Things I Rarely Think About, #257
Well, this is embarrassing, but as a straight, white, male product of the 1950s, I have never given gender roles much thought at all. In the past fifteen or twenty years, I’ve begun to see how crappy this white, patriarchy treats everyone else and I feel bad about that, but I’m not sure that’s the same thing.
According to what I was told, when I was a toddler my mom dressed me in a pink and gray outfit that was all the fashion of the time, and my dad had a shit fit. “No son of his,” the story goes, “will be dressed in pink,” but since I have no recollection of the event (or the outfit), any influence it had on me would be unconscious, deeply hidden or repressed.
We boys of the fifties are great at repressing things.
I do remember my dad “boxing” or slap-fighting with me when I was growing up, playfully, with no real damage ever being done, and signing me up for Little League and Pop Warner football, good, masculine activities. In Pop Warner I was later told, my mom could always recognize me as being the only one in the clean uniform, so adverse was I to getting in all the action on the field. In Little League, I embarrassed my dad by standing in the outfield looking at dandelions.
In my defense, I was in right field, where the worst players were routinely put because of how little action occurred there, though they tried to tell me it was because I had a good arm and could throw the ball all the way to home plate.
When the other kids in elementary school joined the Cub Scouts and got to wear their uniforms to school, my dad signed me up for the YMCA Indian Guides (I was Little Eagle, he was Big Eagle) mostly because the scouting program had den mothers and the YMCA programs had dads running the things.
I guess all my formative years were spent by my dad trying to make a man out of me.
At some point in my twenties or thirties I heard, or thought I did, someone say that they thought I was gay. Although I once slept in a bed with a gay friend after getting drunk at a party and passing out in his bed, I also, on another occasion, slept in a bed with his Lesbian roommate for the same reason. I think those two cancel each other out, especially since nothing happened either time.
Maybe because I’m at the top of the power structure, but I just don’t see the gender issue as anything other than mostly an intellectual problem, nothing felt. I don’t understand why some guys think we have to treat women differently than we do guys, or anything like that.
I should have been more concerned, more involved, during my life, but I was mostly occupied with thinking about myself and how poorly I fit in.
Not a boy
"Do you want to be a boy?"
My little sister asked me that question. She must've been about 11 and I was maybe 17. I asked her about it quite recently and she only vaguely remembered it. But I do. Starkly.
The answer was no, by the way. I didn't want to be a boy. But I did want to wear menswear-like pants and my grandfather's old neckties and maybe a fedora hat. I wanted a look that was somewhere between Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogard, sartorially speaking.
But the unfiltered words of a pre-teen put me on notice. What I was wearing was conveying a strong message, one that I might have to be more attentive to. I'd been fairly blythely going along, doing my own thing, attracting friends and at least one boyfriend. While I didn't really date in high school, neither did a lot of my friends. Some of my friends had crushes; I had stuff to do: run the school paper, lead the band, watch a lot of old movies.
University life ratched up the gender differences to a whole new level. I came from a small town where there were lots of farm girls, horse-riding girls, blue-collar girls, softball-laying girls, and liberal-arts hippie chick girls. The level of femininity at Southern Cal was beyond my experience. Half or more of my dorm floor rushed sororities. There were evening gowns in the halls and hairspray in the shared bathroom. This was when I started to more acutely sense that don't-want-to-be-a-boy was not ever going to equate to feminine.
If I wasn't puzzling out who I wanted to be, though, I was puzzling out who I wanted to date. I have often joked that I would have figured out that I was a lesbian a lot sooner if I hadn't met Mat Moneymaker, an engieering student and USC swimmer who was an adonis. Anyone would've wanted to sleep with him. So it took a few years to figure out that the weird emotions I was feeling for other women were actually my psyche trying to give me a good shake.
