A friend of mine loaned me her copy of Whipping Girl, because she thought I would enjoy it and find it interesting; she was quite correct in that suspicion. I’m copying down some quotes here largely for my own future reference, but if y’all find something of interest in them, so much the better. (If I were sensible, I’d just get a Kindle copy and save the quotes there; good thing I type fast…)
In a world where masculinity is assumed to represent strength and power, those who are butch and boyish are able to contemplate their identities within the relative safety of those connotations. In contrast, those of us who are feminine are forced to define ourselves on our own terms and develop our own sense of self-worth. It takes guts, determination, and fearlessness for those of us who are feminine to lift ourselves up out of the inferior meanings that are constantly being projected onto us. If you require any evidence that femininity can be more fierce and dangerous than masculinity, all you need to do is ask the average man to hold your handbag or a bouquet of flowers for a minute, and watch how far away he holds it from his body. Or tell him that you would like to put your lipstick on him and watch how fast he runs off in the other direction. In a world where masculinity is respected and femininity is regularly dismissed, it takes an enormous amount of strength and confidence for any person, whether female- or male-bodied, to embrace their feminine self.
But it is not enough for us to empower femaleness and femininity. We must also stop pretending that there are essential differences between women and men.
Acknowledging this variation is absolutely crucial in order for us to finally move beyond overly simplistic (and binary) biology-versus-socialization debates regarding gender. After all, there are very real biological differences between hormones: Testosterone will probably make any given person cry less frequently and have a higher sex drive than estrogen will. However, if one were to argue that this biological difference represents an essential gender difference—one that holds true for all women and all men—they would be incorrect. After all, there are some men who cry more than certain women, and some women who have higher sex drives than certain men. Perhaps what is most telling is that, as a society, we regulate these hormonally influenced behaviors in a way that seems to exaggerate their natural effects. We actively discourage boys from crying, even though testosterone itself should reduce the chance of this happening. And we encourage men to act on their sex drives (by praising them as “studs”) while discouraging women from doing the same (by dismissing them [as] “sluts”), despite the fact that most women will end up having a lower sex drive than most men anyway.
While many gender theorists have focused their efforts on attempting to demonstrate that this sort of socialization produces gender differences, it seems to me more accurate to say that in many cases socialization acts to exaggerate biological gender differences that already exist. In other words, it coaxes those of us who are exceptional (e.g., men who cry often or women with high sex drives) to hide or curb those tendencies, rather than simply falling where we may on the spectrum of gender diversity. By attempting to play down or erase the existence of such exceptions, socialization distorts biological gender difference to create the impression that essential differences exist between women and men. Thus, the primary role of socialization is not to produce gender difference de novo, but to create the illusion that female and male are mutually exclusive, “opposite” sexes.
Recognizing the distinction between biological and essential gender differences has enormous ramifications for the future of gender activism. Since there is natural variation in our drives and the way we experience the world, attempts to minimize gender differences (i.e., insisting that people strive to be unisex or androgynous) are rather pointless; we should instead learn to embrace all forms of gender diversity, whether typical (feminine women and masculine men) or exceptional (masculine women and feminine men). Further, since some attributes that are considered feminine (e.g., being more in tune with one’s emotions) or masculine (e.g., being preoccupied with sex) are clearly affected by our hormones, attempts by some gender theorists to frame femininity and masculinity as being entirely artificial or performative seem misplaced. Rather than focus on how femininity and masculinity are produced (an issue that has unfortunately dominated the field of gender studies of late), we should instead turn our attention to the ways these gender traits are interpreted.
Thus, any model that attempts to explain human gender expression, sexual orientation, and subconscious sex must take into account the fact that both typical and exceptional forms of these inclinations occur naturally (i.e., without social influence) to varying degrees.
In order to reconcile this issue, I would like to put forward what I call an intrinsic inclination model to explain human gender and sexual variation. Here are the basic tenets of this model:
- Subconscious sex, gender expression, and sexual orientation represent separate gender inclinations that are determined largely independently of one another. (This model does not preclude the possibility that these three inclinations may themselves be composed of multiple separable inclinations, or that additional gender inclinations may exist as well.)
- These gender inclinations are, to some extent, intrinsic to our persons, as they occur on a deep, subconscious level and generally remain intact despite social influences and conscious attempts by individuals to purge, repress, or ignore them.
- Because no single genetic, anatomical, hormonal, environmental, or psychological factor has ever been found to directly cause any of these gender inclinations, we can assume that they are quantitative traits (i.e., multiple factors determine them through complex interactions). As a result, rather than producing discrete classes (such as feminine and masculine; attraction to women or men), each inclination shows a continuous range of possible outcomes.
