Something interesting happened to me on my way home from the gym last night.
I was dressed in typical, fairly unisex gym clothing (shorts and an undershirt). On the off chance that anyone who doesn't know me personally is reading this, I have a generally low-maintenance uh, look; my hair is extremely short (I cut it myself with a buzz cutter), I don't usually wear makeup, don't shave my legs, etc. Basically I choose to eschew all of that costly and time-consuming maintenance that we are meant associate with femininity.
As I walked home from the gym, I saw a young man draped over the door of a car, speaking to a woman inside. As I passed, he laughed, loudly and sarcastically catcalled me, and then said, "SHE LOOK LIKE A MAN!!" and continued laughing.
(Uh, just as a reminder: I look this way on purpose, and do not base my self-worth on my ability to appeal sexually to men, so this wasn't the devastating experience it might otherwise have been; my feelings weren't hurt or anything, so no need to be like "I'm so sorry that happened!!!" etc. I'm not sorry it happened at all! For reasons which I will try to make clear.)
My immediate reaction was to think, "My god. The blatant ways we try to police one another's gender expression and sexuality in order to reinforce our own."
Prior to him noticing me, I noticed him. His body language was overtly masculine; he was peacocking for the woman in the car, towering over her as she sat in the driver's seat, leaning into her space in a way that was simultaneously casual and meaningful.
So here he was, caught in this moment of extreme heterosexual posturing, and suddenly I came into view. His reaction was SO visceral that I have to believe I was read as a threat. Of course I was. I am a woman who is not playing by the established rules of femininity. This indicates two things:
1) I am possibly intentionally withholding sexual availability from men; at the very least, I am clearly not invested in this moment in garnering sexual attention from men, which is a violation of the heterosexual feminine mandate
2) I am encroaching upon his masculinity with my masculinity
That last one. Oof. Of course he reacted by derisively pointing out my transgressive gender presentation! Masculinity belongs to men! All else equal, relative to women, men are free; their freedom derives from their masculinity and their masculinity is an expression of their freedom. Regardless of how you feel about femme identity, I think we can all agree that presenting as ultrafeminine (as it is culturally defined) takes a fucking lot of TIME and MONEY and EFFORT. Women's shoes and clothing is EXPENSIVE. Makeup is EXPENSIVE and takes time to apply. Shaving your legs and armpits and whatever else you may shave takes a lot more time and costs a lot more money than not shaving. Women's haircuts are EXPENSIVE and women's hair tends to take longer to style than men's. etc, etc, etc.
As a woman who does none of these things, I get to hear a lot of women telling me why they could never do x or stop doing y. These justifications tend to center around not wanting to be perceived as masculine or as sexually unattractive to men (or censured by other women; "if I have to do this, YOU should have to do this, too"). Giving up these markers of femininity frees up time and money and effort, but the cost is great. We are daily reminded that as women, our value lies in the approval of men, since men have more social power than we do; and that we are valued most when we are most feminine. The best bauble. If we are willing to be decorative first, we will be highly prized by the average heterosexual man.
(I am deliberately generalizing here because this is a blog post, not a book; but books can and have and will be written about the many ways this scenario is impacted by class, race, age, sexual orientation, able-bodiedness, etc. all worthwhile and important things to consider.)
Choosing not to be a bauble is threatening to men who are invested in maintaining the status quo. A woman who chooses not to be merely decorative and not to place value upon being objectified is a threat to those whose first-class status relies on her second-class status. And so we police one another. So a man derides a woman who presents as even slightly masculine, or who has not done enough work in his estimation for him to consider her a viable sexual option. So women tear one another down in an attempt to form an alliance with the men who occupy that coveted position of relative power and freedom.
And that is why working on this project was important to me.
We are policed by individuals as well as by cultural messages which are dispersed quite blatantly via advertisements. Advertisements convey and reinforce social law and allow others to profit from our acceptance that these are absolute truths rather than constructed meanings open to critique and even rejection. This is nothing short of tragic. These are not theoretical battles; the impact of these social edicts is tangible and inescapable. I am not infrequently told that I should lighten up, calm down, not think so hard or so much, relax, stop being so serious, etc, etc, etc. Truthfully, sometimes I would love to be able to afford the luxury of not thinking about these things perpetually. Every human being wants to rest now and then. But there is always some peacocking social enforcer lurking round the corner, all too willing to remind me that I can never forget, relax, let my guard down, think less.
(Side note-This marks the end of this blog as a service learning project, but I do think I will continue to discuss feminist issues here in the future.)