Gender Links

In the youngest generation women and men seem to have more similar projects, more of the same thinking about freedom and individuality, more shared beliefs that gender no longer matters and also more of the same appreciation of sexual difference in limited areas of life. However, there are also asymmetries in how this is achieved and the dilemmas that come with it. It is common to think that, due to the gender hierarchy, it is easier for women to appropriate ‘masculine’ values and activities than for men to appropriate ‘feminine’ values and activities. To some extent we have also seen this in the analyses: it was more culturally acceptable for women to do men’s work in the oldest generation than for men to do women’s work. It was easier for the women in the middle generation to take over and degender their fathers’ skills and knowledge than for the men to take over and degender their mothers’ skills and knowledge. In the youngest generation girls were more encouraged to play football than boys were to dance ballet. However, in the youngest generation the opposite is also the case: it appears to be easier for the young men to extend their masculinities with ‘feminine’ qualities like care and attendance to bodily appearance than for young women to become fully acknowledged as subjects of desire and power. The cultural and psychological sluggishness connected to bodies and sexuality for women more than for men keeps interfering in the degendered areas of work and care in ways that are not part of their wish to keep sexual difference alive in other areas. The young women often must walk a fine line in order not to be gendered too much or too little. They are facing dilemmas here that are more or less unknown to the men: take care not to dress up neither too femininely so you are not taken seriously at work or in a way that makes people see you as a boring neither-nor. Take care not to speak up so much that you are seen as dominant and aggressive, but not so little that you are seen as a dull woman. Take care that you do not earn less than your partner so that you will be left with the care work in the family, but do not earn more than him so that he will feel pussy-whipped either. The tribute to equality, individuality and free choice often comes with an unacknowledged contempt for traditional femininity that we also find, directly or indirectly, in both women and men in the youngest generation. The empathy with fragile masculinity that we saw in both the oldest and the youngest generations of women stands in striking contrast to the contempt for women who are gendered either too little or too much. The young women shun group identifications on the basis of gender more than is the case for the young men. The increased individualism in modern societies is in this way a double-edged sword for women in the sense that it simultaneously liberates them from old limits and inequalities and invites them to take part in something that is culturally and psychologically deeply coded as masculine.

Feminist sociologists have debated whether individualisation is a phenomenon that privileges men and the middle classes more than women and the working classes or whether individualisation take on different forms (Jamieson 1998; Skeggs 2003; Roseneil 2007). Beck and Beck-Gersheim’s claim that modernisation gave the female biography an ‘individualisation boost’ (2002: 55) is on the one hand undeniably right: gender differences have become less defined and legitimised by religion, tradition and family, and women’s lives have changed more than men’s in the last century, especially in the areas they mention (education, work, sexuality and relationships). On the other hand, it is also the case that the combination of gender and individuality is not so straightforward for women as it is for men. For women, being an individual and being gendered tend to be two separate identities that are difficult to inhabit at the same time. For men, an extended masculinity becomes part of their individuality more easily. This appears to be one of the cultural bedrocks of gender. Already in their narrative styles we saw more emphasis on self-development among the men than was the case with the women. The middle generation struggled with integrating the ‘feminine’ values they identified with in their mothers, but many of them actually used the newly appropriated qualities of emotionality to extend their masculine selves, for instance, by channelling them into projects of self-development and work qualifications, as much as they used them to take responsibility for relationships with others. To be ‘yourself’ was an important value among all in the youngest generation when we interviewed them at 18, but while among the middle-class boys this meant standing out as unique and unpredictable individuals, it meant being one’s ‘authentic self’ for the middle-class girls, and for the working-class girls and boys meant being relaxed and tolerant. There is not necessarily any contradiction between using emotional skills for personal development, at work or in relationships with others, but there seem to be some gendered patterns in terms of how the emotionality within these areas connects and is displayed. In spite of the prevalence of ‘new men’, political scientists have also observed an increasing gender gap in the political attitudes of young people, where more young women than young men adhere to the basic values of the welfare state like social reform and economic solidarity (Christensen 1994; 0ia 2011). The young women represent a ‘relational individualism’[1] to a higher degree, where their relational capacities are used to increase their feelings of responsibility in society at large rather than to engage in strategic self-development.

The characteristic switching in the youngest generation between gender as dichotomy and gender as irrelevant may illustrate a tension between, on the one hand, gender as a dichotomous structure in our language and thinking where it is almost unavoidable to automatically ‘gender’ opposing qualities, and, on the other hand, an experience of increasing irrelevance of gender in practice. However, it may also testify to gender having become a more flexible dimension psychologically and through this also less substantial and threatening. It is difficult to see the appreciation of sexual difference within certain limits as only products of normative commands, backlashes or defensive reactions in the youngest generation. Gender as ‘soft assembly’ may be a historical product: ‘Gender may in some contexts be thick and reified, as plausible real as anything in our character. At other moments gender may seem porous and insubstantial’ (Harris 2002: 104). Muriel Dimen argues that the solution to the problem of splitting is not merely remembering the other pole, but ‘being able to inhabit the space between, to tolerate and even enjoy the paradox of simultaneity’ (Dimen 2002: 56). What I would add to this is that there are not only new spaces between the two poles, but also non-gendered spaces where the poles disappear because they are simply no longer experienced as relevant.

