Individuality and Gender

The combination of partly degendered, partly still gendered structures and practices, and the belief in individual preferences creates many paradoxes in the reflections on gender in the youngest generation: gender exists, but is irrelevant, or should be irrelevant, or maybe not? Gender is experienced as less of a straitjacket in this generation and a returning claim is that it is really up to each person how he or she wants to be, regardless of gender. This seems to match well with their interpretation of the work division in their families, and also with the feeling of gender we heard about in relationships with their parents: seeing themselves as a combination of their parents’ personalities and interpreting identification with same-sex parents as non-gendered. The working-class boy Anders says about his general experience of degendering:

The roles have become blurrier now. You’re not expected to fill a particular role. Earlier it was like that, you were supposed to be and do like your father, it was divided back then, it was boy and girl. Now the roles are much more blurred. You can become what you want and be what you like.

Q: Do you find that easy or do you think it’s difficult?

No, I think it’s easy. You can, well, do exactly what you want to do, there’s no ... yeah. (Anders, 18)

The problem of the middle generation—knowing what kind of man/ woman they did not want to be, but not knowing what they wanted instead—has more or less disappeared. Both women and men in the youngest generation can talk at length about what kind of person they are or want to be, and this is mainly expressed in gender-neutral terms like being open and honest, social, active, easygoing, independent, flexible, stubborn, talkative, depressive or good-natured. The emphasis lies on ‘being oneself. For the working-class informants, being oneself is most often equivalent to being relaxed and ordinary and not intolerant of others. For middle-class informants, it is elaborated on as being a special person, unique and not easily fitted into predefined identity boxes to do with gender, political opinions, clothing or lifestyles (see also Simonsen and Ulriksen 1998; Jensen 2001). There are gender differences, however, in how this desire for uniqueness is expressed. Among the women, it is about being authentic and coherent, the person you really are; among the men, it refers to being different and unpredictable, to be free, courageous and surprising or even provocative. The point of not fitting into a box is stressed by combining identities that others may see as incompatible: to be an intellectual and a surfer, to be serious and a hedonist, to like music or films that are normally seen as contrasts, or alternately to defend rightwing and left-wing political views to confuse others about one’s political stand—‘I don’t like being a stereotype’, Anders says. We saw the same in Rune’s ruminations about what to wear. They admire other boys who are ‘interesting personalities’ in this way. In only two of the women—both middle class and both strongly identified with their fathers—we find some of the same desire to be special and provocative to others.

Gender also exists on more explicit and quite stereotypical levels. Even though both men and women are at pains to explain that these stereotypes do not apply to everybody, that people are individually different, the ways in which they describe the positive and negative traits of girls and boys are rather uniform. The good thing with girls is that they are often smart, more social, and can talk about emotions and personal issues (thus, boys should try to be more like this). The bad thing with girls is their tendency to talk behind people’s backs and making drama (which girls should try to do less). The bad thing with boys is that they often try to appear tougher than they really are and that they are not good at talking about emotional issues (at which boys ought to be better). The good thing with boys is that they are more active, direct and straightforward, and that they can have more fun (thus, girls should try to be more like this). The only thing women and men seem to disagree on is that the women tend to emphasise girls’ greater maturity and responsibility, whereas men find this a myth and an expression of girls being too serious all the time. Compared with the previous generation there is more emphasis on both positive and negative traits in both genders, which makes it easier to pick and choose one’s own self-construction or ideals.

Among the women, femininity is extended and redefined in many different ways. Eva, for instance, defines femininity as something that may be combined with independence and dignity. Her ideal woman is ‘a liberated woman who does what she wants in life and who doesn’t let herself be dominated by other people nagging and stuff, but who is simultaneously feminine and, in a way, keeps her feminine side. In their gender-neutral self-descriptions, the middle-class girls tend to stress ambitious and independent aspects, while the working-class girls emphasise the social and outgoing aspects of their personalities. The irrelevance of gender is also seen with regard to sibling rivalry: the girls may feel overlooked in comparison with new siblings, especially half-siblings from their parents’ new marriages, but they almost never interpret this in terms of gender, like we saw among the middle generation. Thus, the general picture is that the young women generally perceive themselves and others in terms of individuality, but that gender still occupies secure ground when it comes to looks and appearances. For the working-class girls, dressing in a feminine way is a positive thing—‘to radiate that I am a woman , as Stine expresses it—and most of them also prefer men who look and behave in masculine ways. Most of the middle-class girls, on the other hand, distance themselves from an overly feminine style, which they associate with being ‘dumb and blonde : ‘trouserspulled up, and, like, wearing a lot of make-up, and ... doing the secretary-track, no clue about politics (Ida) or ‘shopping centre girls, very common, with a lot of make-up, who quit after high school and things like that (Nora). The middle-class girls do not look for dominant men, but rather their ‘equal’, and prefer men who are gentle and emotional—something they tend to think is the case with many men if you just get behind their facade.

