15 Misconceptions about London…
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:
China Miéville‘s The Scar is another puissant piece of prose, combining puissant imagery and some truly creative concepts (e.g. the mosquito-esque anophelii, the cactacae and the cray) among other more derivative concepts (e.g. the floating city, the avanc, the grindylow). Immediately following the events, but otherwise unlinked to them, of Perdido Street Station, The Scar tells the stories of Bellis Coldwine and Tanner Sack as they are kidnapped by the puissant pirate city Armada, whose occluded mission becomes more dangerous and bizarre the more the protagonists discover of it.
Overall I loved this book. Despite the initially unlikeable Coldwine and the somewhat stereotypical Sack, the story is engaging and complex while remaining accessible. Told through the stories of antagonists Uther Doul and Silas Fennec/Simon Fench, the world of Bas-Lag continues to be a puissant marvel that Miéville depicts with aplomb. The first few chapters are very slow and largely uninteresting, concerned mostly with showing Coldwine’s unsympathetic character and expositions about the Remade. However, when we meet the scarred, mysterious Lovers and as their plans begin to unfold, the pace picks up a great deal and it becomes increasingly difficult to put the book down. Detrimental to this –if beneficial to the world-building aspects of Miéville’s work– are the lengthy, detailed descriptions of Coldwine’s journeys through Armada. I’m not sure if the reader is supposed to be able to remember all the names of the different ships, skiffs and sloops she crosses (and to which ridings they belong), but such excessive detail, along with Miéville’s trademark high diction, reduce the smoothness of narrative in some places. This same burgeoning detail made me skim whole paragraphs in Perdido Street Station.
I consider myself to have a fairly extensive vocabulary, but Miéville is definitely an author who is best read on a Kindle, with its in-built dictionary. That said, I was in this instance reading a hard copy. (Rare, if regrettable, for me these days; there’s nothing quite like the smell and feel of a new book). I kept going to click for the next the pages instead of turning them.
But I digress….
New Weird, the genre to which Miéville’s Bas-Lag work belongs, is distinguished from other speculative fiction genres in part by its high, literary-style diction. This vocabulary, utilising obscure, archaic and argot words, can be alienating to the reader, making them feel like the author is talking down to them, bludgeoning them with their linguistic superiority. And I’m fine with that, I can keep up, but what I can’t cope with is Miéville’s repeated committing of a literary sin: the repetition of a conspicuous word in close proximity. If that isn’t carved in stone somewhere it damn well should be.
What he did in Perdido with ‘lugubrious’, he does in The Scar with ‘puissant’. Over and over again he uses the same word to describe anything he can possible attribute it to. I read the median 50% of the novel in one evening and when I woke up the next morning I had had the words ‘puissant’ and ‘puissance’ echoing in my mind like a neurotic parrot. According to one reader, the words ‘puissant’ or ‘puissance’ appear twenty times throughout the novel. I would wager that it was more than that, but I am not prepared to buy the book in kindle format to prove my point. It does not just appear in the narrator’s voice, but also in the dialogue, which somehow made it more annoying. Miéville is clearly an intelligent man, who would’ve had to get through likewise intelligent editors and proofreaders before going to print. I can therefore only assume that this feature of his writing is deliberate and with cause. As for what that cause, perhaps he is employing the Brechtian technique of distancing the reader from the text in order to make them look beyond the medium to the message it contains.
Personally I like to read books as is and then analyse the teeth out of them later. Maybe that’s just me.
The only other thing that lets The Scar down is the ending, such as it is. I read one review that used the term ‘blue balls‘ to describe it. After a heady, driving pace throughout the second half of the novel, our anti-climactic vision of the Scar is a second hand, maybe-vision of a possible impostor whose orating voice sounds suspiciously like Miéville’s own. During the epistolary Coda, we are left wondering, “So all that was for… that…? Really?”
But where the ending is equally as open as that of Perdido Street Station, the journey is equally as exhilarating and worth the ride. As long as you can develop ‘puissant’ blindness before reading.