As long as I can remember I’ve occupied my head with thoughts about femininity vs. masculinity. Not in the sense of gender confusion, or as in the feeling of having been born with the wrong genitalia, but as in not being comfortable with the assigned role. I was just never very good at being a girl. Not only in my own head but also in the eyes of others. It was, and still is, frequently being pointed out to me that my behavior wasn’t very ‘ladylike’ and that girls “aren’t supposed to like/be/say/do/act like that”. As a kid this type of comments would make me quite uncomfortable and I would spend a lot of time trying to figure out why. What I couldn’t get my head around was what they actually meant because I was a girl, I was very much aware of that, so why wasn’t my behavior or interests considered appropriate for a girl? If I, as a girl, was doing it or into it, didn’t that then by definition make it ‘appropriate for a girl’? The unanimous answer was no. It wasn’t appropriate to like horror movies, metal and dirty jokes, and it wasn’t acceptable to burp and take long strides when you walk, nor was it ok to sit with your legs far apart or state your opinion loudly. And laughing too loud or getting in fights was also off the agenda. It was ok to play with dolls as long as the dolls didn’t get involved in sex or violence and it was ok to play dress-up as long as you dressed up as a princess and not a pirate. But I did both. That was the thing. I actually played princess and pirate. And I liked horror movies and Nancy Drew books. I could never understand why I had to choose.
That whole choice thing was what I just couldn’t get my head around. Why was it so important to do this whole borderline thing of gender, to subscribe to one or the other? I liked aspects of both realms and I just couldn’t figure out why the separation was needed. But my surroundings made it crystal clear that it was. And not only that, it was also made clear to me that I actually didn’t have a choice, being born with a vagina as opposed to a penis, the choice had actually already been made for me, and my path was already outlined in pink and highlighted with subordination. I wasn’t comfortable with this. Not at all. In fact it made me cringe at the very core of my being. I just couldn’t relate to the role that was assigned to me, that was forced upon me, and it made me miserable. So I started contemplating what it would be like to be a boy instead, if that would be better. And I did entertain the idea that it might actually be a better path, to just become a boy. But the problem was that you actually didn’t get to choose. I couldn’t change my gender because I couldn’t change my plumbing. I couldn’t become a boy if I didn’t have a penis. And I didn’t actually want to have a penis. I was pretty happy with my vagina and I still am. And there were actually some parts of the whole girl thing that I really enjoyed. Like the dolls. I loved dolls. I loved the imaginary worlds you could create and populate with various personalities and have them interact with each other. In my worlds there was room for everyone. Looking back at it now I realize that those games I played with my dolls were queer long before the term even existed. All my dolls were bisexual and they lived in family constellations that had nothing to do with monogamy or the heterosexual norm. A pattern that I quite successfully managed to introduce when I played with others too. My brother and I had a couple of reoccurring games we would play, one of these included a family consisting of a grandfather, a boy, and an uncle, it was never clear what the real family relationships actually were, if there even were any, but these three people lived together and their lives circled around their vehicles, an old postal van, a sports car, and a bobby car. Sometimes the sports car would be replaced by a tow-truck, but the characters remained the same. They all had their specific accents and character traits and they would get involved in all sorts of bizarre adventures. Another game we liked included incorporating my brothers star wars characters into my doll house family and the humans and the very much transformed and renamed aliens would live there in a sweet harmony but with the most complex of relationships. All these games became my refuge from a reality I wasn’t at all comfortable with. I am sure this escapism aspect is true for most children, but I remember thinking that it was a shame that it couldn’t be as easy to get along in the real world as it was in that doll house with its very complex yet peaceful existence of aliens and humans.
My brother is four years older and he had a very big influence on me growing up. I’m sure a lot of my tomboy traits can be explained by this, but my brother was never one to get into fights or climb trees and get into accidents, that was all my area. I was the one who came home from school with a black eye or smashed my face in a bicycle accident, he never did things like that. My brother was a quiet freak, I was a loud one and I was on a collision course with the world. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I was a girl. A girl wasn’t supposed to break into abandoned houses and listen to heavy metal. But a true tomboy wasn’t supposed to like playing with dolls. And I did. The older I got the less I could make sense of it all. And when I hit puberty it became absurd. I couldn’t get my head around the whole heterosexuality thing, but at the same time I couldn’t identify myself as a lesbian. Again I just couldn’t understand why you had to choose. Why the definitions mattered so much. I liked boys and girls and I couldn’t really believe that this wasn’t true for everyone. And I never understood why I had to pretend I was somehow slightly retarded in oder to get men to like me, why it wasn’t ok to admit that I liked having sex or why any statements about liking girls were seen as attempts to turn guys on. The whole dichotomization and blatant homophobia of the mating game was, and still is, a constant source of confusion to me. The weird shit that goes on in that context is like something out of a dystopic science fiction novel. As a kid I remember my mother saying “it’s just because he likes you” when boys would pick on me in school. She was trying to explain that it was their way of showing interest. I have no idea if she was actually right, but I remember thinking it was a very strange way of showing interest. Especially since the outcome was usually me getting in a physical fight with them. I fight I usually won on a combination of sheer stubbornness and raw rage. The empiric evidence gathered by theses boys would usually prevent them for a repetition of this strategy, but there were always new ones crossing my path. Needless to say that type of behavior didn’t exactly go down well in the popularity game and my freak label was constantly enforced by my reactions. As you get older the more blatant forms of harassment usually subside, but it doesn’t go away completely. You still have to deal with drunken assholes who think the simple fact that they are showing interest in you should immediately spur a feeling of joy and gratitude and your response should be in accordance with this. “Come one, it doesn’t hurt to smile!” “Maybe not, but the fist you’ll be getting in your face if you don’t leave me the fuck alone will.” These days I know that reactions like this are part of my not very ladylike behavior, but I honestly don’t give a fuck. It’s not flattering to be harassed. Not in the play ground and not on the dance floor. Never. And no, i’m not talking about just getting a compliment or even an actual pick up attempt, I’m talking about the men who will not take a hint, men where you have to get rude for them to actually get the message. Those are pretty much the only times when I will feel an urge to regress back to my preteen M.O. of just punching people out.
