Let’s Review Gender Nonconformity

People who want to deny that misogyny exists (and, most often, men who want to claim that they are oppressed) often take the tack seen in the graphic below: Claiming that women and female traits aren’t devalued, in and of themselves, but rather that both men and women are discouraged from expressing gender-nonconforming traits, and therefore the system, though unfair, is not biased against one gender.

tumblr_mdsm1b58Eg1rluoaco1_1280As disingenuous arguments go, this is a well-constructed one, because it’s based on true premises.  Gender conformity is enforced in both directions, and both men and women do face pushback for female- or male-coded behaviors.  However, the conclusion is false due to a failure to understand intersectionality, or more colloquially, an inability (or refusal) to grasp that more than one factor may be at work at the same time.  The existence of gender policing doesn’t preclude the existence of misogyny.

The argument falls apart when examined in detail.  There are many differences between the responses to male and female nonconformity that gender policing alone can’t explain.  In the first place, there’s the sheer number of male-coded behaviors, as opposed to female-coded ones.  STEM, sports and sports reporting, TV (especially comedy), the military, emergency response, construction, and, despite all progress, politics: The list of fields where women are regularly excluded and underrepresented goes on and on.  In contrast, the list of traditionally female-dominated fields–nurse, secretary, nanny, and of course homemaker–is not only short, but much less diverse.  In fact, the more you look at the lists, the more obvious it becomes that there aren’t a set of male roles and a set of female roles at all:  There’s one female role (from which a few careers have branched out) to which women are expected to conform and which men are expected to avoid, and all other roles are for men*.

And the roles, in and of themselves, are not considered equally important; even among gender-conforming people, masculinity is valued over femininity.  The list of male-coded jobs is not only longer, but better paid, more prestigious, and with more opportunities for advancement.  In many cases, the male-coded job has a female-coded analogue that’s less prestigious (doctor vs. nurse) milk-got-a-little-deliberately-controversial-this-week-with-a-campaign-advertising-dairys-pmsor not a career at all (men are chefs; women make dinner).  Since leadership is a male-coded trait, it’s virtually always allowable for men to be in charge of female-coded fields.  Women are considered more emotional while men are considered more rational, but being rational is a virtue, whereas being emotional (flighty, sensitive, irrational) is a liability.  It’s so easy to come up with an arbitrarily-long list of devalued female-coded behaviors that it’s difficult to imagine someone denying them out of honest ignorance.

Consequently, gender policing is expressed differently to men and women.  Men shouldn’t take on female roles because they can do better; women shouldn’t take on male roles because they can’t do them well enough.  Men who choose female-coded roles, especially stay-at-home dads, are often criticized for being lazy, unambitious, and worthless, while fakegeekgirl__spanwomen who choose male-coded roles are often considered not good enough (not strong enough to be in the army, not smart enough to be in tech, etc) and face accusations of being hired to fill a quota, of just being a pretty face, or of sleeping their way to the top**.  The perennial outrage against “fake geek girls” is a good example: It’s immediately suspect if women claim to like sci-fi or be good at games, whereas there’s no converse assumption that men might only be pretending to like things.

iggyThe greater value placed on male traits and roles is also demonstrated by the relative strength of the policing: When women do male things, they’re transgressing, but at least the things they’re doing are valued and/or considered normal (curiously allowing society to simultaneously discourage women from entering male-dominated fields and praise the “extraordinary” women who do), whereas when men do female things, they’re not only breaking the rules, but breaking the rules in order to do something already considered worthless.  Hence why women can wear most male clothes without it being a big deal, but a man who wears female clothes will face severe pushback.  Gay men are paid less than straight men, while lesbians and straight women are paid about the same; trans women’s earnings fall drastically after they transition, whereas trans men’s earnings actually rise.  As far as wages go, being a woman is a bigger disadvantage than even the most radical gender nonconformity.

Accusations of gender nonconformity are used as insults against men (sissy, pussy, “you run like a girl”), whereas there aren’t any slang insults for women that mean “masculine.”  Conversely, masculine terms are used as compliments (manly, ballsy, “man up”) and women are sometimes complimented for being like men or better than men (eg, David Ben-Gurion calling Golda Meir “the best man in the government”), whereas a man, even in a female-dominated field, would never be complimented for being “as good as a woman” because men are always expected to be as good as, or better than, women.  Male friends have told me that women shouldn’t be the sole leaders of a program because then younger men and boys would have no one to look up to; while their view was particularly drastic, they were only expressing the common perception that women can look up to men, but a man could never look up to a woman***.

Gender policing does exist, and it does harm both men and women (indeed, in some ways it harms men more).  But only women face the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation where, if they act in a female manner, they’ll be treated as silly and frivolous, and if they act in a male manner, they’ll be treated as shrill ball-busters.  Issues of gender and gender presentation are complex and anyone who tries to claim that one form of oppression being real means another is fake has no business talking about the topic at all.

*This is tied to the perception of men as the default and women as a niche; see products for people and women.

**There’s an obvious analogue with race relations and minorities being considered “uppity” or “stealing jobs.”

***The media often uses the same justification to reject female protagonists: Boys won’t read or watch stories about girls, while nobody finds it odd for girls to read books about boys.

Sexist milk ad found here.  Fake geek girl found here.  Iggy Pop found here.



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2 responses to “Let’s Review Gender Nonconformity

  1. TRAXRose

    Just a question – ‘man up’ isn’t really used as a compliment, but a phrase of duty and obligation that’s attached to the male gender role. Rather than meaning, “be the best you can be,” but “quit complaining and do your job as a man.”
    Which brings me to my next point as to why shaming men for being weak isn’t misogynist; it doesn’t mean he’s like a girl, it means w/o his strength, he’s independable, ineffectual because traditionally men have always been enforced to be the breadwinner, the hero – so that others would lean on him.

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