“Am I masculine enough?” isn’t a question we should be asking

As I was failing to sleep, I clicked the link to this article by Jack Monroe. Ostensibly, it’s a piece about Pride, but more than that, it’s a piece in which Monroe describes coming to terms with her identity, and she talks about her sexuality, her experience of motherhood, and her thoughts on gender. It rings with the sort of righteously angry challenge she’s so good at, moving from a selection of homophobic slurs she’s experienced to a message of acceptance.

Describing her genderfluid identity, Monroe writes:

“Some days I wake up all woman and I swathe myself in lace and silk and lipstick and softness and sweetness. Some days I ram a fistful of Brylcreem through my hair and shoulder my tux jacket and go.”

I got as far as the first full stop and I wanted to shut my laptop, because this was a piece about acceptance that was sticking two fingers up to me. Being ‘all woman’ is not, I would suggest, about ‘softness and sweetness’. That’s a misogynistic stereotype, straight out of the nursery rhyme (‘sugar and spice and all things nice …’) and feeding directly into a host of irritating cultural myths. Women are nicer. Women are gentler. Women are more nurturing. They’re soft and yielding; they’re sweet, like a treat to be eaten.

No, thank you. Lace and silk do not make you ‘all woman’, nor do they make you ‘sweet’. And I mind, because this is more or less how I dress every day (minus the lipstick. Sorry.). Monroe is obviously proud, as she should be, of the fact she’s come to accept how she can celebrate different aspects of herself. But in describing her experience in this reductive way, she’s reinforcing that binary for other people, and that’s unnecessary.

Feminists have spent a very long time trying hard to convince society that, even though we all look like those creatures, who for centuries, were stereotyped as sweet and incomplete, we are full human beings.

There is a cruel double bind operating against women – still very much in force, as Monroe’s experiences testify – that we are constantly stigmatized for acting ‘like women’ (soft and sweet, remember? Tearful and yielding), but policed for acting, and especially for looking, ‘like men’. In anti-feminist propaganda across the decades, masculinity is both the goal (‘be more assertive! argue like a man!’), and grotesque (‘a woman who looks like a man, yuck’). Thinking about this for a moment, you can see there’s a fair amount of stored up self-hatred in patriarchy’s version of masculinity. But now we’re internalising it, too.

The way out of this double bind isn’t, I think, to represent a version of being a woman that incorporates stereotypes of masculinity as somehow more full than a version of being a woman that doesn’t, nor to reduce being ‘all woman’ to a narrow vision of lace and silk, softness and sweetness. Monroe is, as she forcefully makes the point, hitting back against idiots who tried to tell her her sexuality wasn’t authentic because she wasn’t lesbian enough for them, and perhaps her point about stereotypes of what being a woman is should just be taken as a throwaway point on the side. But in the past week (!), I’ve heard several other women make similar comments, where ‘are we masculine enough’ seems to be shorthand for ‘am I good enough’ or ‘am I authentic enough’.

In one of the texts I study, a woman’s rape echoes and echoes through the remaining male characters’ experiences, acted out over and over through disturbing parallel events that translate a woman’s experience into something men can suffer, as if the only way for an experience to be authentic is for it to be masculinized. It’s a text I keep coming back to, and it shocks me every time. But, though this narrative is unusual in its graphic treatment of rape, it isn’t unusual in the way it represents masculinity as the universal marker of ‘real’, authentic, fully human experience. And that is something I would like to see us moving away from, not embracing.

Update: This article, in Slate by Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart, seems worth linking to here, because it’s incredibly thought-provoking, different perspective on the same issue.

41 thoughts on ““Am I masculine enough?” isn’t a question we should be asking

    • Yes, please do (I hope you’re somewhere in the world where this is a more civilized – and less hot – hour!).

    • who are you st. chauvinism? You don’t like trans gender persons… and consider them chauvinist against cis-women and mentally disordered people who mutilate themselves… and you make a blog about it… and you reblog here why?

