Sunday, December 2, 2007

Cross-dress for success

I finished Norah Vincent's Self-Made Man this past week, and I was impressed by her audacity. Despite being a somewhat butch lesbian, spending 18 months disguised as a man ended up inducing a level of cognitive dissonance that caused her to have an emotional breakdown, seemingly speaking to the innate and fixed properties of our individual sense of our own gender.

I was most fascinated by other people's assumptions about her gender and how female masculinity was perceived as effeminacy once ensconced in a "male" persona. I was further intrigued by her comments that once she established herself as a man amongst the men she socialized with, she later removed her glasses and stopped applying her fake stubble, and yet still no one guessed that she was a woman. This proves that people don't so much see what is in front of them, but rather only the rough outlines of gender. Once our brains create a categorization, we cease to question and move on to the next level of human interaction. And when we come across someone of indeterminate gender, it's a puzzle and stops us in our tracks.

I've never dressed in drag, although I find the idea somewhat titillating. However, I don't think I'd make a terribly convincing man. The only thing I have going for me is my height and that my hands are kind of square. That said, I have been addressed as "sir" about 5 or 6 times in my adult life, perhaps most embarrassingly by a proctologist who was looking down at his notes as I walked into his office. I suspect that my height, my short hair at the time and my black leather jacket may have contributed to his reading of "male" out of the corner of his eye. (And I suppose I should be thankful that I wasn't pants down, prone on the table when he made this error.) Still, I doubt most women would be mistaken for a "sir," so there must be something about me that reads as unfeminine when viewed in a certain context. I'm guessing it's my comportment.

Since I was a teenager, I've had an acute sense that my posture and the way that I walk isn't typical of most women, but I didn't recognize it as "gay" until after coming out and spending more time with other lesbians, where I saw aspects of my physical self in them. There is such a thing as lesbian body language, and it reads as more "masculine," but not all lesbians have it, so it can't be conclusively stated that lesbian = more mannish in mannerisms. This tells me that gender correlates to sexuality in some fashion, but the exact nature of the relationship still seems to elusive. I suppose that's the beauty of the complexity of human beings.

I strongly feel aspects of masculinity and femininity within myself, almost equally, which translates, to me, into a kind of androgyny inside myself. When I was a kid, I wore my dad's ties, baseball caps and refused to put ribbons in my hair much to the consternation of my 2nd grade teacher, Mrs. Cohen. As a teen, I was super-femme with long curly hair, skirts, and a lot of makeup. For a large portion of my adult life, I had extremely short hair and nondescript fashion. That changed once I came out and decided to remake myself physically. I dyed my hair electric blue and black and created rules for my wardrobe (solids, stripes and argyle = OK, patterns = absolutely not). I became more aware of how my appearance reflected my inner life, and now, I consciously choose certain outfits to reflect aspects of my gender.

I enjoy the interplay of masculine and feminine as I allow it to manifest on my outward body. I feel most whole when I appropriate masculine symbols of power into my dress (like my stylized sheriff's badge belt buckle, or my military jacked by Laundry). The twist is that I never wear a literal translation of male symbols--my belt buckle is not an actual sheriff's badge. And, I wear these items at the same time I emphasize my femininity via tight denim that shows off my female ass and hips. Along with my sheriff belt buckle, I wear a cowboy shirt cut for women that happens to have line drawings of cowgirls with lassos. It's a costume, and I see it as such, but at the same time, it represents a deep part of my psyche. I can feel my masculinity and femininity at the same time, and it lends me confidence. It is sexually charged, at least for me, which is how I know there is a connection between sexuality and gender.

Which leads me to explore the notion of cross-dressing, spectatorship and empowerment. I haven't been to a drag king show in quite some time, although I've seen about four performances in my life thus far. As a spectator, it's not something that I ever really understood. There's nothing particularly sexy to me about watching women dress up as strange male archetypes such as a trucker-hatted guy wearing a Led Zeppelin t-shirt swilling beer while lip-synching to some Hootie and the Blowfish song.

I'm sure this may be a turn-on for some onlookers, but I'm guessing it's the minority. It's like a gay man in drag among the Chelsea boys. He has a place there, but it seems unlikely that he, as a woman, is an object of desire for most of those men.

As I think more about my own style as well as drag, it's becoming clearer to me that cross-dressing is more about harnessing the personal power inherent in gender than it is about transforming oneself into an object of desire (although paradoxically, invoking that power may make us more attractive to those who appreciate the confidence it creates). A man in drag invokes the sexuality and sensuality of female power over masculine energy. And a woman expressing herself through aspects of masculinity is doing much the same, in reverse. Masculinity can't exist without its opposite, and vice-versa. Dressing in drag is a touchstone to our innermost expressions of ourselves.

