Saturday, April 22, 2006

Girliephobia; or, Sissyhood is Powerful

Today is Blog Against Heteronormativity Day, a day to come out of many closets. For example, first I will air out my phobia of academese. No, I don't much love the word "heteronormativity." However, I love the concept, the reality of it, a lot less:

Everything and everyone goes in the blue box or the pink box*, no exceptions allowed or even imagined. Tab A goes into slot B. Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. Females are X, males are Y. Real men don't do this, real women don't do that. Girls do blee, boys do blah. Blah blah bliddy blah, B-O-R-I-N-G. And also, hello, oppressive.

(*By the way: once upon a time, pink was actually the boy's color, blue, the girl's).

More important, here I proudly out myself as a rabid Joss Whedon fangeek. Because besides making some really kickass shows, Joss, you know, is rather subversive of the hetnorm himself. And I don't just mean the skinny little blonde chick who can kill grown men and monsters with her bare hands, all the while tossing off witty repostes, although that is nice, yes. Hey, these days skinny pretty chicks kicking ass is positively trendy (sadly, much more so in the media than the real world. If only we all had killer martial arts skills to go with our sparkling wit...) For which I do think Whedon gets a certain amount of credit, although it's also possible that it's just that archetype's time to bloom, given the zeitgeist. Hey, everyone likes skinny, pretty little hardbodies. And everyone admires people who can kick ass. Here in the U.S.A., at least.

Far less fashionable, though, is Whedon's personal aesthetic, at least as expressed here:

(from the notes of a reporter, written up for Ms. Musings):

— Audience member, referring to the pink backpack Whedon brought with him on stage: “What’s with the girlie backpack?”

“Dude, have you got something against girlies?,” responded Whedon, to much laughter. He continued:

“I am a girlie man. I stand before you today to tell you that I am a girlie American. And if you don’t know that about me, I can’t believe you got this close.”

Here's the deal: of course dude had something against girlies. Quite a lot of people do. Even if they don't have anything against women, per se; or gay people, per se. Or think they don't.

Girlies are rather contemptible, after all. They cry and scream and get emotional. They like "frivolous" things: whipped cream and frills, delicate knicknacks, paints and polishes and perfumes; you know, stuff that looks or feels or smells or tastes nice but doesn't, like, DO anything. They're soft. They're vulnerable. Who wants to be like that? Not a real man; and not a lot of women, either, frankly. A girlie girl is, we tend to think, probably rather childlike; or perhaps naive; or oversexed; or undersexed; or, well, not very bright; the implication is that she's hemmed in by her girliness, and needs a man or six (husband, father, string of smitten suitors, Patriarch) to keep her in the style to which she is accustomed. Depending on your worldview, this can be something you approve of in a woman, or something you emphatically do not. In contemporary mainstream America, it's a mixed bag, at best. Be independent, but not too independent (maybe, probably). Be sexy, but not too sexy; and not in the wrong way (there are many wrong ways). Be assertive; don't be aggressive. But don't be a wimp, either. Be feminine, but don't be too girlie.

A girlie man, however, is...well, pretty much a pariah. At best, a bad joke. Sissy, pantywaist, mollycoddle, mama's boy. Pussy. Pansy. Fairy. Faggot. The fear and loathing of gay men, after all, isn't just about the actual sex; it's the intersection of sex-negativity with gender policing.

And oh, how much policing the men in this culture put themselves through, are put through, arguably even more so than the women, these days. I don't envy it. So many rules, spoken and unspoken! Don't be too expressive, in a thousand little ways besides big stuff like "boys don't cry:" the voice, the hand gestures, the eyebrows, the stance. Artsiness: still deeply suspect, on the whole. Clothing: fuggedaboutit. Women have been wearing pants for about a century now; we've yet to see even the most plain and functional skirt in the menswear department.

