By Gwendolyn Ann Smith
Zoo Atlanta has a new panda cub, a 12-pound baby bear named Mei Lan. As cute as she may be, my reason for bringing up the new arrival are more complex than simply about adorableness. It comes down to Mei Lan’s name.
Mei Lan, according to zoo officials, translates as Atlanta Beauty. It was the winner out of 10 potential names in a poll on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Web site. It sounds good, and it’s a nice bit of public relations for Atlanta.
The name is also one with male overtones, which is where it gets complex. The director of the Chinese panda refuge where Mei Lan was bred, Zhang Zhihe, explained about this male name for a female panda, saying “It means her parents want her to be as capable as a boy.”
This is, of course, where I come in.
I often forget, as more and more avenues open up for those of us exploring our own gender identity and expression, that there are still plenty of hurdles when it comes to simply being born in one gender or another. This panda is my unwitting reminder that there is still a division in the genders, that women are still viewed as “the weaker sex,” and that many would rather assign the “better” of the two given the option.
Mei Lan is not transgender, at least as far as we know. That said, she’s already been assigned a gender identity, since birth, and has a masculinzed name so that she might be as somehow as capable as a male. While this is a lot to attribute to an animal named in a largely anonymous web poll where it’s likely few even considered a possible gender connotation to the name, it still reminds me of every time someone has had to alter their birth gender to be accepted.
I don’t just mean those of us who have gone through a gender transition, mind you. I mean every female who, in order to be taken seriously, has had to se a male pseudonym or her name’s initials in order to be heard, or every woman who has had to learn to “be a man” in the workplace in order to make even the smallest inroads beyond the glass ceiling.
We expect men to be the protectors, the hunters, the explorers. They’re the ones who will tough it out, who will brave whatever is thrown their way, and who somehow, therefore, deserve things that are not presented to women.
This shows itself in the English language as surely as Mei Lan has male overtones in Chinese. A man is considered good looking if he is “rugged,” while a woman is attractive if she is “cute.” Vice versa does not typically apply.
We prize the “tall, dark, and handsome” man who presents as the “strong, silent type.” While some do want a man who is in couch with his emotions in one way or another, showing what some view as weakness is still treated as a major taboo for men. Indeed, you are supposed to “tough it out” rather than actually present your feelings in any way.
Conversely, women are expected to be “flighty,” even “hysterical.” Were supposed to be neither strong nor silent, with stereotypes aplenty of the weak-willed woman or shrill harridan. Women are viewed as irrational at worst, but at least flighty and impulsive.
A man will never simply be a boy, but boys always strive to be men. Women however, to some, can always be reduced to a girl.
Of course, no one can – or should – live as a stereotype. It is not healthy on either side of this supposedly binary gender system. “Being a man” by hiding your feelings will serve as little good as being as rash as some might paint a woman to be. In reality, we all share the traits of these stereotypes, and are not bound to one or the other – or either, for that matter.
So good for Mei Lan: her name will help her to become capable in a world that doesn’t value her gender. In spite of her fur, however, the world is not so black and white.