Masculinity and Survival
A few years ago, one of my housemates told me of a conversation that he and a close friend shared about masculinity among their peers. In this conversation, the two of them agreed that I was the most masculine person in our five-person house, which is made up of a mix of genders and sexes. When I heard this, I was at first amused and proud, being the genderqueer, female-bodied lady I am, and interested in what qualities they thought I possessed to give me this handsome title. Further contemplation invoked images of the negative and oppressive behaviors associated with masculinity, and, being the “most masculine” in the house suddenly brought forth anxiety and insecurity. Thinking of the gender-presentation hierarchies polluting some queer cultures, I panicked even more; I don’t want to be the abusive, insensitive asshole receiving praise and attention for my masculinity because I’m somehow “succeeding” in the sport of gender-fucking.
I’ve had a hard time wrapping my head around the masculine/feminine binary. I was fortunate enough to be raised by parents who are somewhat gender non-conforming. Mom was the “tough love” type, reading science texts, and usually the first to discipline my brother and me. Dad was more reserved, cooking our meals, bathing us when we were little, and serving as a teacher in a lot of practical skills and life lessons. Both also performed cis-gendered roles, with Mom doing the laundry and Dad chopping the wood. My parents were my two most prominent role models as I grew up, and the blurred boundaries between masculine and feminine as performed (or not) by them are what has helped shaped my own gender fluidity.
Thinking more deeply of my own struggles with gender growing up, I realized I built some pretty strong defenses during my coming of age to shield myself from anything that could potentially hurt me. That’s where my masculinity came into play – masculinity as a survival tactic against the insecurity that plagues most young women (and young people in general) in this society. I didn’t want to be subjected to what I perceived to be the consequences of femininity: weakness, oppression, and victimization. I wanted to be like TV heroines Xena: Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, whose strength protected them from becoming victims, and whose power grabbed others’ attention and admiration. I also wanted to be like and liked by my dad, who possessed a lot of knowledge and skills that I admired, hoping that would help me become a strong and independent woman.
Despite my brother having a penis and me having a vagina, I’m the one that spent the most time doing things outdoors with Dad. (My brother, like my mom, was more of the indoor type. Funny how these binaries carry through generations.) I was always out hiking, hunting, and trapping with Dad. In most of my early photos, I’m helping Dad garden, do demolition work, process deer meat, and other manly feats for a four-year-old. Throughout childhood, I recall Dad praising me for my masculine and tomboyish traits, and often ignoring or criticizing me if I took interest in anything particularly girly. I was commended for my interest in science and the natural world, for my intelligence and strength. I got attention, from my dad especially, not for being pretty or nurturing, but for being tough and opinionated. When I decided to stop shaving my legs and armpits, Dad applauded me for casting aside frivolous female fancies. When all of my best friends were guys, Dad considered it a success, as it would be easier for me to find a [traditional] life partner if I was able to relate well with males. In my first romantic relationships, I was the more dominant partner and usually the heartbreaker; I never felt like I didn’t have my share of control in a relationship. My dad indirectly taught me that my masculinity was something to be proud of, and that it would ensure my survival, both physically and emotionally.
Of course, my peers, teen magazines, and television also taught me that I needed to be careful, to not appear too masculine or else suffer the consequences of being (gasp!) “different.” So as I practiced all of these masculine personality traits, I never tried to conceal my feminine qualities. I always looked and dressed like a girl, and besides sometimes wishing I had a penis so that I could pee standing up, I never wanted to be anything but a girl. I wore makeup, went to Lilith Fair and prom, and choreographed Spice Girls songs with my neighbor (who happened to be a boy, I should add). Not until more recently have I become a more introspective being, noticing that my masculinity, which can be perceived as a wall I’ve built up to protect my ego and hide away my insecurity, has its disadvantages.
Whereas my insecurities in childhood included fear of feminine weakness and foolishness, much of my current insecurities stem from my masculine traits – dominance, insensitivity, impatience, and critical nature. I go back and forth between feeling strong and weak, insecure and confident, lady-like and manly, thriving and failing. Most of my personal struggles involve navigating these dualities, and the limitations of language keep me disoriented. I’m learning to let go of language and just be myself, irrespective of labels. This is pretty difficult for someone raised in a culture that needs a name for everything in order to separate and segregate, to rate and rank. Yet, without these words, how would we be able to communicate thoughts on gender and identity, or find others similarly engrossed in identity struggle?
I’ve had some gender discussions with my dad in the past few years, and he still seems to value masculinity above all else, whether it’s projected by what he perceives to be a female body or a male body. He has criticized my male partners for not being macho enough, and encourages me to find a partner who is as “strong” as I am. He was surprisingly accepting of my trans housemate and their use of neutral pronouns, although I doubt he’d feel the same if they were a male-bodied person displaying feminine traits and not vice versa. I see a lot of my dad’s masculine-favoring personality traits in myself, and I’m trying to figure out what that means to me and those I interact with.
Being raised in a patriarchal, sexist society that values masculinity over femininity, many individuals must adopt a masculine front in order to survive, to stand up against the macho bullies, to come out a “winner” in competitive situations. The dominant culture isn’t set up to support a balanced gender scheme, or systems of cooperation and reciprocity, even though, in reality, I believe that it’s the people who can articulate both masculinity and femininity fluidly who are most well-equipped to survive this society as it destroys itself. My dad, who believes in individualism and capitalism, encouraged me to build up a masculine front in order to protect myself in conflict, take care of loved ones, and thus ensure a secure and happy future. He used masculinity to set me up as a “winner” in a patriarchal world.
In my youth, I was surviving feminine insecurity and disempowerment by becoming more masculine. Now, I feel like I’m trying to survive my masculinity so that it doesn’t completely overtake my being, as I don’t want to become some dickhead/bitch stereotype, nor do I wish to be a part of this society’s obsession with competition. I feel grateful for my close friends who endure my machismo and overconfidence, and part of me wonders if they would be as patient with me if I didn’t have a vagina. In any case, I strive to be well-balanced, accountable, and nurturing in my own particular way, without compromising who I am somewhere down deep.