Oh, sure, there are trends here and there. There's the "metrosexual" thing, that odd no-persyns'-land between gender rebellion and neo-yuppie consumerism. (It is interesting: generally, anti-rich folk sentiment isn't hip these days, but the super-wealthy right wing manages to head any nascent class resentment off at the pass by channeling it into disdain for the "effete," along with a healthy helping of anti-intellectualism. Thus, it's not about being rich; it's about being "culturally elite," or some such. Effeminate, basically, in other words. The "sissy" takes many forms and has many uses). And there is the SNAG, which these days is mostly a term of derision, but still can have the connotation of a genuinely decent, well-rounded, sensitive guy, in the Alan Alda tradition.

But on the whole, the hypermacho idealization never really goes away. At most it recedes a little every now and then. And right now, the tide is way in. The fact that the "manly men" look pretty damn erzatz--George W. Bush playing dressup in a codpiece-padded flightsuit; Ahnold, whose political muscle comes from his image on the silver screen; posturing blowhards like Bill O'Reilly, who's raised whining to an art form and seems about ready to pop like a soap bubble--matters not a bit: it's the fantasy that counts. We are, collectively, Superman; we're top of the world, Ma. We value strength, and speed, and hardness. Winning. We do the penetrating and the invading; we won't be anybody's bitch. Which is, I'd argue, the heart of the reason why we're in Iraq right now, (for instance), at least as much so as the demand for oil or greed or even some misguided sense of revenge.

It's not that I don't think there's a place for butch. Butch is beautiful, or it can be (regardless of your naughty bits and/or chromosomes). We don't all need to be skipping through the daisies or painting our faces. And there is, I think, a need for a men's movement that's meaningful, not misogynist.

But I do think that until such time as it's genuinely not seen as shameful to be "girlie," we're not gonna make much more progress. Not in feminism, not in the gay rights movement, not on a number of fronts, in fact, that on the surface might seem to have little to do with gender.

Because the dirty little secret, which has become a bit more open these past few years, perhaps, is that at the end of the day, "girlie man" isn't just an insult to actual girlies (that is, people with girl bits), or implicitly homophobic, or transphobic, although it's certainly those things as well. It is a very effective club to keep men--ALL men--in line. Just how much violence is committed in the name of proving one's non-sissyhood? How much wasted energy and misdirected passion? I am thinking: quite a lot. ...But I'm going mainly by observation and speculation here, so I'll open the floor. Male-born male-type people: ever done anything you didn't want to do in order to avoid being tarred as a sissy or a fag? Not do something you did want to do? I am interested in hearing from straight dudes and non-straight dudes alike.

Anyway. It takes guts to be girlie in this culture, particularly if you're a dude. It does. I think. There's a lot wrapped up in it, girlieness, stuff we've consigned to the pink-tinged shadows. Sensuality. Aesthetic sensibility. Tenderness. Feelings, yes. Keep shoving all that away, and you're starting to kill a good part of your soul. Regardless of what kind of body you're housed in.

And so I stand with my man Joss: I, too, am proud to be a Girlie American.
And also, I may say, tend to find my fellow Girlie Americans rather hawt.
Viva Girlie Americans! Viva Girlie America!


nubian said...

i like girlie americans--
they make me feel all warm and squishy in my....

thanks for the posting!

DanProject76 said...

I think I have the right girlie balance n my life. As a gay I am not a big girl's blouse but I am not afraid of being a well-rounded emotional creature either. Joss Whedon is a bloody icon! If only he was the American President instead of that cretin Bush... Maybe Arnold should be replaced by another actor, someone a bit more human perhaps? I have no idea who but I think a bit more 'girly man' and a bit less warmongering shooting greedy selfish electric chair button pushing style of leadership would be a good thing.

But then I am English and can get away with being a bit more sophisticated! :-)

Popess Lilith said...

Nice post! You win a free supply of milk bath and a set of votives so you can have a nice hot bubble bath with mood lighting. Being girlie has its advantages!

Also, congratulations on having one of the longer, more substantial posts on BAHD. The sentiment's nice but even a girlie occasionally needs some long, thick... intellectual discourse. ;)

Warrior-Poet said...

