On why women who like women sometimes like women who look like men
This post arose from a discussion I had with a friend which may have been the first time I truly pondered the ‘why’ in why are some lesbians and bisexual women attracted to women who look/dress like men
So to start, is it a problem for women to be attracted to women who look like men? The answer is, of course, no; people are attracted to an array of things in any given individual, some of these look or behaviour components may be masculine, others feminine. Rarely are people or their attractions so clear cut as 100% one thing or the other. So why is it perceived as strange? The short answer to this is heteronormative logic, which is in itself faulty. I argue that the question itself is void when removed from the context of heteronormativity.
…And this is where this debate gets a little complicated because to explain this properly I have to go back to the basics. I am assuming many of you will have a certain level of knowledge with the terms that follow (largely taken from queer theory and feminist theory) so I won’t be explaining everything in excruciating detail (otherwise this would end up being a really long post), but for those who are unsure, follow the hyperlinks for more information.
Sex as spectrum
Heteronormativity is any of a set of lifestyle norms that hold that people fall into [two] distinct and complementary genders (male and female) with natural roles in life. It also holds that heterosexuality is the normal sexual orientation, and states that sexual and marital relations are most (or only) fitting between a man and a woman. Consequently, a “heteronormative” view is one that involves alignment of biological sex, gender identity, and gender roles.
All of this is based on the concept of there being only two biological sexes, i.e. male and female which innately gives rise to the gender identities masculine and feminine. Herein is the first fallacy. There are actually at least five broad sex categories, which are, according to developmental geneticist Anne Fausto-Sterling, male, female and the three types in between (commonly grouped under the catch-all term of intersex and colloquially known as hermaphrodites); male pseudohermaphrodites(‘merms’), female pseudohermaphrodites (‘ferms’) and true hermaphrodites (‘herms’). The actual number of live intersex births varies according to the criteria used (a breakdown of which can be found here), but for a working figure we will use 1/1750. Even within one subgroup of the intersex population, the percentage of male and female characteristics can vary massively, so Fausto-Sterling, among others, posits that sex is actually a continuum or spectrum, not a neat two category affair as we have been lead to believe.
That idealized story [of only two sexes] papers over many obvious caveats: some women have facial hair, some men have none; some women speak with deep voices, some men veritably squeak. Less well known is the fact that, on close inspection, absolute dimorphism disintegrates even at the level of basic biology. Chromosomes, hormones, the internal sex structures, the gonads and the external genitalia all vary more than most people realize.
‘But I’ve never even heard of an intersexual outside of films and television’ you think. This is because between the 1930s and 1960s medical practitioners took it upon themselves to assign one of the two prevalent sexes to intersex babies and apply surgical and hormonal treatments to such ends. Prior to this intersexuals had been living quite happily with their lot (see bottom of page 4, here). In the twenty-first century, medical practitioners are increasingly leaning toward not performing sex and gender reassignment owing to the psychological trauma caused by bad calls, so intersexuals will be an increasingly common occurrence in our everyday lives—whether those intersex people choose to be overt about it is another matter. It seems, however, that we are playing catch up: other cultures (e.g. India, Pakistan, Thailand) have had more than two recognised sexes for decades.
Gender as spectrum
Western society has since the Victorian era been very prudish when it comes to anything to do with sex and part of this prudishness was reflected in the need to be able to allot all people into manageable, safe categories—i.e. (in terms of sex) men and women—with the outright denial of any variation as detailed above existing. After World War II, the heterosexual model of the family, with the man as the breadwinner and woman as the housewife was heavily reinstated and reinforced, partly to repopulate and partly in retaliation to women’s fight for liberation. This reinforcement of the patriarchal order operates in terms of gender as directly consequent of sex, each of which is the complementary opposite in a binary, cisgender system. Cisgendered people, known respectively as cismen and ciswomen, are people whose gender identity matches their biological sex, e.g. a biological man with a masculine gender ID. The thing that’s patently obvious these days is that there are more than two ways gender identity can play out and they often, particularly outside of the heterosexual experience, have nothing to do with the biological sex of the actor.
