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.

Poem: Harold Norse, ‘I’m not a Man’

“I’m Not a Man”

I’m not a man. I can’t earn a living, buy new things for my
family. I have acne and a small peter

I’m not man. I don’t like football, boxing and cars.
I like to express my feelings. I even like to put my arm
around my friend’s shoulder

I’m not a man. I won’t play the role assigned to me—the role
created by Madison Avenue, Playboy, Hollywood and Oliver
Cromwell. Television does not dictate my behavior. I am under
5 foot 4.

I’m not a man. Once when I shot a squirell I swore that I would
never kill again. I gave up meat. The sight of blood makes me
sick. I like flowers.

I’m not a man. I went to prison for resisting the draft. I do not
fight back when real men beat me up and call me queer. I dislike
violence.

I’m not a man. I have never raped a women. I don’t hate blacks.
I do not get emotional when the flag is waved. I do not think
I should love America or leave it. I think I should laugh at it.

I’m not a man. I’ve never had the clap.

I’m not a man. I cry when I’m unhappy.

I’m not a man. I do not feel superior to women.

I’m not a man. I don’t wear a jockstrap.

I’m not a man. I write poetry.

I’m not a man. I meditate on peace and love.

I’m not a man. I don’t want to destroy you.

Harold Norse (1916 – 2009)  was a North American poet associated with the Beat Generation.  He was openly gay and wrote poetry about gay liberation in the 1970s, favouring a direct conversational style of writing.  He died aged 92 in 2009.  I should read more of his work because I really like the simple but effective deconstruction of masculinity in this poem.

In the World of Lads’ Mags

This post is a report on a group discussion that I facilated for my then feminist group  in 2007.  Although the source material comes from a group effort, I’ve decided I have the right to re-post it here since I did the work of putting it together and trying to make sense of it all!

Image shows 3 women reading a selection of lads mags

 

Last week the group finally got around to discussing the “lads’ mags” phenomenon and this post is really a summary of our discussion. We don’t claim to be a representative group. The women at this meeting were all white and almost entirely middle-class, so this is written with an awareness that our perspective is going to be limited.

For any international readers who don’t know, the publications popularly referred to in the UK as “lads’ mags” are glossy magazines aimed at heterosexual men. In addition to the usual male interest articles, they contain a lot of soft core pornographic imagery, which draws the line at full frontal nudity or pictures of people actually having sex. By using the term “pornographic” here, I mean sexually explicit material designed to create arousal.

We looked at 2 copies of Nuts, a cheap magazine which seems largely aimed at young working-class men, 1 copy of Loaded which appears somewhere in between classes and has the most aggressive narrative, and 1 FHM which is definitely aimed at middle-class men with disposable cash to throw around.

We decided to focus on the narrative contained with these magazines:

What are they actually saying and doing?
What are the main problems they present for feminism?
What could be done to counter their messages?

Masculinity & Class

It’s interesting to consider what these magazines tell us about the construction of heterosexual masculinity in terms of class and economics and, in fact, we came to the conclusion that these publications are very much about class. They are “classed” in terms of price. Nuts, for example, can be bought for £1.40 (often cheaper on offer), while FHM goes for £3.60. Nuts and Zoo construct, or reiterate, a stereotyped working-class masculinity which is interested in little more than sex, violence, war, beer and sport. Most of the images are of scantily clad and naked young women, but these are interspersed with fetishization of war and violence, and images of gruesome injuries. The one mother at the meeting said that this narrative of violence bothered her more than the sexism in terms of her young son seeing the material. Of course these publications are not created by working-class men, but by middle-class elite university graduates, so in sense it’s a kind of middle-class construction of working-class masculinity. The FHM, by comparison, had a lot more serious articles in between pictures of breasts.RaceWe were very struck by the fact that almost all the women represented in these magazines are white. One black woman had a spread in FHM, which was less explicit than the white women’s spreads in the same magazine. Why are almost all the women white? At the cheaper end of the market, Nutsis dependent on women sending in images of themselves for free publication, so perhaps it’s mainly white women sending their images, in which case is this really a white women’s issue? But in the UK it’s certainly the case that desirability = whiteness (check out any issue of the Boots free beauty magazine for evidence on this score). While this equation may play a role, we also wondered if the lads’ mags are valorizing not only whiteness, but also certain national identities. But we don’t know if men of colour read these things in large numbers, or if they’re primarily consumed by white men. So there’s definitely a lot going on in terms of class and race before you even get to the sexism.Gender & Sexuality

