More gender musings, part 1: Working Farmer Style!
I’d mothballed this draft, until I ran across this video that made me laugh a little while ago, through a G+ post from +My Béllé Don Full (who usually posts really delicious-looking Nigerian food). Farmer Style (Gangnam Style Parody)
Try that in a dress.*** Or, erm,
…heels. (That was so hilariously inappropriate I had to get a screenshot!)
And I bet he was regretting right then that he hadn’t done more with hair products.
The inappropriate YouTube ads are probably endless there. (Now, Google ad preferences have decided I’m female, after all, age: 25-34. Based on activity on that profile, I was previously male in the 65+ age range. *scratches head*)
I’m used to smaller-scale farming than what you tend to get in Kansas, but yeah.
I just ran across something else that made me want to write more about a cluster of topics that’s been on my mind anyway, but huge topic and OCD perfectionism. Not that many days go by without seeing something like this, but from an article I clicked through on out of curiosity,
I STILL PLAY WITH TOYS (YES, ACTUAL TOYS): PLUS! THE TERRIBLE THINGS I DID TO MY CHILDHOOD BARBIES, THE GIRLIFICATION OF LEGOS AND THE VALUE OF PLAYING (because, hey, I still like me some toys):
As a former knotty-haired grubby-kneed tomboy myself, I was always coveting the toys of my boy playmates, like the massive Hot Wheels garage playset belonging to the son of family friends, or the towering Castle Greyskull plastic monstrosity owned by a boy neighbor. In fact, I struggled powerfully with my desire for all of these boys’ toys — I was convinced it meant that there was something deeply wrong with me, that my lack of natural aptitude for girl things (behavior that is, after all, for the most part conditioned and learned and not intrinsic) indicated that I was somehow gender-broken.
In fact, I was actively worrying about my struggles to fit gender expectations as far back as my memory can go. I felt guilt over my envy for the boys’ dozens of miniature Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars, and shame that I could never ask for them for myself, because doing so would mean openly rejecting my feminine development, and given that my boyishness already got me teased by peers and regularly mistaken for male by adult strangers (who for a certain period of my elementary school years were often calling me “son,” to my horror), I couldn’t bear to think of giving up hope of being normal just yet. So I kept to my gender-neutral Legos, and hoped for the best.
I was also appalled at the change in Legos the last time I went “hey, I should go ahead and buy some toys!” and went looking through stores. Born in the mid ’70s, I’m used to the idea of more being gender neutral (like, erm, assorted things to build stuff with). One of my favorite games involved at least one human figure (doll or action figure, who cares) and a bunch of dinosaurs and other animals riding around in a Tonka dump truck, and having all kinds of adventures. You can fit a lot of animals in the back of a dump truck. 😉 (And some imagination-deficient people would insist that this is not “imaginative play,” if you’re doing it by yourself rather than “taking part in role-play games” with other kids.) And early-’70s born (Swedish) Mr. U also found this recent stir to be more than a little weird: Girls with (toy) guns: Swedish retailer causes stir with gender-neutral catalogue. Go Swedish Advertising Ombudsman, but how things have changed, in his experience too. 😐 Lots and lots has been written about Lego’s weird attempt at gendering, in particular. But, my personal old fart musings on the increased gendering of toys is not really the point here; I just can’t resist sounding like a cranky old fart sometimes.
Still, as someone else commented:
Just a data point, but: I feel very lucky to have been born into the gender-neutral, 1970-1985 sweet spot identified by the Smithsonian article linked above. I’m a ladyperson. I never cared much for dolls or action figures, but I did love the crap out of stuffed animals (I considered most of them to be guys, for some reason). I liked blocks and Matchbox cars and overalls and the color green. I thought of She-Ra as a knockoff, but that said, I didn’t care that much about He-Man. There were times that I felt pressured to try to adopt feminine preferences (especially as related to color), but overall, I grew up in a world where my parents didn’t push baby dolls and house play sets on me, and instead, let me have super bounce balls and Legos and an awesome plastic T. rex. I am glad that there was room for my preferences, and that I wasn’t shunted into an all-pink aisle.