- Each of these inclinations roughly correlates with physical sex, resulting in a bimodal distribution pattern (i.e., two overlapping bell curves) similar to that seen for other gender differences, such as height. While it may be true that, on average, men are taller than women, such a statement becomes virtually meaningless when one examines individual people, as any given woman may be taller than any given man. Most people have heights that are relatively close to the average, but others fall in outlying areas of the range (for instance, some women are 6 feet 2 inches and some men are 5 feet 4 inches). Similarly, while women on average are more feminine than men, some women are more masculine than certain men, and some men more feminine than certain women.
Because these inclinations appear to have multiple inputs and show a continuous range of outcomes, it is incorrect to assume that those with exceptional sexual orientations, subconscious sexes, or gender expressions represent developmental, biological, or environmental “errors”; rather, they are naturally occurring examples of human variation.
This is one of the most difficult aspects of transitioning to describe, as there are so few words in our language to articulate “body feelings” of any sort. I’m sure that this lack in language is related to our cultural tendency to dismiss or discount the way that our bodies feel to us. Indeed, many of us tend to think of ourselves as brains or souls crammed inside of a shell—a shell that is our body. We delude ourselves into believing that the shell itself is not important, not connected to our consciousness, that it’s merely a vessel that contains us, or a vehicle that we move about with our minds. But the truth is, our bodies are inseparable from our minds. This becomes evident whenever hunger, thirst, or physical pain grows to the point where we can think of nothing else, or when mental grief or stress manifests itself in physical aches and exhaustion. All of us who have experienced the physical difference between feeling healthy and feeling ill, or perhaps most profoundly, between pre- and post-puberty, have a deep understanding (whether we acknowledge it or not) that our body feelings make a vital and substantial contribution to our senses of self.
These days, I recognize the huge difference between sexual desire and sexualization. Sexual desirability is something that we all hope to have to some extent. When other people express their sexual desire for us, it can be extremely empowering, so long as such expressions are reserved for the appropriate time and place—i.e., from the right person and when we have signaled our openness or willingness to reciprocate. Sexualization, on the other hand, has the opposite effect: Rather than empowering the person, it’s used to leverage power over them. This can be seen all the time in the media, where women often appear not as fully formed human beings with their own thoughts, feelings, and opinions, but as purely sexual objects used to sell cars, beer, and other commodities. Some might naively argue that these women have power—specifically, the power to lure men—but it’s a power that only serves heterosexual male interests. After all, how much power is there in being a carrot on a stick dangled in front of someone? Such depictions exist in sharp contrast to media expressions of sexuality that center on real-life women’s sexual desires and perspectives, such as The Vagina Monologues or a Margaret Cho show.
The fact that sexualization is an attempt to dehumanize and disempower women is even more evident in remarks we get on the street, which invariably occur when women are presumed vulnerable (when we are alone or outnumbered) and often go unchallenged solely because the men who make such comments are physically stronger than the women they harass. Perhaps it’s only one in fifty or one in a hundred men who stoop to the level of catcalls (or worse), but over time they take their toll and achieve their intended effect: They make us feel like we are targets. Indeed, the sexualization that occurs in both media imagery and public harassment reinforces a power dynamic between the sexes in which men are invariably viewed as predators and women as prey. This predator/prey mind-set makes it virtually impossible for us to imagine that a woman has the potential to be a sexual aggressor (evident in the common disbelief about, and inability to articulate, instances of woman-on-woman sexual violence or female fetishism) or that a man can be a sexual object (as seen by the tendency for people to view young boys who are seduced by adult women as being “lucky,” as opposed to being victims of statutory rape). In fact, the only instances in which adult men esem to have the potential to become sexual objects is when they are sexualized or coerced into sexual acts by male aggressors.
Indeed, the ongoing and hotly contested debates over whether femininity and masculinity are biological or social in origin have, in my view, served primarily as a distraction from a far more pertinent issue—namely, what meanings, symbolism, and connotations do we assign to different gender expressions? While I disagree with the notion that gender expression itself is entirely social in origin, I do believe that the way we perceive and assign values to feminine and masculine behaviors is primarily, if not exclusively, a social affair. In our male-centered culture, two forces most often shape our interpretations of femininity (as well as masculinity): oppositional and traditional sexism.
