By Michael Dean Benton
In the opening scenes of Debra Chasnoff’s 2009 documentary Straightlaced: How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up, young males are filmed discussing clothing in a retail store and debating the appropriate hardness of their appearance. This pose brought to mind Jackson Katz’s 1999 documentary Tough Guise: Violence, Media & the Crisis in Masculinity which depicted our cultural entertainments as increasingly focused on a hard, impervious, aggressive sense of masculinity. Sadly, this disciplining of proper masculinity through the threat of aggressive violence is still endemic in the twenty-first Century.
I was recently reminded of the dangers facing anyone who dares to step outside the bounds of rigid gender roles in certain situations. Last year, one of my students was hospitalized after being brutally beaten while walking home at night, his assailants shouting the word faggot as they kicked the student repeatedly in the head. His perceived violation was the wearing of a pink shirt and sporting long hair with different colors.
The pressures of gender roles is even more evident in the body image pressures faced by young females in a 24/7 mediatized world. They are constantly bombarded with unrealistic, airbrushed images of hyper-sexualized femininity. The message seems to be that no matter what you desire to achieve in this world, if you do not dress and act in a certain way, you are not a proper female.
Straightlaced also explores how ideas of gender limit young people’s professional and creative options. Young women discuss being discouraged from pursuing traditionally masculine professions like construction work or contact sports, while young men discuss the fear and anxiety evoked when they want to participate in yoga, dance or theater.
Most importantly, this film deals with the lives of questioning, intelligent, and courageous young people – of many different sexualities and gender identities—who are working to change these rigid gender roles and designations. The film inspires with its depiction of open, honest individuals addressing these difficult questions.
The film includes the story of the tragic suicide of Fayette County student Josh Shipman, and the Dunbar Memorial Garden spearheaded by Hannah Landers and Jesse Higginbotham to honor their creative friend. Hannah mentions how whole classes of students laughed at the death of Josh, and her confusion concerning their cruelty toward him simply because he was different.
This is a wonderful exploration of the possibilities being imagined by young people today, and a challenge to the hate and prejudice toward people who are perceived as not conforming to these strict gender and sexual roles. This is all related by the voices of the actual youths dealing with these issues and, owing to this, the film is a powerful vehicle for exploring these issues and challenging restrictive gender roles.
This Saturday, October 16, PFLAG Lexington will be screening Straightlaced: How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up at the Unitarian Universalist Church on 564 Clays Mills Rd. in Lexington, KY. PFLAG is dedicated to respecting, embracing, supporting and advocating for diversity in our culture, including those of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. They offer a place for dialogue and support for individuals and families dealing with their own struggles and those of an adverse society. For more info about PFLAG Lexington events, organizing and fundraising contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org