About a year ago, I read Whipping Girl, and this point stuck with me:
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.
Which is definitely true for me: the idea of working on a strongly female-oriented game, Sorority Life, amused me, but publicly wearing the Sorority Life hoodie that I was given made me feel noticeably uncomfortable. We’re talking about a hoodie, not a handbag or lipstick, the only thing identifying it as girly (aside from the zipper being on the wrong side) was the name written on it, but still: it stayed in the closet.
Or at least it stayed in the closet for most of a year; but then I got fed up at some egregious sexist bullshit around me, and started wearing that jacket as a sort of symbolic (and doubtless almost completely unnoticed) silent protest. My discomfort at wearing it was still there, but it mostly went away after a day or two. But the presence of that discomfort seemed interesting, seemed worth interrogating.
Which, admittedly, I haven’t done very much of. But that desire to interrogate is showing through occasionally now: I had a fun time going jewelry shopping for Liesl and Miranda when I was at PSL (though I didn’t get anything for myself; there was one necklace that I wasn’t sure Liesl would like, and I would have taken over that one myself if she didn’t, but as it turns out she did), I’ve been following fashion links and browsing the linked-to web sites more than I had been (nice to see Science Fiction Fashion & Style start posting again), and I did get a stunning (though, sadly, a little tighter than optimal) set of fuzzy rainbow leg warmers to wear last month.
So: baby steps. And I’m not planning to change my default clothing away from something ostentatiously bland (at least apart from the socks that peek out from under my jeans). I might go a bit farther than I have been, though—watching Miranda get lots of earrings over Christmas (she had her ears pierced after her thirteenth birthday) hasn’t gotten me to actually want to get my ears pierced, but it has gotten me thinking about what sorts of jewelry I might want if I were to do that. (Longish asymmetry, probably.) Who knows, maybe an ear cuff is in my future?
I used to spend rather more time thinking about this sort of thing, I think. I hadn’t actually worn them for years, but there used to be a couple of skirts in my closet. (And, in yet another sign that Liesl and I belonged together: she gave one of them to me.) If I’m remembering correctly, the motivation for purchasing that came out of an entirely stereotypical mathematician’s way of thinking: clothing choices are an apparently arbitrary distinction, I don’t see any a priori reason to prefer male clothing choices over female clothing choices, so let’s see what the other choice is like and try wearing a skirt? The answer turned out to be: it was physically freeing feeling in some ways, it opened me up to mild but noticeable opprobrium (from both external and internal sources) that I didn’t feel like actively fighting, and I really depend on having pockets. So that experiment didn’t last (and I feel like I need to give a shout-out to Steve at some point in this post, and I suppose this is as good a place as any); whereas other experiments that involved hair choices were much more successful, lasting for almost a quarter century by now. All these experiments came from the same place; it’s certainly not a coincidence that certain aspects of programming culture are aligned with unkempt beards (“Unix beards”) on the one hand and Utilikilts on the other hand.
Some of the other gender-linked rethinking that I did at that time has had much more of an effect than those skirts, though. When I was growing up, it was much much more likely for women to do all the cooking in families than men; I didn’t want to end up in that situation myself. If I’m remembering correctly, I got that first skirt at a summer math program I went to in Duluth; Jordan and I shared an apartment there that summer, and we took the opportunity to learn to cook together. Very much the right choice; Liesl and I cooked together occasionally even when we started dating, and decades on we regularly do that four nights a week.
(I imagine that choice turns out differently for young adults these days—from the outside, it looks like there’s much less gender distinction in terms of cooking than there was when I was coming of age, but it also looks like the way that distinction is erased has a little more to do with neither men nor women really learning how to cook than with men taking a more active role in the kitchen. I could be wrong, though.)
