Masculinity and Femininity

Okay so requested some discussion of masculine and feminine, which I’ll give a first draft go.

It seems to be one of those things that, for people who experience identifying with one category over the other, I’ve seen people report as knowing that that was them when they saw it, even when very young, even if their sex and assigned role at that point was one that was incompatible with either masculinity or femininity. Connecting by role models, imitation and a desire to be able to be those ideals as they saw it were things they could report, the identification of “the same” was something that seemed easiest and amongst the first steps of the brain to carve up the world into categories. There seems to some evidence that some traits normally assigned to either category is inborn to people, and a lot of the ways those traits are displayed, as well as other traits picked up is from culture and upbringing (again in nature vs. nurture debates my answer is that its complicated and the two things intertwine massively, also I’m pretty sure these categories aren’t exclusive by any means).

The best I can offer is that these things are culturally and locale dependant, as well as being open to multiple interpretations. These values are passed down a lot by peoples exposure to them and their wish to satisfy their own identification with those things, often at a young age, and often (in the case of trans people) without realising it. According to Judith Butler (whose theory I’m now going to butcher because its hard to grok) gender as well as things like “masculinity” and “femininity” exist as performance which is not to say those things are acted, faked or not real. Instead that they’re created by peoples actions (deeds mostly, but I think thoughts are slightly okay) and the interactions between them and other people. So masculinity is created by someone being masculine, and their interactions with other masculine people enabling them to recognise that trait in each other.

I think the categories of masculine and feminine also offer another method of bonding and group cohesion which is separate to the categories of male and female. One thing I’ve noticed from attending social events as someone who tends to get read as a slightly feminine man (I once queered up a gazebo, ask me how) is that its quite possible for a group of people of several gender identities to perform masculine actions and bond over those actions, attitudes, cultural norms, etc and another chunk (including overlap sometimes, depending on how policed the group is in terms of trying to push those who are read as being one sex to all go into one group or the other) of the same group can perform feminine actions, etc and socially bond and interact over those.

One reason that trans people seem to get so interested in, and used as examples of, the masculine and feminine is that a number have reported that they they’ve bonded with one category while young, or done their best to learn to act as another category due to denial or being in the cloest. One’s that I’ve read recently have included S. Bear Bergman who has written of hir attempts to be feminine during hir childhood, and the ways in which it frustrated hir that ze couldn’t manage it most of the time, an example of femininity is Kate Bornstein who has written a number books which all include some snippets about her identity, she tried to be manly and masculine but never managed to identify with it that comfortably as far as I can tell, although she managed to perform masculine quite well. The only other option at the time was to be a feminine woman, and while I believe Kate still identifies as feminine I don’t think she identifies purely as the category of woman.

Anyway, I was asked to have a crack at defining masculine and feminine and kind of copped out :) Basically without some srsly heavy thinking I find it pretty hard as a challenge, but I intend to write about how these categories work for me, and how I define them and feel about them myself soon, and I invite everyone to have a go at writing “What does my masculinity and femininity mean to me”, or if you feel you only identify with one of those labels try and write just about that.

7 thoughts on “Masculinity and Femininity

  1. brightroar

    I must say I find your gender+ posts to be really interesting.

    Regarding masculinity and femininity – personally I had a bit of a struggle getting my head around that whole concept, it’s only in the last few years I’ve been at peace with it. It never even occurred to me to talk to anybody about it at the time so I kind of just muddled through it on my own. I didn’t really realise that it was a “thing” and there were people out there that could help point me in the direction of answers. Having gender roles quite forcefully projected on me as a child and teenager kind of messed with my head (I didn’t even know what “gender roles” were until I started staying up late and being dragged into interesting corners of the internet, age 20). So I spent many unhappy years violently asserting my identity as ALL OF THE FEMALE but actively rejecting and deriding all of my feminine traits in favour of the masculine ones I was told I couldn’t or shouldn’t have because only boys do that. Except my sexuality, which I wielded like a weapon in the faces of anybody who dared try and look closer. I still do this, and more than I’d like – have you ever seen a conversation get completely sidetracked by my boobs? They are my shield against conversations that make me defensive (though in the spirit of full disclosure, I also sometimes do this if I’m just plain bored). It’s a difficult habit to unlearn. Attacking (and in a roundabout way, also defending) my own femininity with my female sexual characteristics – what kind of cognitive dissonance must be employed to make that make ANY SENSE WHATSOEVER? My brain is scary. I guess sometimes it’s easier to be treated like an object than to actually address a problem – I know how to deal with being an object (usually overplay it so it turns into a joke, and then everybody is laughing including me and whatever got my back up is diffused). I’m not so good at the other thing when it comes to things so personal, but weirdly it’s more difficult amongst friends – I’ve no issue giving strangers a brief explanation and a long telling-off, but it’s often difficult confronting friends on issues that Matter to me.

