Saturday, 21 July 2012

Male Privilege for Speakers of Other Languages

It's difficult, questioning one's gender. So many different things are thrown haphazardly together under the label "gender" that it's hard to disentangle the parts that are really you. Is it in the way you behave? Does a long-held disdain for pretty clothes and dollies prove that you're "really a boy" - or does it only prove that you're scared to be seen to like anything "girly"? Does the fact that you are softly-spoken and sensitive mean that you could never become a "real man" - or does it just mean that you were never taught to choke back your vulnerabilities as a child? By the time you start to realise that so much of your "outer" gender was carefully, unconsciously constructed while you grew up, you can no longer tell which aspects of your character would have been different if you'd been encouraged to behave in different ways. You can no longer be sure where your "outer" gender ends and your "inner" gender begins.

So you conduct experiments. I've gradually been teaching myself male privilege. Since I began experimentally identifying as transmasculine, I've been experimentally adopting more masculine-coded behaviours. It's partly to see if I'll pass better, and partly to see if it feels more natural, and partly to find out just how easy it is to re-train oneself in all of these "innately" binary characteristics. And I'm inclined to conclude that outer gender - the way you behave and express yourself when you are conscious of other people's gendered expectations - is not innate, but learnt... and with practice, you can learn a new one. Having been taught "female" as a native gender, I'm slowly becoming fluent in "male".

The thing that's changed the most is my confidence - or, more specifically, my ability to act as though I am confident. I always struggled with a lack of confidence growing up, which was deeply linked to a fear of failure or criticism. Finally finding safe and supportive spaces went a long way towards mitigating these tendencies. But I still worried about what people thought about me, even within my safe spaces, surrounded by friends who loved me for who I was, whatever my flaws. I was still scared to behave in certain ways, selfish or careless or impulsive ways, in case people thought less of me.

It wasn't until I started consciously trying on some male behaviours that I found the freedom, the confidence, to do that - to be selfish, to say thoughtless things, to make jokes that might fall flat, and to not care. Obviously, these are character traits that aren't very positive if you take them to an extreme. But they're all about daring. If you dare to be selfish at the times when you really just can't cope with being selfless any more, you might save yourself from a breakdown. If you dare to make a questionable joke, it might fall flat, or on the other hand, it might get the biggest laugh of the evening through its sheer edginess. If you dare to do something impulsive, it might go badly wrong, or it might be a genius move. And, of course, it's about daring to be a flawed human being. We are all flawed, we are all selfish sometimes, we all say rude things or behave thoughtlessly sometimes, and yet the people who matter love us all the same. Not all of us have the confidence to believe that's true.

Who dares wins. And, in our culture, it's boys who are taught, gradually, incrementally, cumulatively, to dare. The proof is found in sociolinguistic evidence that male-assigned people tend to interrupt more than female-assigned people; in the overwhelming gender disparity in fields such as comedy or politics where the risk of being shot down is high; in the way that seminars about "unblocking creativity" and "finding your voice" are attended overwhelmingly by female-assigned people.

Some might see that as "proof that men and women are different" - proof that inner gender is binary in just the same way as outer gender. But would that make sense, given that I could never have found the confidence to risk behaving like a bit of a dickhead when I was presenting as female? Or that I, who used to be incredibly emotionally over-reactive, have drastically reduced the regularity with which I cry about things, simply by wondering what it's like to have internalised the mantra "boys don't cry" and seeing what happens if I don't allow myself to let go? (Compare the trans women who have the opposite experience, and find that, long before any hormone therapy, they are a lot more able to let themselves cry.) I've even had to stop myself on occasion from being borderline misogynistic: I could get away with idly objectifying female-presenting strangers, or steamrollering female-identified friends in lively discussions, just because it's expected of men and allowed for, and that's a temptation that's difficult to fight.

Try consciously learning to speak a foreign outer gender for a few months. See whether you manage to re-condition yourself; see whether that "proof" that inner gender is naturally binary still holds up. And if you don't manage it, ask: what's stopping you? Who's stopping you? The deeply-ingrained fear of social opprobrium is a very powerful force. People who don't live up to gender norms - men who don't dare, men who don't "banter", men who don't push themselves forward - are subjected to it. People who live up to the wrong gender norms - men who cry, women who interrupt - are subjected to it even more forcefully. And if you're a man who's crying, you're not just a person who's been overcome by a strong feeling (it might be justified, or it might be a bit over-dramatic, but it's generally acceptable) - you're a pussy. If you're a woman who frequently interrupts, you're not just a person who's a bit irritating (the interruptions might be amusing, they might just be asinine, but they're generally tolerated) - you're a ball-breaker.

Perhaps I would eventually have learnt to be confident, learnt to dare, if I had stayed thinking of myself as female. But it's easier to dare when you don't risk as much. It's easier to dare when you're expected to dare, and it's easier to cry when you're expected to cry. Both behaviours are healthy, but not all healthy behaviours are equally permissible to all people. And that's the injustice that I'm thinking about when I declare that I'm a feminist. That's the depressing reality that makes me want to "smash the binary". People can keep their inner genders, be as binary or non-binary as they want, be men or women or neither or both or manly or effeminate or butch or feminine or sensitive or selfish - but outer gender has to go.


  1. Re-posting here :) (Hope this doesn't disappoint you! You'll get a comment-notification, and then it'll just be me. But you suggested it! Sorry.)

    I'm not totally convinced... The example I was going to give basically boils down to "when I do male-coded things, I think they are read as mother-hen behaviour." Which, in turn, I think means that something more insidious may be happening: rather than single 'male' and 'female' codes of behaviour, possibly there are multiple codes, to take account of the full [or a wide] range of human behaviours, in order to keep people coded on whatever side of the binary they 'belong'.

    (None of this, however, invalidates your conclusion that 'not all healthy behaviours are equally permissible to all people'.)

    It'll be interesting to see if anyone does your experiment and what results they report. I'm thinking about how I could do it effectively, given how quite a lot of my behaviour is quite male-coded already. Will let you know if I figure something out!


  2. I agree - my subject is very male-dominated, so to survive I have to adopt male-coded behaviour in certain aspects - i.e. show no vulnerability. Which is very different from my preferred behaviour outside of my field, I'm perfectly happy making fun of myself or saying I don't know something.

    Intriguingly - I have guys in my field come up to me all the time to say either in a positive or negative fashion how 'tough' I am. Really? Well clearly you say this because I identify as a female - if I had identified as a male and behaved in exactly the same way, you wouldn't have batted an eyelid - my behaviour would have been considered fairly mild, hardly tough.

    I don't really care what they think, what's important is how I feel about myself - but it's extremely revealing how their perception is totally different as to acceptable male- and female- coded behaviour. Also, the distinct difference in the way I code my own behaviour depending on my environment.