Maybe I started thinking about child rearing roles at about the same time, maybe I didn’t think about that until a few years later; hard to be sure. Either way, it led in the same direction: this is something where past societal models (and, I suspect, present societal pressures) would lean towards having Liesl do much more of the heavy lifting, and I didn’t want to shirk in that way. That’s turned out with a somewhat different texture than cooking has, because a lot of childrearing/childcare activities aren’t naturally done by both of us at the same time in the way cooking is, so there have been times in Miranda’s life when I’ve spent more time looking after her and times when Liesl has spent more time. Still, I’m comfortable and very happy with how that split has turned out, too.
That’s where I am, that’s how I got here. But reread the quote at the top of this post in light of that: I’d been trying to approach the question of how I respond to gender divisions by thinking things through abstractly, and thinking things through in a lens that erases differences. So: I’m missing emotional responses, and I’m missing differences as a resource.
Actually, rereading that, it’s a little unfair. Yes, I wanted to split the cooking and childcare because I felt it was the right thing to do; but I also wanted to do so because I thought they would both be very rewarding (especially childcare). And wow, good call on that. As to emotional responses: skirt wearing gave me a taste of that.
Still, there’s more room to explore. I haven’t been inclined to explore positionings that are actively girly; should I? I’m certainly not going to go deeply in that direction, but I’m sure there’s something I can learn.
I’m wondering, though, whether I’m also doing erasing in the other direction: ignoring differences, potentially rewarding ones even, that come from taking a more masculine approach than I’m drawn to? That, in its own way, is a way of thinking that I’m rather uncomfortable with. And I’m wondering whether that discomfort leads to me missing out on potential approaches, either for personal changes or for external rhetorical use.
And pitting manhood against boyhood is potentially useful rhetorically: not in the horrific vapidity of challenging somebody to be a “man” by doing something violent or stupid, but in the sense of “grow up and start relating to women as human beings, start accepting the complexity of the world around you, be confident enough of yourself to not have to fall into the traps of stereotypes and fears of the other that the world lays for you”. I seem to recall that Ta-Nehisi Coates has written some interesting posts along those lines recently; his take on The Forever War is one example.
But that’s mostly about pitting adulthood against adolescence. (To be clear: adolescence is an important stage in life, and I still reach back into thinking like an adolescent as a resource in certain situations. But it’s very much not the only tool I have, and the dangers of that mode of thought are real. And, well: I’m not an adolescent, and haven’t been one for a long time.) What about distinctions of masculine behavior versus feminine behavior? What active good can I see there?
So, reaching into stereotypes: men are hornier. That’s a fine thing; it’s one possible tone on the emotional palette, good to have access to. It’s a dangerous one because it depends so closely on interactions with other people, leading to a risk of erasing those other people as people, but by the same token it can bring people closer together if they find a fit. So sure: a fine thing, if that’s what you’re into (and a morally neutral thing in general), but not a fine thing in a way that is leading me anywhere interesting in the context of this post?
Men are violent. That is not a morally neutral thing: that is a bad thing. If we step back from it: the violence is from competition and one-upmanship. I play enough games that I won’t say competition is bad, but it leads in the direction of a zero-sum way of seeing the world that is at the least dangerous. Stepping back still further: competition (in particular as it relates to showing yourself off to women) is a form of displaying excellence. That starts to point in a direction that I can get behind wholeheartedly: I think it’s great for people to find something and try to be really good at it, and to show that to others.
Looking at stereotypical masculine and feminine roles in families: the women are the nurturers, the men are the breadwinners. If I want to find something positive in the second half of the split, it’s that men want to provide, to make sure the family has what it wants; that is a good thing. And it also recognizes the question of a balance between the internal family world and the external work world: both are important and should be acknowledged.
I dunno. The truth is, I don’t have much stomach right now for exploring the details of masculinity. I do find it interesting to see what my female coworkers point out about masculine behavior in our workplace: some of it I’m annoyed by, some of it I’m blind to and participate happily in myself, and there’s probably something to be learned there. But ultimately: I am male, I don’t have to explore or justify what that means, and nobody is asking me to. And right now I’d rather explore spheres that involve less violence, less one-upmanship, and more caring rather than the reverse.
This post has not been revised since publication.