Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Acknowledging gender.

(Wow. Apparently shit is going down in Crazytown.)

Here's a question that's currently bothering me: how do you acknowledge people with nonstandard gender expressions, without legitimizing a narrow view of gender?

That is, my friend Joe Pseudonym likes to wear a dress sometimes because it makes him feel like a woman. At the time he told me this, I--a woman--was wearing pants. But I wasn't wearing them to feel like a man, I was wearing them because women are allowed to wear pants gosh darn it.

Part of me wants to respect Joe's gender expression and the fact that he enjoys getting a feeling of femininity by dressing up. But the other part of me wants Joe to be able to go out in jeans and a t-shirt and be a woman, rather than linking the symbols inextricably to the gender.

I guess the easy way out is to say that a dress is not necessarily female, but it is feminine. In other words, a vagina doesn't make you a dress-wearer, but being womanly does. Still, this answer doesn't totally satisfy me. It makes femininity into this pre-fixed thing that's taken for granted, as if it was declared in firely letters on Mount Sinai that dresses are for girls and any girl not in a dress is less of a girl.

(I'm using "dress" here, obviously, as a symbol for all gender indicators, from eyeshadow to the tendency to let people open doors for you.)

It also bothers me that not all gender indicators are value-neutral. A dress isn't exactly as good as pants and a shirt; it's a lot more impractical for physical work or exercise, it's somewhat more sexually exposing, and it makes you more vulnerable in violent situations. Plus you have to be all careful how you sit down. It can sometimes be more comfortable or more attractive, but I would say that all things being equal, a dress is a worse garment than pants and a shirt.

I therefore feel like someone who's following all the traditionally accepted indicators of femininity is, in some way, putting themselves at a disadvantage--not just against masculinity but against practicality in general. Knowing how to fix your car is "masculine," but men's and women's cars break just as often.

I want to be okay with Joe being a lady sometimes, but it bothers me that Joe thinks certain impractical (and in my mind undignified) things make him a lady. I guess cross-dressing into cargo pants and flannel wouldn't have that same thrill for him, and I respect that, it's just... it's weird for me.

This isn't going to be one of those entries that ends with a strong conclusion and call to action, because I really haven't resolved my thoughts on this. I feel like a willfully dense and vaguely transphobic (is that the right word when someone's not exactly trans? gender-bigoted, anyway) jerk telling Joe "You shouldn't go by Jane when you're dressed, because Joe is a perfectly good name for a woman!", but that's what I tend to think.

Incidentally I have no goddamn idea about my own gender. I mean, I'm a cis woman, because I'm okay with being called a woman and having a woman name and body and even acting feminine in some ways--for all my ranting, I'm wearing a skirt right now--but I always feel more "eh, I'll play the hand I was dealt" about this than truly identifying with it. Like if my same personality had been born with a penis and raised as a boy, there's no way I'd see myself as a woman.

I hesitate to identify myself as androgynous, because I'm a woman, but only because it's convenient--I used to have very short hair and dress androgynously and very few people found it attractive--and it doesn't bother me. But I'm not really wild about being a woman. It's more "easy and acceptable, and I don't feel that strongly about it" than "really me."


  1. Nothing to add, but I have had the exact same thoughts. It's almost ... unfair? ... that I (a cis woman) can wear a pantsuit and (almost) nobody would care, but let any guy put on a skirt and suddenly it's all over.

    (Though I will say I have not met THAT many guys who looked GOOD in skirts/dresses. But I have met a few cis males who put cis women to shame ...)

    And I'm also glad someone else feels the same ambivalence about gender. I enjoy being female right now, but if I magically became a guy I would probably start enjoying being a male (obviously practical considerations like ID cards and social implications aside...).

    - Kara

  2. By wearing a dress, Joe is using an obvious cultural signifier of being a woman -- something jeans and a t-shirt wouldn't offer. Maybe after the revolution culture won't associate women with dresses?

    There's another element to it, too, I suspect. Joe wants to feel like the specific type of woman who would wear a dress like that. I once saw a documentary in which a group of middle-aged male transvestites gathered in a house just to talk. The narrator pointed out that their garb was out-of-date. Specifically, he said, they dressed like their mothers.

