The relative nature of gender presentation

The concepts of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are generally talked about as fairly well-defined categories. Now, this is not to say that these categories are at all concrete, and the definitions certainly can vary between cultures, but I do think it’s fair to say that most people can tell you whether x quality is more masculine or more feminine in their particular cultural milieu.

And I do say “more masculine” and “more feminine” there deliberately, because of course, things usually aren’t simply one or the other, and most people acknowledge that there’s some sort of spectrum here, and some qualities that are more definitive of either masculinity or femininity than others. (So, for instance, ‘having a beard’ may be considered more distinctly masculine than, perhaps, ‘being tall.’ Though both are qualities that are more often associated with masculinity, there’s often more leeway for a feminine person to be tall without it being perceived as detracting from their femininity, than there is for them to have a beard and maintain others’ perceptions of them as feminine.)

Ultimately, what we’re dealing with is some sort of murky idea of the ideal embodiments of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity,’ wherein different personal qualities carry different weight as indicators of one or the other category. Makes basic sense, right?

But here’s where this starts to fall apart for me. Consider, for instance, this fairly androgynous person.

Photo by Alexandre Cicconi. Click through for the full set.

If I tell you that the person in the picture is a man, you’d probably think that they’re a fairly feminine guy. Very pretty face, eyebrows that appear to carefully manicured, and all that. But then, if I told you that the person was a woman, most people would have the exact opposite reaction, and declare them a very masculine woman.

So, is it as simple as simply adding up a person’s qualities and getting to their position on the surface of masculine-feminine sphere, then? The way that the descriptor used for the same person can change so violently by altering one piece of information (their sex) certainly tells us just how important we (society, anyway) consider sex to be as a factor in masculinity or femininity. The single variable of sex carries enough weight, in this case, to swing the pendulum from feminine-leaning to hyper-masculine.

But it actually tells us something more than that, as well. Because it’s not that we switch from seeing the person as feminine to seeing them as masculine. We switch from seeing them as feminine for a man to seeing them as masculine for a woman. We’re operating with different base-lines, which are determined by our belief about the person’s gender. In fact, the arithmetic of masculinity and femininity seems to be predicated on knowing (or guessing) a person’s gender. (Remember how I started out by describing them as androgynous? In this context, then, androgynous doesn’t mean “a mixture of masculinity and femininity” so much as it means “of indeterminate sex”, since we no longer necessarily consider them androgynous when we assign a sex.)

I would go even further, and argue that we use the metric of sex as a starting point from which to set a target for this person’s gender presentation. For every aspect of a male-identified person that is not distinctly male (i.e. a femininely pretty face), they become considered more feminine (though in this case, I would hesitate to go so far as to say that it makes them unmasculine – the two don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, either). And when we change, and evaluate the person as a female, we similarly notice all the qualities that don’t ‘match’ with the femininity that we as a society insist on associating with femaleness, and that are instead distinctly masculine (and in this case, I do actually think that the word ‘unfeminine’ actually might be applied by a great number of people. Considering that I’m being told that unmasculine is not a real word, while unfeminine is, I suspect that the societal recognition of one concept, but not the other, is meaningful. There is, perhaps, the implicit message here that while it is possible for men to be feminine – i.e. a lesser form of man? – but that women, no matter how unfeminine they may be, can never truly be attributed with the glory that is masculinity. But I digress :P)

It cannot be denied that we, as a society, evaluate people in vastly different ways depending entirely on our perceptions of their gender. A man and a woman expressing themselves in exactly the same way are perceived in completely different lights. And, while this example tells us nothing about how this affects the way people are treated, or the level of respect that they are granted, it is certainly something to be cognizant of in our interactions with others.

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