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.