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Book Review: She He They Me: For the Sisters Misters and Binary Resisters

A decorative image with hand-drawn sketches of books and people reading that says "The Mission Within Presents The Book Nook," used for a series dedicated to book reviews.

If you’ve been around here for a bit, you’ll see that it’s come up at least once that I’m a reader. The other day, I was hard up for stuff to write about here, and that changed when it finally occurred to me to do book reviews. Since reading is a huge part of self-care, for me anyway, I felt like there’s no better time to add this in as a series than now.

Welcome to the start of a new series where I find books from the library or elsewhere, sometimes even in my own book pile, and review ’em for your pleasure. Or amusement, however you view it. The inaugural selection is She, He, They, Me: For the Sisters, Misters, and Binary Resisters by Robyn Ryle.

I don’t own this one, but I’m thinking I may pick me up a copy sometime if I find it in a local book store. I found this book by happenstance. The title caught my eye, and as I walked by the shelf, I looked back, and had to give it a closer look. I guess you could say this was a happy accident, in a way.

Released in 2019, the book starts off with a brief rundown of life in contemporary 21st century, in the U.S. and around the world, and how we view gender as a social construct. When I say “we,” I’m talking about it in the collective sense, not the personal sense.

Ryle starts by mentioning news stories that have come up in recent years related to military servicemembers identifying anywhere within the LGBTQ scope, with specifics related to who decides who can use what bathroom.

Ryle didn’t set out to write this at first. A friend of hers was on the lookout for information to help someone else questioning their identity, and that’s where it started.

See a need, fill a need, like Bigweld said.

But then, the project started branching out from there to include takeaways for everyone who reads it, while explaining what gender means, along with sexuality or romantic preferences since they’re so intertwined.

Ryle draws upon her experiences in higher education to show that what we thought about gender may not always be the whole story. For instance, my college years took place in the same decade Ryle wrote this book, and theoretically, I could’ve been in one of her classes.

BTW, now that I think about it, her classes would’ve been up my alley.

Anyway, I was also one of those who went into college believing that the two genders were it. Sure, I’d seen people on TV who didn’t identify with either, like when Sally started airing clips from earlier episodes toward the end of the show’s run, like the one of Toby. I was too young to remember this episode’s original run, but I found it in its’ entirety on YouTube one night.

Damn, this was truly ahead of its’ time! Speaking of which, I wonder how Toby’s holding up these days. I’ve thought about them now and then since I saw that video on YouTube.

For an example close to home, I went to school with someone who didn’t identify with their assigned gender, and after high school, had explored options for gender-affirming surgery. I wasn’t sure what to make of it at the time, and made some mistakes in how I referred to them, along with someone else I’d interacted with during my early sojourn in online journaling.

Ryle states that depending on where we’re born, we’ve got no say-so in our gender assignment. It was one or the other.

Pick a team, in a sense.

I would also add that the subculture we’re born into can also contribute to our understanding of gender, since I didn’t see much mention of it in the book. This is a whole other can of worms that could probably be a standalone book, imo. I won’t name specific subcultures, or specific figureheads from them, but in one of my late-night rabbit hole ventures years ago, I learned about a subculture that has some extremely rigid ideas about gender identity and gender norms, and what it means to be either feminine or masculine.

I use “either,” since this subculture’s worldviews regard gender as one or the other. After further reading, I saw that one of the subculture figureheads basically defined these ideas based on their own arbitrary standards. This person’s considered a rock star in their subculture, so they’ve got a ton of influence in shaping what gender means to the subculture adherents.

Normally when we read books, they’re from front to back, whether opened from the right-hand side like a traditional book, or from the left if it’s manga. But does anyone here remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books?

‘Member those? Pepperidge Farm remembers.

As a 90s kid, these were one of the hottest things going at the elementary school I went to.

Ryle’s book is in the style of the Choose Your Own Adventure books, instead of something read from beginning to end. We start off with Chapter 1, just like any other book, but instead we’re presented with two options once we reach the end of the page.

Were you born into a gendered society?

Were you born into a genderless society?

The reality is the first one, but the second option, while it may not exist in a purely genderless sense based on the cultures and societies we’ve got readily accessible knowledge of, Ryle talks about the closest approximation we’ve come to as a society that doesn’t recognize a binary-based gender. This means societies and nations in human pre-history, and within places like what we currently call the U.S. prior to sustained outsider contact.

We also see mention of cultural norms like within the Awa Nation of New Guinea, gender is something assigned later in life, viewed as an achievement or something to strive for instead of a label assigned to someone. It’s similar to the way some Native Nations in the U.S. and Canada give names to their kids later in life instead of at birth.

But what if someone’s born intersex, with extra gender-marking chromosomes? The common practice in the medical industry is corrective surgery to match the two genders, but according to Ryle, there are countries that have shifted away from this as a practice: Malta and Chile. She also talks about the challenges that come with the decision to assign gender to someone born intersex, and which gender to center a child’s upbringing on.

Ryle talks about gender in regards to the stereotypes, like the girl obsessed with everything pink, plays with dolls, and loves dresses. Or the boy who likes blue, cars, and wears sports jerseys and baseball caps. But then she explores the ones who still identify as their assigned gender, but part ways with certain aspects of what’s expected to go with the territory of those gender identities.

For instance, someone may not like dolls or present themselves in ways perceived as feminine, but still identifies as a she. Or someone may not like certain colors, likes the idea of what comes to mind when it comes to the term ‘dress-up,’ but still identifies as a he.

But what counts as men’s clothing, or women’s clothing anyway? It changes with the times, same way gender does. Ryle brings up historical trends, where boys wore dresses until they reached a certain age. Men also wore heels and grew their hair to their butts. We also see mention of places and cultures today where non-bifurcated garments are seen as acceptable for those identifying as men. Like kilts, and other culture-specific items of a similar style.

We’re also seeing retailers shift toward a more inclusive model, like Old Navy and their Gender Neutral line for both adults and kids.

Ideas on gender also change with the times. For instance, one time period could include certain aesthetics as the determining factor, whereas one’s station in life in another time will be what determines whether they meet a gender’s specific standards.

Cultural practices differ from one to the next. What one culture deems acceptable in terms of totally-platonic interactions and greetings, another culture could find something wrong about it and assign negative attributes and slurs to it.

For me, this book showed a lot of my own gender identity as a process instead of a straightforward path, as it would for many of this book’s readership. I am a vag-haver, and identify as a she. I also don’t always abide by what’s considered “the norm,” and I’m pretty sure my name’s proof of that, haha. Doesn’t mean I still don’t have a soft spot for frilly tutu dresses, and in multiple colors, no less. Not gonna lie, I’ve got two: one in navy, and one in white. I never used to, since these weren’t an option for me before I lost the weight. I think that could be another story for another time, but in any case, I’m still kicking myself for not getting that Betsey Johnson handbag shaped like a Nintendo DS. The belt bag I got from Zara shaped like a Nintendo game controller’s close enough to fit the bill, and since gray’s part of the design element, I’m happy to overlook it.

I’m a fan of this one, that’s for sure. I love the way Ryle makes discussions about gender as a social construct that changes with the times accessible to a variety of readership demographics, and the presentation of it, too. I’d definitely recommend it, and I’m gonna give it a two thumbs up in the style of Siskel and Ebert.

Over to you, readers. Have you read She, He, They Me? Have any plans to read it? Own a copy of it? I’d love to hear your thoughts and takeaways, so drop ’em like they’re hot, and let’s talk!

 

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