Thoughts on Gender and Masculinity

I was reading this post over at Questioning Transphobia today. In the comments Lisa expresses the view that since for many radical feminists “woman” (in the socially constructed sense of the word) is equated with oppression, one of the problems that trans women present for radical feminism is the visible presence of people who claim to find pleasure in being female and who desire female embodiments.  Obviously, trans women are not the only women who enjoy being female: there are plenty of cis gendered feminists who angrily reject the idea that they should see their gender only in terms of oppression, but in the terms of this argument, trans women would perhaps be more galling because they can be interpreted as actively seeking femaleness out, when I guess cis feminists who claim to enjoy their gender could be more easily dismissed with accusations of “false consciousness” and so forth.

No, I’m not saying I think all radical feminists would make such arguments or equate femaleness with oppression. I’m not sure what I think about that argument, really; I’m just trying to articulate it.

However, Lisa’s comments made me think about the problem of finding pleasure in gender because, if I’m honest, my knee jerk reaction is probably more in line with the radical feminist association of “womanhood” with oppression.  When I hear women (in general, not just trans women) talking about reclaiming and celebrating femininity/femaleness, there is a part of me that immediately recoils with the thought, “But why would anyone want to be a woman?”

But then, why wouldn’t I think that? The gendered experiences I have had as a result of being placed in “class woman” have left me with post traumatic stress disorder, two varieties of eating disorder and a tendency to depression. Thanks womanhood!

Having said that, I am perfectly able to admit the possibility that other women have had different experiences which are not any less valid than my own and are entitled to hold different perspectives which challenge mine.

And, though I may not acknowledge it very often, as I’ve got older and have been able to take more control over my own life, I have found more ways to take pleasure in my gender.

But I want to get at a more nuanced analysis of my negative response to femaleness here, as well as some of my feelings about masculinity.

There’s no doubt that I am strongly attracted to certain kinds of masculine performance and that a not insignificant part of me desires to be masculine.  I was talking to my girlfriend about this desire the other day and we were listing the men we would like to emulate. Then we started to jokingly wonder if we are just hopelessly “male-identified.”  I thought about this and came to the conclusion that, no, I don’t think this desire for masculinity is simply about being male-identified. In the first instance, I don’t feel a desire to actually be a man, not least because I don’t really think that men truly have a great deal under current conditions. Manhood may be presented as great and it may come with certain privileges, but that doesn’t mean it actually is great or results in a happy healthy life.

This is why you won’t catch me saying that “feminism is about equality.”  Sure, I like to believe that the logical end result of women’s liberation would be equality between the sexes, but I don’t see “equality” itself as the goal if equality is to be achieved on the terms of the present system. I mean, I’m a middle-class white woman, so if I was totally equal with a middle-class white man under current conditions, I guess I would have more chance of climbing to the top of the company ladder, working myself to death (never seeing my family and friends in the process) and having a heart attack at the age of 62, than I do as white middle-class woman. Marvellous!  And I’m not sure working-class women would really thank feminism if its ultimate goal was to get them access to a range of even more horrible jobs than they’re currently expected to do because, let’s face it, working-class men are expected to do lots of really, really terrible jobs. Yes I do think we should be fighting for the most equal treatment possible in the workplace for women because we all have to live and survive under the present system, I just don’t think feminism should be all about some kind of vaguely defined “equality.”  We need to be a lot more specific than that and we need to take issues like race, class and disability into account.

But I digress, back to gender; since my desire for masculinity has little to do with any idea that actually being a man is necessarily fantastic, I decided that it has more to do with my desire for certain kinds of gender performance/presentation which are allowed far more readily to people in the male category than they are to people in the female category.

Here are some of the men that I would like to emulate:

Edward James Olmos as Admiral Adama in Battlestar Galatica

Power, authority, dignity

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Cary Grant

Style, grace, charm

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Johnny Cash

Gravitas, honesty, integrity

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Leonard Cohen

Sexual magnetism (and apparently prowess), couldn’t give a shit-attitude

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What they have in common (aside from great hair), I think, is a certain kind of masculine charisma and presence (the concept of charisma being as gendered as everything else), a way of occupying space with power and grace, and without apparent anxiety about their gender performance.  Of course these men all represent fantasies about masculinity which do not necessarily reflect the way they, or any other men, feel about their gender in reality, but fantasies are important. Fantasies are about possibilities.

These fantasies of masculinity and my desiring response to them remind me that women are not generally allowed to occupy cultural space in this way, are not even supposed to think of it as a possibility. It’s not that women can’t occupy space in this way. When a female bodied person attempts to take on attributes generally ascribed to men, her behaviour will not be interpreted in the same way and it won’t get the same results or rewards. It won’t be given the same space or cultural value.