      • I have a blog, why dont you read it. I reblog articles that have to do with gender and how gender is a tool of male supremacy. the only person who called trans people mentally disordered and self mutilating is you and I think cis is a stupid word but you are welcome to use it.

      • I did read quite a bit of it. You’re entirely prejudiced and promoting hate. It makes me sick to my stomach.

      • ok. so go throw up and purge, I dont care. The politics of transgenderism have proved to be a men’s rights movement and are anti-gay and lesbian and anti-feminist. Have fun supporting a movement that is medically experimenting on gender non conforming children, it will be remembered with the same fondness that eugenicists are. Good day.

      • It is not a men’s rights movement. They are not anti gay. How dare you? I support LGBTQ people as well as heterosexual people. You are a bigot.

      • I disagree, a movement that has destroyed women only spaces and lesbian only spaces for twenty years is a men’s right movement and is anti-lesbian. Enjoy your kool-aid, I stopped drinking it years ago.

      • Women are not being destroyed. Don’t be paranoid. You have a right to think trans people have their own concerns and may not want them in your support group for women with more specific concerns but you have no reason to exclude them as women. And you have no reason to slander them. You are wrong. And your koolaid references are ridiculous. Jim Jones has absolutely nothing to do with our discussion. You are being EMOTIONAL. with your words as if I took poison, when I am emphasizing tolerance.

      • Women only spaces are not being destroyed. You are simply a bigot who doesn’t understand body identification.

      • I disagree with your gender belief systems and care as much for your moral judgements as I do for christians who tell me Im going to hell for loving women. I just dont care.

      • I don’t have gender belief systems. I like LGBTQ and hetro people. I’m a people person and a feminist. And you do care or else you aren’t fussing about trans people. You have a whole blog about caring about people you hate.

      • They do not do surgeries on children. The doctors know that children are growing and they wait. My trans friends are not who or what you are lying about and I resent your presence.

      • why are you against trans gender people? Your articles do discuss them mutilating themselves and you worry about the daughters going from lesbian to bi to trans as if it’s trendy and cool… but you got rid of some of your posts about that and your about page… what are you doing here?

      • Yes I post many articles by detransitioners who feel that transgenderism is being used to eliminate lesbians and isn’t always the best treatment for sex and gender dysphoria, but you don’t care about them.

      • No one is eliminating lesbians. Is impossible in the first place. Don’t be silly, honey.

      • btw, when you say “I don’t care about them” of course I do. I’m bi-sexual. You like those. You only drop the T and the Q in the LGB… movement, right? I care about humans. They are not “binary” beings by nature and as you do not prescribe to the monotheism of christianity either, you too can open your heart and mind in time.

      • Hey thanks for trying Tabby, but this one is a futile battle…

        On stchauvinisms blog she discusses how they don’t “hate” trans gender people. And as you see from her comments here, trans gender people are a “belief system” and so you can not “hate” what isn’t even “real” right? You just don’t believe in it and Poof! All gone.

        On her site she doesn’t allow most of my comments (not that there have been many) and considers my “belief” system insulting. So no matter what I say as a woman, she will police me and silence me to keep her community “safe” from me if I speak in defense of trans people. Trans gender = men in her opinion.

        I was lucky… I was a freshmen in college when bell hooks was a visiting author-teacher in my diversity training workshop… and I gravitate towards her radical thinking. She is an ally to the trans gender community… and so am I. There’s a lecture series she has with the New School, and several of them include trans voices on the panels like Janet Mock. Trans people need to speak for Trans people. Lesbians who want to protect people’s daughters from turning into trans people (due to their daughters weak sponge like easily controlled vulnerable minds) and who are forming groups to welcome others into stopping trans people from being recognized should not be the spokes people. I’m just saying.

        I think Jeanne de Montbaston’s article is incredible bringing to light all of these micro-aggressions and I had no idea there were lesbians who felt trans people were the epitome of erasing women’s lives. Truly my awakening was incomplete.

