In the film Orlando, the title character speaks to a lover about war, and about being a man vs. being a woman. If I were a man, she says, I might choose not to fight. I might think that freedom won by death was not worth having. In fact, the lover says, you might choose not to be a real man at all. He goes on: If I were a woman, I might choose not to sacrifice my life caring for my children, or my children’s children. I might choose not to be a real woman at all.
Orlando has considerable authority when she speaks of being a man; she is one for the first portion of the film. Changing mysteriously into a biological woman after waking from a long sleep, she announces: Same person. No difference at all. Just a different sex.
This conversation is, for me, the crux of the film. Being a man, Orlando says, means fighting. Being a woman, Shelmerdine says, means sacrifice. The interesting thing about the film is the subtlety with which it suggests that it is possible to make choices in regards to gender, not to simply step into the role that the combination of culture and biological sex spells out as the given path.
Last weekend, I met some friends of the Photographer’s in the small town he lives in. There was one man in particular he had warned me about who had a penchant for getting drunk and saying ignorant things that, as a woman and a feminist, I was unlikely to appreciate. To my great surprise, I actually enjoyed talking with this person, who after introducing himself to me, asked the Photographer if he wanted to go deer hunting sometime, then asked me if I wanted to come too. I know plenty of women who hunt, he said. I replied that I have never shot a gun in my life. He said, well, you’d definitely have to practice that first.
I hold a special place in my heart for anyone who can appreciate the in-between of gender, who doesn’t make all of the usual assumptions within the first five minutes of meeting me (e.g., women don’t hunt or shoot guns). Though I’m quite certain that under other circumstances, I would have appreciated this person far less, and I’m equally certain that he harbors plenty of thoughts about women I’d find absolutely repulsive, I was happy to have the opportunity to see this particular side of him first.
Plenty of women I know sadly seem to believe that this is not the 1950s and discrimination no longer exists. Plenty of men I know have never even considered how being male impacts their sense of self and the life they live. But I say this as a woman who smokes a pipe: Gender is not the final word on what the self is, but to get behind it requires some effort. The practice of lifting the veil of gender to see oneself and others without it forever changes oneself and one’s view of the world. It is, in my opinion, a worthwhile spiritual practice in and of itself.