Friday, November 13, 2009

From Erica: Gender neutrality, androgyny, and the invisible gender

NB: There are many academic articles that have been written on this subject, and I have copies of them all- in my parents' basement. Thus, many of the ideas from "some theorist" in this post are referencing a real author whose name I can't see to cite from.

When I was in my undergrad at McGill, a lot of my friends liked to play with gender. Many identified themselves as genderqueer or genderfuckers, some identified as trans, and a few identified as people who liked to play for the sake of performance. Some of them maintained their assigned pronouns, and some didn't. One thing struck me though: of all of the gender-queering folk I was friends with, only one of them queered in the direction of femininity. Everyone else- including the friends who chose to present as gender-neutral as possible- presented many characteristics that are very strongly associated with masculinity. Short hair, pants, "men's" work shirts, ties...the list goes on. And for many of these friends, their assigned gender identity had been feminine for most of their lives, so for them masculine traits were a new experience, a realm for exploration, and the complete opposite of what they'd been forced (in one way or another) to present and pretend to own for a very long time.

But for me it begs the question: what happened to gender neutrality? One of the theorists I read in my undergrad days pointed out once, in discussions of oppression, that the key to maintaining a hegemony, a dominant group, is to make the dominant group invisible. In this view, White/Caucasian isn't a race, male isn't a sex, heterosexuality isn't a real sexuality, and masculine isn't a gender presentation. Well, they are, but no one perceives them that way; race, sex, sexuality, gender are all things that belong to people in Other categories. Thus, People of Colour have race, females have a sex, queer folk have a sexuality, and femininity is a possessed gender presentation. Another way of phrasing this is to say that people who are members of the dominant categories are often completely unaware of these characteristics that they have that are used to marginalize the people who do not have them. Think about it: how many straight folk are aware of their straight-ness or are conscious of how they indicate it? Often, unless they've mistakenly wandered into a queer club, they're oblivious.

The thing is that masculinity has not only been coded as invisible, but it's been coded as androgynous. With the one exception, every genderqueer person I knew at McGill played with masculinity to express their gender neutrality; the only friend I had who used femininity to genderqueer got all kinds of flack from outsiders for "doing it wrong," in lay terms. Somehow, too, this wasn't just connected to the assigned genders and sexes of the people who were playing or identifying with genderqueer presentations. It wasn't a situation in which formerly cis women were playing with masculinity and formerly cis men were playing with femininity- and, to be honest, I don't know (and don't care to know) what everyone's assigned genders and sexes were. Some folks kept their assigned sex (including pronouns) while playing with gender, and enjoyed disclosing it, while others did not. But it seemed that the universal consensus was that femininity was only gender-neutral when done in certain ways- a shaggy "boy" cut, dark eyeliner and/or lipstick, breasts that weren't bound- and masculinity should be presented otherwise. In that community, the general idea was that androgyny looked like a Goth cis-boy.

This isn't something that's particular to my own favourite community, though. Even in other areas, where genderqueering isn't exactly the expected, trending towards masculinity has been a big thing. Another theorist I read had a field day with cis-women's fashions and bodies in the workforce. Her argument was that since the early 1970s, especially for White women, expectations of bodies and clothes have been getting progressively more masculine- especially in the workforce. Of course these clothes and ideals maintain SOME element of femininity- God forbid our culture should fail to distinguish between men and women!- but, overall, the expectations are shockingly non-neutral. Power suits, for example, have become coded for women as well, especially with pants. Women in the workforce shouldn't wear ties, but should buy blouses with ruffles at the neckline and down the bosom- the feminine version of a tie. Of course, too, women should be skinny, and while they should maintain a certain amount of their curves- a push-up bra is a must- they absolutely shouldn't have an obvious hourglass figure or "flaunt" those curves in any way. In short, they should look boyish and masculine-professional, but not so masculine or so professional as to destroy the male-dominated gender-binaric power structure we've got going on in the US. Can you imagine the ruckus that would go up if some cis-man on Wall Street wore a skirt to be professional? Pants have become universalized- and this isn't a bad thing, because they're so comfy and practical- but have been coded as neutral while feminine articles, such as skirts, have not.

In majority culture in the US, we continue to believe that many things are neutral that really aren't- as Emily pointed out a few days ago. And, to a certain extent, I understand why so many masculine traits have become absorbed into the realm of the neutral while many of the "higher" feminine traits have not: high heels, skirts, fitted shirts, highly stylized hair, jewelry, and "unnaturally natural" makeup are all inconvenient, expensive, and occasionally painful. At the same time though, they can be a lot of fun, and they can look great on people. As my femme-leaning genderqueer friend proved time and time again, feminine characteristics can be worn and manipulated in ways that are flattering, phenomenal, and still a big middle finger to the gender binary. So why can't we get over the assumption that gender-neutral necessarily means masculine?

My theory, at least in part, is that the feminine traits we're foregoing in our cultural attempts to achieve neutrality- or, as in the case of the business world, to achieve some sort of reasonable "anyone can do it" professional standard- are not only traits that don't belong to the Golden Standard of masculinity, but are traits that belong to a group of people that have historically been marginalized, abused, and oppressed. Wearing a skirt and high heels isn't only occasionally uncomfortable; it's also a signifier of a particular power position in majority US culture. It's as though our fashion choices are revealing our decision: to be powerful, to be in control of our lives and identities, we have to be masculine. And- as a card-carrying cis-woman who enjoys her heels and skirts from time to time- I don't intend to deplore femme presentations, but these are historically the signifiers of victimhood. Of subordination. Of powerlessness. Heels make it harder to walk or run. Skirts limit the length of your stride. If you're worried about your makeup or your hair, you're not likely to do anything to get you messy.

The thing is, they don't have to be. While most of the cultural examples of kick-ass personalities in high femme getup are still sex objects intended for heterosexual male desire- fictional and real, and here Buffy the Vampire Slayer comes to mind- they're still kick-ass. They're not being victimized- except in a broader cultural sense, as I just mentioned- and they've earned themselves high amounts of respect. Who would call Michelle Obama a victim at this point in her life? Aside from the fashion magazines that are constantly picking on her for having arm muscles or wearing a sleeveless blouse or whatever fashion faux pas they're accusing her of now, she is influential and highly respected- and wearing heels and skirts.

I'd love to see that sort of dynamic be extended into the realm of gender neutrality or gender universality. Where it doesn't have to come from masculinity in order to be neutral or universal. Because as long as we're saying it does, or acting as though it does, we're implicitly saying that, in our gender-binaric culture, any cis-man who wears a skirt is giving up his right to social power and control. Femininity is only okay as long as it's performed by cis-women, and only as long as they understand that they're second-rate. I'd love to overturn that.

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