When Men Wear Skirts
At a bar last week, catching up with some feminist queer old friends, I began discussing my ideas around Radical Masculinity and the theories I am putting forward about the ways masculinity needs work. I drunkenly argued that women have surpassed men with some of their access, range, and gender acceptance, only to be met with dismissive pshaws.
"Come on," they said. We all come from a feminist, women-are-oppressed-in-this-patriarchal-hierarchy background. "Men aren't oppressed!"
"It's true!" I drunkenly argued. "Can women wear pants, acceptably, with no consequence?"
They laughed. Yes, of course.
"And can men wear skirts?" I pressed.
"The word you're looking for is no.
"Can men have long hair and still be considered manly (outside of the heavy metal scene)? Can men bake cupcakes or needlepoint or grow sunflowers without taking shit from his buddies? Can a butch order a vanilla vodka and cranberry without getting sneered at? Can you name five positive, good traits about masculinity? Can you point to positive masculine role models? When men wear skirts, with no consequence, with no backlash, with full acceptance, then I'll accept that we've reclaimed and revalued femininity and masculinity to the same extent."
I was ranting, it's true. But the point still remains: masculinity has a long way to go. Masculine people still need social permission to be able to pursue the wide range of interests or activities or personal tastes that are (for the most part, though not without caveats) already available to women.
One of my basic tenets of gender is the deep belief that gender should not dictate one's personality. Personality traits are made up of hobbies, interests, and activities; one of the classic ways we police gender in this culture is to require that men only do "manly things" and women do "womanly things," and when a man does a womanly thing, we get all up in arms about it. Ask my sister's boyfriend: he's a cop, the man carries a gun for goodness' sake, but when he started growing sunflowers, he got teased incessantly by his best friends and coworkers alike. Someone—anyone—is extra quick to criticize when one of the activities we like to do is outside of our gender assignment.
Yet it is more socially acceptable for a woman to cross over into seemingly masculine hobbies than for a man to cross into feminine ones (at least at the amateur level—men still dominate fields traditionally seen as "female" such as cooking, baking, and sewing at the professional level, but that is a slightly different topic). The advances that the various feminist movements have made in the last 100-plus years have made it more acceptable for a woman to get really obsessed with NASCAR racing, or World of Warcraft and video games, or pro-wrestling, or environmental engineering, or the stock market, or any of those other supposedly "masculine" interests and hobbies. She may be insulted for these interests, she may be called a dyke (equating her gender identity with sexuality), but she has support. She has other women who have gone through this, she has documents, she has a feminist history to call upon to tell herself—and others—that she can like these things and still be a "real" woman.
However, if a man wants to grow sunflowers or bake cupcakes or learn how to needlepoint or host fancy dinner parties or make greeting cards, there are consequences: the people around him, friends and strangers, will police his hobbies, words, and actions around things seen as "unmanly."
There have been many writers and theorists growing out of the feminist movements who have worked on less policing of women, but not as many texts have been generated tackling less policing of men. And, in fact, some people who are doing work that appears similar to mine, on re-visioning masculinity as a gender and as a social role, want more policing, not less. Take the recent Dockers ad campaign, for example: the tag line is "wear the pants" and its perspective is that men have been beaten down by the advances women have made and need to "take back masculinity" from how women's advances have subdued and tamed men.
Campaigns such as this one want men to have less options, and want to stop men from becoming further "feminized." As if masculine folks don't have any right to feel our feelings, bond with our babies, take care of our elderly, clean our houses, nourish our bodies, or create arts and crafts in any way that our minds and hearts and spirits call forth for us to do so.
I want more options for more people to express themselves in more ways, and less policing of our interests, activities, hobbies, clothes, presentations, hair, mannerisms, drinks, food, bedspread colors, or fine appreciation of towels and drapes. Speaking of which: did you read Ivan E. Coyote's recent column? She recounts updating her status on Facebook to read "My new towels are so fluffy and absorbent. I felt like a queen. A queen I tell you." and then, later, "Enjoying my new draperies like I do does not make me any less butch." Both of which her followers responded to with insults about her butch gender, with things like suggesting that she needs some "butch quality time" (subtext: she was going soft, getting feminized). One even wrote that butches "should keep thoughts like that to ourselves." Ivan does what Ivan of course does best, which is to unravel this story and give beautiful examples from her life and the internalized misogyny and femiphobia that masculine folks often face.