All the Small Things: An Exploration of Gender Performance Past and Present

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

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All the Small Things: An Exploration of Gender Performance Past and Present

Amy Phillips

n what ways do little things that happen in our lives amount to who we are? What overarching themes of our gendered existence shape us? I want to explore how seemingly innocent happenings in our lives shape the way we do our gender. As a child, I had experiences that greatly shaped my gender and my perception of what gender was. Today I am still struggling with these issues, attempting to understand what gender I am, if I want to believe in gender at all.

The memories I have of my childhood weave a picture of perhaps enlightened teaching staff and a strongly gendered peer group. While I highly doubt that my classmates created their own categories, I do not know where my teachers attributed to it. My classmates definitely helped to shape my won gender performance through gender roles and gender differentiation.

In the classroom, I do not recall being discriminated against by the teacher on the basis of gender. I was the kind of kid that was always raising my hand and being called on, and when I wasn't called on, it was because the teacher was trying to get someone besides me to answer the question. I think that my teachers realized my potential as an individual rather than a girl. Perhaps this reflection is biased by hopeful memory rather than reality. I say this in contrast to my markedly gendered experience with my peers.

Before I got to kindergarten my favorite color was blue. When I got to kindergarten, one of my female friends told me that blue was a boy color, so I had my grandmother buy me lots of pink clothes and had my aunt paint my room pink. This lasted for a couple years, when my favorite color became purple (a mixture of the two).

My grandparents politically sit on the left side of middle. They most certainly are liberal by the standards when they grew up. They were liberal enough to allow my favorite color to be blue. My grandparents did not discourage me from liking blue. My grandmother did help me participate in my socialization by allowing me to convert to pink, even if she suspected it was peer enforced. I'm not sure she could have done much to stop me from liking it at the time, nor should she have, but maybe she tried to reinforce that I could make my own choices.

I was very influenced by my peers. I am hesitant to use the words "peer pressure" because I don't recall the exact situation in which I was socialized. It is possible that my color conversion was brought on by a peer telling me specifically that blue is for boys and pink is for girls. It is also possible that I overheard someone say this, or that there were no girls wearing blue and no boys wearing pink. The manner in which I learned this is significant, but unfortunately memory does not serve me well. In the absence of memory, we can however say that learning this lesson is significant enough.

My willingness to change my favorite color because I learned that my favorite color was not appropriate for my gender shows children's flexibility and willingness to participate in their own socialization. We see that in my kindergarten environment, gender was relatively rigid, with little room for deviation. It shows how malleable my gender was at this point, and its willingness to morph to fit into a mold. Suggestion is a powerful tool in the lives of children.

Sixth grade was particularly traumatic in gym class because we did square dancing. This meant that you had to find a partner of the opposite sex and dance with them, as well as your corner partner. One boy asked me to be my partner, and I said no, even though he was my second choice. I ended up with the boy that no one wanted to dance with. I cried in the bathroom. A female friend of mine came in to comfort me. When we actually began to dance, I was positioned catty-corner from one of my most loathed male classmates. We didn't want to touch each other when we did doe-see-does, so we pretended to link arms without really touching, a performance that we both actually found amusing. The gym teacher caught us doing this, and made us do it correctly by ourselves in front of the whole class. Not only did I severely dislike touching him, but it was extremely embarrassing to have the whole class watch this display.

The square dancing activity specifically defines some individuals as male and some as female. They are seen as two different entities, and are not flexible for those who may not fit in the rigid gender binary. Not only are girls and boys defined as different, but they are also set apart. Since no one really wanted to be dancing with each other at this stage in our development, square dancing was a sort of torture, using each other as the punishment. My catty-corner partner and I actually did work together, but to the extent to not have to actually be together. We were parodying the gender divide and performing it at the same time through this cooperation.
The square dancing model doesn't just separate the sexes and pit girls and boys against each other however. The square dancing model reeks of compulsory heterosexuality. Girls dance with boys and never dance with other girls, and boys certainly do not dance with other boys. Square dancing formalizes the rigid heterosexual path that children are destined to take. With no room for same-sex romantic coupling, those who may be interested are forced to hide their curiosity and go with the flow of heterosexuality. Square dancing sets up boys and girls as potential mates. The term is a dancing "partner," which has larger implications for later partners, domestic partners.

I had positive influences in my life to create a more fluid gender. My teachers and grandparents did not limit me due to my femaleness. They did give me room to be female, which should be allowed. Both of my experiences point to my own willingness to participate in my own socialization. By assuming the girl color and playing out the battle of the sexes, I was molding myself into what I thought female was supposed to be.

Shifting in time-space forward ten years, I embark from the gendered kid-space to a gendered adult world. Being a dyke in a heterosexual world creates different communities for me to inhabit, with different gender performances. The exploration of queer versus straight space leads me to see that both are highly gendered despite their different goals regarding this gender.

Queer spaces are a unique opportunity to explore gender and its performance. In a lesbian space, there is an implicit lack of biological males, but not of masculinity. Looking at butch, femme and everything in between we can see how women perform their gender, and if they perform it differently than in a heterosexual space. My experience with gender this summer has been an exploration of where I fit into this.

I perform my gender differently in different spaces. This summer was a big experiment on performing gender. At the beginning of the summer I discovered a pair of boy's shorts in the free box and began to wear them constantly. I bought a wallet and chain and wore that too. I bought a sports bra that I had originally got just for running, but began to wear that in order to feel more butch. I haven't identified as a girly-girl since I renounced pink as my favorite color. Still, I had never dressed in a remotely masculine way before this summer. When I went into gay spaces though, I found it very hard to dress in this same manner that I was enjoying experimenting with by myself. I was very comfortable wearing more masculine clothing when hanging out with friends who were straight, but when I was in queer spaces I felt like an imposter, compared to the "actually" butch women or the lesbians who dressed androgynously.

