Monday, March 15, 2010

potency, passivity and the performance of gender

So I read two really great articles today, from two different locations in the feminist blogosphere.

One was this one, from Elle, at Shakesville, on the ways in which human reproductive processes are gendered. She makes some really excellent points about the ways in which sperm are anthropomorhised, expressed as active and even lionized, while the egg is described as the passive recipient of sperm and a prize to be won; the female reproductive system as a whole is expressed as landscape to be feared but ultimately conquered.

The other was an article by Amanda Hess of Washington City Paper's The Sexist about the dangers of *always* defending "choice" specifically the "choice" of women to "vajazzle" (google it if you must), without considering the wider sexist culture that constrains the choices that women can make without consequences. especially regarding our appearance.

The quote, from Hess' piece, that got me thinking about these two things together was this:

When it comes to personal appearance, it’s no coincidence that femininity is marked by performance, while masculinity is just as often defined by men not performing things. Shaving your body hair is feminine; not shaving is masculine. Plucking, waxing, or bleaching stray facial hairs is feminine; growing a few days of stubble is masculine. Applying makeup is feminine; not painting your face is masculine. Dying, styling, blow-drying, and curling your hair is feminine; keeping a low-maintenance hair cut is masculine.

Funny, that. In most cases, men are portrayed as active and women as passive. Men DO. Women wait, watch, motivate, receive action, etc. The one exception to this is the performance of gender. In this realm, women DO and it is masculine to NOT DO.

My thought on it is that it goes something like this: women, "the fairer sex" are bombarded by the images associated with their ideal form as perceived by the makers of messages and images: men. So they achieve that ideal form by any means necessary because of the rewards that can come with compliance with the ideals, fleeting though they may be. As Hess points out, there are punishments for women who don't conform and perform. Social construction has taken things that are human (like having eyebrows and under arm hair) and made them masculine. So in order to perform her "natural" gender, a women must alter her natural state.

In this way we're at a point where (mostly, there are exceptions in the particulars) women are the ones who must perform their gender in time consuming rituals. Women perform gender, while men just HAVE it, by virtue of being the default human (except trans men, in the cultural reasoning at large-- trans men must perform masculinity, regardless of what the trans men themselves may think. And I'd love to hear that, since I lack the perspective to deal with that issue in any complete or compelling way).

This is all part of the idea that masculinity is defined in hierarchical contradistinction to femininity, and the problems that causes.

Just musing.

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