I still think of myself as "boyish" even now, though I know that age has made me more womanly. I never get that head-snapping second look in the ladies room any more. (Amy does, and I alternate feeling sorry for her and being jealous.) Sometimes I think that age has made other women catch up to my less-fussy and short-haired approach to life. I am off-footed when it becomes suddenly clear to me that a person I'm talking to has not assumed I'm gay. "What does your husband do?" is the question that is usually the tip off.
Since the presidential election, though, I've been feeling a need to butch it up a little more. I'm not sure why or what that's about, except perhaps that I fear fitting in too much with white middle-aged women right now and somehow want to again make a style statement. What is it that I fear I'm not saying right now? That I'm queer? That I'm a resister? This all bubbles below the surface of my concious thinking.
My ideas about gender: Do I have ideas about gender? Or is it behaviors I consider?
Yes. Behaviors. I know what I think about certain behaviors typically assigned to each gender but I don't know how I arrived here.
Even when I was young I flinched mentally at females who giggled or acted in a cliche girly way -- which might in itself be sexist ascribing of actions -- the ones who flipped their hair or looked at people with head tilted slightly (to me, "coy") or laughed at everything in a high-pitched way: They bugged me. These describe behaviors, not actions, but I also associated them (and perhaps still do) to indirect ways of doing things, or essentially expecting others to do the work.
Boys did not giggle so it bugged me only when it happened, and girls giggled, so it bugged me when girls giggled.
My ideas about gender, then, mostly have to do with behaviors: I know I dislike indirect behaviors from either gender and it's probably because of my role models, my parents.
My mother majored in physics when only 2 percent of students who did so were female, then went to work in cancer research. (I was told recently that her friends were astounded when she had her first child. They asked each other, "What on earth is she going to do with a baby?" They knew her only as a bookworm and scientist.) She was direct.
My father yelled a lot and till the day he died would be annoyed when his daughters would cry (to which I said when I got older, "You lose their temper and yell when you get upset. I cry. What's the difference? You aren't in control of their emotions either.")
I don't think of my gender but I did grow up acting the opposite of what I saw in girls whose behavior I disliked: I wore oversize shirts and comfortable jeans and looked people straight in the eye.
And yet...I cried. I also yell.
Neither of these seems to me related to gender, though. They seem unhappy inherited traits.
As I get older, I find myself drifting, as my mother did, more to thinking often, in many situations, that women get short shrift. I have to think that it's walking a mile in my high heel shoes that makes me see this world that way, that if I were a man I'd be less aware of the studies about, say, women's being interrupted far more often in meetings and news stories about disjointed realities such as smaller paychecks, domestic violence, genital mutilation... the list goes on.
I'd rather be me, though, with my non-gender-specific name, habit of being sometimes too direct and lack of ability to be coy.
Mrs. Ferguson's Dancing School
Girls line up on one side of the large hall, boys on the other. We boys are wearing white cotton gloves, jackets and ties, and dress shoes. The girls are also dressed up, and they wear white gloves too. Everyone is dressed to attend a formal dance.
“Attention, please, and stop talking,” says Mrs. Ferguson, in her commanding voice with a slight German accent. She wears a long, dark blue formal gown. Her face is caked with make-up and her lips are bright red. “Now ladies and gents, I want you to watch Mr. Ricardo and Miss Melissa as they demonstrate the waltz.” These two other instructors at Mrs. Ferguson’s Dancing School, accompanied by the pianist, start waltzing. Mrs. Ferguson, whom we kids call “Fergie,” counts out “one two three, one two three, one two three.”
When we go to Fergie’s for the first time I am eleven. Everyone complains about it, especially the boys. But I like seeing the girls so adorned, holding their gloved hands and smelling their different perfumes. We gradually progress, learning the steps and performing the boxes of ballroom dances at arms length with our partners, bodies never touching.
I am 11 during that first year at Fergie’s, and my friends and I don’t talk about girls or sex. But in the following year, we are consumed with it and always talking and thinking about girls. At our boy girl parties there are no white gloves and we all make out until our lips are sore.