Markers of gender have definitive meanings and power in our culture, and as Norah Vincent has proven, clothes do indeed make the (wo)man.

8 comments:

Rational Answers said...

Your post rightfully calls into question the typically naïve perception that gender is all about genitalia. You illustrate that gender is a multilayered, multidimensional phenomenon that extends from our fashion choices, through our bodies to our innermost being.

There are many different aspects of human beings that manifest in polar extremes that could conceivably be labeled female and male (e.g. nature/nurture, cooperate/compete, etc). I believe that relatively few of us are 100% on the same side of the origin of every axis. This implies that gender is not a binary property but a position in the multidimensional space defined by these axes. It will be interesting to contemplate the reasonable idea that an individual’s location in this space is not static.

You bring up another very interesting idea that the perspective of the observer shapes their perception of the gender of the observers. You imply that the nearer one is to the origin of a gender axis, the smaller the change required to shift in the observer’s perception of gender to the other side of the origin. In fact, both you (with your distracted proctologist) and Norah Vincent (when she stopped wearing her "male face") point out that the perspective of the observer can span this separation by simply looking at certain gender indicators while ignoring others. These demonstrations of the fluid nature of our perception of gender definitely support your thesis.

Some fascinating implications emerge when you consider the multidimensional and subjective nature gender in the context of defining sexual orientation. I could go on indefinitely but it wouldn’t be right for my comment to be longer than the post that engendered it. Thanks again for making me think.

miss weeza said...

I read this book a few years ago and remember wondering what you'd think of it. I hope I mentioned it to you - if not, I'm glad you found it, and even more pleased that you gained so much insight from it.

As a woman who's been regularly mistaken for a man throughout my life - despite a very [ahem] curvy physique - I have long been fascinated, mystified and frustrated by people's (mis)perceptions of gender.

The part that winds me up is the value judgment implied in calling me 'sir'. Granted, I am very tall, so there is something to the cursory reading theory, but I am also unmistakably female in form, voice and manner (so I'm told), so what are people really seeing that makes them think I'm a man? Is it confidence, a commanding presence, self-awareness? Personal power? Sexual confidence? I wonder. And why aren't these things, in me, read as feminine?

There are as many male and female stereotypes as species of insects in the Manhattan sewers - I like to think that my friends and I are above such nonsense, but surely these kinds of conversations indicate that we continue to play into these roles in ways and at levels we're not consciously aware of. If I were more predatory or less comfortable about my sexuality, would that make me more or less feminine? If I were less honest, more physically skittish? I can't help being a bit offended when people call me 'sir' but I'm also completely fascinated. I can't remember how deep the author goes into these questions - maybe I should have another look.

I do know exactly what you mean about playing with look - I put together little costumes too, and you'll recall my 'pimptastic' period, right? But I've never thought of the gender implications of my choices. Now that I think about it, while the style I've grown into is probably more flamboyant than the norm, it's also more feminine in a lot of ways. Is it just because those are the lines that best suit my form, or is there more to it than that? Hmm.

I'll echo Captain Rational and thank you, as ever, for making me think again.

Major Generalist said...

Captain Rational,
Thank you for your feedback. Please do go on and on about any relationships you can conceive of between sexuality and gender. I find it a total puzzle. I haven't been able to come up with much other than that they are somehow correlated, but perhaps not causally related.

I definitely agree that an individual's location in gendered "space" is not static, but I think it's more fixed than sexuality may be for some people. What I mean to say is, I think most people feel that they primarily exist at a specific place on the gender continuum, and straying too far from that, as Norah Vincent did, proves that we have our breaking point around gender.

Although certain situations may make us more tough or tender (to use gendered terms), our core sense of gender probably bounces back to a general location that is unique for each of us. That's my hypothesis.

Of course, people "perform" gender all the time, and so it may not reflect who they really are (i.e., men must not cry). This is where things get hopelessly complicated because it means that gender is not observable as an outsider to the degree needed to discern how it functions across a broad spectrum of people. Sigh.

BTW, speaking of observation, I love how you're pulling in a little quantum mechanics in your comment about the role of the observer shaping (the gender of) the observed. This says to me that there are at least two gendered states of any given person--the one they feel internally, and the one that is perceived externally. And of course since we are observed by many people, as many perceptions of our gender exist. Fascinating.

