing that had ever come before.It cannot be adequately described in text, so here are some classic samples: How Not To Be Seen, The Dead Parrot Sketch, and Philosophers’ World Cup.

It was my bread and butter growing up.  The theory I like to put forward (indeed, the theory am putting forward right now) is that it fundamentally shaped my sense of humor toward the strange, the bizarre, and the unapologetically intellectual, and sometimes the completely dumb.  As evidence I provide some of my favorite authors: Oscar Wilde, Terry Pratchett, John Kennedy Toole, and of course Spongebob Squarepants.  These were my cultural capital, my intellectual heritage and the means by which I connect with other people who share my weird taste for sass.

That is my establishing monologue; now you have some sense of where I’m coming from in my life.  Now we’ll move on to the actual point of the blog post, which is explaining why I’m so confused.

You see, I am an anthropology major.

Anthropology, for the uninitiated, is the science and study of humans.  It consists, broadly, of four categories: Archaeology, linguistic anthropology, biological anthropology, and cultural anthropology.   I am a cultural anthropologist.

Cultural anthropology is the science of gradually becoming less and less certain about anything you once considered to be real and solid, until such time as you become a void of total confusion/improvisation and gain the ability to pass this intellectual angst on to others.

Or, to put it in a more complementary light: Cultural anthropology is the practice of questioning every assumption we make, with the intention of laying bare the hidden motivations behind things that we might normally think are natural. 

Case in point: Gender.

When I started college, I learned the simple definition of gender.  Gender is the cultural/psychological part of the masculine or feminine, and sex is the biological.  Either way, easy.  Simple.  “I got this,” I said to myself.  But then I thought back to my biology courses and things got complicated.  And then I took more anthropology courses and things got more complicated.

I read an article by a dude named Goffman, “On Face-Work,” which suggested that when two people interact, they inter-act. When we interact, we perform ourselves, whether we do it on purpose or not.  When we interact with people, we do what we’ve learned to do, and we do things that we want to be seen doing.

Which is troublesome when it comes to gender, because gender is heavily performed.  How do I know what gender you are if I can’t tell from your clothes? Your hair? Your makeup? Even the way we refer to ourselves can be part of gender.

But it’s the word performed that is really messing with my head now, because the other day in class I was brought face-to-face with an even more nebulous possibility:

An actor isn’t actually the role they perform.  It’s not an identity that they assume, unless that role was a particularly meaningful one.  If the role becomes important enough to them, then the actor might take it on with a certain fondness.

So…then, if we perform gender like an actor performs a role, doesn’t that mean that gender isn’t really a thing in and of itself? What if that means that gender identity isn’t anything that we could nail down as existing in any kind of actual meaningful way? What if “Gender” is just a part of the way we interact with others? 

Well, shit.  That kinda throws a wrench in the works.  At least we still have biological sex as a benchmark. Right? Right.  That’s something physical.  That’s something real. I am biologically male.  I can say that definitively–because my phenotype (physical shape) happens to line up with my genotype (genetic design), which happens to line up with the level of hormones in my blood.   Because my body looks male, acts male, and because my genes read as male.

…Which isn’t always true.  Not everyone’s body always lines up along that biological game of tic-tac-toe. So that really isn’t particularly helpful either, now is it?  Turns out we might have people who are biologically and genetically male, but hormonally female or hormonally asexual.  Or people who are genetically male and biologically and hormonally female. GAH. I don’t even.

Now, I’m not going to demand to see a blood screen before I call you “Miss” or “Mr.”  Really, the ultimate point is,  there’s no way to tell who you are, unless you give me a hint.  If you tell me your pronouns, if you show me a hormone count, if you perform your gender in a certain way, then I’ll know what’s up. (Or I’ll think I will, until you surprise me)

But until that happens…well, if I think about it too hard, I’m gonna need a stiff drink.

As I said; cultural anthropology is the gradual process of becoming less and less certain about anything you ever considered to be solid or natural.   That doesn’t mean it’s not fun.   And I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.

But I’m still confused.

The only thing that’s changed is that now, you might be too. Oops.


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