When we meet the young women at 30, their experiences were that gender held more significance in the world than they had thought at 18. Some of the middle-class girls—not least those who chose ‘masculine’ educations and jobs—had experienced a contradiction between their educational or occupational choices and their alleged potential as girlfriend material. Ida had found out that ‘a great way to escape men who harass you is saying that you study physics! Or, conversely, when Tonje goes to a bar and wants to meet someone, she never says that she is a doctor, but just that she ‘works at the hospital. Then the men in the bar automatically assume she is a nurse. But quite a few of them have also experienced that they were more influenced by traditional gender patterns than they had expected, especially when it comes to men. Some had experienced being swept off their feet by infatuations (and ignoring their work in such periods) or they had become submissive to dominant men in ways they hardly understand in retrospect. The majority of them say at 30 that they have experienced life to be more complicated than expected, not least with regard to gender and their trust in their own strength. Guro, who chose to study natural sciences, says:

I guess I was extremely confident! [laughs]—before I messed up those exams

[laughs] ... I had an extremely strong faith in myself, I don’t think I was scared

of anything, really. I didn’t hold back at all, I wasn’t very used to being considerate towards others. (Guro, 30)

These experiences have not made them more gender-conformist—quite the opposite. They understand more about gender as a power structure and how this even permeates their own selves in ways that have been surprising and quite shocking to acknowledge. They have become more aware of subtle gender oppression both in themselves and in their relationships with others. Only with regard to pregnancy and childbirth do we find some who have become more respectful towards biological gender differences. Ida, who firmly believes that individual variation is more significant than gender group differences, says that it was an ambivalent experience becoming a mother since she has a ‘masculine personality, but that the experience also taught her a lesson about biology:

I would’ve loved to be born a man!—my husband would’ve been a better woman than me ... But at the same time you can’t have your cake and eat it too. It would have been much easier for me to choose an academic career had I been born a man, because then I wouldn’t have experienced that biological process and all those hormones. Because Im very academically keen and actually very ambitious and very perfectionist. But that can’t be combined with toddlers. Im born a woman, I’ve had children, Im married, so ..yes. (Ida, 30)

The young men distance themselves from bragging and macho masculinities. To be emotional and open, to do housework and take care of one’s children are not seen as unmasculine, but rather as desired qualities in men. Stian says that he is ‘not afraid to cry. Most of them have female friends whom they give credit for having taught them to become better at ‘opening up’ and talking about feelings. For most of the working-class men at 18, relational talk still tends to be more of a girls’ thing, whereas the middle-class men demonstrate a much higher interest in interpersonal relationships and psychological aspects than the majority of their fathers did, their grandfathers notwithstanding. But in contrast to the women, who reflect more on their relationships with others and who have a more ironic view of themselves, the psychological perspective of the men is, as in the middle generation, often centred on their own personal development and taken very seriously. Trond, for instance, tells us at 18 that ‘finding yourself... I feel like Im constantly developing. I think it’s very healthy, I think it’s very healthy always to develop, even if it can be very tiring and very hard always to consider yourself. Still, gender is more present in the men’s self-reflections and the absence of masculinity appears to be more of a threat to them than the absence of femininity in women is to them—or to the women themselves. These limits of degendering are also reflected in the leisure activities in this generation, where girls have become active in football and hockey, but boys have fewer choices. Henrik, who originally wanted to dance ballet, ended up with flamenco instead because it felt less stigmatising. The mixing of gender traits may still raise the question whether they are seen by others as ‘man enough’:

I’m not a tough guy like [mentions two boys in his class], that kind of... a cliche, like—a macho type guy ... I got a comment from [a girl he is interested in] the other day, that she thought that... that Im not much of a man, sort of.

Q: What did she mean by that?