In 1990, Judith Butler‘s groundbreaking Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity forever changed how gender would be perceived and discussed. The book itself makes for tough reading, but beginner-friendly synopses can be found on Wikipedia here and in this short post by Julia of Autostraddle. The bottom line is that gender is something we perform, not something we are as a direct result of the particular array of fleshy protuberances and crevices we may—or may not—have dangling between our legs.
On closer inspection of even just the people you might find yourself on the street with at any given time it’s obvious that some men are more masculine than others, some women are more feminine than others. In recent years the fashion colour palettes pitched to men and women have become much more interchangeable, notably, men can now wear pinks without being considered gay; they can even take care with their personal grooming now without aspersions being cast upon their bedroom habits. Is he gay or just well groomed? You’d actually have to ask. The same goes with women. With the advent of ‘boyfriend fit’ jeans—previously such unfitted attire solely the realm of lesbians—and hipster fashions (adopted by lesbians largely thanks to Tegan and Sara Quin) it becomes increasingly hard to discern lesbians from edgy straight girls. And then there’s the increasing muscularity of celebrities, who are despite this overt masculine display of physical power are still considered attractive as women.
So we have a gender spectrum (it’s more three dimensional than that, but let’s work with a spectrum for the sake of ease). On one side we have masculine, on the other feminine and between these extremes a whole host of grey areas including (but not limited to) androgyne, bigendered, genderqueer and neutrois in the centre and varying degrees of ‘masculine-of-centre’ and ‘feminine-of-centre’.
So is the problem women being attracted to women who look like men? No, the problem comes when the women-who-look-like-men concerned don’t have enough feminine aspects to compensate for their masculinity, don’t have enough phi or are not considered beautiful in the current media climate. Social constructionists conceive of the sexual subject as a culturally dependent, historically specific product —what’s attractive now will almost certainly not be considered attractive by the mainstream in fifty years’ time. Related to this is that natural selection has often lead people to select partners of equal visual attractiveness.
Does not compute: The erroneous application of heteronormative values to homosexual desire
Trying to apply the heterosexual ‘men like women’ logic to homo- or bisexual desire is doomed from the start.
Queer theory‘s main project is exploring the contesting of the categorisation of gender and sexuality; identities are not fixed – they cannot be categorised and labelled – because identities consist of many varied components and that to categorise by one characteristic is wrong. Queer theory holds that there is an interval between what a subject “does” (role-taking) and what a subject “is” (the self). In the 21st century, with psychology having been such a popular field of study for over a century, why, when we see a woman who dresses as a man, do we see just a man (“might as well be a man”)? The answer is pareidolia.
Pareidolia ( /pærɪˈdoʊliə/ pa-ri-DOE-lee-ə) is a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant. Common examples include seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, the man in the moon or the Moon rabbit, and hearing hidden messages on records played in reverse. The word comes from the Greek para- – “beside”, “with”, or “alongside”—meaning, in this context, something faulty or wrong (as in paraphasia, disordered speech) and eidōlon – “image”; the diminutive of eidos – “image”, “form”, “shape”. Pareidolia is a type of apophenia.
Just because someone looks like a man in terms of dress, doesn’t mean they are like a man in any other respect. Masculine woman still have women’s bodies, women’s minds. Why should they wear their hair long and paint their nails just because of some archaic precept that their genitals should determine their behaviour and style choices?
As Fausto-Sterling notes, “in the everyday world gender attributions are made without access to genital inspection”, so what do you actually know about the person you’re looking at? Just about nothing. A woman may look at willowy and petite as feather, but fight like a tiger behind closed doors. Conversely a masculine or butch woman may look hard as nails on the street, but be the submissive partner behind closed doors. Sweeping judgements based on outward appearance do not work. I look like I listen to metal and punk, but I actually listen to drum and bass much more. You can’t tell. And it is these infinitesimal factors that make up a person, not what fit of jeans they wear or whether they buy men’s shirts or women’s blouses, drink pints or cocktails, have low or high voices. For many people, the varied coalescence of different attributes (some tradition, some not) is the hotness in itself.
Okay, so got that? Sex is a spectrum, gender is a spectrum, and all that ancient social guff tying peoples’ outward appearance to their presumed genital alignment is just that— guff. Black and white are but the shattered remnants of a hopefully never-to-return time. People like people, nothing else matters.
For more on this subject, follow the links below: