Category Archives: gender roles

Beth Ditto Live and the Shamelessness of Little Girls

When I saw the video below of Beth Ditto live, performing “Standing in the Way of Control” with her band, Gossip, I was profoundly affected.  I’ve been thinking about femininity, shame, and femme performance a lot lately.  My latest forays into femme fashion as a genderqueer person have been inextricably tied up in the shame of being a teenaged girl, the pain of rejection by my peers, and the power of shame to shut me up as I move through adult society.

I’ve always been a loud, boisterous person.  I tend to be proud of my accomplishments and sometimes a bit of a know-it-all.  I love karaoke, dance performances, and anything else creative.  But as I’ve moved through my teenaged and young adult years, the pressure of etiquette and embarrassment have had a painful effect on me.  I read a lot about how it’s important to focus not on what girls’ bodies look like, but what they can do.  Unfortunately, the older I get, the more I’m shamed by the realization that what my body can do is not as good as what others’ can do.  I’ve stopped singing and dancing as much in public because of external ridicule and growing internal embarrassment.  Throughout college and law school, clothes went from fun performance to a way to be invisible, proper, and fitting into what I saw as my role.  I’ve been trying very hard to speak less and listen more.  Sometimes, that’s a good lesson to learn, but it also has painful effects.

When I first saw the Beth Ditto video below the cut on the commuter train, I cried.  On stage, Beth is joyful, radiant, and unashamed.  She dances in a purple dress that fully exposes her thighs, in bare feet, fully occupying her space.  She belts the song diva rockstar style, and certainly doesn’t look nervous or ashamed about the thousands of people watching.  Though I may not exactly have Beth Ditto’s voice, I do want to use this video as inspiration.  It reminds me so much of being a little girl, singing in my nightgown at the top of my lungs, dancing, crashing into furniture, convinced that my voice and my body were awesome.  Whenever there was a chance to perform, I took it.  There’s something to be learned from that.  It’s also why cried when I saw this empowering video about girls and body image.  You know what?  I deserve to be a fucking rockstar.

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An interesting model for womanhood

I’ve been thinking a lot about “masculine” and “feminine” since the Women + Power conference, and about “aggressive” versus “emotional.” I’m just reading Vanessa Veselka’s essay, “The Collapsible Woman,” and she offers an interesting alternative to the strong/weak dichotomy in discussing what society expects of rape survivors. “We need to articulate a new vision that equates feminine strength not with repression and bravado, but with compassion and grit.”

Compassion and grit.

I love that. I think it’s a good workaround for my own insecurities about just how “emotional” I want to be, and what it might represent. I want a way to be a generous and loving friend, someone who cares about people, sometimes has a lover or two, can act as a mentor, sometimes needs to cry, likes doing “girly” stuff from time to time, but at the same time is proudly queer, child-free, and entirely career-oriented. I’m someone who thrives on relationships with friends and lovers, but doesn’t want a life revolving around “family,” with the implicit meaning of husband or wife + brood of children. I am happy to lead a life directed by ambition, but sometimes suffer from depression when I use that purpose to isolate myself or make being alone my cry of pride. Oh, the little white lies we tell ourselves. But I’m not prepared to say that what I truly need is the opposite of what I’ve been preaching, to “confess,” because it isn’t. I do need to be alone. I need to pursue projects, and I need to forge my path through life independently. At the same time, I need the support and love of others, holding my hands but not holding me up.

Compassion and grit. Amen, sister.

Gender roles are everywhere!

I’ve been using the Livemocha community for language learning, which is wonderful and I can’t believe I never knew about it before, but I noticed one annoying thing. The pictures for young/old and fat/thin are all women, and the pictures for rich/poor and tall/short are men. Coincidence? Methinks not.

Equating Confidence with Sexy Clothing

I recently read Ariel Levy’s fabulous Female Chauvinist Pigs for the first time, and highly recommend it.  One point that really stuck out for me is that women often subtly put down other women for not dressing in a sexy, revealing manner and in doing so cite lack of self-confidence.  Some women who show a lot of skin for whatever reason feel that this not only makes them feel confident or is a product of their confidence, but that others who don’t dress the same way must not be confident, or must be disparaging of their looks.  I have no problem with women feeling sexy when they put on a short skirt or a low-cut top, but I do think something’s going on when a woman’s assumption is that this is the only way to show self-confidence.  Levy does a great job at pointing out how this kind of argument can be used to draw women towards everything from Girls Gone Wild cameos to unwanted sexual experiences.  