We agreed that these magazines are all about fantasy and the fantasies promoted and endorsed as mainstream and acceptable tell us a lot about where we’re at in terms of attitudes to women in British society. In the case of Nuts and Loaded, the fantasy reiterates a vision of perpetual willing female availability to men. The women are represented as non-threatening, largely unambitious (unless it’s an ambition which involves pleasing men, ie. becoming a glamour model) and aspiring to the same narrow feminine ideal. They are generally implied to be “gagging for it” and eternally delighted to strip off for male pleasure. The poses are repetitive, drawn from harder core pornography, but largely dumbed down to breasts, bums and girl on girl stuff. All the women are represented as having basically the same personality, even down to a limited range of facial expressions: “They’re all the same woman!” cried someone about halfway through the meeting. As sexual fantasy goes, it’s narrow, unimaginative and dull. We soon found ourselves bored by the endless smiling and pouting women with their breasts. “But who are these women?” someone said in frustration. Obviously these women are complex individuals in real life, but in the fantasy world of happy, sexually available, young white women, the lads mags seem to present a general flight from “reality” and the actuality of women and female sexuality on all sorts of levels.

The construction of female reality is interesting because Nuts, Zoo and Loaded repeatedly claim to be offering images of “real girls” as a marketing ploy — that is women who aren’t professional models or celebrities. I guess presenting some women as “real” creates a fantasy of attainability for male readers, but it’s interesting to think about what this narrative is doing. All women are real. A glamour model is as real as a woman taking a digital picture of herself in her bedroom and a lot of the women sending in their images seem to be aspiring glamour models anyway. The few who are picked out for a centerfold in the magazine then have their digitally enhanced images lauded as “real.” Women putting themselves up for male judgement and approval is an important part of the narrative: they are asked to send in their pictures from which the “best” will be selected for rewards (more pictures in the magazine and a possible career break).

We agreed that the prevalence of girl on girl imagery is really about defusing the threat of lesbianism. When you take a couple of heterosexual women and get them to dally in a little performance of lesbianism while inviting men to join in, lesbian sexuality is represented as unreal and therefore not a threat to men; it’s nothing, it’s just a performance.

Ok, so while there’s plenty to get angry about in terms of the narrative, there’s nothing new to see here. It’s old and very conservative. In fact it was the conservatism of the narrative that struck us most strongly. The women may not be wearing many clothes and may be represented as sexually active, but what we really seem to have is the old narrative that says:

Women should please men;
Women are sexually available to men;

Sexy women should really be white women;
Women have certain roles; men have certain roles;
Women are not at all complex or scary;

Of course it’s framed with a rhetoric of female empowerment, but that’s not really new either. Women have long been told that pleasing men is good for them too, from middle-class women in the 1950s told that being a good housewife was the best thing for them, to the young women being told it’s empowering to get up on a bed in a nightclub and do “sex moves” for the Nuts photographer. I’m sure a lot of the women who send in their pictures do experience a sense of empowerment and they may reap certain rewards if chosen, but as ever, we need to look at the way in which female empowerment is being constructed, for what reasons, and for whose ultimate benefit. Where the lads’ mags phenomenon has been most devious is perhaps in the appropriation of women’s liberation rhetoric to present a conservative and old fashioned narrative about sexuality and gender as a sort of feminism.

Resistance?

It’s easy to discuss the problems; it’s not so easy to come up with feasible solutions. Here we entered the most fraught part of the meeting as the group divided into those who thought some kind of regulation and censorship was in order and those who were against censorship and thought other kinds of resistance should be explored. This division was also between people who see the magazines as largely symptomatic of a misogynistic society, in which case it’s the deeper issue of misogyny that needs to be prioritized, and those who see them as causing immediate problems, in which case something should be done about them now. As you can imagine, this resulted in a bit of a circular going nowhere kind of argument.

We did agree that engaging in moralistic arguments is to be avoided at all costs. It’s very easy to slip into “think of the children” rhetoric, but we felt this to be a bad move for various reasons. On a simple level, we’re not objecting to nudity or the representation of sexuality in itself, we’re objecting to the specifically sexist and objectifying narrative constructed in the this media and, as such, this is a political argument.

Some people thought the best form of resistance would be the perpetuation of alternative narratives and images because the problem is that the lads’ mags are currently dictating without any serious alternatives being offered anywhere. Perhaps the crux of the problem is the failure of feminism (a failure that has occurred for all sorts of reasons) to offer the mainstream any widely available alternative images and narratives. I’m hoping we might come up with some ideas for resistance at the next meeting when everyone’s had a chance to think it over.