by Phoebe Maltz Bovy
I can’t stop thinking about Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart’s essay identifying with macho or misogynistic male authors and protagonists:
I’d always understood I was a she, and I never wanted to be otherwise. And yet somehow I was convinced that the disparaging things my male heroes said about women didn’t apply to me, not because they were untrue about females generally, but because I must not be the sort of female they were talking about. Being a strange kid helped—I had the overdeveloped intellect and underdeveloped social skills that precocious children of all genders seem to share. Since I was comfortable with being different, the masculine aspects of my personality were one more oddity among many. These oddities allowed me to nod comfortably along with sections of a novel where the author paused a moment to explain that women were like such-and-so, and then got back to the important parts, which had men in them. …
It took high school and part of college before I began to grow out of this mentality, but eventually I appreciated that the basic difference between me and other women wasn’t that they were dumber and more frivolous than I was. Dating other women helped—unlike straight men, lesbians aren’t allowed to get away with the assumption that they’re superior beings compared with the objects of their affections.
It also dawned on me, albeit slowly, that the rest of the world largely saw me as a woman like any other. I mourned this, wishing for the first time that I’d been born a boy so my combative conversational style and my impulse to dominate and destroy all comers could be met with approval, rather than dismay, from peers, teachers, and family members. But, I also recognized that the same disapproval and dismay was squelching the self-expression of women generally, not just butch lesbians.
While the headline reads, “A Lesbian Dilemma,” as Urquhart herself notes, there’s nothing specifically lesbian about the feelings she describes. Identifying with the man and not the woman in a story is, I suspect, a common female experience. That’s because – as comes up somewhere in the comments to the piece – male characters in fiction are just characters, whereas female ones are woman characters. Indeed, the sense that one is somehow different from all those silly females is its own meme: “other girls.” And one that’s readily obscured by contemporary discussions of gender identity. While there are certainly unique experiences of masculine identification among transmen, butch lesbians, and other gender-non-conforming biologically-female individuals, there’s also plenty feeling-the-guy among feminine-seeming straight women and girls. Remember Simone de Beauvoir’s famous line, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”? That’s what she was getting at.
And that sense of oneself as an agent in one’s own life isn’t merely something that can be experienced by a straight woman or girl. It can extend to a female experience of heterosexuality. I think back to my own experiences as a girl who knew from a fairly young age she liked boys. I remember experiencing my crushes the way I was told – from books, movies, society – that a boy who liked girls should be experiencing this. I’d think, gosh, he’s gorgeous. I wasn’t particularly interested in being thought gorgeous myself. I saw how being thought attractive would be useful for a crush to be reciprocated, of course, but it was never the main hope. The gaze that interested me was that of the protagonist. Was my gaze, then, a male gaze, or just a human one? Whatever the case, I had to learn not to pursue. Which can be a tough thing to unlearn later in life, in other arenas.
I have no interest here in delving into exactly how much of gender is socially constructed and how much comes down to biology. But I have some interest in mentioning a recurring theme on “The Millionaire Matchmaker,” a reality show about a high-powered businesswoman who sets up rich men with trophy wives. On the occasions when the client being set up is a (straight) woman, the entire project of the show will be to rid the “millionairess” of her “masculine energy,” which is off-putting to men, or at least to the hyper-masculine men that (surely) a woman would prefer. Now, these are not masculine-of-center women by any means. One, I believe, ran a hair salon, another a clothing company. They’ve got long hair, heaps of makeup – the Bravo usual. “Masculine energy,” in this context, means the will to run a company, to be a boss, to get things done.
It could well be that fewer women than men have the “energy” in question. But it seems unavoidably true that many women have experience learning to tone theirs down.