Surely, women can hide behind baggy or “unattractive” clothing.  I did that a lot as a kid and as a teenager, and in fact I was not self confident.  One of the ways I showed my self-confidence and comfort with boys, in turn, was to start dressing “sexier,” to start showing off my breasts and legs.  But I eventually found that for me, that clothing actually didn’t really make me feel sexy.  It did in a way, but at the same time I was often self-conscious, because I kept having to tug at a strapless bra or make sure my skirt was covering my rear.  Those clothes required a lot of effort, and they weren’t comfortable.  Now the clothes that make me feel sexy vary – one of my “sexier” outfits is a pair of cargo pants and a very butch black muscle top, while another is a thin v-neck yellow and brown artsy tank with wide straps and a pair of stretchy black gaucho pants.  I feel sexy when I’m put together, when my clothes fit well and feel good, and I’m smiling.  Sure, other girls may feel the same in clothes that made me uncomfortable, but if anyone pities me and tells me that I need to get some self confidence and dress the part, I’ll laugh.  I invite you to join me.

A Room of One’s Own

I’ve been a great admirer of Virginia Woolf since high school, but this is my first time reading this particular work, and I’m quite struck by it.  She has a way of communicating that is hard to match, and I would recommend A Room of One’s Own before any denser modern material in a basic women’s studies class.  I think that in the time we live in, it’s very easy to get accustomed and complacent and forget just how monumental the steps are that have been made in recent years for equality.  Women and men are not equal, that’s for sure, but it’s just amazing to think that I was so lucky as to be born in this shimmer of time where I can forget the long years of oppression and hopelessness for women and have not only a room of my own, but three, and on top of that not one degree but two, and one of those in law no less.  I’m sure Woolf would be very pleased indeed to learn that such things would be possible so soon after she wrote.  We haven’t conquered the realms of men, but we have entered them, and that’s saying a lot.

Like Tomboy, Like Lesbian?

I was just in the shower, thinking (like you do) about lesbian stereotypes.  I think that there’s at least some assumption that if you’re a gay girl, you might have been a tomboy growing up, or you really get along with “the guys.”  And for some lesbians, I know this is true, but I never fit into that mold.  I didn’t have any really close guy friends as a kid – sure, I had a few male friends, but I never connected with them in any significant way.  I had fairly “girly” interests, and I’ve always been touchy feely and liked long conversations.  Not that there aren’t men like that, but not so many in elementary and middle school.  My best friends were always girls, and I got along well with girls.  But when I young and assumed that I was straight, and when I was a bit older and identified as bisexual, I always figured that once I was in a serious relationship with a guy, he would be my best friend.  That was what I was looking for, and it never occurred to me that it wouldn’t just… happen.

Now I know there are exceptions, and there are plenty of lesbians who relate well with men but prefer women romantically, and plenty of straight women who don’t have any men friends but connect with their romantic partner.  However, the example that comes to mind is my parents, who indeed were best friends throughout thirteen years of marriage and fifteen years and counting of divorce.  My mom has always been heterosexual and she’s always had close male friends.  It didn’t occur to me that the same wouldn’t happen for me, but in my only serious relationship with a man, it really was a “Men are from Mars” situation.  We were just speaking different languages.

Since then, I’ve always thought that women are preferable as romantic partners because you can fall in love with your best friend.  And I think there’s something to that – if your best friend is always a certain gender, and you’ve never been particularly close to the other gender, you’re probably at least somewhat unlikely to suddenly become best friends with someone of the other gender because you get into a romantic relationship with them.  So maybe it’s not that unusual when a girly girl becomes a lesbian.  After all, doesn’t it make a certain amount of sense?

Lesbian book club reminder: the poll is up now for round three and will be open until Sunday afternoon.  Please vote!  Also, feel free to start discussing for round two if you read the book.