I'm a male-born, male-type person. Yes, I've modified my behavior in order to avoid the girly/sissy tag...until I grew up a bit. I realized that my heroes, fictional and otherwise, the guys I considered Real Men...were more than merely macho. Knights had to learn dancing, music, poetry. James Bond is, whenever possible, immaculately groomed, superbly dressed, and knows his way around women's fashion and accessories. I decided who and what I wanted to be, and became it. Part of my reason for so doing is that I love women...and it has long been my habit to learn what I can about those things that interest me. If I can spend years learning about martial arts, weapons, driving like an idiot, military history, computers, etc., then I can certainly spend time learning about women...and the things that interest them. Do I care about the differences between salmon, vermilion, and pink? No...but I can recognize them. I know what colors look good against what skin tone, which accent picks up her eyes, what clothes flatter what body type. I like poetry and sometimes write it. I like art and music. I became a die-hard, all-out well as a hard-assed, over-competitive male.
I've wondered why the negative reaction to girlie-men is so deeply embedded. See, I still FEEL it...although I choose not to let it direct my actions, it's still the first impulse. It seems to me that for something to be so universal and so deep, it must come from way, way back. Testosterone makes us competitive, and we are predators. Men will put themselves into a pecking order as soon as there are two of them in a room. So, perhaps, it's a pack-predator reaction to perceived weakness?
Heck, I only recently learned (to my unending joy) that girliness in WOMEN isn't a sign of weakness. I love strong women (emotionally, physically, mentally...any and all kinds of strength); now I have found one who is all of that...AND feminine to the point of being girly.
And I love it.
And I love her.

belledame222 said...

I don't think it is, especially, universal or genetic, is the thing. Widespread and deep-rooted, yes.

Warrior-Poet said...

It may not be. Not like anyone is actually studying that. Wide-spread is a better choice than universal. The person I know best is me; I can FEEL an encounter with a girly-man trigger my predatory aggression. I just don't let that control me.
I DO think it's deeper than "cultural", but I'm sure culture reinforces the feeling.


You mention, "Girls do blee, boys do blah." Ahem, let the record reflect that I'm a proud Girlie American who does both blee *AND* blah. And, I have fun doing it ... ;)

humbition said...

Thank you for this. I really think it is profound.

I'm a 50 year old man and I was aggressively gender policed for many of my younger years, strangers calling me "faggot" from a distance and the whole thing. It only made me more stubborn about whatever mannerisms they were referencing. Of course I had the hippie hair, and I used to twirl my curls around my fingers, not so possible after cutting it at age 23. My father also used to try to get me to lower my voice, for years, and walk differently. And I cried a lot as a child, well past the age when I was supposed to.

I'm heterosexual by the way -- at least in terms of who I am sexually attracted to. Somewhere along the line I guess I became more "normal" on a few of these dimensions, or so I'm told by people who by and large didn't know me when. By my wife for example -- some of this is news to her and we've been together for 17 years.

Intellectuality -- another of my characteristics -- isn't considered masculine in this society, and maybe in some other of the Anglo-Saxon societies. It is interesting, I befriend women easily but not men, but that is mostly true in America. In various other parts of the world, I get along easily with men as well as women, and in some pretty macho cultures as well. But in nearly every world culture outside the Anglo-American axis, it is perfectly masculine to be intellectual, artistic, poetic, and so on. Such people are considered an important part of nationalist identity just about everywhere except here (and maybe some of the other Anglo cultures). So culture has a lot to do with the ways gender is policed for men. Anyway I am much more comfortable with men from non-English-speaking places.

Josh said...

Wow Belle! It's Josh from RSF. I responded to your Q about why a boys school but Red has her filter on so I'm not sure she'll post it. I know this is off topic for your blog but I wanted to respond to your Q so I hope that's OK.

