House-Builder of Sexism, Thou Art Seen
Upon the Buddha’s enlightenment, he described his many-lifetimes search for a mysterious house builder.
Seeking but not finding the house builder, I traveled through the round of countless births. Oh, painful is birth ever and again! House builder you have now been seen. You shall not build the house again. Your rafters have been broken down; your ridge-pole is demolished too. My mind has now attained the unformed nibbana and reached the end of every kind of craving. (Dh. 153-54.)
When something seems so natural and inevitable — life, suffering — it is difficult to determine its origins, its builder. Clearly someone built the house, but who? And how?
Gender sometimes presents us with similar mysteries. It towers above us, so strong, so solid. Men are like this. Women are like that. Black men are like this. Asian women are like that.
But who created these norms? Who built the house of patriarchy, misogyny, sexism?
Theorist Judith Butler describes gender as “a stylized repetition of acts” that are “sedimented” on the body over time. I love this description. It helps demystify gender, revealing its close connection with anicca, change. Moment to moment, gender arises, passes away. Arises, passes away. On the surface, it may look continuous, coherent, but it is made up of countless millions of moments of gender acts, gender signs, gender teachings, gender choices.
And it starts early.
Above, we have some face-palm apparel from Disney’s line of kids clothing. And below, though the hierarchy is not as blatant as HERO / VICTIM, we have the kind of arbitrary pick-a-side associations that go hand in hand with gender from birth. Girls are like this. Boys are like that. Says who, house-builder?
When gender and sexism seem so massive, so impenetrable and overwhelming, it can be comforting, in a way, to catch glimpses of the house being built. After all, what is built can be dismantled (though maybe not with the master’s tools). Gender oppression ain’t a sure thing; it’s contested. Lawsuits battle over which bathrooms transgender first graders can use; women demand wages for their housework; intersex and gender-nonconforming people fight for self-determination, rather than “correction.” (From the FAQ page of Intersex Initiative: “[S]cience can measure how large a clitoris is, but cannot conclude how large or small it needs to be. That is a societal determination.”) We can also endeavor to dismantle sexism within ourselves, and in our movement work.
Where do you see gender being constructed, sedimented, day to day, moment to moment? Would especially love to hear from folks with experience raising children, paid or unpaid! And folks with experience challenging gender expectations, and/or surviving gender-coercive violence.
Where do you see the handiwork of this house-builder?