Monday, May 4, 2009

Gender Performances

So I was reading tekanji's excellent series on the Gaming Beauty Myth and my mind, as usual, spun off into a tangent, and this time it took me to the idea of gender as a performance.

I know I've encountered this idea somewhere on the feminist blogosphere, but I can't remember exactly where - probably Feministe. I have, however, explained the idea to a photographer friend of mine, and I know he found it a new idea.

The idea is that gender is not necessarily tied to our biological sex - it is something that is socialized in us. When we think "masculine" and "feminine" we imagine specific behaviours, modes of dress, and even ways of thinking, that are categorized into "guys" and "gals".

For example, frilly dresses. Coded feminine. Pants. Coded masculine (until women fought ridicule and normalized pants-wearing for women, at least).

The problem with gender is that it's assumed to be intrinsic. If we don't behave a specific way, there's something wrong with us, something different, that has to be scolded away. It's part of the problem some ciswomen have with transwomen - that sex and gender are intrinsic to the genitalia one is born with, and a transwoman is merely trying to pretend to be a woman, and cannot truly be one because she was born male.

This is, all-round, patently, hurtful bullshit. But it's everywhere around us, and it's something we internalize. We're taught this every day - boys don't cry. Girls don't run around in mud. Boys don't play with dolls. Girls don't play video games. Boys are made of bugs and snails and puppy dog tails. Girls are made of sugar and spice and all things nice.

So there's this woman where I work. When I first met her, I was struck by her overall body language and I couldn't put my finger on why she was so different, so unique among so many other women I've met. Of course, me being the super-smartypants I am, I quickly figured out why.

When she walks, it's a very brisk pace. It's not so much walking as it is striding.
Code: Masculine.
Anecdote: When I first walked like that, I was in a classroom, age 13, and walking up to the teacher to get something. I wanted to look self-confident. Instead, the teacher said, "look at you, coming up to me like that, you look pissed off!"

When she strides, her whole body moves. Her shoulders swing.
Code: Masculine.
Anecdote: I walked like this once in Morocco. One day while my mum was ranting about me to my aunt and the tour group leader, the latter said, "she walks like a gorilla." Much public shaming ensued.

Sometimes, she puts her feet up on stuff - chairs, tables.
Code: Masculine.
Anecdote: I actually read this in a book on body language, that men would tend to take up space by putting their feet up on stuff, in order to demonstrate dominance. I tried doing this and got told off for being "unladylike".

There isn't much to code her as trans - she is very much a ciswoman unless I'm in the dark about something that pretty much isn't my business anyway. She wears makeup. She wears feminine clothing and heels.

But when I first met her, something in my head shifted, and I suffered from a bit of cognitive dissonance, of trying to categorize her as "not womanly" and realized that I was barking up the completely wrong fucking tree. Hell, I wasn't even in the right forest to start with. Seeing her drove home just how much I'd internalized all this ladylike/unladylike bullshit. I mean, I already knew that stuff, in theory.

And I'm pretty sure I've met other women who had masculine-coded behaviours (RenEv, for example, writes and thinks in ways which are coded masculine; even she admits she doesn't get women). She's just the first woman I met iRL to actually give me that uber-cognitive dissonance.

It's pretty cool to have been shaken up like that.

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