When I am put in a challenging situation in life, I have to decide whether to respond assertively from a position of assumed authority, or to modify my behaviour to fit with the norms and expectations of white, middle-class femininity.  How I act depends on whether I think the risk is worth it. Whereas my white middle-class male alter ego would most likely be rewarded for assertive, even aggressive, behaviour, there’s a good chance I will be to some extent punished for it, even if that’s just with gaining a reputation for being a bitch and ball breaker.  I have been called “scary,” “intimidating” and “terrifying” in the past.  I have been asked to modify emails and letters to make them less “commanding,” when as far as I was concerned they were simply assertive. I can’t help but wonder if I would have been asked to make these changes were I male.  While I have no political problem with doing what is necessary to survive and make my life tolerable, I still HATE doing it. I HATE knowing that I am more likely to be rewarded in various ways for indulging in classically middle-class feminine behaviours, such as passive-aggression, manipulation and game-playing. I hate it even more when I catch myself indulging in these kinds of behaviours almost without being aware of it, so hardwired are they into my psyche.

Is my emulation of powerful male figures something to do with mourning the fact that I am denied what appears to be a highly pleasurable way of taking up cultural space? It may be about being denied access to a range of behaviours/identities which are constructed as “masculine” in my culture and generally kept as the preserve of male bodied people.  I wonder if the lesbian pleasure in drag king troupes and butch lesbian genders have a lot to do with this too. Is the butch dyke’s sexual magnetism something to do with her capacity to perform masculine power and authority, while remaining a woman all along?  Is it also something to do with her refusal to accept the idea that everything about the cultural construction of masculinity is bad and to be rejected.

Ok. So this post has turned into “all about me! me! me!” but to try and bring it back to a point, I think we do need to work towards more nuanced understandings of the pleasures  of gender and the various ways in which our feelings about our genders are always tied up with issues of race, class and sexuality.  I am not simply a member of “class woman.”  The fact that I am white, middle-class and a lesbian makes my experiences very specific and I need to understand that other women’s experiences will be just as complex and specific as my own.  While I have had experiences which have led me to occupy an always problematic and sometimes angrily resentful position with regard to my womanhood, I need to understand that other women may have just as good reasons in their lives to feel much more positive and celebratory.  And, speaking generally again, it would be good if we could talk about these things without trying to invalidate each other’s experiences of gender.

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9 thoughts on “Thoughts on Gender and Masculinity

  1. Wow, I love this post – but I also love female masculinity.
    I really like your comments about social space that women are punished for occupying – I’ve also been called scary, intimidating, and the like, and have had people try to police my language because women aren’t ever supposed to speak up like that. I mean, the most obvious change for me was going from reflexively projecting my voice (four years of theater in high school, another year in college) to talking quietly enough that people often couldn’t hear me, because people kept attacking me for sounding too aggressive.
    Which is about me, so –
    I really love this post. It’s hard to talk in some places about experiencing gender and sex beyond oppression – and I don’t just mean in feminist spaces. Like – in City of Heroes, I made a comment about how all my characters were built like Barbie dolls, and I was getting annoyed with both the idealized physiques being unlike mine, as well as the general sameness from character to character, a guy I was talking to who generally gets sexism, responded “sex sells.”
    As if women = sex. And that’s a pretty oppressive construct of womanhood right there. That the entire construction of woman in some men’s minds is sex. For me, my comfort with womanhood and femaleness is not mostly tied up in sex (that is, in the ability to have sex in a manner that I will enjoy), but primarily, and constantly, in the comfort I have in my skin – something I didn’t have before… and I made it about me again. Which isn’t to say I don’t enjoy sex, or that I shouldn’t enjoy sex.
    Anyway, yeah, I do find a lot of elements in the way men see and treat women as oppressive. I don’t understand how it’s possible to be a woman in modern society and not see that. Even the daily cuts, the little things that happen over and over again.
    There have been times, in fact, when I wished I could just live as a man and not deal with it all, but I found that thought to be more traumatic than dealing with what being a woman means in a male-dominated society.
    Sorry if this is a bit scattered – I’m up late and have been digging through some old, bad memories. Thank you for writing this, though.

