Waving the boat of gender constructs goodbye courtesy of Shakespeare

Troy Clements

So I grew up in a very rural area of Prince Edward Island, Canada. And when I say rural I mean friggin rural! With a population of 75 people in my village (well it’s actually defined as an unincorporated area, but village is just easier to say), it gives you an idea of what I mean when I say small.

Not like… “Hey I’m from a rural place too” “oh yah, where’s that” I ask…”oh just outside of Kingston, Ontario.” Yah buddy that’s not what I mean by small…small like, shooting rats at the dump with your dad’s 22cal riffle. Or waking up at the crack of dawn to head to the wharf on setting day, sending the lobster fisherman off with a friendly wave…

There ain’t nothing like waving at boats!

I made the big move in 2010. Not the one where you go to Alberta and make lotsa money in the oil biz so you can buy a big truck, the one where you move to Montreal and make no money but yet discover a bit more of yourself.

When I arrived I realized Montreal has lotsa boats leaving the harbour, but nobody really finds waving at them as fun for some reason. And there are rats but they won’t let ya shoot em’….even if your gun is registered…go figure eh?  So as you can imagin’ my horizons were broadening quickly. One example would be Bard Brawl.

Back home you would never have an opportunity to join a group that got together once a week, had a couple of beers and read Shakespeare…and out loud, like in front of people, not just by yourself hiding in your room in fear of being seen as something different. I mean we would brawl back home, but it usually involved more than a couple of beers and few broken noses in the end.   So yah, Montreal…here I am, discovering something new everyday.

So now that you have an idea of where I came from and who I am, I will get to the point…I found an episode of CBC Ideas, “Not With the Eyes,” that struck a chord with me. It was about gender identity as it is in our contemporary culture compared to how it was when Shakespeare was observing and writing about his time.

Being from where I’m from I was always pushed to be male, to be a man. Like be a man…suck it up, you shouldn’t respond that way to a given situation, you should respond this way because…”you’re a man!” And I mean I followed that. I didn’t push back or anything, I really thought that’s how it was.

Don’t get me wrong. Despite where I grew up, I was a little bit more open-minded than others in the community. I accepted anyone who identified as gay or transgendered for example, but I never thought about where I was in that spectrum, and this episode of Ideas really allowed room for me to question my gender. Not my sexual identity but my gender.

You know like…what is gender really?

I mean physically there is a difference but how one perceives oneself is not so obvious. For example, as mentioned in the episode, race was a created construct. Sure we have similarities to a certain group in comparison to others but nowadays, for the most part, race is slowly ceasing to exist.

We don’t see one race compared to another as much any more. There are still differences but we are realizing more and more that we are all just Homo sapiens, and we are getting away from separation of people because their skin is a different colour or because they cook with different spices. And so like race, gender (when looked at in a certain light) was a created construct as well… and one that is slowly moving away from a “you’re a man” and “you’re a woman” type thing.

When we truly ask ourselves who we are, it’s not easy to say. Like personally, I have been questioning if I am male or female…or if either really exist. And I tell you what…it feels so liberating to question that.

Especially coming from rural PEI. Let’s talk about washer tossing some time.

So does gender exist and how did it exist when ole Shakespeare was writing? I mean when you read between the lines Shakespeare was writing about what he seen among the population, usually the upper class of citizens, and poking fun or at least making a comment about how people perceived themselves and the world around them. And so, as mentioned in the broadcast…in his plays he had men playing women roles/parts and these women would then dress up as a young boys. In turn you would have male characters in the play attracted to these ‘young boys’ who were actually women who just looked like young boys. So you have a sort of taboo issue being discussed through a form entertainment.

That’s crucial. As long as it is in some form of theatre, poetry, song writing, etc., one is less likely to get his or her head cut off for it. Sorry Patricia Jannuzzi but Facebook doesn’t cut it!

Helena (in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, adds this nerdy editor) says, “Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind,” and so the question is what are the eyes actually seeing? If you fall in love with the mind, what are the male characters physically seeing in these women who resemble young boys?

When we discuss a similar situation nowadays we see the same thing more or less. We have people who consider themselves sapiosexual.

sapiosexual: (adj) a form of sexual orientation characterized by a strong attraction to intelligence in others, often regardless of gender and/or conventional attractiveness.

So once again falling in love through the mind.

This still leaves the question, what is it that the eyes actually see then?

And so this speaks to the fluidity of gender and sexuality, that nothing is fixed, that there can be many forms of gender and many forms of attractiveness toward that gender and that they are in a constant state of change and flux. And this fluidity is part of a continuum that exists where people exist, that it’s not just fixed to one time or another.

Shakespeare saw it and now we see it. It will evolve but I’m not sure if we will ever know what the eyes actually see.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Troy’s essay is in response to the program “Not With The Eyes” produced for the CBC program Ideas. The link is here:


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