Reflections on “Understanding Adolescent Mental Health: The Influence of Social Processes, Doing Gender and Gendered Power Relations”

The inspiration for this reflection stems from my reading of “Understanding Adolescent Mental Health: The Influence of Social Processes, Doing Gender and Gendered Power Relations” as well as from our class discussions about gender as performance.

Although this reflection is inspired by the readings it touches on a subject not properly examined: the role of transgendered youth. I decided to focus in on this specific aspect of gender for two reasons: first because of my own experience with a transgendered youth and second because of the recent news story of Jenna Talackova who is a Miss Universe Canada hopeful who has been disqualified from the competition because it was discovered that she was born a male. Her story can be found here.

As I was reading “Understanding Adolescent Mental Health: The Influence of Social Processes, Doing Gender and Gendered Power Relations” I was considering issues of gender as performance and how it relates to mental health and I found myself curious as to what the research says regarding transgendered youth. As the article observes:

Gender is conceptualised as an individual characteristic and a fundamental organisational principle in society. Gender can be theorised as a social and cultural construction of sex in diverse images of masculinities and femininities, and a power relation (Connell 2002). Structural patterns in these gender relations and positions construct a dynamic, yet consistent, hierarchical structure in which men and boys collectively possess higher status, resources, and power than women and girls. Gendered division of power at different societal levels is characterised by dominance, coercion, advantage, as well as discursive expressions and practices (Connell 1987). (pg.963)

Although I generally agree with this position it leaves out the area of those who do not fit comfortably within the male/female gender category and can thus be attacked from both sides. What about those of us who portray a gender identity that does not match our biological sex? Where do these youths fall on the spectrum of mental health?

In regards to performance of gender the article observes,

Performance comprises achievements related to school and leisure time activities, as well as expectations about appearance and behaviour. The latter are conceptualised as ‘gender performance’ in this study: efforts to look and behave according to gender-specific norms. Performance processes were experienced as having both positive and negative impacts on mental health. (pg. 968)

Which leads me to question how many positive aspects of being transgendered there are for youths today? I am by no means an expert on the topic but I would take a guess that many of the transgendered youth in our schools don’t even have time to experience mental health aspects regarding school and leisure time activities as they are constantly reminded of their appearance and behavior and how they do not fit with the “norm”.

My own experience working with a transgendered student has led me to this belief. As I related in a previous blog post this student was constantly questioned by his classmates about the gender identity he had assumed. Although this questioning was coming more from a place of curiosity and less of hostility, he had to constantly justify his choice to portray himself as who he felt he really was, something that I think many of us would struggle to do even as young adults.

In discussing the issue of Jenna Talackova I fall back on to what I know and how I perceive the world, which is through the lens of the philosopher. I think Aristotle in particular can help us shine a light on how we can solve this complex ethical dilemma and in discussing this issue I rely heavily on the work of Michael Sandel’s book Justice (which you should all read immediately).

I believe that Aristotle would approach this issue by first asking the basic question of what it means to be a Miss Universe contestant.

On the one hand we have those who wish to ban Jenna by claiming that to be part of this competition you must have been born as a female and on the other you have Jenna who seems to be arguing that to be a successful Miss Universe contestant you must simply meet the basic requirement set out by the organizers of being a Canadian citizen between the ages of 18 and 27 who is not married or pregnant, which she no doubt meets.

What I think this issue really revolves around are questions of honor. Our society affords Miss Universe contestants with honorific prestige as they stand as feminine examples of sexy, beautiful, talented, (thin) women. By allowing a contestant who was born a male into the competition we threaten the honor of those females who have worked so hard to meet these requirements.

What does it say if a male (even if that is not the gender they identify with) can meet these requirements? Doesn’t that take away from the other contestants? It is obvious how Jenna’s participation in this event can be perceived as a threat to not only our gender performance norms but also on our norms of feminine beauty, talent, and sex appeal. But this threat does not justify her inclusion or exclusion, it only represents the opinions of those who hold these things dear.

I would argue that in order to maintain an equal spirit of competition it is necessary to discriminate. We cannot have just anybody running for the title of Miss Universe, as then the competition would be meaningless.

This being said I believe that Jenna should not be discriminated against because as Michael Sandel points out “Justice discriminates according to merit, according to the relevant excellence.”

Jenna clearly meets the criteria set out by the rules of the Miss Universe pageant and so she should be allowed to compete because she has the appropriate merit and relevant excellence as shown by the thousands of people who find her an example of a sexy, beautiful, talented, and (thin) woman before she was discovered to be born a male and the thousands of people who still believe she contains these characteristics now.

Although we may feel that these criteria are silly or shallow, they are the criteria set by the Miss Universe organizers and thus the basis for discrimination. All those contestants who do not meet these criteria deserve to be excluded from the competition because they lack the essential characteristics outlined by what it is to be a contestant in this pageant and do not deserve the honor afforded to the winners.

Simply by meeting these criteria I believe that Jenna has earned herself the honorific titles that come with being a Miss Universe contestant and I wish her the best of luck in her fight to be considered among the other equally worthy contestants.

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