  2. There’s no doubt that I am strongly attracted to certain kinds of masculine performance and that a not insignificant part of me desires to be masculine. I was talking to my girlfriend about this desire the other day and we were listing the men we would like to emulate. Then we started to jokingly wonder if we are just hopelessly “male-identified.” I thought about this and came to the conclusion that, no, I don’t think this desire for masculinity is simply about being male-identified.
    You know, one thing I noticed that’s interesting – and I did a post on it about a year ago – is with women’s clothing, and the names given to the different styles – at Monsoon, they give them names, and they’re all women’s names, but in other shops a lot of them seem to be named after traditionally male trades, the first things that come to mind are sailor-style clothes or military-style, but I did quite a lot of trawling through high street fashion websites for that post, and there was all sorts of interesting stuff.
    I think when you reach the realms of the exageratedly masculine or exageratedly feminine, there probably isn’t that much difference between the two – which probably explains why gay men are often mistaken for being overly feminine, when of course they’re extremely masculine, since they basically like men. I notice that with a lot of photos of very butch lesbians as well, some of the pictures Philomela posted a while back from that photography site, these were women who were butch lesbians, working class, and black or asian – so ‘orientalised’ and ‘feminised’ there on three different levels (four, counting the fact that they were women), but even in terms of their gender performance, in a way the very short hair and the men’s clothes kind of emphasised what was feminine about them. Although my thinking on this is still very polarised, I guess.

  3. Like – in City of Heroes, I made a comment about how all my characters were built like Barbie dolls, and I was getting annoyed with both the idealized physiques being unlike mine, as well as the general sameness from character to character, a guy I was talking to who generally gets sexism, responded “sex sells.”
    As if women = sex. And that’s a pretty oppressive construct of womanhood right there. That the entire construction of woman in some men’s minds is sex.

    The way I always interpret comments like ‘sex sells’ is that that Barbie Doll physique represents sex, and women who look like that are not only the only sexual ones, they’re also a lower form of life for looking like that – like they represent all of man’s basest instincts. So yeah, pretty oppressive, although equally dismissive of sex as a whole as of women, I’d say.

  4. Thanks Lisa.
    I really like your comments about social space that women are punished for occupying – I’ve also been called scary, intimidating, and the like, and have had people try to police my language because women aren’t ever supposed to speak up like that.
    It’s amazing how much women’s behaviour is still policed in this way.
    Actually, I was just remembering, I read an article by Julia Serano in Make/Shift where she argues that we don’t ‘perform’ our gender, we are gendered by other people, by the way they respond to us. I think we do perform our gender, but I also think this is an interesting way of thinking about gender. A man and a woman behaving in the same way can be gendered differently depending on how people respond to them.
    There have been times, in fact, when I wished I could just live as a man and not deal with it all, but I found that thought to be more traumatic than dealing with what being a woman means in a male-dominated society.
    This seems to be something anti-trans people are totally unable to appreciate. I can empathise because I have decided to live as an out lesbian despite the problems that is going to bring me, because my life wouldn’t be worth living otherwise. It’s more important to be who you are.

  5. Sorry for losing this for three days – I’ve been having trouble keeping up with all the good conversations, and the bad conversations suck up too much energy. 😦
    Zenobia, that’s not far from what I was thinking, but expressing poorly. I think it also simultaneously devalues women who don’t look like that.
    Winter, I agree with Julia about how we’re gendered, but I agree with you that there’s also the fact that we do gender, and sometimes it reflects the gendering, sometimes not.

  6. Winter, I agree with Julia about how we’re gendered, but I agree with you that there’s also the fact that we do gender, and sometimes it reflects the gendering, sometimes not.
    Yes, I think it would be worth taking both theories into account. Gender is something we “do” consciously and unconsciously, with agency in some areas and not so much agency in others. But I think Julia’s right to say that the way people respond to us has an impact on our gendering too.
    Sorry for losing this for three days – I’ve been having trouble keeping up with all the good conversations, and the bad conversations suck up too much energy. 😦
    That’s ok. My friends and I think you have amazing patience and stamina by the way.

  7. That’s ok. My friends and I think you have amazing patience and stamina by the way.

    I appreciate you saying that a lot – I was just reading a discussion last night where I was being characterized (without naming me, but I said the stuff they were complaining about) as being too angry, rude, pushy, bullying to communicate my point, but I really do try not to be on the attack all the time – and there’s only a few people for whom I have no patience at all. But still, it’s frustrating knowing that no matter what I say or do, that I’m just too loud, mean, and angry to be listened to.
    I know it’s the tone argument all over again, and that’s just a trick used to turn everything around: “We’re not prejudiced, you’re just not civilized.”
    But it still helps to hear other people say that I am being patient.

  8. Also, on gendering, trans people tend to feel the effects of being gendered by other people a lot more than cis people do. For a cis person, getting gendered incorrectly is usually just a mistake. For a trans person, it can be harsh and is often used as a weapon to deny who we are. When Rachel on The F Word used thirdgender pronouns to describe Emily, that’s one way in which society attacks trans people.
    Which only relates to Julia’s point in terms of the fact that people do gender us as men or women when they see us, in how people react when they gender someone either way and realize that person is trans in some way.

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