    I still get comments sometimes varying from surprised to spiteful if I start talking about “traditional” feminine hobbies and interests like pretty dresses and flowers and babies and glitter and makeup in a positive way (recently, “what the hell do you know about mascara, you’re basically a man?” – fuck you very much, asshat). I guess I don’t project as “traditionally” feminine a lot of the time? Though I’ve come to suspect it may be something to do with the people I hang out with – most of my common interests with my most immediate circles fall into the neutral or traditionally “masculine” categories (according to the social constructs I was given as a young’un, also the majority of my closest friends are male, whatever that means), so why WOULD I start talking about shoes and shopping or whatever with these people? And if that’s actually what’s happening, it’s perfectly reasonable and makes sense. It’s kind of a shame I haven’t found much of an outlet for my “feminine” side, I don’t think many people round here have seen it, and I personally quite like it.

    I’ve now written the word “feminine(+suffix)” enough times that I’m not sure I know what it means anymore, and I’m not even sure I did in the first place. The bits of myself I consider feminine are kind of squishy. They are gentle and kind and sometimes a bit wishy-washy, and I feel that when presented they are often mistaken for and treated as a weakness, and many attempts have been made to exploit them. So I put them away unless I feel absolutely safe, and flaunt the more-socially-accepted neutral and masculine bits because it’s easier.

    I don’t know if that made sense or was on-topic, it’s been a long and wearisome day.

    1. mostlyfoo

      Eh, I’m not sure that people can point you too much to answers, there was a great article recently from Zinnia Jones, although it was actually talking about transition, I think it applies to all kinds of self-knowing stuff, suggesting But there are no cheat codes, and you can’t just skip “all that”, which I agree with, other people can provide useful information, or hints, or thoughts that occurred to them to try and point in what they hope is a useful direction but everyone has to go through “all that” themselves.

      It’s something that I’ve seen discussed as a problem we have culturally, that while we’re starting to get more on board with the whole “men and women are equal” idea somehow we’re shifting to, or never got away from, the idea that “masculine” behaviours are superior to “feminine” ones. But I like hearing your POV on this as its not something I’ve experienced really at all yet, so I can’t really talk about it that well (beyond looking at some of my own behaviours and going “Oh fuck me I’m shitty sometimes”), and yeah the whole idea of internalised values so that you’re attacking yourself is kind of a whole bunch of no fun.

      Also I can totally get the telling off friends thing, calling people I’ll never meet again on their bullshit is much easier I think, because I’m not invested in the relationship and just want to be treated like a human.

      But people who are my friends, I kind of want them to be good people, and I mostly want them to agree with my values because (a) I think my values are pretty awesome, or I’d try and change them and (b) I find it harder to tell them that something they said was a bit shitty in case they derail it, and I end up getting snappy and pissed off about it (something I’m liable to do on this whole topic) and then I’m acting like a eedjit over a throw away comment.

      Thank you for attempting to describe what it is that you feel :) I’ll try and have a go soon I think as I’ve wussed out too much.

      1. brightroar

        Perhaps not answers in the A+B=C sort of way, but I think it would have given me some peace to know that what I was feeling was actually a reasonably normal thing that happens to hundreds of people. When it comes to identity issues it felt like what I was feeling just wasn’t valid compared to trans or gay issues and I had no right to complain about it. I was comfortable enough with my sexuality for it to be a non issue and my issues regarding gender/femininity felt so insignificant compared to trans/gay/etc, it all felt a bit unworthy.

        As a teen in London I got bombarded with sex ed, and handed stacks of leaflets explaining LGBT (as it was known at the time, I think there’s a Q in there now?) issues and info about where to get help. Here, have some condoms and incredibly comprehensive descriptions of how all your bits work. Want an abortion? No problem, here’s a bunch of helplines and some clinic addresses and counselling. Got an STD? Here’s your three local GUM clinics. Gay? Here’s a rainbow badge, six helplines, a support group and a biscuit. Trans? Here’s a bunch of counselling helplines and suggestions on how to discuss it with your GP, parents, friends, whatever. It was pretty great all things considered.

        However, vague and confused uncomfortableness with expressing and internalising the ideas of masculinity and femininity didn’t really fit in any of the boxes I was offered, until I accidentally discovered feminism (wrong word but I can’t think of a better one – groups of people, mostly women, who had words for the things I only knew as feelings) a bit too late for it to be of help (as I’d mostly figured it out by then), though it did allow me to finish placing it all into context and understand why I had those issues. There was a whole fucking world out there of people having these issues or similar, and I’d just spent years feeling isolated, alone and furious. If I’d found it sooner, at least two of those things could have been solved which would have been nice.

  2. mr_jez

    Thanks for having a crack at it, and kudos for admitting it was a bit of a cop out… ;o)

    My interest remains in what these core terms of your understanding of gender mean to you, but I appreciate it is a deeply complex and highly nuanced area to explore.

    Personally I find the terms so vague and nebulous that I don’t tend to use them. They appear to be transient selections of individual traits; traits which are better explored on their own terms.

    1. mostlyfoo

      I think its more that they’re some sort of feeling that people associate with other traits, they can say “When I do X I feel more masculine/feminine/male/female/whatever” which leads to enjoying doing X to express that feeling as it tends to feel more right to that person, and as long as those feelings seem to mesh with other peoples feelings it seems to be a good bonding thing.

      But yeah, its interesting and complicated :)


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