Women are often amused by the presence of a guy in a dress because they feel that, finally, some man is understanding how the other half lives.
“Oooh!” they say “he’s wearing a bra! Don’t you hate bras? And now you know what it is like to have to wear those shoes! Did you have to remove hair! Don’t complain; we have to do that everyday!
“See,” they say, “we suffer for gender expectations in a way that men don’t understand, so it’s good you got a little taste of it!”
Does changing into women’s clothes, even in a very detailed way, really let men understand the experience of being a woman in the world? Many crossdressers would say yes, but from where I stand, the expectations and social pressures put on women are only slightly on appearance.
Women are “marked” more than men, as Deborah Tannen would tell us, showing their content in their expression, but it is that content, the expectations that define their lives, not the packaging. Even in cultures where dress is restricted — think China during the cultural revolution where everyone wore Mao suits — the obligations of women did not change.
The gendered demands laid on men may not be as visible on their surface – a polo shirt and jeans can cover a lot of territory — but that doesn’t mean that they are any less fierce than the obligations of women. The simple requirement to deny weakness is vast and can be crushing, as Brené Brown reminds us.
Women enforce this system of gender-based shame as much as they feel controlled by it. The expectations colour the standard view of the world, though most of us understand how those expectations cost us while ignoring how much they cost those with whom we are in relationship. We like other people being required to follow our expectations and desires, even if we resent those social demands for ourselves.
Many women love historical fiction, from Downton Abbey to Game of Thrones, imagining a time when gender divides were much more dramatic than today; men were men and women were excited.
That doesn’t mean that they would want to live in that time before women’s suffrage and liberation, just that they find the enforced binary thrilling. In fact, much of today’s historical fiction includes women characters who are stronger and more free than actual women of that time were, creating a kind of fantasy hybrid of rigidly structured gender and modern ideas of freedom.
The warmth of sameness is comforting in a relationship, but the heat of difference can create a kind of sizzle that is often driving and compelling. Gender, a system of communication which has the core value of enforcing codes about reproduction and child rearing, can often be used to drive economic growth which can come from population growth. In this heterosexist model, breeding for queen and country is our highest calling. Close your eyes and think of England, honey.
When I once suggested that women’s magazines should care about gender issues, a friend corrected me. Women’s magazines have a direct interest in maintaining clear gender boundaries, selling the idea of a real difference, because if there isn’t, why should there be separate magazines to affirm the role of woman?
Desire is a powerful driver. We all want to be desired, want to capture who or what we desire. Being able to place our surrender to desire on the polarities of gender gives us the power to use those polarities to try and get what we want. By tearing gender into a clear binary, we have to come together to get everything we need in the world, giving us a reason to place our own weakness on the intense power of the “opposite sex.”
I understand why women take comfort in gender divisions, finding comfort, frustration and desire in seeing themselves in the shadow of manhood. This narrative gives cohesion and meaning to their lives. It reflects a real history of economic separation, a real model in place for thousands of years.
As much as compulsory gendering has placed limits on humans, it has also delivered real benefits that align with the desires and knowledge of most people. Most gender themselves willingly, a bit upset with the demands but earnestly looking forward to the promised benefits.
Finding new ways to do gender, ways that don’t start with a simple, compulsory division of humans by apparent reproductive anatomy, is hard. Any queer person who has claimed their own desire past convention and expectation can tell you that. People who identify as straight, though, don’t really want to face that truth, don’t want the rules to change.
We know how we suffer a bit for gender, love to poke at the cost we pay, but most of us don’t get how much gender costs everyone of us; our lovers, our friends, our family, our children.
In cultures where gender is rigidly bi-polar, rituals of gender crossing remind us of our continuous common humanity. That has been my mission statement since I first heard anthropologist Anne Bolin say so many decades ago.
To me, that means that seeing people cross gender isn’t about reminding them of the price you pay but is about seeing them reveal who they are beyond conventional, binary expectations. They show their humanity, the heart that beats beyond any kind of gendered projection. We are all just humans, living in the world.
If your identity is centred around us vs. them, around binary and shadow, though, this can be hard to accept.
I wear my own clothes, trying to reveal my own essence. I pay the cost, own the truth, search for the understanding. I want my heart to be seen.
That is hard, though, when people can’t hear over my body, assigning my going through puberty as a male to be more important than who I am inside. Simple binaries miss the power of the human spirit over the limits of the human flesh.
Wasn’t that essential revelation what feminism was supposed to be all about?