Image credit: Shared
I refer to the recent debate on the gender of Garfield. Mentalfloss published an article where Davis (the creator of Garfield) claimed that “Garfield is very universal. By virtue of being a cat, really, he’s not really male or female or any particular race or nationality, young or old.” This seemed to point at the gender neutrality of the character. Hence, activist Virgil Texas updated the Garfield page on Wikipedia stating Garfield’s gender neutrality. This resulted in a 60 hour war on Wikipedia when fans battled to define Garfield’s gender.
Image credit: Daily Mail
Garfield has been thought to be male because of the use of male pronouns in the comic version of Garfield, as well as the use of a male voice-over (Bill Murray) in the movie. Many people voiced their position on Garfield being male, but this debate has also resulted in plenty of people who did not understand what the fuss was about. They claimed it was a waste of time to be even debating about something so trivial.
Was the debate too ‘trivial’ – Does the gender of Garfield matter? First, I refer to Kiss 92’s reaction to this debate before offering my own thoughts.
Kiss 92’s take on it
On the morning of 8 March 2017, three Kiss 92 DJs had a conversation on the debate and weighed in. Two things struck me during the course of their conversation:
1) A DJ had commented, “…When in doubt, [there’s always the option of labelling Garfield as] ‘transgender’.”
First off, when gender is not ascertained or known, this does not mean that one is transgendered. Being transgendered involves experiencing dissonance between your birth sex and sense of gendered identity. They often feel like they are trapped in a wrong body – For instance, a person born male may identify strongly with being either a ‘woman’. However, transgender might also include both people who do not identify exclusively as being a ‘man’ or ‘woman’ as ascribed by gendered societal norms (NB: some people interpret this to be ‘genderqueer’ since a large bulk of transgendered people have a strong attachment to being the ‘opposite’ gender).
This subverts assumptions that ‘masculinity’ corresponds to being male in constituting what it means to be a ‘man’, and ‘femininity’ corresponding to being a female ‘woman’. However, the extents to which ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ operate will vary with societal contexts. For instance, a male might be called out on being ‘un-manly’ because he is not sufficiently ‘masculine’ as defined by his society.
This brings us to an important conceptual distinction.
2). One DJ had conflated sex with gender by using the terms male/man and female/woman interchangeably.
Sex and gender are not the same! Sex is what you were born as in terms of chromosomes, hormones and anatomy, gender is constructed by society and norms. It is also maintained by institutional structures (both formal and informal) and reproduced by people in their cultural contexts. In what Judith Butler calls ‘gender performativity’, she argues that people perform a particular gender, by continually acting in a particular way that your society deems how a ‘man’ or ‘woman’ should behave. One is not automatically ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’, but learns to be, and reproduces it in daily life. Being a certain gender according to ascribed gender norms takes consistent ‘performances’, even if it has been socialised and entrenched such that one does not realise the gendered constructions at work.
In summary, (because diagrams are always better than words):
Image credit: Scalar
Hence, it is perfectly possible to be a female lesbian woman who has andro/tending-toward-masculine gender expressions. It does not hold that female has to correspond to ‘woman’, ‘feminine’ and ‘straight’.
My take on the Garfield debate
Gender is tricky. We have to be mindful that it not only exists on a spectrum, but is also a construct. Many statements (like the two I raised above – I apologise for lack of precise quotations and examples) are founded on misinformed conceptions of gender and sex. Returning to the question on what my thoughts are on the whole Garfield debate: I take no stance on what I believe Garfield’s gender is. Some might be surprised that I am not advocating the gender-neutral position. Indeed, public acknowledgment of a popular cartoon character to be gender-neutral will be a huge step in terms of rethinking gender not as discrete binary categories. However, the outcome of Garfield’s gender is secondary.
In this context, I only take a particular stand of how I think ‘gender’ should be understood: Gender is fluid, problematic, and cannot be essentialised or neatly categorised. Even though the discussion did not yield particular conclusions, no space for discussion is too trivial. On the contrary, it gives us reason for hope. I believe that space for discourse is always healthy until it escalates to aggression and spirals into violence, be it in physical or verbal form. Having open discussion allows for a multiplicity of viewpoints to be put forth. The implication of this is a poststructuralist, multi-layered engagement on gender. ‘Gender’ as a fixed concept is destabilised, and this is perhaps the greatest win – Not Garfield ending up to be gender-neutral, but a space for contestation and conversation.
The more we facilitate discussion, the more we promote open-mindedness and reasoning. We can defend our positions, receive criticisms, and refine our positions.