Friday, June 4, 2010


This post over at Flavia's and then this post by one of her readers reminded me of something I always like to point out when talking about gender and is often overlooked. It has two relevant aspects -- how we think of ourselves and how others perceive and act toward us.

The key thing here is that many people who write about gender, understandably but mistakenly, focus on the first -- how we think of ourselves. But the main point of gender roles and outward markers is how others perceive and act toward us.

Here's an example from one of Flavia's posts:
3. My freshman year I shared a suite with five other women, and I think it was then that I consciously began to socialize myself as female. I paid a lot of attention to the way my suitemates spoke and acted and moved through the world--everything from how they dressed and talked about their bodies to how they teased, comforted, and traded confidences with their friends.

4. I was a successful student of such matters. But although I now read as pretty femme--heels and makeup and all that--I consider this an elaborate and rather hilarious ruse. At the same time, the fact that other people don't get the joke makes me wonder who was mastering (or being mastered by) what.

What I understand Flavia to mean by joke and ruse is that she doesn't feel or view herself as femme as she appears on the outside, but people take the appearance as actual projection of her inner self. Personally, I think the polite thing to do is to treat it as not a joke because all I can see is the outward projection of gender and then react in the generally accepted response to that outward role.

I'm in a hurry right now typing this, but my point here is this. Gender is important and ought to be understood largely insofar as how other people react to it. You choose your outward gender markers to choose how other people perceive and react to you. Typically, this is where two objections are raised. First, everybody should be treated exactly the same. This is complete bullshit. In professional or similar situations, perhaps. But gender is intimately tied up with sexuality, meaning gender markers also project what kind of sexual partners you are interested in, so we don't all want to be treated the same in all situations. Second, some response that boils down to gender is spectrum.

My view is more along the lines of, okay, within your own mind you can choose to be any particular spot on the gender spectrum, but what matters about gender is how other people treat you. And to a large extent how you feel about gender revolves around how other people perceive and treat you. Well, we humans cannot perceive where every person is on the gender spectrum within their own minds. We can get a general idea and then react accordingly, but not to the specificity of a spectrum of points. More like there are more categories.

Where I have less sympathy are people who want to dress butch, but then be treated femme. Cuz that doesn't make any sense to anybody.

Now, there are some societally understood gender roles where women are feminine and men are masculine. To the extent that you choose a role that upsets this dynamic it projects nonconformity, perhaps even trouble-making personality. For this there are societal consequences, such as bias in the workplace, which aren't necessarily just or right. But again, the important thing about gender is that it signals how you want other people to treat you. To the extent that they treat you how you want to be treated, it isn't a ruse.


Flavia said...

Thanks for this response, FLG.

I agree that gender is heavily dependent on external signifiers (that's why it's gender, not sex we're talking about)--but I think that's perfectly compatible with the belief that gender exists on a spectrum: the spectrum is visible and comprehensible to the degree that an individual signals her place on it via external behaviors and attributes. Someone who is biologically a woman, for example, may feel no connection to heteronormative notions of femininity, and so choose to express that identity by acting or dressing in a more masculine way.

For the most part, I find this attitude toward gender freeing. Personally, I realized at some point that I didn't like and wasn't in control of how I was being "read." This wasn't just about sexuality (the recognition that I wasn't attracting the kind of people I myself found attractive), but about how I saw myself: I believed myself to be sharp and funny and adventurous. . . but I looked like a shy, nerdy girl with a bad perm and big glasses.

But changing the way you present yourself can cause whiplash when you realize how very, very differently you get treated. Even when that difference was the whole point, it can be uncomfortable to realize the ways in which it aligns with heteronormative and sometimes downright sexist assumptions. I'm not saying that people should be faulted for responding to different signifiers in different ways (unless there's some kind of active discrimination at work). I'm just saying it's hard not to feel some ambivalence about it.

FLG said...


I think my point about gender not being a spectrum is sorta in your comment. Within your own mind, yes, you can be whatever you want. However, the options of what to present are less of a spectrum than a set of, I dunno a couple dozen, categories. How people react to these categories won't always adhere to how we view ourselves.

My point is, to boil it down, our internal gender will never sync exactly with how people respond to our external presentation. A lot of what frustrates me when feminists write about gender theory is that there's this unstated assumption that an individual should be able to choose their gender, and then everybody should act toward them how that individual wants them to act towards them, which isn't exactly how it works. But then it becomes a matter of how biased and heternormative the world is because people don't understand that the individual is fellagirly or tomboy femme or whatever.

Ultimately, there's this naive idea that you have the right to be viewed and treated by everybody exactly how you want to be viewed and treated. I'm not saying that it's okay to be mean or rude or biased or whatever, but we fundamentally cannot control what other people think of us. And some of it might simply be misunderstandings.

Withywindle said...

MSI would tell you the bloggier lasses embrace their glasses; though I don't know if her opinion's firm on perms. But different frames for different dames; hair straight or curly; butch or girly; Ganymede can change her mind and dress herself as Rosalind.

Flavia said...

Oh, sure: even if we're in control of our self-presentations, we're never in control of others' interpretations or responses to them. We may manage or anticipate them to a degree, but there's no guarantee--and different audiences may have wildly different reactions.

And sure: there's a naive branch of feminism that thinks not only that you can choose your identity in some absolute way, but that you deserve to have that identity appreciated in all its lovely special complicated uniqueness. I don't have much time for either part of that equation, and most serious gender theory grapples with the constraints on identity imposed by both society and biology. (In fact, the biggest liberal knock against Judith Butler's theory of the performativity of gender is that such performativity is NOT free and NOT chosen--and thus has no revolutionary potential).

But to me, if you're admitting that there are several dozen different gender categories (which is probably more than I'd say there are!), that's as much as saying that there's a spectrum. Not an infinitude of possibilities, but a range.

But, eh. I think as usual we're more in agreement than disagreement. . .

Andrew Stevens said...

This doesn't have anything to do with gender, but I once saw a gentleman who was covered with tattoos and all manners of piercings coming out of odd places all over his face. On his lapel, he wore the button "Don't look at me like I'm a freak." It took all I had not to comment.

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