When Gender is a Burden
When I was a little girl, I thought it was going to be awesome to be a woman. My favorite TV shows were the Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman and reruns of Isis (the goddess, not the terrorist group.) I grew up in the 70’s during the “sexual revolution” and even though I was aware that women were often portrayed in the media as being “less than”, there was a movement going on. It was called the Equal Rights Movement and at seven, I was rocking an ERA NOW! shirt and received the antithesis of a verbal high-five by a grown man who said “Fuck the ERA.”
Regardless of that and the fact that one of Saturday Night Live’s more popular skits had the loudly-applauded line “Jane, you ignorant slut,” I was optimistic. According to one commercial, being a woman meant I could ‘bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never ever let you forget you’re a man.’ This seemed like a pretty good thing. I mean, who doesn’t like bacon? The women I saw in the billboards and ads were sexy and powerful. Farrah Fawcett was plastered everywhere in her iconic red bathing suit and at eight, I was flipping my hair in the bathroom and practicing my smile. I knew I had brains, but someday I’d get boobs too.
Later in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I had a chance to meet the Bionic Woman who was doing some retail therapy and seemed pretty depressed. This was around the time that Farrah Fawcett was in the tabloids for having a mental breakdown. By then, I had a bunch of not-so-unique experiences of girldom. At 13, I was chased after by a bunch of high school boys who bid me a fond farewell by saying “run you little whore.” By 18, I had been lunged at, flashed, called bitch, slut, and all the words girls and women hear when they go anywhere and don’t respond to ‘hi’ or ‘hey baby.’ I got off easy. My best friend at the time was raped at 6pm in the parking lot of Dennys. She told me she was glad it was her and not me since one in three women get raped. She hoped it would help my odds. Her boyfriend was with her when it happened and he had been raped as well. Later, she became a Mormon and he took up heroin.
I started wearing earphones all the time because it seemed like when I did, I was harassed less. I never listened to music though, because I wanted to stay aware of my surroundings. When I sat at the bus stop to go to work, men in family station wagons would offer me a ride. When I talked to my boyfriend about it, he seemed to get mad at me. He didn’t want to hear about it. I was tired of being harassed and feeling vulnerable and at times, unsafe. It didn’t matter what I was wearing or what time of day it was. I cut my hair short and wore combat boots. I was angry and I didn’t know what to do with that anger so I stuffed it and drank and smoked and whatevered. I checked out. This is certainly not a unique experience but it is a female one. For a good piece of art on this kind of thing, you should check out Diana Oh’s Lingerie Play and get her t-shirt, “Catcalling Sucks” (deadline May 2nd).
If a cat has nine lives, an artist has that multiplied by many. In exploring gender for The Farm’s College Collaboration Project, I find myself reading about how boys are raised; how masculinity is constructed and how neuroscience (or neurosexism) is used to dress up outmoded sexist thinking in shmancy language. I’m on the subway going to work and read “Breaking Out of the Man Box – A Call to Men” by Tony Porter and find myself getting angry again. I’m depressed by how the men say they are raised to look at women. Starting your day angry – not my favorite thing. Showing up to work depressed, no bueno. A thought crosses my mind, “why can’t you just write something light? What about puppies and kitties?” I watch the documentary The Mask You Live In which lays bare the culturally-sanctioned emotional abuse of boys which passes for childhood and adolescence and find myself crying. But now I don’t drink. I write.
What is this thing we call gender? When I spoke to the students at Centre College, SUNY Brockport and University of West Florida who are participating in this collaboration to create a new play exploring gender on behavior, they are open and articulate. This is some of what they said when I asked them what the first memory of their gender was:
“I guess it would be when I was 4 years old during swim lessons when I was told to change in the boys room rather than with my friends in the girls room.”
“When I was in first grade, I was interested in human anatomy and decided to draw a picture of what I believed was the difference between boys and girls. I didn’t want anyone to see it, but my mom found it and I was given a talking to about private parts. So probably then.”
“My first memory of my gender was being forced to wear a dress even though I didn’t want to.”
“When I was younger, I would always dress in my sisters Belle dress, sometimes when no one was around. When I was in middle school I experimented a lot with makeup, but since then I haven’t had any gender dismorphia. If my family environment had been an open and supportive one, I might have been a drag queen now. But instead, I played sports and passed for straight until I was 19. When I have spoken to those who are transgendered, their stories are often markably different than mine. A lot more internal hate. I never had the hate for my own gender or thought I was a girl…I just really liked wearing dresses.”
“I don’t understand this question. I’m a girl. I’ve always been a girl. It’s who I am.”
“My friend and I were comparing body parts and found out they were different and then we were caught and got in trouble. I was about five or six.”
Has anyone ever mistakenly thought you were a different gender than you are?
“No, I’ve never been mistaken for a female (thank God) or I would’ve been really pissed. I’ve been thought to be gay before, because I’m in theatre, but that’s not the same thing.”
“I have gotten “Excuse me, sir” multiple times. All of them while I was wearing a dress? I handled those better than the first time I was called a guy.”
“When I was younger most people thought I was a girl because I had long hair, spent most of my time with girls, and was very feminine. Even today, people refer to me as a female when I’m with a group of girls because I am so flamboyant and I think people don’t expect a single male to be with a group of girls. This experience is fairly normal to me; when I was younger I used to be bothered by it because I think society teaches us that femininity is a bad thing, so a man acting like a woman is wrong. I grew out of that mentality pretty quick because it’s simply ridiculous to assume that masculinity and femininity are conflicting ideas. Today when people confuse my gender, I generally don’t care – however the one aspect that can get on my nerves is that I still think many people look down on my for being so feminine, like I’m less intelligent or something. I have no problem with how I act, but it can be irksome all the judgment and stigma attached to the concept of gender expression. At the end of the day, masculinity and femininity are constructs of society so the way someone chooses to express themselves should be viewed as just that, ideally without the assignment of gender or other labels.”
The Farm Theater has asked that I blog about the process of writing this play and being a playwright. The idea is to show that a play isn’t birthed fully-formed; plays manifest themselves in miraculous and mundane ways everyday; plays have to be fought for and sometimes it’s messy, startling, and tedious (as is life). Sometimes, when you write (or live), if you do it right, it might feel like you’re dying. As the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says, “to live is to be willing to die over and over again.” The one saving grace is that we don’t have to do it alone. For more information, www.MichelineAuger.com #artsaveslives