Posts Tagged ‘ women ’

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 these women are okay because though they’re extremely muscular (masculine trait) they still have long hair and otherwise look like women (feminine trait)?

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.

one example of a ‘why is *she* with *her*?’ couple

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.

Peace :):-

For more on this subject, follow the links below:


Patriarchy in ‘The Color Purple’ – critiquing the critique

In describing The Color Purple (1982) as a ‘womanist’ fiction, thereby following the ethic of “women who love women —and sometimes individual men— sexually and/or nonsexually” and “feminists of colour” (Walker, 1983 in Berlant, 1988), Alice Walker effectively declares her work a critique on patriarchy and racism, of which the former will be the focus here. The ways in which Walker exacts her critique centre on several subversions and a proposed alternative model. Primarily, the subversions involve the breaking of silence through language, Black Vernacular English (BVE), laughter and song (Tucker, 1988; Hite, 1983; Abbandonato, 1991) and the use of the feminine, personal narrative forms of quilting and epistolary (Selzer, 1995; Berlant, 1988; Abbandonato, 1991). Additional subversions include the usurping of the conventional hetero-normative love story (Abbandonato, 1991; Hite, 1991) and showing how men can also suffer under patriarchy by being forced into a gender role to the exclusion of what they may prefer, for example Albert’s youthful enjoyment of sewing (247).  As contrasted with the grim beginnings of the story, Walker also critiques patriarchy implicitly by offering us a happy ending couched in a redefined, alternative view of how the world could be. This alternative model centres on the linguistic reappropriation of female anatomy and sexual desire (Abbandonato, 1991; Hite, 1991); the ‘disgendering’ and decentralising of God (Abbandonato, 1991; Hite, 1991); and how male acceptance of the fluidity of gender roles ultimately brings happiness and balance (Selzer, 1995; Hite, 1983). This discussion will balance these factors against the contentions of critics that the critique is intrinsically flawed and will conclude in Walker’s favour.

Hite argues that Walker uses the “Afro-American motif of ‘finding a voice’… to decentre patriarchal authority”, allowing women to alter meanings through “articulating and appropriating the dominant discourse” (1983:265). Celie starts the novel by erasing herself from the present[/-tense] when she writes ‘I am’, and subsequently attempts to build herself up from this “site of negation”, a burden shared by all women who try to forge an identity noncompliant with the cultural scripts of gender and sexuality entrenched in patriarchy and manifested through a man-made language (Abbandonato, 1991).

Reaffirming what Tucker calls “language as power” (1988:82) and “[a]ware that ‘the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house’ (Lorde, 1999, in Abbandonato (1991:1108), Walker succeeds in offering a different view of the world in part through Celie’s rejection of Standard English (SE). Despite Darlene’s advisement to adopt the ‘proper’ mode of speech (194), Celie finds her voice and her self-worth whilst still writing her letters and ‘speaking’ in BVE. According to linguistic relativity, the language we use shapes our perception of the world (Whorf, 1956), so for Celie, talking in SE means that “pretty soon it feel like [she] can’t think” (194). Of course, SE is also an allegory for patriarchy, both of which she ultimately rejects, reflecting “only a fool would want you to talk in a way that feel peculiar to your mind” (195).This non-conformity shows her resistant position outside the dominant system. Furthermore, “Celie’s vitality is privileged over Nettie’s dreary correctness” Abbandonato (1991:1108) and thus SE’s position as linguistic exemplar is challenged.

Redefining female sexual anatomy (“shifting emphasis from lack or hole of patriarchal representation,” Hite (1983)) permitting female sexual pleasure (Shug’s redefinition of the word ‘virgin’ (Hite, 1983)) and re-envisioning a genderless, colourless, pantheistic God who “love all them feelings” (176) are all done linguistically and collaboratively between women —Celie and Shug— and threaten “patriarchal control over women’s bodies” (Hite, 1983:226) and minds. This collaboration is symptomatic of the novel’s ‘quilting’ narrative, achieved via the collaborative epistolary of Nettie and Celie. The story is the synthesis of many voices —not just one— Walker is merely the ‘medium’ (262). This is a firm rejection of the patriarchal view of the author as godlike, single source of all information and meaning (Abbandonato, 1991:1108).

bell hooks, for example, cxritcises The Color Purple for its emphasis on gender issues over racial ones believing that the focus on sexual oppression damages the racial agenda of the slave narrative tradition it is clearly drawing from (1990, in Selzer, 1991). Considering how pervasive inter-racial issues are in the novel, this criticism may be damning on a racial front, but it serves as an affirmation of the critique of patriarchy. This is not to say, however, that there are no detractions from the critique. Harris found little to applaud in the novel at all, likening it to a compendium of “political IOUs” (1984:160), but while the novel does address a lot of salient and controversial issues, they do not serve to weaken the gender critique, in fact, as Berlant (1988) points out, in some instances the racial issues serve to enhance/reinforce the gender issues, such as the lynching/rape parallel. Harris, however, damns the gender critique along with the racial one. Firstly, she criticises the use of a male narrative model to critique a male system,

“Celie will break her bonds and take symbolic vengeance on those who will attempt to hurt her… as other heroes triumph over the forces that attempt to destroy them in their youth… The fabulist/fairy-tale mold [sic] of the novel is ultimately incongruous with… its message…” (1984:159-60).

While it is clear to see the typical hero story in Celie’s, rather than condemning the use of a male form for the transmission of a feminist message, it can be understood as another subversion – a male form used inside the female form or indeed as a fusion of the two.