I think it is being sold as an environment with fewer distractions. Is that actually true or just anecdotal? I don't know if you can say for sure. I've been to co-ed and "all boys". I saw more goofballs trying to "show off" for the girls in co-ed and I know I was occasionally one of them. I was also sometimes afraid of speaking in class for fear of looking stupid in front of a girl I liked.

I would imagine the same is true of girls who don't have to worry about what the boys think of them. Is it f-ed up that kids that young are stressing about what the opposite sex thinks about us in class? Probably, but it happens.

So in my personal experience it's just a less stressful environment. And I feel like I can show more interest in some things that would be considered "gay" in a co-ed school like art classes and acting. And I don't mean gay in a homophobic way. Gay is often used as a word just like dork or geek - it doesn't always have a nasty connotation. I know that may seem offensive to some but that's the nature of vocabulary and the evolution of word meanings. Is it insensitive to use it without thinking that someone might be offended - yes. But that doesn't mean I'm homophobic. It just means I don't use the word the same way the offended person does. So who has the problem? Am I too insensitive or is that person too sensitive? But that's a whole other can of worms isn't it?

Back to the boys school question: If all the guys are taking art classes and the entire cast of the school play is guys, there is no stigma. Should there be a stigma in a co-ed school? - No, but there is and you can't blame that on the kids unless you're saying it's natural for boys to stick to math and science and girls to stick to arts and homemaking because if it isn't natural we learned it from somewhere and that somewhere would be the society you adults created.

So many serious issues, so little time to discuss/solve/move on.

But like I said last night, I think parents are just trying to get the best education they can for their children. And some believe that an all boys or all girls school provides less distractions or more discipline or maybe they think that families who make that decision have a stronger focus on making sure their kids get the most out of the education because it's not an easy decision and it's often not cheap. And we're not all rich. I realize there are different concepts of rich and I feel like some of you think we are all "my dad just got a new Lexus" or even "we take our private jet to our summer home in Nantucket" rich (if only!), but most of us really are just normal middle class people whose parents are driving 10 year old Toyotas because they have 3 kids in school and want to send them all to college.

So that's my "why a boy's school" schpeel for what it's worth.

But I have to say I am WOWED by your blogs. And I don't mean that in a pervy teenager jerking off in the dark kind of way. I mean this is stuff I've heard about but never experienced from any legitimate source material. You are the real deal. Speaking as a fucked-up and flawed individual myself, I am overwhelmed by the raw beautiful power of all this. You are smart and funny and you embrace and celebrate your beautiful fucked-up flawedness (is that even a word) and you ROCK. I'm giddy. I hope you believe that I am being sincere here. They sure as hell aren't teaching this at Delbarton. And I see your where your concerns about a honogeneous student body are coming from. Personally I think the main flaw of that type of environment is that it breeds conformity rather than contempt (and I agree that conformity is a stepping stone to contempt but not every one follows that path) but this is an education.

belledame222 said...

Thanks, Josh, really appreciate hearing your perspective, and I mean that, also. That is making me re-think a few things a bit.

belledame222 said...

Question for you: how about being openly gay (at Delbarton). Would you say there's more tolerance there, or less, or about the same, as at a co-ed school?

belledame222 said...

I meant to say, also, humbition: you have a good point, that intellectuality isn't considered "masculine" in this country, and that this is *not* true in many other cultures. I think this has a lot to do with why George W. Bush is considered "macho" and Kerry and Gore were able to be painted as "girlie-men" (quite a feat, getting the actual vet to be considered more of a sissy than the Potemkin one, but there you are): they used big words and spoke other languages and maybe liked the occasional glass of white wine.

Jftr: it's not exactly valued for women either, here, intellectuality. At least it wasn't when I was in school (I was the quintessential "nerd" with my head always in a book, didn't like sports--and that wasn't exactly a plus, either, even though I was a Gurl), and I don't get the impression that's changed much, on the whole. I expect if I thought that it was okay to be "smart" at a private school I would have been attracted to the idea. It wouldn't have solved a bunch of other problems, (in my case, I would've been *more* "distracted...") but it would've been an improvement. (Am now thinking of the final scene in "Election," where the younger sister deliberately gets herself the "punishment" of going to the nun-run girls' school; she finds a girlfriend and lives happile ever after, or at least for the next few months...)

