The social construction of life, or what the fluidity of gender can tell us about social categories and the risk of simplifying everyday life

A review and comment on "A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints" at Japan Society in New York City (on view until June 11, 2017)

"How do we know that gender is socially constructed?" That is an interesting question in light of the fact that there is currently an intense social (and political) desire to simplify certain social categories, particularly those that make reference to gender. "Social categories" might not invoke much in everyday parlance, but they give us points of reference in almost all aspects of social life. Social categories such as those of gender (such as “man”, “woman” or “gay”) or morality (“good”, “bad”) show us that culture(s) changes over time and that what we now understand in one way depends on social, historical, political and cultural contexts.

There is a very big difference between sexuality defined biologically and gender categories that are defined socially. Conservative discourses have gained ground in many places around the world (this is not a phenomenon exclusive of the United States or Europe, or societies where conservative dogma and religion are important social forces) in the past hundred years. Over the past decades, the greater flow of information that the Internet allows has helped disseminate different lifestyles. However, just as it is currently being proved with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, the Internet and social media do not necessarily make a society more open or more accepting of difference. The paradox is that it can also lead to people only reading what they want to believe, making more access to information only self-proving of one's beliefs. What does this mean for ideas regarding sexuality and gender? The answer can be plainly seen in how they continue to be topics of great polarization… there are those who believe (and battle, by re-sharing articles on social media, by demonstrating in the streets or simply by performing their gender beliefs) that homosexuality, transgender and gay are as normal as heterosexuality. On the other hand, there are also those who believe that man and woman are (or should be) distinct and complementary; and any violation of such categories are “anti-natural”.

The recent exhibition A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints at Japan Society in New York City attempts to make the debate more nuanced. The central idea of this exhibition of prints is that Edo-period Japan (1603-1868) was a time of strict class membership, with little social mobility, with strict definitions about what a person (whether samurai, peasant, merchant, etc.) was allowed or not to do in their everyday lives. This context of apparent rigidity, however, did not mean necessarily that gender had to be as rigidly conceived. Whereas in the West, influenced by Christianity and Aristotelian philosophy, the concepts of “man” and “woman” have been well-defined for many centuries, in Japan there was at least one more gender, that of the “wakashu” (literally “young person”). The gender category of wakashu is a sexually mature male person who is no longer a boy but not a full-grown man either. Speaking biologically, the wakashu would be something of a teenager (which, interestingly, is a category that itself only acquired the connotation it has in today’s world in the 1950s, particularly with the development of youth culture through films like Rebel Without A Cause). Social categories are defined not only but what they are, but more importantly what they are not, or how they relate to other categories. If “man” is “not-woman” and vice-versa, then the wakashu was neither man nor woman. Likewise, if men and women are supposed to engage in amorous relationships, marriages, or they have dressing codes according to their gender, the wakashu also had codes for how they should relate to older men and women.

From description panel at the exhibition: "Even though Confucian ideals stipulated that women were supposed to be passive partners in sexual relationships, this print shows women as the initiator of tryst with wakashu" (the wakashu is identified by the shaved portion at the top of his head, between the front and back)

From description panel at the exhibition: "Even though Confucian ideals stipulated that women were supposed to be passive partners in sexual relationships, this print shows women as the initiator of tryst with wakashu" (the wakashu is identified by the shaved portion at the top of his head, between the front and back)

The exhibition makes a compelling argument about the fact that the “wakashu” was not only a “not-man,” but a distinct figure altogether. By social codes (and law) men were not supposed to engage sexually with other men (although a sense of “brotherhood” and close ties of mutual admiration were encouraged by the bushido, the martial code of honor of the samurai). However, it was not considered abnormal for the wakashu to engage sexually with full grown men, as well as with women. This is an interesting point. It shows that in Japan, until about 150 years ago, sexuality was much more fluid than we would normally consider in a very rigid society where the everyday norms of living were not openly questionable (unlike our Internet society nowadays). Moreover, the conceptualization of the wakashu show that sexuality is fluid and not “natural”, as some would like to believe.

The problematization of gender categories that seem to be at the center of much discussion nowadays is interesting in and of itself. However, the exhibition also offers some interesting undertones that I think are equally valid to current Trump-Era American society. After all, art exhibitions do not exist in a vacuum, but rather in specific social and cultural contexts. We live in a society where sexuality is both still taboo and an object of fascination (and, obviously, commercialization). Some issues surrounding it are more discussed than others. For instance, now we talk more about the issue of homosexuality than, say, but still the topic of the sexuality of children is seldom discussed in the public sphere. Another example would be how prostitution is often discussed from a legal or economic perspective, or one that focuses on male power, but not so much from a perspective that concerns the idea of pleasure or sexual attraction itself.