    A (potentially horrible) analogy is to furries. Why don't they dress more realistically? The kink isn't just "being an animal."

  3. I was thinking about this yesterday when I was walking the dog at about 7 AM. An older man came out of his house to pick up the newspaper wearing a long pink & red floral skirt that came down to his ankles. Maybe it was a sarong kind of thing, I don't know. In any case it struck me because of how he didn't look like a woman or even feminine. He looked like a masculine man. And it made me think a lot about how we ascribe these cultural values to things like color, pattern, and garment shape that are totally bogus. The skirt with all its so-called feminine attributes didn't afford him any femininity that he didn't already possess. Likewise I almost always wear skirts and dresses, but not because I want to appear or feel more feminine. Once I let go of my cultural notions of what wearing a skirt meant (dressing up, staying clean and unwrinkled, not working hard or being athletic, etc) I find that they are actually quite practical, comfortable, and easy to wear...even moreso than pants for many scenarios.

  4. Maybe we should have something like the Kinsey scale, except for the continuum of gender identity instead of sexual orientation? With 0 as completely masculine-identified (instead of heterosexual), 6 as completely feminine-identified, and 3 as androgynous. So someone who identifies somewhere between female and androgynous would be a 4 or 5, depending on the extent of their femininity.

    Not that this isn't without problems - it sets masculinity and femininity as defined opposites when really gender-related traits don't make a whole lot of sense in the first place and vary a lot from culture to culture (like the dress=feminine thing, whereas kilts=masculine). Still, I think it'd be a way to introduce a lot of people to the idea that gender doesn't exist as a binary and that there isn't anything wrong with trans or intersex people (or even just boys playing with Barbies) - they're just not normative yet.

  5. It kind of goes beyond clothing or even gender. There are a lot of people out there who would like to alter their bodies in a decorative fashion - for example, by altering the shape of their ears to be more elf-like (or vulcan-like). But unless it something that's fairly "normal" like breast implants or tattoos, it's very very hard to find someone willing to do it for/to them. Most body modifiers won't to the more "extreme" things because they risk being arrested for performing cosmetic surgery without a license or the like. And most surgeons won't do them because they risk being disbarred from the major medical organizations and having their license revoked. Even though many of the processes involved are actually considerably less dangerous than many normal cosmetic procedures.

    In terms of both clothing and physical appearance, it would be interesting to see what the streets would look like if there was total anarchy in regards to appearance norms. (Though not if it also meant anarchy in regards to hygiene norms.)

  6. But the other part of me wants Joe to be able to go out in jeans and a t-shirt and be a woman, rather than linking the symbols inextricably to the gender....It makes femininity into this pre-fixed thing that's taken for granted, as if it was declared in firely letters on Mount Sinai that dresses are for girls and any girl not in a dress is less of a girl.

    To sum up, you're torn because Joe wants to celebrate and participate in feminine expression, whereas the fact that there is a feminine expression for Joe to participate in is inherently stereotyping to women? I've never seen Joe, but my transgendered friends would lead me to suspect that Joe may be trying to dress like a drag queen rather than a woman; that the feeling of "femininity" he is striving for has little to do with trying to metaphorically put himself in women's shoes.

    Do you think drag king Aidan Justus here wants to feel like a man, and is just not a very accurate observer, or do you think that she has her own definition of what she is going for? I submit the latter. I could provide Aidan with lots of tips that could help her to pass as a man, and I'm sure she would have no interest at all; that's not the point. The drag king image she is going for is not in fact masculine, it is its own thing, and it does not reinforce any gender stereotypes or expectations on me at all.

  7. "I would say that all things being equal, a dress is a worse garment than pants and a shirt." I don't know that I agree with this. First of all, on the matter of being impractical for work -- women wore dresses for work in fields, farms and mills for centuries prior to the 20th century. They weren't considered impractical for demanding manual work, and probably had some advantages. A full skirt can allow more flexibility & range of motion (try doing aerobics or yoga in all but the stretchiest of pants), and it can provide superior temperature control by protecting your legs from heat and sun, while at the same time allowing some ventilation. You can also pee while wearing a skirt without removing it. By contrast, I think there's things that are uncomfortable and impractical about pants (hotness, limited range of motion), but we tend not to notice them because pants are the default garment for hard or physical work.

