Gender polarization is the concept of gender identity being dependent on men doing the opposite to the women and vice versa. I have several problems with this concept. Firstly, this binary opposition is a very Western concept, and doesn’t allow for any gradient of gender identity. As well, gender polarization creates a completely unnatural and exaggerated definition of gender, and usually this leads to the formation of stereotypes; one of my least favourite being strong men contrasting to weak women.Human beings as a species do have mild sexual dimorphism, but not to the extent that gender polarization would suggest.
In the Victorian era, gender polarization was at its peak. Men and women had different legal rights; wore different clothes; styled their hair differently; had different roles to play in society, in academia, and in the home; were educated differently; and the medical sciences even thought men and women suffered from very different diseases that had nothing to do with their actual differences in physiology (for example: Hysteria was only suffered by women). When genders become polarized to this extent, there is no overlap, no shared behaviours or attitudes between men and women; rather, they are distinctly considered opposites. Any woman displaying behaviour or traits considered manly would be met with disapproval and censure, and the same thing would happen to a man doing anything considered a ‘feminine’ behaviour. No overlap allowed …
As a writer, this situation frustrates me because of how it limits the action of both men and women. As a zoologist, I know exactly how artificial these gender performances are. As a feminist, I know that these attitudes still linger right up into the present day, and I want to howl like a werewolf with rage. But gender polarization isn’t any individuals fault. It is a society’s organizing principle upon which many of the basic institutions of Western society are built.
The classic example of Gender Polarization are sports. In 1896, the first Olympic Games was a male-only sporting event from which women athletes were excluded. Women athletes do not get the same media attention or exorbitant salaries as their male equivalents. There were – and are still – sports that are considered masculine or feminine sports.
Writing gender polarization into the Steampunk genre is a double-edged sword. You don’t want to ignore the issue, nor do you want to perpetrate it. By understanding it exists, it makes it easier for a writer to address this dilemma with both sensitivity and common sense.
You can use the concept to point out the fallacies of a stereotype, or even as a major plot point – such as seeming reluctance of anyone to recognize cabin boy on the airship is actually the cross-dressing plucky girl. There are real life examples of women dressing as men and managing to remain undetected for years. I suspect society just couldn’t ‘see’ the woman at all, once she took to wearing masculine dress and displaying masculine behaviour. Isn’t that a fascinating and vivid thought!