I am an executive lesbian

I’ve been greatly surprised, the more I make contact with various parts of the lesbian community and lesbian pop culture, how much the “butch and femme” dichotomy is alive and well.  I realise that despite all the changes and movements away from binary trends, we still tend to think in twos, but for some reason I thought this was an outmoded distinction.  Then again, among the lesbians I know in real life, most don’t really talk about being butch or femme.  I know some lesbians who are decidedly butch, but then I also know a lot like me, who I don’t think of as butch, but if I think about it I really can’t characterise them as “femme.”

As far as I can tell, femme is often more or less the default for “not butch.”  It seems that butch has a more built-up set of characteristics, possibly because it implies masculinity and differentiating oneself from the norm, from the femininity default that women are born into.  When I think of a butch woman, I think of her in terms of three areas: appearance, activities/mannerisms, and sexual “stuff.”  

Appearance

I think of “butch” as meaning very masculine, but also fitting a number of other stereotypes – often overweight or big boned and very muscular, often doesn’t pay a lot of attention to dress, etc.  But there are other sorts of masculine women.  I find myself very frequently attracted to androgynous women, what I suppose you would label “bois” – petite women with short haircuts who retain feminine features, so that they more or less look like a 12-year-old boy.  There are also women who are very traditionally attractive but wear a lot of boyish clothing.  I find that the more choices I make about my own appearance, the more I start to move away from the traditional feminine.  Aside from my usual suit-and-tie combination, I’ve found that I really like how I look in more masculine casual clothes as well.  Now that I’ve found a good way to style it, I love my extremely androgynous haircut.  Yesterday, I was wearing a faded black tanktop that looks like a “wifebeater” essentially and I found myself flexing my muscles in the mirror and taking my glasses off to blur my feminine features.  When I was a teenager, I used to wonder what my “boy self” would look like.  I’ve been drawn to masculinity for a long time, and I absolutely love dressing in drag.  I just feel really comfortable and really sexy when I’m androgynous.  However, I try not to think too hard about it, because I really don’t want to be a man, or at least, not a heterosexual man. More on that later.

Activities/Mannerisms

Something else that I think bolster’s someone’s “butch” image is the things she does.  This ranges from activities – maybe owns a motorcycle, knows how to change her own oil, likes sports and having a beer with her buddies – to more simple things.  These are an area, actually, where I think femmes affirmatively make themselves femmes – by spending time on makeup and hair, wearing lotion, shopping, etc etc.  I also think this is a place where a lot of people end up falling in the middle.  I don’t look like the stereotypical butch, but I know how to change the oil, I like (not US) football, I never wear makeup or “do” my hair, etc.  It’s hard to think of me as really femme for that reason.

Sexual Stuff

Here’s where my own heebie jeebies come out.  Now of course, everything in this post is a generalisation, talking about stereotypes into which most lesbians probably don’t fit.  But I’ve read a little about fantasies and lesbian sexuality and I have to say some of the butch/femme sexuality really throws me.  The reason is that it seems, to me, to come really close to heterosexual sexuality and really close to the kind of “male oppression” stuff that has become more and more a turnoff to me since I stopped having sex with men.  Of course, I’m sure there are lesbian women who fantasise about choking on a dildo, or being fucked painfully, or having sex with someone who identifies as male.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.  It’s just that for me, being on either side of that equation would be a major turn-off.  Being with a man, especially sexually, turned me into a weak, meek person completely unlike myself.  If I were on the “female” side of that equation in a lesbian relationship, there’s nothing to say the same thing wouldn’t happen.  At the same time, if I were on the “male” side, I don’t want to be hurting someone or interjecting heterosexuality in the relationship.  To me, the beautiful thing about lesbian sex is that it’s two women, exploring female sexuality.  I do need to learn to mentally disconnect certain “heterosexual” acts that I actually enjoy from heterosexuality, so that I can enjoy them with a woman.  I’ll admit that.  But when actual roleplay starts up, I can’t see myself as a butch or a femme, because I don’t want that particular dichotomy in my bed.  I want whatever power differential is set up (and believe me, I like power differentials) to be between two women, using our female energies.  Man, I’m a hippie.

That wasn’t supposed to turn into a rant, but anyway, that’s my take on the butch/femme roles.  If you really enjoy fitting into one or the other, more power to you!  I’m just happy as an androgynous, outside-the-box lesbian who likes other androgynous, outside-of the box lesbians.  There it is.