Girls learn early that the best way to enact the woman they want to be is to copy women who seem to embody their own aspirations. Gender may be a copy with no original, as Butler said, but the copying, the copying is an essential and driving part of womanhood.
In the end, women have to end up creating a collage presentation, with a little bit of one role model, a lot of another and a scattering of family & community influences, but copying, seeing what fits, keeping the best and looking for better is deeply embedded. This is why women, unlike men, love looking at magazines and shows filled with images of other women, stylish women to read, women to judge, women to reject and women to copy.
Forming cliques of other women — other girls — who look like you, act like you and think like you is foundational to creating identity. Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda knew how to be smart single girls in the city, and so they created a pack, one millions of other women dreamed of joining.
I know what women hold images that call to me, who have shards of style that I want to own, including in my own presentation. Joanna Gleason, for example, is a woman whose cool smarts have always appealed to me.
What I never knew, though, is how I could become those women. The limits of my own typecasting, from body to history, seemed to create an immutable wall that just trapped my heart under the weight of simple divisions.
Women bond over aspirations, over dreams, desires and role models. When you are separated from those shared possibilities, you are separated from gender. I sure as hell never wanted to be an attractive man, and was sure that I could never be an attractive woman, so what the hell was left to weave me into the networks of dream sharing friends?
When I read about women who left behind medical care to follow a fraud who claimed to have found the secret to resisting cancer while staying lovely, I know why women were so attracted to the aspirational dream she offered, even if it was a lie. I know why Kate Bornstein read the TV hosts so as to say that she found David Duchovny attractive, knowing that women bond over shared crushes.
We live in a world of “infuencers” who offer dreamy faces of a “perfect” life for women to swoon over, imagining being that woman, in that place. It is the reason women have always loved romance novels where they can be almost as swept away as the heroines, taken to a dreamed about world of beauty.
If I can’t be swept away because I have learned that those dreams are verboten to people like me, how can I join the crowd that shares aspirations? How can my enforced “hyper-sanity,” the solitary isolation I had to navigate with rationality, ever let me simply be part of the group? How can I dream of being like them when I know the only damn thing I can be is more myself?
It is powerful to know that the gift of a lifetime is becoming yourself, but having to do that too early and for too long is very isolating. I may be comfortable with having God as an audience, as she knows my heart and sees my choices, but having others to hang with, to have my back, to know me in messy, earthly ways seems to be a compelling thing too.
Worse, I know that the best way to build a following, an audience, is to be aspirational, offering attractive images to others. Until and unless they want to emulate bits of you, they don’t see much point in listening to you. Knowing I have never been slim and pretty means knowing that many have rejected me as any sort of life model, not wanting to look like me or end up like me.
Pretty packages, well, women have always known that they are the best way to get people to engage and accept your gifts, to draw you into their awareness.
Seeming authoritative is easy for me after 25 years of deeply exploring the meaning of life and queerness, but that appearance both lets me touch some while many others feel the need to reject what I offer. The fight inside of them against what they find challenging is easy to externalize onto me, feeling that if they can just silence me they can silence their inner fears and knowledge. Not having assurance in their own choices, just being able to thoughtfully express their own point of view, erasing challenges seems easier and simpler.
It is good to know that what I say can often stick in the memory, coming up years later to inform and support new choices, but having to be rejected in the moment, often with upset acting out, well, that doesn’t make me feel safe as a girl. I may know that they are fighting with themselves, externalizing inner battles, but that doesn’t stop many from kicking out to wound and silence.
I carry many of the same aspirations as any woman, especially to have partners who share and support my dreams, helping take care of each other’s needs.
Those aspirations, though, were first crushed many years ago, and have been further worn down by age, experience and awareness. The part of me that was never allowed to be a girl may still be vibrant in my heart, but the rest of me has grown even as she has been flattened.
Who can I dream of being? What shards can I show, cobbling together beauty, strength and vulnerability? How can love find those who have an unlovable surface?
Can I ever aspire to be alluring?