Josh said...


I think the tolerance from "The School" would be less. There is the whole religious aspect of the place. While it's not stifling, it is part of the environment so that plays a part that you wouldn't have at another school.

The tolerance from the people, I'm not really sure. Personally I don't know any "confirmed" gay guys at school. I'm sure there are some guys who are and some questioning and "confused" guys but I don't know for a fact about anyone. But I would say that I think coming out to friends here may be easier because I feel you do have stronger friendships. And I feel like you can tell a close friend something personal and it would be kept confidential. There's less gossip and talking about people behind their back - not that it doesn't exist at all, but there is less. I mean there are still rivalries and grudges and some just plain "don't like him for no real reason" attitudes, same as at co-ed schools, so being labeled as gay by someone who doesn't like you to begin with is just going allow them to use that to justify their feelings.

I will also add that I may not be representative of my class. I have an uncle who is gay. But I don't think of that as a "label" or defining characteristic. To me he's not my "gay uncle", he's just my uncle. But I know he's experienced discrimination. And I guess that may be why I have a lower threshold for homophobic rhetoric. But like I said I do use "gay" as a word like dork or geek. If I say to a buddy "Dude you're so gay" there is no homophobia in it. If there is no hate behind it, it doesn't bother me. To me it's another word with multiple meanings. And I do call people on using anti-gay rhetoric when its in a mean or hateful way.

But I do admit that sometimes it doesn't matter what the intent is if the words are very ugly and offensive. I've had discussions with my family about what happened at Duke. I'm not in any way shape or form saying this to dismiss what McFayden wrote but I wonder if he really had the intent behind those words or if he was just a drunk frat boy quoting from a book without thinking about how ugly the words were. And I guess the real reason I speculate about that is because I wonder if I could be a drunk frat boy who would stupidly send an e-mail full of ugly shit like that and not really think about the ugliness of the words. My dad says "perception is reality" and people who don't know you only have the words you use to judge you. That's who you become to everyone who sees or hears those words regardless of your intent. You aren't seen as careless or foolish, you're seen as a monster because you sound like a monster.

Wow, way too long and rambling and way off track. And probably pissing off your fans who want to talk about your topic. Sorry.

belledame222 said...

No, not at all off topic.

per McFayden: I don't know that anyone is saying that he literally was planning to skin the next hapless stripper who came to the place. (For one thing, that's a bit harder to explain away to the authorities). But there's no way to read that email and not see it as an astonishingly misogynistic and strangely hostile outburst, at minimum. Yeah, it's from the book; but, I mean: it's not completely random that he loves that book and that passage enough to quote from it to his goodbuddies. And then in the context of the entire evening...

What gets me is that the spin *from the defense* is that the boy was expressing frustration because the stripper didn't give them their money's worth, more or less (for some inexplicable reason, apparently, which had nothing to do with feeling threatened, much less being attacked). Even accepting for the moment that that was true, even ignoring the evidence that the plaintiff was in fact raped and assaulted that evening: what *is* that about? Seriously? Boy and his buds don't feel like they got their money's worth from the hired help, and the first instinct is to make a joke about cutting another woman's skin off? What does that say about the guy's mindset? It's not one I recognize, I will say that. And the suggestion that anyone would understand that, of course, the boys were "frustrated," who wouldn't feel that way--just gives me the wiggins.

Josh said...

I agree. In the context of what was going on, there really is no defense so they have to spin it.

I guess I'm looking at it out of context when I ask myself if I could be that person. I would like to think that I wouldn't even be interested in hanging out with guys who hire strippers. But if I was part of that group would I give in to peer pressure and go? Before all of this probably yes, but now I'd definitely make any excuse not to. And I hope that I would have the balls to just tell them how fucked up the whole idea was in the first place rather than make up an excuse not to go. I have a mother, a sister, a girlfriend, and someday I might have a daughter. I do understand how fucked up it is.

