Thursday, November 21, 2013

Cuff Links and Nail Polish: How Gender Roles Hurt Everyone

Ever since I first realized that people consider me to be a woman--that as a further fact beyond having visibly female sex characteristics, they think I belong in the female gender role--I've been struggling with how to respond to that information.

It's clear that I shouldn't try to hate mall shopping just because my culture has put much more pressure on me to enjoy that than it has on my brothers. For whatever reason, I do enjoy it, and if I stopped I'd have one fewer thing in life from which to derive pleasure. Which would be sad. But it's also clear that I shouldn't feel guilty for being assertive as a result of similar pressures, if I can avoid it.

So I'm trying to become more conscious of when my motivations spring from implicit beliefs along the lines of, "This will preserve my social points, because women are supposed to make themselves sexually appealing to straight men, and this makes me sexier." (Note: Men can gain social points for looking extra sexy, though men's social points aren't usually conceptualized that way. But women lose social points when they don't make a special effort to look sexy. Because pleasing men is what we're really here for, right?)

Sometimes it's pretty clear-cut. For instance, it's usually easy for me to tell when I'm not doing something merely because I would be perceived as less feminine/more masculine, and I'd lose social points for it. It feels like longing. I notice myself going, "I love men's dress shoes so much; I wish I could get some really dashing men's dress shoes and coordinate my outfit around them." For a while in college, when I felt that way my response was, "Fuck this shit, that's exactly what I'm going to do!" But now I'm in a new environment where I don't feel quite so high status. When I went shoe shopping the other day, I found myself gazing longingly at the men's shoes while spending my allotted shoe money, with resignation, on women's shoes. (Much sadder to me than the shoes: Men's cologne. Oh my god I love it so much.)

There are also clear-cut cases where I wholeheartedly adore doing the traditionally feminine thing, and would definitely still want to do it if I were male. I love having painted nails--though having someone else paint them is better--and if a male version of me wouldn't go in for a mani-pedi, it would be for the same reason that female me is reluctant to be visibly masculine. Transgressing gender roles comes with a price, regardless of your sex.

The areas that give me trouble are the ones where I sort of want to do something that falls in the female gender role, but also sort of don't want to do it. 

For example, I sort of want to wear a tight dress that shows off my breasts and hips, and I sort of want to wear heels that show off my calves. For a while I thought this was because I want to appear well groomed, since that makes me feel like I command attention and respect (thus increasing my confidence), and this is simply the way to do it when you're in a female body. (I do, by the way, like my female body, and I usually don't like the idea of becoming physically male.) But a female body in a suit and tie neither appears nor feels any less well groomed. Indeed, I'd feel a lot better groomed that way, since in men's clothes I can dress to the nines without worrying that it's "too slutty". I would feel elegant, in charge, and handsome.

Tight dresses and heels aren't about authority and respect. They're about sex. The part of me that wants to wear them loves being sexy, loves the idea of turning on strangers when I walk down the street. The part of me that doesn't want to wear them wants attention and respect with no dependence on my utility as a sperm receptacle.

If I were young, fit, and male in a post-gender society, I'd often go out dancing in skimpy head-turning dresses that showcase my physique. But I'd go to conferences with a tie clip and cuff-links, because that's how I roll. And color coordinated nail polish, of course. If I were female? Same.

How I expressed myself, how I interacted with others, and how I made my way in the world would have everything to do with who I am and nothing to do with which behaviors society associates with which body parts. How other people interacted with me would be similarly gender-free.

I chose to talk about clothing here because it's a concrete, simple, vivid illustration. But it's also relatively trivial. Gender roles do not stop at attire, and it's the more subtle things that really hurt us.

It's the way the pizza delivery person always addresses my male companion instead of me when we answer the door together, because priors say women are submissive and men are dominant. It's the way I have to publish twice as many articles in journals twice as prestigious to be academically competitive with a man, because priors say women are simple-minded and men are intelligent. It's the way I'm interrupted far more often than my male discussion partners, and the way I'm perceived as bitchy and pushy rather than confident and authoritative when I do insist on speaking up, because priors say women are quiet and men do the talking. Men are agenty, and women are at their service.

If you want to better understand exactly how gender roles work, I highly recommend the talk below by Virginia Valian. Alternately, check out her book Why So Slow?: The Advancement of Women. In the latter, you'll find citations of and notes on all the source material she mentions in the talk.

P.S. The longer version of this is the most important lecture I've ever listened to.

Edit: Shortly after I wrote this, a New York Times article featured a clothier called Bindle and Keep, which has been making men's suits for female bodies for over a year now. I am SO excited about this, and I really hope the meme spreads rapidly through the clothing industry. Hopefully, I'll eventually get to schedule a fitting for my dream suit in the Bay Area.