It is related to this that I think the exhibition makes its most interesting point. The exhibition shows quite clearly how prostitutes in Edo Japan, far from being mere objects for sexual intercourse, were people that elicited intense desire and fascination in a society that put much emphasis on the importance of aesthetics. In the prints at exhibition we can see the elaborate kimono prostitutes wear, their proud stance, and, more importantly, the fact that they were trained into the profession from a very early age. Prostitutes were trained to be objects of desire, versed in the act of seduction and attraction in a society where marriages were seldom about love or sexual fascination. Wakashu were also occasionally (depending on their class background) trained into the world of prostitution, catering to both men and women clientele. Pleasure districts were heavily regimented and controlled (and taxed) by the State, but they were seen not only as places where people spent money. More importantly, in pleasure districts people could also engage in the pleasure of beauty, love and poetics… after all, unlike contemporary brothels or the commercialization of the body, prostitutes in Edo Japan shared the urban space with musicians, theater (Kabuki) plays, and the company of people versed in the arts (such as the infamous “geisha”, who were not prostitutes but highly skilled and well cultured entertainers and evening hosts). In other words, in Edo Japan, the idea of “pleasure” involved beauty and aesthetics in all the senses of the word (not just its sexual connotations).

Image portraying an elegant wakashu prostitute (prostitutes could be identified because they wore their "obi" or belt on the front). From the exhibition description panel: “The depiction of the wakashu in larger scale than the young women reading and playing music suggests that, among them, he is the most desirable to the brothel’s clients”

Image portraying an elegant wakashu prostitute (prostitutes could be identified because they wore their "obi" or belt on the front). From the exhibition description panel: “The depiction of the wakashu in larger scale than the young women reading and playing music suggests that, among them, he is the most desirable to the brothel’s clients”

Thus, the exhibition shows that sexuality and its social categories can be very fluid, particularly if looked at from a contemporary perspective. In the West, we tend to think about social categories quite rigidly, or at least we imagine them so: man and woman are often seen as a binary, sexuality is separate from beauty, pleasure and politics are two different things and should not mix, rationality entails personal distancing, etc. True, in the West this separation of fields has shaped our culture and our ways of thinking about all aspects of life, but this does not need to be the case… after all, neither of these things are “natural” nor written in stone (or in our DNA). In fact, whilst we do not often think about the fluidity of our own social categories, in practice we can see that they are full of apparent contradictions: successful negotiations are often conducted at the table; our ideas of sexuality are still related to what we consider sexually beautiful (if it were not, we would not link sex with the idea of love at all); and shame (and saving face) is often a crucial part of politics. These are not exceptions to the normal dealings of issues related to sex, politics or capitalism, but rather their normality.

The problem is that we often do not see the nuances of how these things take place in everyday life… and this is what this exhibition was particularly good at and why it provides an important lesson for understanding what life in a society looks like. Social life is not rigid and culture is not full of exceptions. Rather, we simply tend to look at it with the categories that we know and are used to because it is easier to understand what happens in the world that way. In contemporary politics, and particularly in populist politics that mobilize political support through fear, anger and frustration, this simplification of everyday life (and of sexuality) is particularly useful.

From the exhibition description panel: “A carelessly tossed pillow, a dislodged hairpin, and a pack of tissues on the floor: evidence that the young woman and her wakashu over, whom she is eagerly pulling back to bed, have just had intercourse. On the sliding door behind them, a gibbon is depicted reaching for a reflection of the moon in the water below. In Zen teaching, this is a metaphor for the nature of world desire, but here the implication is that the woman cannot hold onto her beloved. Poignantly, a gauzy mosquito netting separates their touch.”

As in any argument made about the social practices of a foreign culture (in this case, that of a Japan at a time when it was still isolated from the rest of the world), as observers we always run the risk of thinking that this is all about the “otherness” of Japanese history and its culture (phrases such as “yes, but Japan has a different culture” come to mind). However, do we not often not fall into the trap of not seeing complete pictures about our social realities? Then, the usefulness (amongst many) of an exhibition like this is that it exposes us to the fact that even in our own societies (Western or not) simplified understandings, such as those that are based in clear-cut categories, often do not tell complete stories or important nuances of people’s lives and ways of seeing the world. And this is something that in our time is particularly central.

Nowadays, there are some (particularly conservatives) who would argue that sexual conduct is an ephemeral thing in the face of other issues (such as poverty, workers’ rights, race). However, sexuality has important consequences that are important both in the field of politics and culture. The transgression of our categories of sexuality is something very powerful, and it often draws both positive and negative feelings from people. Nowadays this is still true, and this just underscores the importance of understanding the nature of social categories of gender. What people can and cannot do with their bodies and their lives is a tremendously important matter related to freedom in a modern society. But before blaming entire sectors of a population or judging their decisions, it is of utmost importance that we understand the social nature of how we see our own lives and how we understand the concepts with which we pass judgement.