    Skirts also aren't inherently more sexually exposing IMO. Take a guy from the 19th century and bring him to a modern city, he's going to be shocked @ pants on women because they show the shape of a woman's butt and legs so precisely. Very immodest. A skirt does more to veil the shape of the body parts it covers. Again, I think skirts SEEM more revealing because it's their feminine & "sexy" aspects that culture emphasizes.

    Not sure why I'm getting so het up defending skirts... I have more to say about this post but I'll save it for tomorrow.

  8. Hershele OstropolerJuly 13, 2010 at 11:06 PM

    (Wow. Apparently shit is going down in Crazytown.)
    I think someone likes you ...

    Probably a bit young. Though I think at 16 he's of age in Massachusetts.

    Oh, wait, there was substance, wasn't there. Yeah, gender essentialism bugs me more, I think, with regards to little things like clothes. Probably because "men can't be nurses" is self-evidently wrong whereas observation suggests there may be something to "men can't wear dresses." And I think also the little things do more than the big things to reinforce that men and women are fundamentally different beings, rather than (often complementary) varieties of person. A male nurse is still a male nurse, as we know from the very low odds he'll put on a dress after he finishes his shift. As long as we have "women's clothes" or "feminine behavior" it'll seem sensible to say that broader things are male or female, like professions or attitudes about sex.

    I'm not really wild about being a woman. It's more "easy and acceptable, and I don't feel that strongly about it" than "really me."
    Personally, I suspect if I were trans, all else being equal, I'd feel much more strongly male than I do just beause of the contrast. As it is, I feel male, I see a male body in the mirror, I'm treated as male where that makes a difference*, I don't get funny looks in the men's room, etc.

    *Probably a lot more often than I realize, but I digress

  9. Holly, specifically wrt femininity and transphobia, I'd recommend Serano's Whipping Girl. It's problematic in other ways, specifically erasure of non-binary identities, but it does lay out in great detail the double bind AMAB people face when performing femininity. Then there is the difference between femininity and camp, which some other comments have mentioned. Unfortunately I have no reference for that but hopefully someone else will.

    Artsynomad, the problem with masculine--androgynous--feminine is that it's still a binary, just with a point added in the middle. Plus it seems that you're sticking trans and intersex somewhere in the middle? Many if not most trans and intersex people have binary identities. From my personal work (and I'm transsexual and nonbinary), the sliding scale thing just doesn't work for me at all. Non-binary has actually got to mean 'not two ends' for understandings to really be expanded and not just further codified in relation to one of the "real" genders.

  10. @Hillary
    I'm remembering seeing this photo that Twisted Monk did where he was walking down an alley in a negligee and heels, not altering his walk or doing anything else to appear feminine while in drag. It was pretty hot.
    Damn, I can't find it! But here's where he wrote about it.

  11. No, wait, here it is:

  12. Anonymous,

    I know it has problems. I was trying to work with Holly's example, specifically. It'd be nice to have something that makes it easy to visually represent most, if not all, types of gender identity so that really uninformed people get a better glimpse of how it all works. Plus, it'd be nice to have some sort of shorthand for not-quite-androgynous people and the like.

    Trust me, I'm not trying to erase trans and intersex people and I definitely don't support gender binaries. I've been erased as a bisexual person. It's not fun. I'm just struggling a little with how to represent it all in a clear way that could maybe open some people's minds. Any thoughts?

  13. Ashur's just grumpy because he never goes to bed as according to him, EVERYONE is wrong on the internet.

  14. If you were wearing pants in the Roman Empire, they would have identified you as a barbarian. I'd be interested to know how they modified skirts to be practical for anything that required running around, but I don't actually know much about classical clothing.
    On the subject of androgyny, like you I'm a woman with a very flexible attitude toward my own gender-- I don't think spontaneous gender re-alignment would really bother me. But this flexibility definitely began at puberty. Pre-puberty, I had a very strong identification as female (wore a LOT of pink, etc.) If someone had attempted to raise me as a boy, I'm not sure it would have worked. For adult gender identification, it might also be relevant that 'female' has negative cultural connotations. I'm not proud of how pleased I feel when someone thinks something I've written was written by a man

  15. This is a sticky subject: saying "dresses are feminine" implies that there is a widely accepted definition of what feminine is.

