In her reply to Hugo Schwyzer’s post about masculinity, Lisa Hickey asks for a difference to remain between masculinity and femininity.
When I first heard the words “gender is a performance,” in a post by Hugo Schwyzer, I felt like someone had finally given me the secret little instruction manual they had hidden away from me all these years. OH. It’s how we act. As in, act in a play. Putting on spike heels may make me feel more feminine, but it doesn’t actually make me more female. Becoming more female would require a scientific process that I am quite glad hasn’t been discovered yet.
It’s not that I hadn’t heard the tsk-tsking from people who specialize in gender studies as we dove into definitions of manhood here at The Good Men Project. “But you don’t even seem to understand the difference between sex and gender!!” I would hear, as if that difference were completely obvious or intuitive. It’s not.
My gender training as a kid insisted entirely of one sentence: “Sit like a lady.” That one phrase was said to me again and again by well-meaning teachers, aunts, friends of my mothers, and mothers of my friends. It was the only thing I can remember about how I was “taught” to be a women. And, in retrospect, what those words really meant was “Keep your legs closed. Whatever you do, don’t be overtly sexual.” It had nothing to do with my posture at all.
I worked for many years on the creative side of advertising, a long-dominated male profession. There are stories of blatant sexism, which I managed to mostly avoid by a combination of hiding along with a fearless belief in creative ideas to get results. But one story stands out to me as a gender performance.
In and ad agency high on the 62nd floor, floor-to-ceiling windows, I heard about an agency golf game scheduled the coming weekend. Every male in my department, my level and above, had been invited. I had not.
I walked quietly into the office where three men (including one whose name was on the agency door) were discussing an upcoming creative presentation. A pause in the conversation, and then, calmly, “Hey, why wasn’t I invited to the golf outing?”
They hesitated, looked around at each other, and one of them said, “Well, we only invited people that we thought actually played golf.”
I decided that if there was ever a time I needed to lie through my teeth, this was it. “I play golf.”
I didn’t really care about the golf game. Nor did I particularly care about fitting in, or bonding with my male colleagues, or proving that I could swing a golf club with the best of them. (Believe me, I could not.) And I didn’t know how to play golf, not because I didn’t like male sports—I simply preferred ice hockey and mountain climbing.
But what I cared about was that strategic decisions were made on the golf course, agency folks got to bond with clients, and on Monday mornings the team would come back with business decisions already made.
And if my job performance was going to be based on how well I made those strategic decisions, how I could relate to clients and sell to them, how much I understood the business, and how much of a team player I was, well then. I needed to be on the golf course. I needed my “male performance” to be equal to theirs. And so, I pretended to be able to play golf. I acted what I saw as the role of a man even if it meant I was headed for certain humiliation once I was found out.
Hugo says in his post, “It’s telling that the most hurtful way to put down a guy is, invariably, to imply that he is somehow feminized.”
The reverse is true as well. I was just as humiliated by feeling required to be “masculanized” as guys are when they feel they are being pushed to be “feminized.”
And I think that both sexes understanding that dynamic is important for moving forward.
Hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro, there was a women in our group who only wore pink. There were 15 guys, three of us gals, and we’d set up camp after hiking for nine hours a day. No bathrooms, no showers, no mirrors. Most of us looked pretty raggle-taggle when we crawled out of our pup tents the next day. But somehow, she always looked perfect. Not much younger than me, she’d wear her hair in two pigtails, not a strand out of place, makeup on, wardrobe matching and accessorized. She told me that getting really high-quality pink outdoorwear wasn’t all that easy—she had guys from the Northface store and Niketown call her up the moment something came in. Even the laces on her hiking boots were pink.
Her “gender performance” amused me the whole trip—she wanted to make sure she maintained her femininity even in the most extreme, male-dominated situations. And she succeeded.
Hugo calls attention to the “fundamentally mistaken belief that manhood needs to be about rejecting anything that smacks of the feminine.” But where then does that leave women who want to reject things that smack of the masculine?
In an ideal world, perhaps the following would happen:
1) We would all understand that our gender is, in fact a performance, one that we can pick and choose from every day. All we have to do is be conscious about it—to pick the parts of “masculine” and “feminine” that make the most sense to us. We don’t have to conform to society’s expectations—but if there is a comfort in our role as we see it, that is OK, too.
2) Recognize that masculine and feminine “traits” have nothing to do with skill sets. Guys can be extraordinary parents and caregivers, just as females can be amazing rocket scientists.
3) Being open to the fact that embracing the qualities of the “opposite” sex can sometimes be helpful. In the case of the golf game story, I was ultimately invited to the event, borrowed some clubs, took a single lesson, prayed for the best. I screeched with joy (just like a lady) when the golf game got rained out. As a consolation prize, the agency put me on their flagship golf account, where I went on to win awards and accolades.
I like Hugo’s thesis, but I can’t make the shift from not seeing men and women as somewhat opposite. As a heterosexual women, it is that “oppositeness” that fuels sexual attraction—and I don’t want that to go away. I just don’t want gender to be an issue when it’s not appropriate for it to be an issue. And at the same time, what I’m looking for in both genders is a comfort level about showcasing the amazing complexities of us as humans, instead of slipping into rigid stereotypes just for the sake of thinking that is how one is “supposed” to perform.
Hugo Schwyzer’s original post that sparked this one:
For another interesting counterpoint, Tom Matlack looks at whether macho-ness can be a force for good:
EXCERPT: “A real man doesn’t lie or cheat or beat his chest, but stares down things that seem impossible—like flying at the speed of sound or walking on the moon—and doing them anyways,” I recently wrote in a piece about astronauts, but I might as well have been referring to all men.
“The New Macho” is a guy who has an aggressive moral compass that prioritizes the things that he finds important—family, being honest, making a difference in the world. He goes all out to figure that out, yet he is also more apt to take risks “and stare down things that seem impossible.” READ THE ENTIRE ARTICLE HERE.
—Photo laura dye/Flickr