Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Mythic Identity: When Genders Collide

Mythology, being a sort of repository of the ancient collective psychological consciousness of countless people and cultures over millennia, is full of thoughts and ideas. People turn to it for everything from religious meaning to historical information to entertainment value, and today, someone would like us to turn to it for social commentary with this question: In the modern world we have people promoting a biological view of gender and people promoting a social view of gender. Would you say that a mythic view of gender could be seen as an alternative to biological or social views, and if so, what might it look like?

There's a lot going on here. Concepts of sex and gender are crazy complicated, varied and differently presented all over the world and across history, and the myths that have to do with them are likewise not what you would call neat and tidy. But let's talk about the basics first.

To begin with: a "biological view of gender" is not actually a real thing. Gender is specifically a social construct; it is the way a person is perceived as part of one or more of various social categories, and what expectations, roles and pressures their society puts on them as a result. Sex, on the other hand, refers specifically to the biological construction of a person, and in this context usually refers to what reproductive organs and physiological sexual characteristics they possess.

In essence, your sex refers to your body's construction and makeup, while your gender refers to your social understanding of who you are and how others respond to you because of it. When you're talking biology, you're usually talking about sex; when you're talking about personality and social roles, you're usually talking about gender. It's an important distinction because, while we tend to be most used to a binary view of society in which you have men and you have women and everyone fits into one category or the other, this isn't actually the case. We're accustomed to assigning gender based on sex - that is, if someone has female sex organs, we call them a woman, and if they have male bits, we call them a man - but there are millions of people who don't fit into those categories. Some people are born with physical characteristics of both sexes, making it impossible to try to assign their gender based solely on their genitalia; others might be born with no clear characteristics of either sex, making them similarly uncategorizable based on biology alone. Some people have a set of genitalia commonly assigned to one gender but identify as another gender, which they might do in a variety of ways including using social cues such as clothing or hobbies that are associated with their gender rather than the gender most often attributed to their physical sex, by having surgery that changes the configuration of their biological organs, or even by making no outward changes at all, simply knowing their gender without the need to participate in most of their cultures' ways of expressing it. And some people might identify as neither male nor female at all, or both at the same time or in a fluid, changeable state, and take part in various different gender roles as is appropriate for them.

When you talk about a "biological view" versus a "social view" of gender, what you're really talking about are two opposing beliefs: that gender always must be dictated by biological sex (meaning that those without clear sexual organ definition are deformed and those who identify as different genders are wrong or mentally ill), or that gender, being a social creation, is based on psychological and social responses and exists independently of physical bodies (meaning that it is possible for anyone to identify as any gender, regardless of sex organs).

A "mythic view" of gender is therefore really just getting involved in all that sociology up there. Mythology is, after all, the creation of humanity; it's a giant conglomerate ball of important concepts regarding psychology, society, laws and morals, and therefore any subject like gender that has to do with social ideas and peoples' behavior toward one another will bring all that social commentary to the table in myths. And because people of all sexes and genders exist among mortals and have existed for countless centuries, so they also exist in mythology, where their treatment and the general view of them relies upon the beliefs of the culture that created their story.

A mythic view of gender is completely dictated by what culture's myths you are referring to, and what level of connection they consider there to be between the practices of their gods and heroes of legend and the doings of normal humans in their society. There are tons of examples of beings with whose genders fall outside the binary in ancient myths; Hermaphroditus above is one of the most famous, and as the god (who became a being of both sexes when the nymph Salmacis called upon the gods to join her with her reluctant male lover) represents both the perfect form of masculinity and femininity together but also the punishment of the female forcing its way to intrude on the male, so it tells us that ancient Greek society considered people with sexual characteristics of both male and female to represent a unity of the sexes and to be physically attractive. but also that masculinity was inherently above femininity and could only be brought down by fusing with it. In Western Africa, many of the Yoruba peoples' deities were frequently said to be male, female, or to appear as both or to swap between them in various stories, and the fact that this was very rarely commented on in the myths themselves tells us that the ancient Yoruba considered gender, at least for gods, to be fluid and impermanent except when it serves the needs of the story. And in ancient Mexica religion, male priests of the cult of Xochipilli were said to wear female clothing and ritually perform sex acts reserved for women only, and the fact that those caught behaving in such a way who were not part of that rite were castigated and looked down upon tells us that this culture considered gender roles rigid in some areas of life but mutable under certain conditions or for certain purposes.

The world is a big place, so we can't talk about every possible treatment of gender roles in mythology, not even with a year of dedicated blogging time. But I think there's a more interesting question here: what exactly is a "mythic view" of gender, and is the fact that it belongs to the realm of symbolism and story enough to make it effectively different from social genders?

When gender appears in mythology in an important way, it's almost always in order to make a statement in some way. If it's important that a character is a female, her femininity must affect the story in some way, and therefore the story is saying something about what it means to be female. If it's not important that a character is male, then his masculinity doesn't matter to the story, and therefore the point it's trying to make is not about masculinity but some other quality or representation that god or hero possesses. For example, when Amaterasu and Susanoo compete to create new gods from their divine treasures, one of them creates females and the other males, and the fact that it's considered obvious that whomever created the males is the winner tells us that the culture telling the story considered male offspring automatically more valuable than female. On the other hand, in the tale of Heracles cleaning the Augean stables, his maleness has no bearing on his eventual creative success at the task, so we can understand that the story is praising his qualities of strength and resourcefulness rather than trying to comment on gender. When both Loki and Odin take on female forms, the former as a mare and the latter as an old woman, before later taking on male ones again, the fact of their genderfluid transformations is such a big deal and so clearly not accepted by their culture that it becomes the worst insult they can think of to hurl at one another, which tells us that failure to adhere to a single gender role is a source of shame for the culture telling this story.

So in a mythic sense, gender is about making a statement: a mythic view of gender is designed to tell the person hearing or reading the myth an important truth (in the opinion of the myth's retellers) about what it means to be a particular gender or to be fluid between genders or to exist completely irrespective of gender, or for two or more genders to interact or for gender to be defined at all. A god's or hero's gender in a myth matters because it needs to tell the audience something; it allows that god or hero to stand in as a representative of the entire gender concept they are partaking in, if that happens to be the focus of the story. On the other hand, it's entirely possible to have heroic feats and tales that place little importance on the main character's gender, in which case the mythic view of a gender is irrelevant; but while this happens in a short myth, in the longer context of a hero's entire career, issues related to their gender almost always appear eventually.

So, when you play a Hero, a transformative being who tells stories that all of humanity watches, your gender is as important and indispensable a part of your story as you want it to be. Some Heroes are examples of the gender roles of their societies, while others break rules, push boundaries, and force their people to examine and accept things outside their normal definitions. No matter what gender (or genders) you choose to embody, your stories will bear that mark. And where ancient cultures' heroes were products of their time and reinforced beliefs and gender roles that their societies gave them, you have the power to take on whatever roles you choose and tell whatever gender story is in you to tell.