Deconstructing Masculinity #1: Privilege and Performance

3-13-13 - drag ball

(Ryan Arnold)– When I was 15, a friend burned me a copy of Sleater-Kinney’s brilliant record, The Woods (youtube). My closest point of reference was Nirvana, having discovered In Utero the summer before. Sleater-Kinney was definitely as confrontational as Nirvana, as unapologetically melodic, as loud; they’re even from the same part of the country. But this was different: this wall of noise was made by women, Corin Tucker’s absurd vibrato, Carrie Brownstein’s six-stringed assault, Janet Weiss pounding the everloving shit out of the drums. I was in love, but I didn’t really understand why.

I fell in love with feminism for many of the same reasons that I fell in love with Sleater-Kinney – it spoke to some part of me that had longed to be called into action, a part that has never quite understood the prescription of gender that we are expected to fulfill. I could hear feminism’s question to me: “Are you happy with the way things are?” I realized I wasn’t.

This is the first article in a series that will examine what masculinity is, how it is constructed, and what its function is in society. My interest here is to explore what I can do, as a white heterosexual cisgendered man, to put feminist theory into praxis. My intention is not to prescribe or to preach, but simply to offer this exploration of my own gender as a model for others.

What is male privilege? The concept is simple: masculinity is favored by society, and is therefore given unearned advantages; the flipside is that men are insulated from certain experiences that women are not. However, the idea remained an abstraction to me, as it does for a lot of men – because it’s difficult (if not impossible) to fully grasp the implications of societal privilege while feeling its benefits, any consideration of privilege is framed largely around the hypothetical imagined life of someone outside of privilege.

Male privilege is frequently summarized as “stranger danger” – because of the way violence is gendered in society, women face a constant threat of physical harm that men do not; consequently, women are hyperaware of their surroundings. But what else is absent from the experience of masculinity? Media bombards women with messages about how they ought to look, act, feel, and relate; this debases self-esteem and creates a hypercritical relationship between the self and its embodiment. Further, women are under constant scrutiny as sexual objects: men evaluate women based on their attractiveness; women police each other’s looks and behavior. All eyes are on the girls.

Current theories of gender are slightly more complex: feminist discourse has internalized the poststructural dictum that gender is a socially constructed performance of acts that follow cultural scripts, unrelated to biological factors (i.e. the sex one is assigned at birth, hormone levels, etc.) This sounds awesome, but, like male privilege, it is an abstraction. I was curious to see what would happen to my own gender if I bent the dividing lines, if I troubled the difference between masculine and feminine. What if I just ignored cultural expectations of masculinity? What impact would this have on my privilege? How much agency do I have over my gender? At what point does the gender binary begin to collapse?

Last Saturday, I shaved my legs, put on a dress, and went to Mount Holyoke’s Drag Ball, to try to answer some of these questions.

Iggy Pop hates the gender binary.

It’s important to acknowledge the potential problematics of my experiment; namely, that it comes dangerously close to appropriating parts of the trans* identity. There is a world of difference between cross-dressing and transsexuality, although the two are often conflated by society. My intention was never to embody a different gender, but to see how far I could stretch the limits of my own.

Leg shaving isn’t a behavior entirely absent from masculinity (e.g. competitive swimmers). However, the beauty and hygiene expected of femininity are far more exacting than those expected of masculinity. I wanted to emulate this expectation as best as I could, and shaving seemed like a great place to start. Beyond this, I thought it was important to take this experience seriously – cross-dressing is a common joke within male communities, and I wanted to distinguish myself through my commitment.

An hour and a lot of blood later, my legs were bare. I put on my zebra-striped dress and walked along Route 9 to Garman. As I walked, two men were heading in the opposite direction; I could hear them talking as they approached me, but they went silent as soon as they passed. I continued up the street, carrying a case of beer and a lit cigarette. I felt rebellious.

Packed into the cramped PVTA bus, I was acutely aware at all times of the attention I was attracting. My perception split: I saw things through my own eyes, but I began to see myself through the eyes of the people around me. This is not the same flavor of scrutiny that women are subjected to, but the attention made me uncomfortable nonetheless – for most of my life, I have felt anonymous in public. I was breaking a rule, a big rule, and I had allowed no room for the comfort of irony. I was totally serious in my dress, my bare knees knocking together.

Throughout the night I felt no significant loss of privilege – I did not pass as a woman, and it was not my goal to do so. I did reach a clearer understanding of the privileges I have as a cisgendered man. I challenged the criteria for manhood, and was met with consequent scrutiny and disapproval, if not sheer confusion. Interestingly, at no point did anyone tell me to stop. No one yelled at me. However disapproving the people around me may have been, they gave me implicit permission to do my thing. I recognize that the degree of disapproval and scrutiny I faced is not typical; that people have been killed over lesser transgressions. Perhaps my privilege sheltered me from any true outrage. Perhaps I would have had a different experience if this were not just one night.

Incorporating parts of a feminine script into my performance gave me a different relationship to my body. I was more aware of my physical movements; I felt attractive in a way that was strange and empowering. I still felt like a man, but I felt beautiful. Perhaps this is the lesson to take away from the experience: we ought to measure our agency over gender based on internal, and not external, approval. If we start to do that, maybe we’ll be a bit gentler with ourselves.