I still think that super bounce balls and Legos and T. rex are the bomb, and that dressing up dolls is boring. Even though I like how I look in a skirt.
There are other factors with the lack of pressure for me growing up, but yeah. It still really wasn’t as extreme as now, when my younger cousins were born in 1989 and 1992. I was helping buy toys and clothes for them, too. (And, reminded by the Smithsonian article, I still want a copy of one portrait of my Granddaddy as a baby, in what looked like a frilly christening gown–but not, since his family was Baptist. I found it totally fascinating as a little kid, more because I had a hard time imagining that he, personally, had ever been under 50 years old. 😉 )
The point that really struck me once again was: the experience of the original writer quoted is so far from my own, that reports of experiences like this keep startling me. And I can well imagine that my own would startle a lot of people raised under such different expectations.
My own experience is far enough from the commonly expected trans* and other gender variant narratives that it does sometimes help get me started down the road of doubting whether I’m just some particularly clueless and stubborn (and appropriative) cis special snowflake with a good enough fit that I never even had to think about gender before I started getting pissed off at some expectations. Then again, it’s really easy for me to take the learned gaslighting to the point of actually having started thinking again that maybe I was just making a big deal out of nothing, when I’d had the tooth abscess confirmed, and the antibiotics were starting to help. I knew it was absofuckinglutely absurd as I kept thinking it, but yeah. My mind just keeps doing that; OCD FTW! 😐
The thing is, I didn’t even know it was even possible to do the whole Being a Girl thing wrong until after I hit a really awful school system. Even then, the messages tended to be a lot more subtle and unspoken than when my mom got into trouble (in the same school system) over more-or-less reflexively shoulder throwing a guy who came up behind her and grabbed her boobs, on the basis that it was “unladylike”.* Nobody ever said outright “but girls don’t do X!” (when there’s one right over there, doing just that). But, I sure did pick up on the fact pretty quickly that I was apparently doing something wrong, even if it took me a while to figure out that gender performance was part of that.
None of my behavior got treated as particularly odd or wrong before that, actually, even with me having rather frequent meltdowns in kindergarten and first grade. Some kids just get overwhelmed and cry for no obvious reason; best just to let them sit somewhere quiet until they calm down. Amazing thought, eh? 😦
I didn’t even encounter the word “tomboy” until I was maybe 9 or 10, and had to look it up. It still didn’t make much sense. And I am reminded again of that interview with my Nana, as part of an oral history project.
We got out and rode the horses bareback with not bridle or saddle and I can’t tell you everything we got into. The neighborhood children was teenagers all of them, you know, and we used to get out and take the dogs and go coon hunting with a kerosene lantern….
Megan: What kind of toys did you play with?
Bunce: I climbed trees and played marbles and got out and rode horses and played with the dog, I never was much of a doll person, you know? I was old enough to do a lot of farm work, we put up hay, and hoed corn and milked thirteen cows, by hand, morning and night.
Because some people are doll people, and some people just aren’t. (Indeed, she gave me both dolls and Tonka trucks, because I was interested in both.) An insulting descriptor like “tomboy” doesn’t even need to enter into that. Another good description of a totally different type of experience, from PINK BOYS, TOMBOYS, AND BIAS:
Because, uh, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but tomboys absolutely do experience stigma, judgment, and general nastiness from other children as well as adults around them. They’re punished for not being ‘traditional girls’ just as pink boys are stigmatised for not being ‘traditional boys.’ To be a tomboy means being taunted for your practical clothes, for not having a fashion sense, for wearing torn jeans and casual shirts that you can be rough and wild in. It means being told you’d look so much prettier if you put on a dress now and then, or ‘did something’ with your hair, or learned how to use makeup.
It means your parents and other adults insinuate you’ll probably grow up to be a lesbian (as though there’s something wrong with that) on the basis of how you dress and behave. If you’re a girl who likes field hockey and prefers climbing trees to playing princess, obviously you’re suspect and should be closely watched. Tomboys in unwelcoming families may be actively punished for expressing themselves the way they want to, while in others, they may be met with perplexity by parents who aren’t sure what to do with them, while other children on the playground mock them for not performing femininity well enough.