    Joe Psuedonym is, as Bruno says, adopting the cultural signifiers of biological females. But gender, identity, and sexuality are more complicated than biology, and more complicated than "male" or "female" identity. It's not "either-or," nor is it strictly "parts of both," since any given culture is constantly producing and then labeling traits.

    Say, rather, that each person is a combination of traits. All traits are gender neutral. Some traits we associate with "masculine;" some traits we associate with "feminine." Other traits we are still learning to associate.

    Is associating dresses with femininity restrictive and arbitrary? Yes. Does Joe have the right to use a dress to invoke cultural signifiers that mean something important to him? Absolutely. That would be true from anything to combat boots to spandex.

    Remember: cultural signifiers are subjective. We agree on many of them, but different signs signify different signifiers for different people, savvy?

  16. Edit to the above: Joe Pseudonum is adopting the cultural signifiers that have been assigned to biological females in modern culture. Just thought I'd make that clear.

  17. In some ways, this is a placeholder comment, as I have a LOT of thoughts on gender identity and gender expression that it's way too late to go into here without metaphorically drooling on myself.

    More concretely, I recommend you pick up Joan Roughgarden's Darwin's Rainbow. Joan used to be Jonathan, and combines a transwoman's experience with a truly formidable intellect and experience with evolutionary biology. She has an agenda, but always lays it out clearly- I did not always agree with her, but she had a lot of very sound argumentation and a whole lot of well-cited shit I had not heard of. Dense going but very very worth it.

  18. Count me in as another person who doesn't really care what my physical sex is. Except that it would be kind of cool to pee standing up, I wish my boobs would stop making my tight T-shirts look weird and I will tragically never get to be a drag queen. Oh, and the bleeding once a month thing kind of sucks.

    On second thought, maybe I do want to be a guy.

    About the actual topic... I do have some half-assed speculation with no actual facts to back it up.

    I think that part of the problem is that "femininity" and "masculinity" describe a whole lot of behaviors. Perfect Supermom Housewife and Hot Chick are both feminine archetypes, but they don't have much in common, like, at all. Same for Fratboy Dudebro Douchebag and Dateless Computer Programming Nerd.

    And I can certainly see what someone might want to perform, for instance, Hot Chick while technically being male (wheee makeup and pretty things). And why someone might conceptualize it as "feeling like a woman." It's kind of-- to use a weird analogy-- like the PUA definition of woman as "22-year-old blond skinny chick"; they're using woman as shorthand to mean "Hot Chick behaviors."

    So... yeah. I think I had a point buried in there somewhere.

  19. Aaargh no why did you make me click on that link?

    What a plonker.

  20. "Knowing how to fix your car is "masculine," but men's and women's cars break just as often."

    Nope - women's cars break down more often because they don't do the maintenance necessary to keep them running.


    I keed! I keed!

  21. There's another element to it, too, I suspect. Joe wants to feel like the specific type of woman who would wear a dress like that.

    Exactly. Most of the crossdressers I know have this "submissive slut" thing going on - they'll wear tiny little miniskirts, lingerie, etc. and want you to treat them like a piece of meat and tell them they're "asking for it" by how they dress. It's...kind of awesome, actually. I get to act like a parody of the worst pig of a guy ever, thereby soothing a lot of my own psychological scars from being treated that way for real.

    Anyway. I'd love to stay and chat (as a long-time drag hag AND feminist, I think about the issues in this post pretty much constantly) but I'm running late for work...let me just say that 1) I don't "feel" male or female on the inside and have no idea what that's supposed to be like and 2) curiously, the transwomen I know tend to be tomboys: jeans, t-shirts, and ballcaps are the order of the day. So I can postulate that "feeling female" to them isn't really about the clothes. Whereas crossdressers are either full-out slutty or full-out matronly. Odd.

  22. Hershele OstropolerJuly 14, 2010 at 3:44 PM

    I will tragically never get to be a drag queen
    Well, given the reationship between the drag queen look and the way women typically present themselves, I don't see why not.

  23. I will tragically never get to be a drag queen

    It's possible to be a woman disguised as a man dressing like a woman, but it's really difficult to pull off.