Oppositional sexism functions to legitimize feminine expressions in women and to delegitimize feminine expressions in men (and vice-versa for masculinity). So while all people are capable of expressing feminine traits, oppositional sexism ensures that such expressions will appear natural when produced by women and unnatural when produced by men. In addition to creating the perception that female femininity is “real” and “right” while male femininity is “fake” and “wrong,” oppositional sexism may also influence the “doing” of gender expression. Exceptional gender expressions are regularly dismissed, even stigmatized, in our culture, which may lead some people to hide or curb their own gender-variant behavior, further exaggerating the assumed, apparent differences between the two sexes. In these ways, oppositional sexism creates the assumption that feminine traits—which occur in members of both sexes—are inexorably linked to female biology, and therefore, to one another.
Traditional sexism functions to make femaleness and femininity appear subordinate to maleness and masculinity. This is accomplished in a number of ways. For example, female and feminine attributes are regularly assigned negative connotations and meanings in our society. An example of this is the way that being in touch with and expressing one’s emotions is regularly derided in our society. While this trait has virtually nothing to do with one’s ability to reason or to think logically, in the public mind, being “emotional” has become synonymous with being “irrational.” Another example is that certain pursuits and interests that are considered feminine, such as gossiping or decorating, are often characterized as “frivolous,” while masculine preoccupations—even those that serve solely recreational functions, such as sports—generally escape such trivializations.
In addition to placing inferior meanings on feminine traits, traditional sexism also creates the impression that certain aspects of femininity exist for the pleasure or benefit of men. Take, for example, the concern for, or desire to help, others. While those who have this quality of empathy or altruism often express it toward all types of beings (i.e., children and adults, strangers and friends, animals and humans), it’s often recast in women as a maternal, “nurturing” quality that is meant to be directed primarily toward one’s family. Thus, this thoroughly human trait has been twisted into the expectation that it’s women’s “natural” duty to take care of their male partners and children, and to carry out the bulk of family and domestic chores.
So why has the artificializing of femininity become a preoccupation for many feminists over the last several decades? I believe that it has to do with the fact that many of the women who have most strongly gravitated toward feminism are those who have found traditional feminine gender roles constraining or unnatural. In many cases, this is due to their own inclinations toward exceptional forms of gender expression. Because their personal experiences with femininity felt uncomfortable and contrived in comparison with their experiences with androgyny, masculinity, or other gender expressions (which they found more liberating and empowering), they mistakenly projected their own experience and perspective onto all other women. While not necessarily done maliciously, this extrapolation was nevertheless an act of gender entitlement, one that denied that any diversity in gender expression might exist among women arising out of their very different class, cultural, or biological backgrounds and predispositions. By arrogantly assuming that no woman could be legitimately drawn toward feminine expression, these feminists permanently relegated femininity to the status of “false consciousness.”
The feminist assumption that “femininity is artificial” is narcissistic, as it invariably casts nonfeminine women as having “superior knowledge” while dismissing feminine women as either “dupes” (who are too ignorant to recognize they have been conned) or “fakes” (who purposely engage in “unnatural” behaviors in order to uphold sexist societal norms). This tendency to dismiss feminine women is eerily similar to the behavior of some lesbian-feminists in the 1970s who arrogantly claimed that they were more righteous feminists than heterosexual women because the latter group was “fucking with the oppressor.” It is an extraordinarily convenient tactic to artificialize, and even demean, an inclination (such as femininity or heterosexuality) when you personally are not inclined toward it. Indeed, this is exactly what straight bigots do when they dismiss queer forms of gender and sexual expression as “unnatural.” When we feminists stoop to the level of policing gender and start inventing etiologies to explain why some women adopt “unnatural” feminine forms of expression, there’s little to distinguish us from the sexist forces we claim to be fighting against in the first place.
While femininity is in many ways influenced, shaped, and enforced by society, to say that it is entirely “artificial” or merely a “performance” is patronizing toward those for whom femininity simply feels right. Indeed, one would have to have a rather grim view of the female population to believe that a majority of us could so easily be “brainwashed” or “coerced” into enthusiastically adopting an entirely contrived or wholly artificial set of gender expressions. In fact, it seems incomprehensible that so many women could so actively gravitate toward femininity unless there was something about it that resonated with them on a profound level. This becomes even more obvious when considering feminine folks who exhibit no desire whatsoever to fit into straight society, such as femme dykes (who proudly express their femininity despite being historically marginalized within the lesbian movement because of it) and “nelly queens” (who remain fiercely feminine despite the gay male obsession with praising butchness and deriding “effeminacy”).