I suppose one could argue that what I described above is simply a display of an asshole kind of constitution and doesn’t have anything to do with gender roles, but that line of argument would actually be bullshit. Because it is part of the gender game. That kind of behavior is part of the male behavioral palette the same way hysterical screaming is part of the female behavioral palette, and neither is very entertaining or enjoyable for the exposed parties. But if you change these roles around, it goes beyond the mere annoyance factor becomes utterly unacceptable. It’s simply not done, right? But why? Is it because the behavior in itself is so utterly disgusting or is it because it the breaks the norm? I wish the former was the case, but I suspect the latter is the truth. And why is it so much more disgusting if a woman belches than if a man does it? And why is it, if not ok, then at least not completely unacceptable, for a woman to break down in tears at the office but not for a man? Because it’s not part of the assigned gender roles. We don’t actually get to choose these, they are assigned to us depending of what genitalia we happen to be born with and we are not allowed to pick freely from the various qualities offered, we’re supposed to stick to what’s included in the package we’re handed. If you have a penis you get to choose from this box, if you have a vagina you get to choose from this box. That’s it. That’s the framework you have to relate to, the boundaries you have to stay within. Sure, you’re allowed some leeway, you can choose what kind of man of woman you would like to be, but don’t you dare try to mix up the contents of the boxes! A man doesn’t wear dresses or lipstick and if he does he’s a drag queen or a transvestite or maybe even a transsexual, because no way in hell could he just be a man, right? We can’t have the male identity diluted like that now can we? Why the fuck not? What would be so terrible about that? The fact that it would be harder to immediately distinguish what gender the person in front of us has? Yes, it probably would be, but it would also make it less important. Because it is actually totally insignificant. It doesn’t actually matter what we have between our legs. It really doesn’t. Who we are isn’t determined by our genitalia. Gender is an identity issue, something that we are assigned by our surroundings, society teaches us what we can and can’t do in relation to our gender and this changes over time. Gender roles are not static, they are in a state of constant transformation. What was considered masculine in the 18th century is very different from what’s considered masculine today. Masculinity evolves as does femininity. In Europe today femininity can actually include wearing pants and working in a factory, something that would have been unthinkable just over a hundred years ago. Gender roles transform. We all know that, and still we repeatedly and consciously fool ourselves that they are somehow given, natural as it were. They are not. Social behavior is something we learn, and our gender roles are precisely that; social behavior. The most interesting part here is that in spite the fact that we actually have this insight, not only do we still want to cling to our belief that our gender roles are ‘natural’, we also want to believe that our version of this social behavior is somehow, not only similar, but identical to that of other cultures and we are prepared to do pretty much anything to do so. Such as re-writing history or re-interpreting various cultural phenomena, because we just can’t deal with the idea that ‘normal’ male sexuality in ancient Greece included having sex with other men or that there is actually something similar to a third gender in India, Hijra. Neither of those things is a secret, nor is it debatable or even open to all that much interpretation, but we still do our best to squeeze everything into our own narrow gender boxes, regardless of whether it’s actually possible or not. We will do pretty much anything to avoid having to reconsider our stance, to face the fact that it’s all about belief, something resembling a religious faith, rather than objective reality. What is a man? What is a woman? Are there only these two categories? The answer is by no means simple, because by what measurement? On what level do we apply the definitions? Biology? Culture? And how can we even tell them apart? The more you look at the gender issue, the more the lines start to blur. But one thing is sure: What we refer to when we talk about a real woman or man in our everyday conversations has nothingto do with the most profound biological aspects, chromosomes and genes, of gender, and everything to do with the social aspects, the gender roles. And in regards to these their only redeeming fact is that they are indeed mutable. Our gender boxes aren’t really made for human beings, they aren’t big enough to encompass a whole person. And unless we’re ok with being deprived of our very self in its most profound meaning, we need to change them, or better yet, get rid of them all together. Homo sapiens, right?
feed the heads of others:
Good insights–thanks for sharing!
Nice and clear as ever! I particularly liked the family reminiscences, and the knock-down phrase, for me, was: “my path was already outlined in pink and highlighted with subordination”
thank you very much! and happy you liked my knock-down phrase!