Sunday, May 4, 2014

Fuck! What we need is more women who swear.

What we need in Taiwan is more women who swear.

I don't mean that literally. I don't actually mean that more women in Taiwan should go around spouting colorful obscenities (although that would be quite enjoyable - I'd fit in more for sure!). I mean it more like this:

Culturally speaking, actions, preferences and attitudes feel to me to be more gender-specific in Taiwan. Obviously this doesn't mean every individual follows a prescribed set of rigid gender norms, just that this seems to be at work on a general level. One of these gender-segregated activities is swearing - a few things people have said to me regarding women swearing in Taiwanese culture:

"Oh, I don't know so many of those words. Those are words for men."
"Jenna! You are a lady! Where did you learn words like that?"
"Women in Taiwan don't swear much. Well, maybe they will say bad words around their close friends but they won't really do that in public."
On the final day of the occupation of the Legislative Yuan, after most of the students had left, one of the speakers in the 'free speech zone' inside the front gate was a woman who said "Okay, I'm going to say something. About President Ma. Even though I am a young woman, I'm still going to say it. I want to say - Ma Ying-jiu, fuck your mother!"
"When I was in junior high school my female classmates would say something like, 'oh, I'm going to say this word, haha' and then they might say something like 'stinky vagina' and it was very funny because they were girls. But then by high school they stopped saying that. I don't think any girls I met said those things in high school or college."
"What does that mean?" Me: "You don't know that word? It's a pretty standard Taiwanese swear word." "No, I really don't. I think my husband will know. He's a man, that's a word men say."
"Really, you never swear?" "No! I'm a woman!"

I realize that what these folks said above hardly counts as 'data' about how often women swear in Taiwanese society. My point is more that I hear repeatedly that swearing is the purview of men, and 'ladies' don't do that. Whether or not it's strictly true (and it probably isn't as rigid as the above quotes make it seem), it is obviously a common social attitude or I wouldn't hear it so often.

The reasons for this gender-stereotyping attitude are pretty obvious: because it's gender stereotyping, and it fits pretty well with what most people around the world associate with 'male' (raucous, bad language, rough around the edges, burly, undomesticated, a bit of attitude, protective, a hunter, gregarious, aggressive) and 'female' (gentle, sweet, pretty, undemanding, nurturing, domestic, child-oriented, quiet, giving, refined)...

...which, by the way, before anyone accuses me of gender stereotyping myself, if you read this blog at all you know that I don't actually think any of that is true! Plenty of women are raucous, aggressive, gregarious and have a bit of attitude. I would say I'm one of those women. And plenty of men are gentle, nurturing, quiet, giving...I'd say Brendan is one of those men. Expected gender roles are bullshit - the paragraph above is more what people think about men vs. women when they have absorbed the idea of expected gender roles, not what's actually true. I doubt many would argue, whether it's true or not (and it's not), that many if not most people *think* this is how things are.

And that's just as true in Taiwan as anywhere, and I would say more so than the West.

So what we need is more women who swear - that is, more women in Taiwan who defy expected gender roles. Or at least, when faced with a divide between their personality & nature and what society expects of "ladies", will choose their natural selves over maintaining a more socially desired appearance and personality.

Swearing is just one example of this - it could be anything.

There are two things at this point that I need to clarify, lest I give the wrong impression.

First, I don't mean this in the "white lady says Taiwanese women should do X" way that it might be construed. This is something I'd like to see happen in basically every country including the USA. I'm only focusing on Taiwan because I live here, so expected gender roles here affects me personally. But every country and culture - or at least almost all of them - have gendered expectations of behavior that don't conform to individual personalities. Even if these expectations do somewhat match general trends to some extent (and I'm not sure they do, or if they do, that behavior was more more likely impressed on them by culture, rather than tendencies they were born with), it does a disservice to individuals who fall outside of the lines or don't fit the expected parameters to have a society that openly expects specific behaviors from specific genders. There is really no good reason for expecting everyone to conform to meaningless standards rather than judging each person as an individual.

Second, I don't mean to imply that Taiwanese women as a whole don't already stay true to themselves. I'd say that many do. I am sure that many of the women on the MRT with fake eyelashes, unstable shoes and done-up hair do all of that because they want to, and that women act however they act because they want to. And often next to a woman dressed up that way, I'll see another woman in a comfortable sweatshirt and jeans, hair in a ponytail, no makeup.

My criticism isn't aimed at particular women and how they act, because that's their choice. It's aimed instead at the social standards that dictate that some ways that women act are better than others - I'm not taking aim at women who don't swear so much as the social stricture that 'ladies shouldn't swear' or 'ladies should do X but should not do Y'.

I am sure for all my feel-good huggy-buggy talk above, that there is also subset of women who dress up more than they'd like to, or swear less than they'd like to, or speak out less than they'd like to, or pretend to be gentler/sweeter than they really are (a subset, not the whole) because they know that society 'prefers' these things in women. That they play up the X because "ladies should do X" and downplay the Y because 'ladies should not do Y'.

I am sure of that, because plenty of female friends have told me so. Or they have said that when they do step outside of those boundaries of expectation that they feel judged for it. A few have explicitly said that they feel judged for it more in Taiwan than when they've spent time in the West. Certainly, I feel that I can get away with more gender non-conformity in Taiwan as a Westerner and that if I were Taiwanese (born here or an American of Taiwanese ethnic heritage) I might get judged more harshly for it than I'd like. I already get obasans telling me about weight loss ('ladies should be slender!'), I can only imagine that it'd be more severe if I were not a foreigner, or didn't 'look like' a foreigner. I can imagine it because friends have told me it would definitely happen. I've already had a boss who tried to hint several times that I should wear makeup and heels (I wear neither - I like real skin and feet that don't ache and have the ability to perform the full range of human ambulation, thanks) - I can imagine how it would feel to not wear makeup to work and have the entire office judge me for it. I can imagine it because a friend of mine has had it happen to her.

I've already let out a swear (I do that a lot; I promise I don't have Tourette's, I just like to use the full range of language at my disposal, in all shades and colors) and heard 'Jenna! Where did you learn that? You are a LADY!', so I can imagine what the reaction would be if I were a Taiwanese woman and said the same thing. I can imagine it, because friends have said that such a thing would not be well-received.

And yes, to be very honest, I do - I really really do - feel more at liberty to challenge these gender-based expectations in the USA, to go for the gender non-conformity to a level where I feel comfortable in appearance, actions and personality. And local friends in Taiwan have said the same.

If we could stop doing that - stop pushing gender roles on people, stop expecting and start, I dunno, swearing - I bet we'd see a much wider spectrum of self-expression and gender non-conformity in both genders.

I mean, Jesus H. Fuckpopes, I'm sure it can be done, right?

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