This addresses the question I posed in Chap. 1 about the relationship between destabilising a category and weakening its significance in different areas of life. Increased equality leads to a weakening of gender norms or makes the category of gender less important, constraining and exclusionary in some areas. This does not imply that sexual difference disappears, but different sexual preferences based on sexual difference may be experienced as more personal and less normatively constrained choices. The wish for sexual difference in heterosexual attraction expressed by many in the youngest generation is not claimed as general, unitary, recommendable or normative, but as a personal preference (until further notice). Within the youngest generation’s individualist frame of thinking, it is rather a claim that everyone should do as they like, and what one likes may vary. Thus, the connection between gender norms and desire is loosened. Heterosexual choice becomes one of a number of choices. This does of course not remove the still-prevalent discriminatory attitudes and structural disadvantages of non-normative groups in society with a magical touch, but it indicates that heterosexuality may also be understood and practised within a post-heter?onormative frame. The focus in this book has been the patterns of feelings of people living different kinds of ‘normalised’ lives at different points in time, but changes in norms do not happen in isolation from what goes on within other groups in society. Norway has become a multi-ethnic society since we did our original interviews in 1991. Sexual minority groups have become more visible, and the majority groups have become more aware and in most cases more acknowledging of diversity. The intimate lives of people from different groups also intersect more. Just looking at the eight informants we interviewed in 2011, two have non-Norwegian partners, four have worked outside Norway for longer periods of time, one has experienced that someone in the close family came out as bisexual, one has had a brief homosexual experience, one had a best friend who was a lesbian, and one said he liked to flirt with both women and men. This is a huge change compared with the two older generations in my sample. The increased openness to homosexual and bisexual impulses in themselves may be connected to the multi-gendered selves produced through their generational biographies, as well as to increased contact with people living non-normative lives, and to the new discourses on queer rights in popular culture and politics. This also shows that there are no strict borders between the different groups, and that both straight and queer people contribute to changes in gender norms and intimate life (Roseneil 2007). To return to Raymond Williams once again: new forms can flow from any particular place and extend into the whole organisation.

In 1991, the same year we did our interviews with the three generations analysed in this book, the Anglo-American relational psychoanalyst Virginia Goldner wrote the following, inspired by Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble that had come out the previous year:

The cultural matrix that sustains the illusion of two coherent gender identities prohibits and pathologizes any gender-incongruent act, state, impulse, or mood, as well as any identity structure in which gender or sexuality is not congruent with biological sex. Thus, those genders and sexualities that fail to conform to norms of cultural intelligibility appear only as developmental failures or logical impossibilities. (Goldner 1991: 254)

In spite of the undeniable presence of sluggish psychological and cultural structures, the multiple gender identifications in the youngest generation cannot easily be fitted into this image of looming gender binaries. Judging from the changes that emerge from the analysis of the feelings of gender in the three generations, the cultural matrix mentioned above hardly describes young people’s lives in Norway in 1991. Not only did we see more multi- gendered identities and subjectivities in the youngest generation, but also that this extension had emerged gradually through complex social processes during the twentieth century. Activities and norms connected to education, work, care and ways of being and doing, have beyond doubt become less gendered. Degendering has also taken place with regard to bodily preoccupation and sexual norms and practices, but here the sluggish aspects are more pronounced. The cultural codes cannot explain why change happens, only what hampers and delays it. They do not say anything about historical conditions or the subjective motivations for taking the small steps that gradually accumulate into historical change. The many ways in which cultural codes are lived and handled are much more ambiguous than the codes themselves.

Against this claim it could be argued that the sample I have analysed lives comfortably within what Goldner calls the ‘norms of cultural intelligibility’. However, the point is that in this process the norms themselves have become extended and more flexible, psychologically as well as culturally. The situation fits better with what Lynne Layton, with reference to Homi Bhabha, wrote in 1998: ‘the “new soul” ... emerges from a process of inhabiting a sexed body and identifying with men and women in such a way as to displace timeworn histories of hegemonic masculinity and femininity’ (1998: 190). Maybe we are not quite there yet, but a considerable step has been taken in this direction during the three generations we have followed.

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  • [1] The concept of ‘relational individualism’ is inspired by Nancy Chodorow, who first used it in anarticle from 1986 with the same name (Chodorow 1989). Chodorow used the concept in order todistinguish an object-relational psychoanalytic understanding of the self from a more orthodoxFreudian version of autonomy. My use of the concept here is broader, as I also include the moraland political dilemmas of cultural individualisation.
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