I don't remember learning I was a girl. I don't remember being told to play with this toy over that one because this one was for girls and that one was for boys. I'm an only child; I have no siblings to bounce things off of, so it's not like I could try playing with my brother's trucks and see if I liked it or not. I just had toys for girls. I was, I am, a girl. End of story.
But my mother had some distinct ideas of what a girl should and should not do. She hated the fact that I would pick up caterpillars (wooly bear ones, and come ON, they are adorable - who wouldn't??) and catch frogs (that I wanted to keep as pets, but invariably killed them by accident). I wore pants a lot and fought with her over the need to wear dresses, like, EVER. As I got older, I did appreciate the ease of a dress and sandals; one thing to pop over your head and shoes to slip on. Done. Easy Peasy.
My mother didn't frame it in terms of being a girl or looking like a boy, although I think she may have said something akin to that when, in college, I came downstairs wearing boys' boxers rather than shorts, and a ratty t-shirt from a football game. I know she would have preferred for me to be in a nightgown. Girls wore nightgowns, not boxers.
I believe my overall sense of what is acceptable for girls is wider than my mom's is, and I am sure my children's views will expand from mine as well. I would like to think subsequent generations have a broader mindset than their parents. My one son likes to cook. Another one is a very sensitive boy who, since he was a toddler, has taken care of others. I struggle with my husband's view of how that sensitive boy should be; he feels tears and sensitivity end at a certain age, and I believe we harm our children, our boys in particular when we squash their emotional side. We have a society where half the population is male, and yet over 80% of those who commit suicide are males, and the same goes for people in prison. When you look at who is addicted, the numbers are more even, but it is still over 65% of addicts are men. What are we doing to our boys that lead them to these lives of quiet desperation?
Does it matter to me that I am female? No, insomuch as I don't really care. Had I been born male, I believe I would have adapted to that as well, but I like being a girl. I liked being able to feel my children grown inside my body, and I love that I am allowed to be my nurturing and emotional self because I am female. I am fortunate that our society actually values the woman's ability to nurture.
I would like to change how we are raising our boys, however. We had this major push years ago to get women into the STEM fields, but I believe we need a humanities movement in this country to get our boys to follow their souls, not their checking accounts, and pursue an education in a field where not only the can thrive, but where they can live their truest self.
I’ve always said that most of my friends don’t stray too far from the gender line. None of my close guy friends could be considered “Alpha” anything. Most of my female friends would probably classify themselves as “tomboyish.” For whatever reason, the stereotypical characteristics on the extremes of either gender tend to be undesirable qualities in my opinion.
I’ve always felt I skewed fairly close to the center line myself, not exhibiting any of the most typical traits associated with my gender. This is a quality of myself that caused me some grief as a child, but that I’ve come to like and take great pride in. It actually wasn’t anything I gave a lot of thought to until about four years ago.
A Saturday night in January 2014, I had one of the most fun nights out on the town that I can remember. I woke up the next morning with a mild hangover, but feeling happy and unexpectedly buoyant. Those usual feelings of guilt or regret from a night of revelry just weren’t there. And I genuinely felt like some strange weight had been lifted.
It wasn’t until much later in the day on that Sunday, while sitting at a late brunch with friends, that it occurred to me that a) there HAD been a weight I had been carrying around for 20-plus years and b) it had been unknowingly lifted.
Going back to the night before: I was at home ready to order a pizza and watch a movie for a quiet Saturday night in, when I got a text from my friend Julie that a couple in our friend group (Yvette and Danny) had broken up after about three years together. Both friends were part of our circle individually before they hooked up, so the breakup would be messy with people having to (at least in the short term) take sides.