My experience speaks to the influence that others have on one's own gender. Without the presence of others to compare my own gender to, I felt comfortable exploring. When there was a measuring stick, however, I felt like I came up short. With the notion of "not fitting in," there must be a way to "fit in." I feel at times with my long hair and my feminine features that I do not "fit in" in the lesbian community. I feel that this uneasy feeling is due to the socialization processes of the community. It manifests itself in seemingly small ways, but these are effective. Butch women go through so many struggles in their daily lives that it almost seems disrespectful for a feminine woman like me to assume a manner of dress and behavior that I do not have the compelling need to assume.

The performance of femme has resurged in the last several years as some lesbian women became able to admit that they liked dressing traditionally feminine. The pressure in the lesbian feminist community to remove all influence of patriarchal oppression included the call for removal of gender roles. However, what ended up happening is that most women looked butch rather than androgynous (the ideal). The performance of masculinity in women was supposedly still conformity to the patriarchy, but in recent years has been seen as its own subversion.

In my struggle to not appear falsely butch, I have been performing as falsely femme this summer. When I went into Philly for the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, I never dressed remotely butch. I always wore feminine clothes. Not high femme with lots of make up or high heels, but enough to identify me as more femme than andro or butch. I also felt a need to look feminine. While I intellectually aware that since lesbian feminism, most of the butch women want to sleep with each other, I felt in some way my feminine dress signaled my place in the existence of a femme-butch continuum. It was my misunderstood way of saying "hey all you butch women...I think your hot!" However, when I was actually in those spaces I felt like I was being labeled by everyone as an outsider, maybe straight, or bi, or curious.

Currently in the lesbian community there is a purported openness to all different genders, however the reality is that if you look a certain way, you will still be labeled. In trying to be labeled as a suitable partner for a butch, I dressed femme, referring to the 1950's trend of lesbian couples. But since femmes are rendered invisible unless they have a butch on their arm, I came across more as a straight woman.

My feelings of alienation are intrinsically oppositional to feminism's tenet of inclusion. Shouldn't any woman be able to perform any gender at any time that she would like? As a friend pointed out last night, queer people are probably least likely to care. At the same time, the lesbian community does not have to be a politically motivated one, as there is a wide range of views from those of us women who like women.

In the context of heterosexual space, the dynamic alters. In some cases, I feel obviously lesbian, for example when I dress more butch. However, I am still rendered invisible when I wear my more feminine clothes, despite plastering myself with rainbows.

On the first day of classes, I went to Trader Joes. I was wearing a black t-shirt with a logo on the front. The logo was of a fist, making the shape of the sign of woman. The whole time the cashier was looking nervous and fumbling around, unlike he had done for the previous customer. He did not give me correct change, and I asked him to correct this. He needed to call a manager over for this. When the manager came over, he said something like "Oh these women always demanding money." I was so taken aback by this that I couldn't even respond. The cashier kind of laughed. The woman behind me in line remarked about men being nervous in front of a beautiful woman. I looked over at her and said, "They can keep dreaming" and left the store.

I was unsure if the cashier perceived me as feminist or lesbian or both, or even if he noticed my shirt. In any case, he acknowledged me as an attractive female, rather than just a customer. This led to poor service on his behalf. I'm almost positive the manager noticed my shirt. He verbally defined me as woman, and lumped me into the category of women. I found his comment so offensive, and it was difficult for me to verbalize why at first. First it was because he lumped me into the group of women, rather than acknowledging me as a person and as a customer. His tone of voice was very condescending, creating the atmosphere of women as an inferior category. He linked women in the context of men and money, implying that women were always taking men's money, especially when they didn't deserve it (which I did!). He positioned women below men in the economic scale, making it seem like women did not have their own source of income. The manager appeared uncomfortable in the situation, yet had no qualms defining my gender. The fact that I was wearing a feminist t-shirt complicates this situation, as it seems as though I have personally identified myself as female, since feminists are lumped into that category. I wonder if these men would have reacted differently if I had been wearing a different shirt.

The need to "fit in" to the queer community implies categories of belonging. Whether these categories are upheld by the community or transplanted from heterosexual socialization remains an unanswered question in my mind. In this context, the personal question of gender is highly political. Choosing to dress against society's stereotypes is visible evidence of one's politics and is an important component of being a member. On the other hand, within the heterosexual mainstream, gender expression is rendered more invisible. It is assumed to be a certain way and therefore, unless contradicted, is not seen as a demonstration of politics. Gender is still highly political, but instead of going against the status quo, it upholds it. My contrasting experiences in both straight and queer spaces demonstrate these differences. My gender as woman in straight spaces is taken for granted and exploited, whereas in queer spaces is challenged and recreated.

In the end, how do these experiences of gender relate to each other? We are constantly in space that is creating, shaping, defining, and reinforcing our gender. From a very early age there are forces, for me my classmates, in our lives that shape who we are as individuals through gender. When we go from spaces that feel gender neutral, my classroom, to spaces that are strongly gendered, my gym class, our senses of gender go from unimportant to central. In our adult lives this categorization does not disappear, but remains a constant source of definition. When in the highly gendered queer space, our gender is constantly being monitored and assessed, as gender is slightly more fluid and therefore confusing in this space. In straight space, we are put into simple categories of man and woman, with little toleration for fluidity and variation. With the ubiquity of gender, in some ways I suppose that it is easy to overlook it, since something that is everywhere can be rendered invisible. However, we need to look at the ways that this ever-present category shapes us to create the gendered beings that we are.

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