Gender Calamity/Gender Possibility: Calamity Jane (1953)

 

The 1953 musical western Calamity Jane follows an ostensibly heteronormative narrative trajectory in which we see two rebellious young women being tamed and made ready for heterosexual marriage.  Wild tomboy and stagecoach guard, “Calam” (Doris Day), gets a makeover and learns how to be a woman, while aspiring burlesque performer, Katie Brown (Allyn Ann McLerie), gives up on her dreams of being on stage for the love of a man.  But this surface narrative is in constant tension and conflict with the film’s high camp celebration of queer rebellion and non-normative desire which conveys an alternative story that, as Eric Savoy argues, questions “the possibility, or even the desirability of a coherent gender role” (151) or, for that matter, the very existence of “true”, or fixed identities.

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Transphobia in the film A Mighty Wind

I’ve been in the mood for silly films recently, so the other night we sat down to watch Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind, a mockumentary about 1960s folk bands reuniting for a tribute concert.  It wasn’t as good as Spinal Tap, but it was quite fun and a pretty gentle comedy. I didn’t like all the jokes, but that’s the case with every comedy film and I don’t need humour to be totally in line with my politics at all times.  However, right at the end of the film, something happens that’s much more problematic when, in a nasty cheap-shot, Guest suddenly inflicts a transphobic joke on the audience.

One of the bands featured in the film is called The Folksmen and their bassist, played by Harry Shearer, has a very deep baritone singing voice.  At the end of the film we revisit the bands after the concert and find that Shearer’s character is now in the process of transitioning.  The joke, of course, is based on the idea that Shearer looks funny dressed in women’s clothes and that the character is still playing with the band and still has a very deep voice which we’re obviously supposed to agree is hilarious.  The message here that transitioning is inherently funny is bad enough, but the voice joke seems extra mean when, for trans people, being misgendered on the basis of voice can be extremely distressing.

As a lesbian who experienced a lot of bullying on the basis of my gender presentation at school (are you a boy or a girl?) and who now sometimes gets mistaken for male (which, frankly, scares me), I experienced this scene as a slap in the face, so I hate to think how upsetting it could be for a trans person.

Julia Serano talks about the film in her book Whipping Girl, which I haven’t read yet, but found this quote in which she identifies Shearer as the stereotype of the “pathetic” transsexual who isn’t deluding anyone: “The intense contradiction between the “pathetic” character’s gender identity and her physical appearance is often played for laughs—as in the transition of musician Mark Shubb (played as a bearded baritone by Harry Shearer) at the conclusion of 2003’s A Mighty Wind.”

It’s the kind of joke that can be understood as Microaggression, something that a lot of people would insist is “not a big deal” and should be laughed off, but when taken in the wider context of the way power and privilege play out, it is a big deal.

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.