Secondly, Harris argues that ‘between the lines’ the novel affirms that Celie’s (and by extension all women’s) “… patience and long-suffering… passivity… silence in the face of, if not actual allegiance to, cruelty… secrecy concerning violence and violation…” (Harris, 1984:160) will lead to a happy ending, essentially reiterating the demand for female silence inherent in patriarchy. Harris argues that Sofia is “beaten, imprisoned and nearly driven insane precisely because of her strength” (1984:157), which effectively conveys the message ‘woe betide women who stand up for themselves’; Sofia may be alive and reunited with her family by the novels’ close, but she is far worn down. Harris believes this inaction destroys the critique from the inside out, but what action could Celie have successfully taken until she had support and somewhere to go? When these criteria are met, she does act. Harris is also critical of the African sections of the book. However, they actually serve to highlight women’s inequalities across cultures, for example being denied education. Furthermore, that Nettie reaches the same conclusions in Africa— about things such as God— as Celie does in America also reinforces Walker’s critique.

Inversely, does The Color Purple go too far the other way in portraying a totally matriarchal society? After all, there is only one example of a ‘good’ (and unchanged) man who exists under the new regime, Sofia’s brother-in-law Jack. As Harris points out, “…all the bad guys are dead or converted to womanist philosophy.” Really, though, that is the point: the only way for the oppressed to be happy is to eradicate all the oppressors or convert them. Moreover, by presenting a fairy-tale element to the final Edenic (Hite, 1983) utopia where everyone is happy Walker emphasises the difference between the patriarchal status quo and her new vision, thus enhancing the critique.

From the beginning of the story where patriarchy’s pervasive, quotidian oppression of both women and of men is shown to keep everyone by-and-large miserable, to the ending with a re-envisioned, redefined world in which the characters are happy, The Color Purple successfully critiques patriarchy and shows how language can be as equally the instrument of freedom as it has been the instrument of captivity.

© Geo. S. Willis

To cite this post in Harvard style:

Willis, G. S. (2011) Patriarchy in ‘The Color Purple’ – Critiquing the Critique, The Third Word. Available from:


Abbandonato, L. (1991) “A View From ‘Elsewhere’”: Subversive Sexuality and the Rewriting of the Heroine in The Color Purple, PMLA, Vol. 160, NO. 5 (October 1991), pp. 1106-1115. Available from: Accessed 19th January 2011.

Berlant, L. (1988) Race, Gender and Nation in “The Color Purple”, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 4, No. 4, (Summer, 1988), pp. 831-859. Available from: Accessed 19th February 2011.

Harris, T. (1984) On The Color Purple, Stereotypes and Silence, Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Winter, 1984), pp. 155-161. Available from: Accessed: 19th January 2011.

Hite, M. (1989) Romance,, Marginality, Matrilineage: Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” and Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”, NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Spring 1989), pp. 257-273. Available from: Accessed 19th January 2011.

Selzer, L. (1995) Race and Domesticity in The Color Purple, African American Review, Vol. 29, No, 1 (Spring 1995), pp. 67-82. Available from: Accessed 19th January 2011.

Tucker, L. (1988) Alice Walker’s The Color Purple: Emergent Woman, Emergent Text, Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 22, No. 1, Black Women Writers Issue (Spring, 1988), pp. 81-95. Available from: Accessed 19th February 2011.

Whorf, B. L. (1956) Language, thought and reality, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press. Available from: Accessed 25th February 2011.

UK whore tax could help plug a gap

Also known as:

The case to have brothels  legalised, standardised, pasteurised (well, not quite), regulated and taxed.


The short answer:

Firstly, because the workers could be medically screened and physically and legally protected.

Secondly, the tax the government could/would reap would be massive,  comparable even to that of smokers’ and drivers’ taxes.


The longer answer?

It could be argued that ‘no one’ wants a brothel on their doorstep and this is fair enough. Put them in industrial parks. Not sexy enough? Neither’s an alley (although something resembling an alley could be constructed on premises with an outside area).

Is this heinously commodifying women? I never said brothels should only be worked in by women; men are fair game too. Don’t like the commodification of sex? Here’s some news: it’s the oldest trade in the world, it was commodified long before any of us were born and with a country strapped for cash (and the government dipping into the pension funds etc.) we might as well stop being prudish and wilfully ignorant. Legalising this area of the black market could generate masses of revenue, plugging a gap in the economy, at the same time as all-importantly looking after the health and safety of the workers – not to mention the peace of mind of the patrons.

The language trap [short version]

The term ‘language trap’ and the concept behind it has been used many times in the last few decades with specific —but not sole— reference to gender and language studies, for example Dale Spender (1980), Deborah Cameron (1985, 1990) and Robin Lakoff (1975, 2004). For the purposes of this evaluation, a language trap shall be taken to mean:

the existence within language of conventions, expectancies and etiquette which serve to maintain the status of women as subservient and inferior to men and to maintain contemporary society’s patriarchal power structure.

The argument here is that, in the way language is used by and about women, they are still the victims of a language trap. Through language, women are objectified, commodified, infantilised and marginalised. Language, like the society it reflects, changes very slowly over time. The work of feminists in the 1970s is on the one hand still being undertaken and on the other hand is being undone. From close analysis, it can be seen that women are still currently the victims of a language trap. This is not to say however that the trap is inescapable and indeed it is evident that change toward equality is underfoot.

The full version of this essay is on the portfolio page, here.

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