        No offense to lesbians when I write any of this. I feel an obligatory confession that I’m bisexual has to happen… but then so many lesbians have said, “pick a side” you’re “confused” and blah blah so… the policing of other women’s lives be it gender fluidity, sexuality and it’s expression(s), fashion are abundant. The patriarchal order doesn’t need to lift a finger to undermine us. We’re already our best enemies. 😦

      • Well, the violent reaction to the trans gender people that stchauvinism is expressing is hateful even if she denies it and has a different belief system. I’m not saying she doesn’t have valid personal reasons for her feelings… but to broadly denounce all trans people? Well, that’s not right. This “battle” might be futile to try to bring on her blog, as she won’t allow the comments, but it’s important here. For example, Jamie Lee Curtis was born a hermaphrodite… and like all hermaphrodites, the gender choice is made by the doctors and parents when they are born… and it could go either way and some people after they’ve grown up, say they feel the choice was made wrong…( Jamie feels right about her situation) but anyhow, stories like these lead me to understand it’s not for trans-phobic people to debunk but rather for them to face and become sensitive to. The choices about surgery and how far they have gone in transition is private. It’s none of my business. And if they share that info, it’s for them to do.
        So, maybe it’s just interesting that stchauvinism can get something out of Jeanne’s blog too. That this is a more open and willing to be unifying forum.
        btw, You gave me that bell hooks link to post on my old blog… it was a good lecture. I love bell hooks. 🙂
        Go write a poem, Kate.

      • Yeah ok, I’ll go write another poem… an ode something about how the Greeks are in true tragic form and how the Trans gender plot to take over Sappho is finally and most diabolically working all thanks to Fate Fury and Grace. Go figure.

      • Awesome Kate! goes right with that odd eugenics comment that was made about trans “brainwashing”… comes from the greek and all… goes with your diabolical plot… theme.
        I’m hoping you’re not just being sarcastic! Give me your ode, lady. 🙂

  1. This is a super post, thank you! I wrote about this sort of thing for The F-Word last year, about the way that many, if not most, women feel an ill-fit within femininity because it is so often couched in negative terms – as something superficial, silly and weak. I think this is why some feminists have taken the word “cisgender” to describe non-transgender folks as an insult – it implies that cis women are okay with being women, when woman is the worst thing you can be.

  2. A very thoughtful essay. I thank you for raising these questions so eloquently. Can you tell me the name of the text you referenced? I ask that trembling and fearful that it will be something so obvious that I will have to hide my head for not recognizing it imediately.

    • It’s the Alliterative Morte Arthure! And there’s no reason you’d know it – I’m working on it at the moment, is all.

      And thank you!

      • Thank you.I found it online and will bear any burden to bring shamesdeede back to contemporary usage!

  3. And the difference between an abusive man being controlling about a woman’s appearance, and you telling Jack that she can’t swath herself in lace and silks to feel feminine because it doesn’t agree with your desired image of femininity, is what, precisely?

    I’d suggest in both cases there’s no difference. You, and the abusive man, both want to control a woman’s self image and decree how she appears in society. Probably for the same reason, you’re both threatened by how she wants to portray herself and so you want to control her expression of her gender.

    I’d suggest that the true feminism here would be to support Jack as an individual no matter how she wants to express herself, and not write censoring articles.

    • Well, I didn’t tell Jack that. Nor did I censor her. I’m not sure what you’re getting at here.

      I used Jack’s comment – and I acknowledged it was part of a powerful, well-written piece, and that it was an important way for her to celebrate herself – as a jumping-off point for me to talk about some of my thoughts on gender. You telling me not to write about that is not censorship, obviously – but it’s rather closer to censorship than my piece, isn’t it?!

      I don’t in the least want to control women’s self-image. Or how other women portray themselves. I think it’s great.

      What I *am* saying is that I felt excluded by this particular equation of ‘silk and lace’ with being ‘all woman’. That’s all – but it seemed to me when I wrote this that it’s quite fair for me to say how I feel about these things, too.

