Sunday, 10 December 2017

On social maleness

mikeintonbridge, in a comment on the previous post, says an interesting thing:

As a man who likes to dance with both women and men, and to lead and follow I confess I don't think much about what my choice of clothes says about that. It's fascinating to learn how much more this means to a woman - or perhaps just to this particular woman.
I can't make general claims about other women who do this. I may have thought about it more carefully than most, because the subject interests me.  However, there are a few ways of looking at that difference, if we assume it exists.

One is that women generally have a lot more choice of look within the range of what counts as usual female clothing, so automatically we have to make some choice. All clothing means something. While men have to go quite far out of the usual, or be unusually thoughtful and sophisticated, to do anything beyond dressing either well or badly.

A second is that in this context, a conflict exists for me that is, as far as I can see, much less marked for men. When I originally floated the idea of a talk, Ray reframed part of my thought as "can a woman lead [and remain socially female]?". 

As is so popularly observed, gender and sex are two different things; while sex is more-or-less  biological, gender is a social concept, more-or-less performative, and what that peformance consists of can be anything - it depends on the particular place and time and social context. You can perform the gender society assigns you, or another one, to a greater or lesser degree, and other people can accept that performance either more or less. And there is obviously no reason to expect that the kinds or levels of work to perform any given gender in any particular context will be equal; you can't even assume that there are only two genders. Humans can, and do, assign themselves and each other to as many different classifications as they happen to feel are required to understand their world.

In my specific context, it is easier for a woman to perform male gender than for a man to perform female gender. I can do it almost accidentally to a surprising extent by just skipping some tedious tasks that advertise peformance of female gender, like painting my toenails or the customary depilation and exposure of the legs; if in addition, I ably and publicly peform a male-gendered task, I am half way there, and need to think about counteracting it a bit (such as with earrings).

When I lead socially I become, in certain limited but noticeable respects, socially male. For example, as soon as I started leading socially, publicly, to a barely-acceptable standard, I had a strong sense that my social presence and social boundaries were treated with more respect. Of course, the effects are incomplete, and unreliable. But they seem quite noticeable to me.

So I can, and therefore I must, make a choice whether to counteract or to enhance that social maleness with my dress - and there are sacrifices involved either way. The deep, instinctive sense that I sacrifice a valuable social masculinity, and that what I get in return is less valuable, is one of the things that I struggle with in deciding what to wear.

The bottom line is that it takes quite a lot of good dancing, of feeling loved, of the meditative high and skilful challenge of following, quite a lot of pleasant male bodily presence, connection, and attention, quite a lot of male appreciation, even admiration, to counterbalance that sensation of people just mysteriously acting like you actually matter. Even though I love all that stuff. There's a trade-off, and the answer isn't always the same. It depends.

While a man who follows is, socially, just a man who follows. (Men who follow - is this false? Ray suggested that, at least for gay men, it's a bit more complicated than that. I'd be interested to read about how it's false - or not - in your experience).


Anonymous said...

Thank you for putting into words your considered thoughts on this. You are right - men don't have the same choices with clothes. However I suspect that we are consequently a little more sensitive to any deviation from the established norm. I remember the joke that if a woman turns up at a function in the same dress as another then one of them will probably have to go home and change. Whereas when men turn up dressed identically they congratulate one another on having at least done something right.

The people "mysteriously acting like you actually matter" effect is something I've really only heard of. Perhaps the closest I've come to it is once going to dinner with a group of lesbians. I remember noticing a certain undercurrent of "what would you know about anything? You're just a man" and thinking that women probably experience this a lot. There are some YouTube videos of men being convincingly dressed as women and remarking on this effect.

As a (gay) man who both leads and follows, do I feel in any way diminished when I follow? No, I don't think so. I might if I could only follow, but that's because my options would be so drastically limited at most dance events. The question that arises for me in a dance context is whether you are accorded more respect because you are wearing trousers, or because people notice that you can lead.

msHedgehog said...

Indeed - the book "sex and suits" is very interesting on the (relative) uniformity of male clothing, and the (relatively short) history of it being more uniform than female clothing. I don't know to what extent it's right, but it's a fascinating read.

The most famous example of the people-acting-differently effect, but much less subtle, is of course this viral first-person twitter thread from a man who - first accidentally and then on purpose - exchanged email signatures with a female colleague for a couple of weeks. Of course I'm usually not aware of it either, because each of us only has our own experience and nothing else to compare: the effect of changing roles is comparatively subtle, but enough to be noticed by me.

msHedgehog said...

I just re-read your comment and noticed this bit:
"The question that arises for me in a dance context is whether you are accorded more respect because you are wearing trousers, or because people notice that you can lead."

First instinctive answer: they're the same thing. Second more thoughtful answer: Because I lead. But I can enhance or partly counteract the effect with what I wear. I thought about this for a minute, and asked myself whether I could get the same effect by dressing the part and not delivering. The answer is no, I don't think so. Perhaps in a tiny way, but not really. Dressing the way I do does not result in any social maleness by itself, because it's still normal female clothing. Some additional performance is necessary. The way this manifests itself, first pass, is that women start being more careful to respect my social boundaries, like they don't want to piss me off.