The title is a phrase from a sentence that criticizes the sexual stereotyping on The Jersey Shore. The essay was on “reality” television, and the student’s point was, at bottom, well taken:
“The message that [Jersey Shore] sends to young kids is the idea that there is only one type of person for each gender that you can be.”
There’s a lot wrong with this sentence, to be sure. My sudden appearance in the discussion, by way of the comment as to what “you can be,” is a problem. Trying to find a shortcut through a lesson on agreement of person in pronouns that hangs up every time on the whole concept of person in pronouns, I often simply advise, “Just don’t use ‘you’ in academic writing.” That should be an easy rule to follow, no? At the proof-reading stage the student could just run a check for “you” in the draft, and as the computer finds the uses one by one, the student would reword or restructure the sentences to lose the “you.” But no. That would be too easy, I guess. Instead, students just keep writing the way they talk, and there’s “you,” all through the paper, trying to agree with “he” or “I” or “they” or, in this case, possibly, “kids.”
We also have the nested terms in the statement “the message…is the idea that there is only…” Well, the actual message isn’t an idea about something; it’s the something, that there is only one type etc. The sentence would be more effective if it just telescoped down to hide that nesting.
Of course the most woeful aspect of the sentence is its overall staggering clumsiness, the sense that the writer is trying to work out an idea and doesn’t want to repeat the effort to clear it up once it’s actually uttered, no matter how ineptly. “There is only one type of person for each gender that you can be”??? And, alas, the “you” clause is even misplaced: she should have put that modifier next to its noun (“there is only one type of person that you can be for each gender”), making clear that the more infinite variety of choices lies with “person” rather than “gender”—and, of course, making an awkward sentence even more awkward.
Still, I’m proud that my student recognizes stereotyping when she sees it, and is uncomfortable with a television show that perpetuates—nay, celebrates and profits from—stereotypes. The gender stereotypes of my own youth were very different from those on Jersey Shore and other like-minded television programs today, but no less powerful for young people trying to suit society’s expectations of them, and no less damaging to the “kids” and to their society. As we are learning more and more every day, a gender is not a clear-cut category and should not be a strait-jacket; gender is at most a spectrum, and individuals should be free to locate themselves at the place on that spectrum where they feel most fully realized, and then to express their understanding of that “type” of person. Further, even these places on the spectrum have great potential variety: two very “masculine” men, or two very “feminine” women, may still diverge greatly from each other in their general and gender behavior, appearance, and actions.
And I know that this is what my student meant. She lacked the vocabulary, concepts, and patience to work her way through saying it. She should have taken more time, tried more sentence structures and rhetorical strategies—a hypothetical example might have helped, for instance. Why didn’t she? Maybe because she thought her sentence was great as it stood. Maybe because she didn’t feel putting in more time and effort would help. Maybe because she didn’t feel like putting in more time and effort. Maybe because, unsatisfactory as the sentence is, she believed she couldn’t make it any better (which isn’t the same as thinking it was great).
If she pays attention and is willing to make more effort, her professors and peers will help her find her way to a clearer, more assured voice and stronger writing skills and devices…
…just as a society, paying attention and being willing to make more effort (despite pockets of resistance), can learn to think beyond stereotypes and find a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.
Happy Valentine’s Day to each of us, all the types of people of all the shades of gender in all the possible relationships. Stay away from “reality”: the real reality is getting better all the time, however slowly.