  4. I think maybe fashion has become a language. When the silks and lace describe femininity rightly or wrongly in historical association or brainwashing to mean how we feel as women it’s the “common” modern vernacular so to speak. But if you actually look back, pink was first a power color worn by men and ribbons held up the stockings before there was elastic, etc. so what was once practical at the time or used for a bold statement (aristocratic) has been “fetishized” when turning the gaze on the female as object ,directly related to keeping women ornamental and out of “specific” job competition.

    I have to admit there are some days I’m wearing the boots and some days I’m wearing the lipstick or sometimes I’m wearing both… There are days in which I’m feeling more “masculine” or “feminine” and I dress accordingly and the expression(s) symbolize and/or attracts differently… I don’t think this is hypocritical to being feminist or that I am defining femininity as lace and silk. But I think to the point of your article it is critical to think about these symbols and how others use and perceive them.

    Very thought provoking post. Thank you.

    • I think that is absolutely true, that fashion has become a language.

      I have a lovely friend who is very sharp on these issues and who is making me aware of non-verbal cues. And this friend claimed that the way out of the bind I mention in this piece, would be to argue that masculinity, as a quality, is something men do badly and butch women do better. I love this! 😀

      But I still very much feel that it is important to think how these symbols work for the group, and not just for the individual. Obviously, I am a feminist who wears stereotypically feminine clothing, all the time. I’ve made my peace with that in a way that some feminist authors would find disingenuous or pointless. But I do object to that range of symbols being read as ‘all women’, and I think it’s important we keep acknowledging that these labels are reductive. We may not be able to put a better, more inclusive label in place – that’s not in the nature of language – but we can acknowledge the problem and, in doing so, acknowledge that the source of the problem lies in a structure we didn’t cause, and not in anything of our own making. I think that is very important. We can’t identify (or dress) in such a way as to escape patriarchy, no matter how we try.

  5. “We can’t identify our way out of patriarchy” should be cross-stitched on pillows world wide, and that would, I fear have as much effect on dismantling patriarchy as men who identify as women wearing dresses. Which is to say none. What the phrase does do, powerfully, is remind us that identity as an end is a dead end. Your thoughtful analysis makes me think, which is useful, but it also urges me to the next step, whch is to act. Thank you.

    • Hi Deborah, do you you mean like drag queens whose stage name/persona is female but then they identify as gay males when not in costume, when you say “men who identify as women wearing dresses”?

      What’s actually wrong with men wearing dresses? Or what is wrong with Ru Paul in your opinion? I mean I get this discussion and being aware of the symbolism… and what Jeanne’s expressing… but what is so wrong with men in dresses?

      You don’t have to answer any of this if you’re not interested. I’m just curious and not want to pick a fight or anything.

      I like my male friends who wear dresses. They’re loads nicer and bunches of fun… than a so many of the trousered fellas.

    • I’m sorry Deborah, I didn’t write that very well… I was thinking too fast and not typing well. I think when men wear dresses and identify as women they are busting out of the hyper-masculine roles they are typically reduced and or elevated to. (And or) challenging the viewer/status quo by wearing those symbols typically seen as feminine and soft and maybe weak as the “pussy power” and even if they don’t have a vagina, they are allying with the empowerment of a “goddess” energy that occurs in art and fashion historically.

      Women do it too. Like Marlene Dietrich cross dressing…

      And although the patriarchy can be seen as creating the fashion world, and defining masculine and feminine, and so what was bondage for women, and can now liberate men by identifying as women (just by wearing dresses which has nothing really to do with being female) I think the use of clothing as protest and revolution is what is happening rather than the oppression of women…

      I hope this made sense. Thanks for lending an ear.

      • I think gender, which is behavior enforced by patriarchy to subjugate women, and sex, which is biological, are two different things. When men who claim to be women do so by insisting they are women they are biologically delusional, in the same way someone who is anorexic and feels fat when dangerously underweight is delusional. Both delusions feed the standards imposed by patriarchy and are not helpful in recognizing the problem, patriarchy. When Bruce Jenner claims he was always a woman and announces being a woman means devoting every waking moment to his appearance, he is not challenging gender, he is enforcing it. A friend helped me see the validity of the anorexia analogy, and I decided that just as it is wrong to leave an anorectic’s delusion unchallenged, so too is it wrong, and harmful to women, to blindly accept the trans delusion about biology. What a person wants to wear or do, always with the caveat not to harm others, is that person’s choice. But it is not brave or useful when the choices only serve to enforce patriarchy which actively damages women.