Compare that kind of “traditional girl” to the kinds of role models I had growing up. My Nana was, in fact, one kind of very “traditional girl”. Because people have all kinds of different interests.
So, yeah, I don’t see the term “tomboy” as neutral in any way, much less some kind of backhanded compliment as it is sometimes interpreted. IMO, there shouldn’t even be a need for that term to exist, to point out perceived deviancy. (See also: Quickie: Deviancy and prescriptivism, which kind of applies to this whole post.) In a way, I feel lucky not to have even run into that term before I was in elementary school, much less felt that kind of pressure at home. OTOH, I had no idea what was even going on when I started getting mocked “on the playground”. There was plenty of that, later on.
Nobody gave me any kind of feedback that any of my interests were somehow gender-inappropriate, again before I got into that particular school system. (Another one that left my jaw hanging open: How to Talk to Little Girls. Ye gods. I was considered an exceptionally pretty little kid, like my biodad before me**–we looked a lot alike, actually–and I don’t think it occurred to anybody to focus entirely on that. That’s just a bizarre and awful way to treat any child.)
On that note, we’re back around to varied interests being considered not just OK but expected. My biodad liked drag racing and breeding carnations. My aunt was into fashion–at least until her own sensory issues took over and got her dressing outside of work largely out of L.L. Bean and t-shirts she picked up at horse shows–and motorcycles. My Nana herself was also a hairdresser before she stopped to look after the kids and run the farm, while not spending much time on her own appearance, because she considered other priorities more important. (She continued to do some people’s hair in her kitchen, pretty much until she died, just not as a full-time job.) Just looking at that side of the family. And none of it came across as unusual.
And around clothing choices:
Bunce: Yeah, we had to feed all the animals before we went to school.
Mom. What time did you get up?
Bunce: Four or five o’clock. So nobody had to rock you to sleep at night. Yeah, we just get up and hoe corn before the sun come up…
Well honest to goodness back then about every dressing stuff we had was hand sewn. And when we got home we would take the dresses off and put on a pair of bibbed overalls. We didn’t have jeans then, we had bibbed overalls. At that was about two or three years in high school. At home we would wear bibbed overalls. We had two pair of shoes. A good pair and a sorry pair. And we had to walk about two miles down a mountain, down a path to catch the school bus and we carried a pair of shoes and wore the old pair and stuck them under across the plank where we crossed to get over on the railroad track.
That was on a farm run by her Grandma Coburn and two aunts, BTW. She later ran smaller farming operations while my Granddaddy stayed gone a lot of the time with the railroad. Pretty traditional pattern, with hunting turned into often having to spend time away from home doing paid work.
But, yeah, very sensible choices, under the circumstances. The main distinction there being “work clothes” and “school/church clothes”.
My Nana also got into problems with the kids’ elementary school principal (who also happened to be her cousin), over his getting ridiculous over my Aunt Sally getting sent to school in practical clothing in the winter, instead of wading through snow in the little cotton dresses and ankle socks which were the prescribed year-round early ’50s girly school costume. Apparently, even wearing long pants and boots under the dress to take off after she got to the school was ideologically unacceptable to him. She suggested that he needed to come and sit up with my aunt all night the next time she got sick, and actually ended up slapping him when he continued mouthing off, but yeah. (Cousins!) OTOH, my mom talked about the fun of walking to school in the expected school clothes back then, in all kinds of weather, and I have also seen several others from that generation talking about the frozen legs and feet; no wonder her generation mostly had different ideas about how they wanted to dress their own kids!
See also: “I Know How to Work”: Stories of Farm Women in Stokes and Surry Counties. Which, while not exactly the same area, sounds very familiar. I am not even going into some of Theda Purdue’s problems in the piece on Cherokee women at the top of that page (less than in her book on the same subject, at least), but yeah, the quotes from the women in the linked piece are even without throwing in more Native cultural influences. Though, I will add, the default occupation for pretty much all Eastern Native women was farmer. From Magdalene Compton there:
She explained that her grandfather “had four boys and four girls, and the girls worked just like boys until they got to be old ladies. I’ve seen ’em pitch hay and the water just run off of ‘em.” Magdalene herself preferred outdoor work to inside chores. “Give me the outside anytime!”