  24. Not Me and Hershele-- A woman disguised as a man dressed as a woman isn't really a proper drag queen, though. It's more like recursive crossdressing.

  25. I think Ozy and Perversecowgirl are closest to what I was wanting to say, which is that I think gender presentation and gender identity are distinctly different things. One of the things that made me recommend the Roughgarden is that in the chapter on evolutionary biology she points out several species in which the two concepts are much more divorced, in which there are multiple gender presentation possibilities, complete with consistent morphology and behavior for each, for one or both sexes.

    I get the feeling that the thrill in transvestism isn't feeling like more of what you feel yourself or want to be, but in being accepted in that spefic presentation and role.

    And, likewise, while the transsexuals I've talked to have all been profoundly concerned about being accepted as the sex they feel themselves to be, they don't act out those plumage-y roles the way drag queens and kings do; they want to pass, not be The Hot Chick or The Stud. They just wanted to be regular, only the sex they felt themselves to be instead.

    As for myself, I am not remotely girly, I am often taken for a man and annoyingly from time to time over the phone if I'm sick or the person on the other end has a tin ear (I'm a contralto, dammit, not a man), and generally I don't fit well into any of my gender boxes except maybe "tomboy".

    But I'm also very, on a profound level, certain that I am nonetheless a woman. I've sometimes wished for some of the conveniences and perquisites men can enjoy, from the physical to the social, but I am a tomboy and not a boy and while part of me would kind of like to try on a new body if I could, I think my identity would remain fundamentally female.

    I have an acquaintance who has a young son who insists he is a girl. He has other issues so his therapist is not certain he really has any sort of gender identity disorder, but damned if it doesn't look from the outside like one of the very few things that poor kid is sure about.

  26. Obviously, to say "it's cultural" doesn't even begin to cover it, but...

    Between Kara and Hillary I got to thinking that there's a difference between simply "wearing clothes associated with the other gender" and actively "cross-dressing". Kara, wearing a pants-suit isn't trying to "look like a man". Joe, wearing a dress, is trying to "look like a woman". Hillary's paper-fetching-gentleman in a sarong was simply wearing a skirt, as opposed to trying to look like a woman.

    Now, maybe Joe is enforcing the patriarchy by trying to look like a woman by wearing a dress, but the thing I'm trying to get at here is more about intent than action. It has become culturally acceptable for women to wear pants. It has mostly not become culturally acceptable for men to wear dresses. Joe's goal thus seems to be one of cultural transgression.

    Women don't have to wear dresses or have long hair. But in general, if you described a person wearing a dress with long hair (to an American, because I am one and there's only so meta I can get after a full day of raising fences and working in the machine shop) the person is likely to guess that the described entity is a woman. and that's probably true even if you're talking to Twisty Faster. She may be contemptuous because that person is supporting the patriarchy, but she's still probably going to think it's a female personage.

    God, I hope that makes even the slightest bit of sense to someone else, and isn't just a jumbled mess of words.

  27. a woman dressing like a man dressing like a woman is called "Hyperdrag" it's a blast... when they don't yell at you.

  28. Artsynomad, I think what it's going to take is new vocabulary and an entirely new framework. The equivalent of non-Euclidean geometry or special relativity in that it will change the whole way we have to look at gender to make sense of it. I don't know what it'll look like (that's sort of the point, at this point), but I do think eventually it'll happen. After all, we don't think the sun orbits the earth anymore.

  29. This is neither here nor there, but I've long thought that when the sight of men in skirts is as common as the sight of women in pants, we will know that sexism is over.

  30. hey now, I've worn a dress. and with the purest of motives. Greed! In the bad old days when Holly was a toddler, they had this thing at taverns called "Ladies Night". Essentially you'd get in ninety minutes earlier, and get two free pitchers of brew, just so you as a woman would be amenable to letting those arrogant, in charge, members of the patriarchy, ply you with drinks 'til you gave up your pearl of great price.

    A beautiful green, watered silk, evening gown and size 15 womens' flats could allow me to drink for free the whole week through, if approached strategically.

    My dressing as a woman to score free drinks didn't mean I had a drinking problem.

    The schmuck trying to tell me I was a rare, wonderous, reubenesque, unique beauty, so I'd pour him one from my free pitcher, now that guy had a drinking problem.