I guess we all have the capacity to look at people we don't know, people who "aren't like us", and deny their humanity. But really that just diminishes our own humanity. OK is that profound or just really trite? Anyway, I hope you understand what I'm saying. I don't want to be that person.

But hey, I have some thoughts on the sissyhood thing. I was 12 when my grandmother died and I didn't want to cry. I think it was because my dad didn't cry and I felt like I was too old to cry, you know - not a boy, not yet a man (props to Britney). She had been ill for a while and I know now that he had been crying for months so when she was finally at peace it was a comfort for him. But I waited until everyone had left the chapel and I just let it all out and cried by myself. And at one point I was obsessed with James Dean for a few months - you know the appeal of a rebel, teenage angst, all that. Anyway my mom thought that I might have the "gay gene" because we have that in the family you know. Is he a gay icon? (Maybe she should be more concerned that I'm gender-bending Britney Spears lyrics) Anyway, I got the "it's not a bad thing, but it's a harder row to hoe" talk. I know it's coming from a parental concern about having fewer challenges in life. And my uncle was gay-bashed when he was in college which totally freaked my mom. She still gets all vigilante and shit when she hears about bashers.

And I love wearing a pink shirt when I have a nice tan! I know that's not really stretching the limits of men embracing their femininity, but, damn I look good in pink when I have a tan.

Wronged said...

Woohoo! Proud to be a an ass kicking girlie american! (Still working on the hard body part)

Thanks for giving me another reason to be a Joss fangirl -- and here I was thinking Firefly's Zoe (Gina Torres) was reason enough!

Bitch | Lab said...

intellectuality is despised in the US plain and simple. John Dewey wrote about it. It was the centerpiece of much of Hofstadter's work on US political history. It's something that was actually highly encouraged by the US upperclass because in a society based on merit, people demanded an education. They actually wanted to go to high school and to college and learn the basic liberal arts core.

to keep them out and their demands low, the large universities started a campaign to appease their demands by building community colleges to divert people into vocational training. Along with that, came the wide ideological push to dismiss being intellectual and knowledgeable in a broad liberal arts tradition.

why? Well, they made it quite clear in their lettters -- industrialists, capitalists, Chancellors of univerisities. They believed that, if people were schooled in the liberal arts tradition, they'd never be happy slogging away their lives in a factory.

Given labor unrest during the progressive era and the masses of immigrants (read: Jews) moving to the US, they thought they'd better quell any desire for knowledge. Otherwise, they'd have a rebellionon their hands.

Brint and karabel cover this in a book called Diverted Dreams which is about the rise of the community and junior college system in the US. They uncover letters and documents written by what we'd call "thought leaders" today, voicing their concerns that the barbarians were at the gate demanding an education and they'd better keep them out -- diverting their dreams by making them believing knowledge was bad, vocation was good.

Spc. Freeman said...

Being, as Jesus' General puts it, "An 11 on the Manly Scale of Absolute Gender," let me just start off by thanking you for this post and then continuing with:

Rock. The F*ck. On.

*Throws horns*

Mickle said...

I hadn't heard that story about Joss Whedon.

You have just inspired me to re-watch Firefly for the ten billionth time. (And figure out what the hell he was thinking when he came up with Mal and Inara's destructive relationship.)

belledame222 said...

I liked the idea of it, but I never much liked the character of Inara; or perhaps it was the actor playing her. I mean, she's gorgeous, God knows, but somehow...always left me kind of cold. I think it has to do with not seeing a trace of humor in her.

That said, I liked the ambivalent take on her profession as a kind of techo-courtesan (although I could've lived with less whorephobia coming out of Mal's mouth; haven't things changed a *little* bit?). Kind of goes with the rest of the characterization of the Alliance: as Whedon has said, "mostly benevolent," but kind of cold and impersonal (and with a nasty underside, of course). It's McUniverse, basically. Everything under control and well-oiled and regulated.

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