The idea that “femininity is artificial” is also blatantly misogynistic. While a handful of theorists in the field of gender studies have more recently begun to focus on how masculinity is constructed, the lion’s share of feminist attention, deconstruction, and denigration has been directed squarely at femininity. There is an obvious reason for this. Just as woman is man’s “other,” so too is femininity masculinity’s “other.” Under such circumstances, negative connotations like “artificial,” “contrived,” and “frivolous” become built into our understanding of femininity—indeed, this is precisely what allows masculinity to always come off as “natural,” “practical,” and “uncomplicated.” Those feminists who single out women’s dress shoes, clothing, and hairstyles to artificialize necessarily leave unchallenged the notion that their masculine counterparts are “natural” and “practical.” This is the same male-centered approach that allows the appearances and behaviors of men who wish to charm or impress others to seem “authentic” while the reciprocal traits expressed by women are dismissed as “feminine wiles.” Femininity is portrayed as a trick or ruse so that masculinity invariably seems sincere by comparison. For this reason, there are few intellectual tasks easier than artificializing feminine gender expression, because male-centricism purposefully sets up femininity as masculinity’s “straw man” or its scapegoat.
In retrospect, I would say that the assumption that distinct identities would automatically lead to exclusivity was entirely misplaced. After all, an identity is merely a label, a descriptive noun to express one particular facet of a person’s experiences. And if we look beyond gender and sexual identity politics, we can find many examples of flexible and fluid identities. For example, if I were to identify myself as a “cat person,” nobody would be outraged or confused if I said I also loved dogs. Further, when I tell people that I’m a “musician,” no one makes unwarranted assumptions about what instruments I play or what styles of music I prefer. Nonpoliticized identities like “musician” and “cat person” allow us to see that the recurring problems in gender and sexual identity politics arise not from identity per se, but rather from opposite-think (e.g., that a cat person cannot be a dog person, and vice versa) and from a sense of “oneness” (e.g., the assumption that all musicians are or should be punk rock guitarists.)
Some might argue that it’s simply human nature for us to assign different values to different genders and sexualities. For example, if we tend to prefer the company of men over women, or if we find androgynous people more attractive than feminine or masculine ones, isn’t that assigning them a different worth? Not necessarily. There is a big difference between rightly recognizing these preferences in terms of our personal predilections (“I find androgynous people attractive”) and entitled claims that imply that there are no other legitimate opinions (“Masculine and feminine people are not sexy, period”). Similarly, there’s a big difference between calling yourself a woman or a genderqueer because you feel that word best captures your gendered experience and using that identity to make claims or presumptions about other people’s genders (e.g., assuming that “men” or “gender-conforming people” are your “opposites”).
Some might also argue that there is such a thing as “bad” gender—for instance, a woman who feels coerced into living up to stereotypically feminine ideals. As someone who was closeted for many years, I can understand why someone might be tempted to describe genders that are enforced by others (e.g., stereotypical femininity or masculinity) as being “bad.” The problem is that there is no way for us to know whether any given person’s gender identity or expression is sincere or coerced. While we experience our own genders and sexualities firsthand, and thus are capable of separating our own intrinsic inclinations from the extrinsic expectations that others place on us, we are unable to do so on behalf of other people. We can only ever make assumptions and educated guesses about the authenticity of someone else’s sexuality or gender—and that’s always dangerous.
The thing that always impresses me about human beings is our diversity. Even when we are brought up in similar environments, we still somehow gravitate toward very different careers, hobbies, politics, manners of speaking and acting, aesthetic preferences, and so forth. Maybe this diversity is due to genetic variation. Or maybe, being naturally curious and adaptive creatures, we invariably tend to scatter all over the place, exploiting every niche we can possibly find. Either way, it’s fairly obvious that we also end up all over the map when it comes to gender and sexuality. That being the case, if we take the subversivist route and focus our energies on deriding stereotypically feminine and masculine genders, we will inevitably disparage some (perhaps many) people for whom those genders simply feel right and natural. Furthermore, by critiquing those gender expressions in an entitled way, we actively create new gender expectations that others may feel obliged to meet (which is exactly what’s now starting to happen in the queer/trans community). That is why I suggest that we turn our energies and attention away from the way that individuals “do” or “perform” their own genders and instead focus on the expectations and assumptions that those individuals project onto everybody else. By focusing on gender entitlement rather than gender performance, we may finally take the next step toward a world where all people can choose their genders and sexualities at will, rather than feeling coerced by others.
This post has not been revised since publication.