Julie let me know that a few people were getting together with Yvette, who hadn’t seen the breakup coming, and wasn’t doing well. They were meeting at one of my favorite dive bars in the Valley, The Chimney Sweep. I showed up around 7pm, and a string of other friends joined us throughout the night. By about 9:30pm, it turned into a group of about six or seven women, plus me. We went through more than a few glasses of Chardonnay, commiserated, and did our best to cheer Yvette up.
By about 10p, we realized we were just going in circles with her, and we needed to call it a night. While walking back to my car, I saw that I had received a text from Danny saying that a few people would be meeting at Bar 107—another favorite dive bar—which was a couple blocks from my house, to blow off some steam after what had been a traumatic day.
The group was planning to get there around 10:30p. By the time I showed up, there was already a cadre of about five guys. By midnight we were eight or nine guys strong, doing shots, being ridiculous, dancing to the weird mix of 80s pop, 90s indie, and early 2000s hip-hop that Bar 107 was famous for. When I woke up the next morning, there were three extra-tall Dos Equis cans on my kitchen counter, which I’m fairly certain we walked back to my place with, though I don’t actually remember.
Flashing forward to Sunday afternoon: I was sitting at brunch telling the story of the night before to a few friends (unrelated to the circle from the night before), when I realized I had been the only person invited to both Girls’ Night Out and Boys’ Night Out. That’s when something in my brain clicked, and I remembered a night maybe 25 years earlier. I was six or seven years old, and I was invited along with my older brother to attend his best friend’s birthday party.
My brother is about three years older, and his best friend has a younger sister who was in my class, so there were a bunch of older boys at the party and all the girls from my class were at the party as well. The party was split between the two groups, and I tried to join my brother and the boys at first, but they, being 10 and 11, wanted nothing to do with a six year old.
So I then went to join the girls, but six-year-old girls wanted nothing to do with a six-year-old boy. I don’t remember how I spent the rest of the party, but I think I just found a quiet corner somewhere and played by myself until it was time to be picked up. As far as stories of childhood cruelty and ostracism go, it’s a pretty mild one, but the memory must have gotten stuck somewhere deep in my psyche.
Going from being the kid who didn’t fit in with either group to being the adult who could fit in in any group put this nice, satisfying button on the story. It resolved something I didn’t even realize needed resolving. And for the past four years now, I’ve felt incredibly grateful for that night, and for the meaningful friendships I have been able to make with no regard for gender.
For better or worse, it is the conservative Evangelical church that shaped my ideas about gender and sexuality. If prompted, I could spend hours recounting the sermons about the roles of men and women in the household; speeches about the clothing of the girls in the youth group "causing the boys to stumble," and how it was incumbent upon us girls to "safeguard the minds" of our male peers; and raging debates about what kind of swimwear was appropriate to wear on church trips to the beach.
(That last one was especially memorable. Tankinis were in at the time, and the debate was whether or not girls with takinis should be made to wear a shirt over their suit, as it was a foregone conclusion that the girls in bikinis must do. The double standard of the men being able to go shirtless was brought up, and in a moment of impulsive chivalry, several of the boys volunteered that if the girls had to wear shirts, then the boys would too, to even the playing field. The real double standard, that the bodies of teen girls were being objectified while the guys still got to be kids, was nowhere in anyone's mind).
I also learned a fair amount about "how men and women are" from my parents. Based on my dad's actions, men are emotionally withholding, never wrong, and passive aggressive. Based on my mom, women are malleable, eager to please, and constantly nervous and overwhelmed. That part's not so easy to make light of...
I'm a woman, but I've never felt particularly attached to my gender, even as I have never felt a mismatch between my biological sex and my inner gender identity. When people say "I feel like a woman," I understand what they mean, but my spirit has never really lept in solidarity with it, especially since feeling "like a woman" is a cultural construct that seems largely based on enhancing secondary sexual characteristics. (Sorry, Shania).
One could maybe say it is this very upbringing that has distanced me from my Self and what that Self feels like it is--in my case, a cisgendered woman. Quite possible. More "grist for the mill," as they say.