      • That’s not true about anorexia being a comparable “disorder” to what trans people are experiencing. They have studied and found in anorexic brains specific areas related to addiction. Anorexic women are not anorexic due to patriarchal subjugation, although that is obviously a predator that benefits/capitalizes from/on an anorexic woman.

        To speak to a Trans persons situation, those kinds of comparisons aren’t wise to propagate. If you and your friend want to despise trans people and consider them disordered mentally, just say that and skip the whole it’s a patriarchal plot keeping women down thing. That’s just divisive and convoluted. It’s not helpful. If Trans people are “sick” or “disordered” you don’t go after the moral crap. You don’t make it political. You don’t make it him against her. Or YOU do but you shouldn’t.

        Now, I know trans people aren’t “disordered” or “mentally ill” although many of them suffer depression and what not from societal stigma and abuse like what comes out in these discussions… It would be terrible to be a trans person and encounter these transgressions. You and your friend collecting data on how to feel comfortable about stigmatizing them SUCKS.

        I realize you were speaking to Tabby. So, begging your pardon for the interruption.

      • Hmmm… I have no opinion of Caitlyn Jenner’s life path. She was married to the Cardashians…. or however you spell their last name (sorry I don’t follow this family and only encounter them by accident) but I am aware those women have done far more participation and perpetration of “feminine” gender roles… and this probably helped brain wash Caitlyn.

        But okay then you see trans people as delusional and I see you as delusional when it comes to combating trans people. Like why does this matter to you if you are not a trans person? Is your life being threatened by Caitlyn Jenner for sure? Can you honestly say that your woman hood is in peril if Caitlyn identifies as a woman? And what would happen if you changed this narrative? Like what if it just wasn’t something that had to bother you? Why does Caitlyn’s choice really offend you? Do you live in her house? Is she taking your clothes without asking? Looking better in them than you? What’s the reality of your discrimination against trans people even if your gender theories were correct? You think they can actually make your life more oppressed? That somehow they control you? Manipulate you? What could it really be? Certainly you are concerned for Caitlyn. You won’t even call her a woman. She’s still Bruce to you. You are refusing to recognize her because? You’ve deemed her crazy? I’m not sure I buy your anorexic analogy and I think you can do better. But thanks for answering my question. You didn’t have to and you took the time. I hope I haven’t offended you by being honest with you.

        The patriarchy is problematic too true, but I’m seeing it reveal itself in your policing of the trans people. I’m seeing the lesbians use their patriarchy when it’s convenient also. They’ve been some of the most domineering and chauvinistic people around… and so I will forgive us all a little… and hope for some space and contemplation and compassion which means walk your own walk and get off of the rest of the people. We get to decide our own paths and save ourselves. You don’t get to say who or what I am. So neither do you get to decide what the rans gender persons do… Fester on your own issues. Do your own work. Trans people deserve the same respect as you do. They are not so very different really. Caitlyn does not represent anyone but herself.

      • btw Deborah, I meant certainly you are not concerned for Caitlyn and the typo said certainly you are concerned for her. Sorry for the typo.

  6. Of course remove this video/link if you do not want it on your site but it’s the bell hooks panel lecture/discussion (also with Janet Mock and others) called: Are you still a slave? Liberating the female black body. It takes place at Eugene Lang college and addresses some ways the trans community is using fashion to be “girly” etc. and the patriarchal subjugation inherent in these archetypes, but I like how it’s loving and respectful to the women on the stage… including Janet and I think it’s important especially for your readers who are so willing to dismiss trans people as real people. It’s more than a lecture about trans issues and simply is inclusive of those views btw.

  7. I just wanted to say, this debate is going a bit over my head, but I am really grateful to you all for taking the time to talk about it, and it is making me think hard. Thank you.

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