Which reminded me of my Nana and so many others I know, actually. Farm kids? They work a lot. And, under those circumstances, it’s only sensible to have practical work clothes. Which are not “boy clothes”, just clothes that are suitable for doing hard work in, running around the woods and riding horses in, etc. In that kind of setting, being strong and physically competent to your own personal ability is also a gender-neutral expectation. (And women are automatically supposed to eat less? Ha!) This isn’t limited to farming, but can kind of establish a pattern in rural and semi-rural areas. Where pretty much everyone has hard work to do. As if they don’t elsewhere… I keep getting impressed, watching young women here pushing around heavy-looking prams and strollers hung with loads of shopping bags, while wearing stilettos. We are in Essex. I’m bigger and stronger than most of them, and would have a hard time doing that even without the heels; I honestly don’t know how they manage. (Talk about some tough femmes…)
As a bit of a tangent I would also add, from experience slinging produce and boxes of chilled goods around in a supermarket here, that it’s somehow magically not physically hard work if it involves food or, presumably, children. Even wrestling the 25kg sacks of potatoes which finally did my back in, or small kids and their prams who probably weigh a lot more than that put together. One condescending old goat actually stood right in my way, with a box of cheese prominently labeled 16kg in one arm (because my other shoulder was already rebelling!), to tell me what a nice little job I had going there. (And I was so tempted just to drop it on his foot…) I am just not used to that pattern, either.
And, in just about the same age group as my grandparents, (Cherokee) Evelyn “Jackie” Bross got arrested in Chicago for cross-dressing.
Appearing in Women’s Court the next morning, Bross told Judge Jacob Braude that she wore men’s clothes because they “were more comfortable than women’s clothes and handy for work.” She stood her ground defiantly. “I wish I was a boy,” she declared. “I never did any wrong. I just like to wear men’s clothes.” Denying that she was trying to deceive anyone, she informed the court that “everyone knows I’m a woman.” Judge Braude avoided an immediate decision by ordering Bross to see a court psychiatrist.
Coming in the middle of wartime, when millions of women were wearing pants every day in shipyards and aircraft factories and other defense jobs, the arrest of Bross hit a raw nerve. Many spoke out on her behalf. The city’s leading club women supported her on feminist grounds: “Women’s suffrage and slacks ought to go hand in hand,” the Tribune reported them arguing. Harry Guilbert, head of the regional federal office for war-industry employment, was enraged at the arrest. “If the girl cut her hair short, she should be awarded a medal instead of a court summons,” he told reporters. “Safety directors in factories everywhere have tried to encourage women to cut their hair short.”
Maybe there was something else going on there (I would not be at all surprised), but yeah. The practical considerations are more than enough. Very different expectations and attitudes on display, some based in rigid ideologies around gender performance/presentation and some not so much. I personally have more experience of the descriptive “everyone knows I’m a woman” approach. (But, probably more on that.)
I didn’t even intend to get back around to this, but:
Another one which was interesting in spite of being horribly dense with IMO unnecessarily thick jargon, and with some similar experiences I would interpret very differently in context: The (Mis)translation of Masculine Femininity in Rural Space: (Re)reading ‘Queer’ Women in Northern Ontario, Canada. These interpretations may well be valid for Thunder Bay; I’ve never even been there. But, this kind of universalist interpretation of cues and cultural themes is part of the problem, in my experiences elsewhere. You can’t just be (descriptively), you must be doing (prescriptive) elaborately coded binary-gender-specific things at all times. Even if all you’re doing is wearing comfortable and practical clothing for what you’re actually doing, it must be part of gender performance. It’s impossible that more things may just be considered gender neutral. And the very idea of “masculine feminity” obviously makes sense to everybody, in the first place. (Yes, I do get the idea, and it does work for some people in some contexts; more power to them. Assuming that everybody who is doing something you don’t understand must be sending some deliberate message which you obviously do understand based on what you are familiar with? Universalist projection, which is kinda the problem here.)
