A Call to Rewrite the Scripts in the Gender Drama

Rev. Sean Harris of Berean Baptist Church of Fayetteville, North Carolina loudly and vehemently lectured during his Sunday sermon (April 29, 2012) that parents must enforce strict gender role behaviors, their duty before God, on their children.

"Dads," Harris commanded, "the second you see your son dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and you crack that wrist. Man up! Give him a good punch." He directed fathers to say to their sons: "Okay? You're not going to act like that. You were made by God to be a male and you are going to be a male." He also instructed that parents should be "squashing that like a cockroach." He warned that "the word of God makes it clear that effeminate behavior is ungodly."

And to parents directing their daughters, Harris shouted and flailed: "And when your daughter starts acting too butch, you rein her in, and you say, oh, no. oh, no, sweetheart. You can play sports. Play them. Play them to the glory of God. But sometimes you're going to act like a girl, and walk like a girl, and talk like a girl, and smell like a girl, and that means you're going to be beautiful. You're going to be attractive. You're going to dress yourself up!"

Though he later retracted and apologized for the tenor of his arguments, he reiterated his basic premise "that parents have a responsibility to maintain the gender distinction that God created in them." This, he said, is a message for which he will never apologize.

Though extreme in his language and tone, Harris promotes what most of us have been very consciously and carefully taught throughout our lives. Gender roles (sometimes called sex roles) include the set of socially-defined roles and behaviors assigned to the sex we are assigned at birth. This can and does vary from culture to culture. Our society recognizes basically two distinct gender roles. One is the "masculine," having the qualities and characteristics attributed to males. The other is the "feminine," having the qualities and characteristics attributed to females. A third gender role, rarely condoned in our society, at least for those assigned "male" at birth, is "androgyny" combining assumed male (andro) and female (gyne) qualities.

A fairly simple way to remember the differences between "sex" and "gender" is to consider "sex" as a noun and "gender" as a verb (a repeated action). According to social theorist Judith Butler in her 1990 book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, "The act that one does, the act that one performs, is, in a sense, an act that has been going on before one arrived on the scene. Hence, gender is an act, which has been rehearsed, much as a script survives the particular actors who make use of it, but which requires individual actors in order to be actualized and reproduced as reality once again" (p. 272).

Paradoxically, while Rev. Harris describes "gender distinctions" as God-given, he betrays his own assertion by demanding that parents break their children early of any forms of gender transgression. Harris clearly demonstrates his role as director of this drama by inadvertently highlighting the social construction of gender roles and how we as social actors need to continually pass on the roles, the scripts, using applause or jeers, to future generations.

This all conjures up images of the Hollywood movie The Truman Show starring Jim Carrey in the lead role as Truman Burbank. The film documents a man who for most of his life remains unaware that he lives within a human-made artificial set of a reality television show, broadcast 24 hours a day to billions of people around the world. The show's executive producer and director, Christof, placed Truman at birth in the fictitious town of Seahaven, and manipulates every aspect of his life. (I will leave it up to you to analyze why the director of this farce has been given the name "Christof.")

To dissuade Truman from exploring past the limits of the constructed set, Christof pretends to kill Truman's father in a fabricated storm to teach him to fear the water. In addition, actors playing the part of TV news reporters warn of the dangers of travel, and promote the benefits of staying home. However, stemming from some unforeseen glitches in the scenery and unexplained and habitual coincidences in the placement of the actors around him, Truman becomes suspicious until he discovers the truth about the artificiality, manipulation, and control Christof has perpetrated on him for the past 30 years. Truman eventually outwits Christof and escapes the fabricated set into the warmth and brightness of a true sun, and the coolness and wetness of natural rain.

Rev. Sean Harris simply serves as an extreme and fanatical example of a director in the larger coercive societal battalions bent on destroying all signs of gender transgressions in young and old alike, and in the maintenance of gender scripts. Most of us function as conscious and unconscious co-directors in this drama each time we enforce gender-role conformity in others, and each time we relegate our critical consciousness by failing to rewrite or destroy the scripts in ways that operate integrally to us.

Those who bully often fulfill the social "function" of establishing and reinforcing the socially constructed scripts handed them when they entered the play of life. Imagine you are a young person on the elementary school playground. There you see a young girl who wears her hair short and cropped. She wears jeans and a T-shirt, and plays rough and tumble games with the boys. She loves to climb trees, and comes home with torn and dirty clothing. Up to a certain age, this may be taken as "acceptable" within her gender script as currently written. However, as she ages, possibly by the time she reaches her teen years, her peers and adults direct her to "grow out of this stage," and label her with various terms.

Originally, when she was younger, people may have called her one of the most common labels, "tomboy," but as she ages, others more often begin calling her "dyke" or "lezzy," regardless of her actual emerging sexual identity. Basically, because others perceive her as not conforming to her "feminine" gender role, they call her sexuality into question. In so doing, they attempt to ensure that she performs her role as written. In actuality, this direction functions as the basis in the establishment and maintenance of a patriarchal system of domination, control, and oppression.

Now imagine you are standing on that same elementary schoolyard. You witness a young boy who likes to jump rope with the girls, and who prefers not to join in sports activities with the boys. Recently he began learning to play the violin, and he wants one day to perform in a symphony orchestra. When other students call him names like "sissy, "fag," "momma's boy," and "queer" because they perceive him as not reciting his gender script properly, he often cries and isolates from other students. Again, because he does not conform to his expected "masculine" gender role, his peers and adults taunt, harass, and abuse him equating the ways he expresses his gender by questioning his assumed sexuality. In so doing, they are attempting to ensure that he conforms to his requisite gender script, which is the basis of sexism and the operative apparatus maintaining a patriarchal system of male domination.

With this in mind, each time we rewrite the scripts so as to give an honest and true performance of life, each time we work toward lifting the ban against our transcending and obliterating the gender status quo by continually questioning and challenging standard conceptualization of gender roles, only then will we begin as individuals and as a society to experience what Truman experienced after he lifted himself from the manufactured dome of artificiality: the warmth and brightness of a true sun, and the coolness and wetness of natural rain.