Friday, November 28, 2008

Gendered Masks

Humans are born 'tabula rasa', or as blank slates. It is the gender roles constructed and passed down culturally that create and constrain the social roles of people into easily-understood categories - social masks that are adopted and expected. However, the masks are not static. They can change, and thus these masks are blank slates themselves which have been constructed but exist in a static of deconstruction, melting during their use.

Beeswax is constantly mutating, with no static end. It can be repeatedly solidified and liquefied through time, much like the constant reproduction and changes in cultural practices and beliefs.

Beeswax is used to create cohesion by filling in gaps and creating a seamless surface of disparate elements. The myriad of words and colours on the beeswax masks are given cohesion by the beeswax that holds everything together, much like how gender coding creates an apparently cohesive dichotomy between male and female, and between proper behaviour and attributes versus incorrect gender roles for each.

However, beeswax is also a dynamic material, with a potential for change. Just as society changes over time, beeswax holding together societal gender roles also changes. Humans themselves are warm enough to slowly melt beeswax, and thus any mask worn is bound to undergo change, whether it is simply worn by a human or subjected to more intense illumination.

Masks are signifiers of human absence. They are meant to be worn on the face, and signify an absent face, such as the beeswax death masks of the famous and infamous.

Masks are the different ‘faces’ we wear in life, and are inherent objects of performance and stereotypes. By inheriting and constructing masks, people’s roles are cohesive, and easily understood by other in the community. Masks also create cohesion through dominance and oppression, rejecting anomalous traits that do no fit into categorization. While masks can change and challenge past stereotypes, they still obscure and simplify people into understandable societal roles, denying the existence of an individual behind the mask. Masks constrain people physically and mentally. Society also constrains people into a narrowed, more coherent culture.

The masks are stained with coloured beeswax and typed words that are imbued with gendered meaning. Blue is for boys; pink is for girls. Words themselves, from descriptions and actions to professions and emotional states are stained with gender, and with the correctness of the word for the male or female gender. The four masks represent the four categories: ‘correct’ male and ‘correct’ female words alongside the ‘deviant’ words used to denigrate the wrong traits in men and women. The strict categorization of word association is revealed in the long histories of connotation most words carry, seen in the etymology of words.

Education and knowledge is metaphorically understood as the “illumination” of an individual along with society, and it is through illumination that strict categories of gender roles and appropriate gendered behaviours have begun to break down, paralleling the melting down of the strict gender role masks. Just as education, awareness and rejection of stereotypes illuminates the constructed nature of “innate” gender roles, the illumination of lights on beeswax masks melts the solid nature of masks into a flowing mutable state that is both destroying and reconstructing gender roles.

Some pink and blue beeswax combines into a new and different colour close to green, the colour coded as “neutral” for newborns and children. The words also are freed from their associations to mix and cross boundaries. English as a language is facing a new construction of hybridity and gender neutrality, with transgender recognition as a valid gender choice as well as a push to neutrality in pronouns through the use of “them” or “they” as singular alternatives to “she” and “he”, or even adopting other languages’ neutral pronouns such as “sie”, “hir” and “zir”. Gendered language and social roles are changing alongside the changing masks.
However, gendered behaviour has not been cast aside. Along with the creation of hybridity, trans-gendered identification and neutrality is the reproduction of gender roles. Thus, the beeswax masks melting onto the next generation of blank masks carry the potential for hybridity with mixing of gendered words and colours and the potential for continued gender categories. The masks are not all automatically new or hybrid. Gender roles are carried on, and gendered words and colours are still part of the next generation of masks where no boundary-crossing has occurred. The masks are a continual construction through time, and are part of the long history of society. The paper the masks are on is a scroll, with rolls at the top of time gone by and room at the bottom for the next generation of blank masks to be added. Gender roles are reconstructed throughout time, slowly changing through the meaning of the words themselves.

The masks people inherit and construct for their own understanding of gender, appropriate behaviour and boundaries of their society change gradually, just as the wax drips slowly. It takes time to illuminate people and enable change in gender categorizations, as it changes the foundations of cultural reproduction and transmission – language.

Thanks to AetherLumina ( for providing the most concise and clear information on gender neutral changes in English language.

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