Well, she means that ... that Im not ... that Im not very tough. Im not particularly bothered by masculine . signalling masculine characteristics, I guess. But I think Im tough when Im supposed to be tough, sort of. I can make it through a snow storm ... But then I thought—I figured outthat’s what I want to be. I don’t have a need to demonstrate that Im a man, hey ho, and I choose that lifestyle. My mother has always been a member of women’s organisations. So I sort of always think of girls as my equals. I mean, she can do the same as me. I cant stand girls who’re supposed to be weak ... they annoy me. She should be part of it, everything I want to do, like, all those activities. (Henrik, 18)

The men who have had fathers who participated in caring for them are those who are most explicitly occupied with the issue of masculinity, and their reflections on gender resemble those of their fathers, but also transgress them. Their own chosen identity combination is understood as ‘masculinity’ plus ‘something else’. The ‘something else’ is not primarily seen as feminine, but as an extension and improvement of masculinity. Vegard describes himself as both ‘down to earth and serious’ and as ‘an emotional person who cares for others and likes to help if anyone has a problem, but still he does not like ‘to be prevented from doing something I’d like to do . Henrik says that the ideal man is one who can ‘show feelings and still keep some of what makes a man a man . This desired manliness is not about male authority, making money or having a career, but about being a physically strong, courageous and playful man. So far they resemble their fathers. However, they also embrace a kind of masculinity that re-emerges on the other side of the addition of soft values to masculinity. Trond says that he thinks gender roles are disappearing, but that this in itself may lead to men becoming more engaged in doing tough masculine things like parachute jumping. Asked how he thinks a man should be, he says:

A man ought to know how to bake bread. I don’t know how to do that yet, but I’ll learn [laughs]. And he ought to be helpful, do the dishes ... So—I don’t know. I like to—I think—I find men who are a bit—who support the male ideal in a way—I think that might be healthy too. That you should be a bit—I think a man can be athletic and—I think a man should impress a woman a bit. Not be a completely soft man. I think that role is lost because—I think women might want men like that, but I think women want men who are men too. And men want women who are women too ... Yes, that he embodies some male ideals. He can be ironic about them too. But to show that he is—that a man can be fresh and sporty and that men are decent creatures. (Trond, 18)

These young men are also those who most strongly expect a parallel gender mixing in girls: they like feminine girls, but in combination with being able to carry a backpack or rise early in the morning to join them skiing at dawn. They detest girls who are weak, passive and dependent: ‘I want a grown-up woman, like’, Henrik says, and by this he also means a girl who is not dependent on him, but has her own life. The value they put on their personal freedom here seems to work as a support for gender equality. However, it may also be a version where support of gender equality is based on contempt for traditional femininity. Many of them say that they cannot stand ‘stupidgirls’, meaning girls who are too occupied with their looks and with dating. Intelligence and sportiness are more important than looks, but if it can be combined with good looks, even better. Some of the men with gender-traditional fathers instead prefer feminine girls. The girls should have ‘a certain capacity in order not to be boring, but they should not be ‘hyper-intelligent:, Rune says.

At 30 the men have become clearer in their opinions on bodily and psychological gender differences and see them not only as facts of life, but also as things that make life worth living. They do not see big differences in the skills and capacities of men and women, but there are differences related to appearances and preferences, they say, and this should be allowed. Even the middle-class women at 30 are more open to this idea.

Nora, who at 18 spoke with contempt of dumb and blonde working-class girls, asks at 30 why on earth women should have to dress boringly or as men to be taken seriously. It must be possible to look good, even sexy, and have brains, she says, and adds that she finds it important to challenge the norms regarding this. Anders has also become aware of femininity through his own daughter. It surprised him—his ex-wife is tough and wears black. He understands this perceived femininity in his little daughter as her inborn individuality, but not as inborn heterosexuality:

She’s this sort of girly-girly girl. She’s born that way, we didn’t stand a chance, we tried ... to do everything, but she’s all in for pink, no boys’ stuff, no cars, nothingg, it has to be nice and pretty, and... she’s the most girlyperson I’ve ever encountered—without having her parents to thank for it... We actually think she’s a lesbian, she’s terribly fond of girls and wondered if it was okay to have a girlfriend. Now she claims she’s in love with a boy, though, but it doesn’t matter to any of us. (Anders, 30)

Compared with the previous generations where the tensions in the marriages were described as tensions between the life projects of women and men, the youngest generation appears to a larger degree to live out those tensions within themselves, regardless of gender. There are gender differences in terms of how these tensions are expressed, but at the same time it is also the case that the life projects of men and women in this generation have become more similar. The project is to combine work and care and what was earlier seen as feminine and masculine virtues in behaviour and personality—to be social and caring, active and daring—but also to keep up the gender difference when it comes to appearances and sexual attraction. As children in school they have competed on the same level, with the girls often more academically successful than the boys, and in their families both girls and boys have been expected to take part in the household work, with the girls doing somewhat more than the boys. As young adults they enter an educational system and a job market where the degendering has become an unquestionable norm, but where practice sometimes runs counter to theory. In this way the ambiguous practice they experience reflects their own confusing feelings of gender.

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