As for sexuality, it seems more loose and potentially variable than gender identity to me. Unfortunately, I only have myself as a tool to examine, but I can say from personal experience that there have been moments in life where my sexual attractions have been surprising and definitely exist on a continuum where most of my attractions are towards one sex, but then on rare occasions, I find myself attracted to the other sex. What does this mean? That sexuality definitely exists on a continuum (per Kinsey's theory), but also that it's variable over time, and is unpredictable.

Culture teaches us that the vast majority of us will grow up to be heterosexual, but the truth is probably a lot more complicated than a lot of people want to admit. It's difficult and confusing to experience a non-steady state of being where you can't reliably predict your very own self. But, that's also part of the beauty of being alive--that we are mysteries even to ourselves.

But back to gender and sexuality. What are sexual attractions based on? Gender? Genitalia? I used to think that there might be some "human" force that drew me to certain people, but actually, I think gender does play a role regardless of whom a person is attracted to.

I'd love to hear what other people out there in the universe have experienced.

Anyway, get your list of male/female traits on your blog! :)

Major Generalist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Major Generalist said...

Miss Weeza,
You should know that Capt. Rational and I have declared your new title to be Colonel Deluxe. Hope you like it. ;)

I'm really glad you in particular have posted a comment. You are unquestionably one of the straightest women I've known, which is evidenced through your sincere comfort with your own sexuality in the many conversations we've had over the years. What makes you an especially interesting case is exactly what you yourself bring up--the fact that you've been mistaken for a man despite being feminine. I have been with you a couple of times when this occurred. And I think it might have something to do with the gender continuum that Capt. Rational brings up.

As Capt. Rational has said in other conversation, you are a powerful presence. I've always thought of you as being a very powerful. Your voice is clearly female, but it's loud and strong. You're exceptionally tall. And in terms of your personality, you're no wallflower. I will always remember your Pimptastic days with great affection. But, there seem to be cultural limits to our perceptions of gender. Whereas I am tall for a woman, my height is not outside the range of “normal.” However, you are taller than most men, if the average height of the American male is 5’9”. So, I think that automatically causes you to fall into ambiguous territory because many people are small-minded about their perceptions of gender and automatically jump to conclusions.

Further, the some of the non-physical traits that I most love in you: your forthrightness, your outspokenness, , etc. are all traits that are stereotypically associated with men. So, even though you have a number of very feminine traits as well, both your physical self and your personality contain a critical mass of traits that can be read as “male,” which makes you an ambiguous case. This is where being read as “male” stems from—cultural stereotyping! Welcome to the pain of being an edge case!

On the other hand, there are benefits to being someone who immediately doesn’t fit cultural expectations—you’ve been forced to think about what it means to be an outsider of sorts, and it has shaped you (perhaps in inspiring you towards dressing the way you do) as well as made you more of a thinker. I know there have been times that it has been frustrating for you, but I also think it probably has given you more depth as a person. I’m proud of you and I’m proud to be your friend, Colonel Deluxe!

As Capt. Rational has said in other conversation, you are a powerful presence. I've always thought of you as being a very powerful. Your voice is clearly female, but it's loud and strong. You're exceptionally tall. And in terms of your personality, you're no wallflower. I will always remember your Pimptastic days with great affection. But, there seem to be cultural limits to our perceptions of gender. Whereas I am tall for a woman, my height is not outside the range of “normal.” However, you are taller than most men, if the average height of the American male is 5’9”. So, I think that automatically causes you to fall into ambiguous territory because many people are small-minded about their perceptions of gender and automatically jump to conclusions.

Further, the some of the non-physical traits that I most love in you: your forthrightness, your outspokenness, , etc. are all traits that are stereotypically associated with men. So, even though you have a number of very feminine traits as well, both your physical self and your personality contain a critical mass of traits that can be read as “male,” which makes you an ambiguous case. This is where being read as “male” stems from—cultural stereotyping! Welcome to the pain of being an edge case!

On the other hand, there are benefits to being someone who doesn’t fit in—you’ve been forced to think about what it means to be an outsider of sorts, and it has shaped you (perhaps in inspiring you towards dressing the way you do) as well as made you more of a thinker. I know there have been times that it has been frustrating for you, but I also think it probably has given you more depth as a person. I’m proud of you and I’m proud to be your friend, Colonel Deluxe!

miss weeza said...

Why thank you, Major! Colonel Deluxe... heh. I like it, though I have to admit I do feel a bit twitchety about a military title.

I will say it's immeasurably better than, say, Private Deluxe, which sounds like an upmarket vibrator.

Major Generalist said...

Let's have no military twitching. Miss Weeza is certainly who you are :)

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