To reiterate: there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing “masculine femininity” if that is what you are wanting/needing to do. It is kind of insulting, though, to assume that’s what everybody whose presentation fits your idea of it is doing, when you have no idea what’s going on there. They may or may not actually be butch (or “tomboyish”) at all. And, yeah, some of the most “butch” women I know are totally straight and cis, and don’t even see what they’re doing as butch or otherwise gender variant. I don’t even register as particularly butch, in context, though I sure have gotten read that way elsewhere.
When I’m back home, nobody still seems to read much into whatever they might be imagining my gender performance and presentation to be, much less what that might indicate about my sexuality or gender identity. (Honestly, I don’t think the performance aspect is even such a thing at all; easy to read similar between the lines in that paper. Short Haircut: You Can Guess Where This is Going, Right? Not so much, where I come from, with the majority of women I know having them for assorted practical reasons. And that kind of policing still pisses me off) Except for some cultural incomers, like the one who wrote the paper above. I could certainly tell some stories about assumptions there, with some added regional and racial weirdness, and may one of these days.
But, yeah, I don’t think that I just wasn’t picking up on expectations, growing up. There just was/is not that much prescriptive pressure, outside of that hostile-to-locals school system. And, without as much physical dysphoria as some people experience, it didn’t/doesn’t really bother me that much when “everyone knows I’m a woman”. Call me anything but late for dinner, as long as that doesn’t also mean that I’m supposed to be doing (or, worse, wanting to do) much in particular. Now I’m a lot more bothered. The disconnect becomes more of a problem when this carries more rigid role expectations along with it, at least for me. More on the social dysphoria there (along with a side dish of masked other dysphoria, bubbling up), coming up.
What a surprise that I ended up going off at more length on tangents than intended :), but this bit of background around expectations, and differences in coding, seems to have turned into the first part of a short series.
* Twice, actually. It was totally ignored the first time, but after he tried to make some kind of obscure face-saving macho point by coming back and doing it again about a week later, her throwing him again was “unladylike”. They didn’t even try to argue that it was a disproportionate or unwarranted response, just “unladylike”. To her knowledge, nobody even talked to him about it. Provides a little more context to my amusement at that “I used to enjoy joking that my ex would toss a refrigerator at someone who messed with her” comment, because yeah. That can be a problem when it turns into “Why didn’t you kick him in the balls?” victim blaming (my mom was actually a master of that one), but without that turning prescriptive? That’s closer to my own experience around women and socially accepted levels of aggressive responses. Tends to go the other way in terms of expectations, if anything.
** Described by his crusty great-grandfather as “pretty like a rose”. As a totally straightforward compliment, which mostly got repeated because that was the nicest thing anyone had ever heard the old man say about anyone.
*** Actually, that brings to mind one story from my Nana, which helps illustrate another point besides the long line of stubbornness (and my suckage as a storyteller 😐 ).
Her Granny Coburn was probably in her 90s, and not doing much farm work anymore by that point, so she regularly wore skirts. They had one sow who got really aggressively protective whenever she had piglets, so of course Granny Coburn decided she needed to take a bucket of kitchen scraps out there right after Mean Piggy had another litter. Several other people were doing chores and saw her headed over to the pigpen, and suggested that they could do that for her. The response, of course? “Hmph. I guess I know how to feed the hogs by now!” So as soon as she cracked open the gate to the pigpen, Mean Piggy charged right at her legs, got caught in the long skirts, the bucket went flying up in the air–and little birdlike Granny Coburn went on a wild ride around the farmyard, backward on a huge sow who couldn’t see where she was running. (And, thankfully, didn’t get hurt when the sow finally threw her off!)
So, yeah, probably better to dress appropriately. It was a lot funnier with my Nana telling it, especially since everyone could easily picture her doing exactly the same thing. 😉 On one occasion, she did climb up on the roof for some reason when she was seven months pregnant, and couldn’t get down again without help. Good thing a neighbor saw her up there waving!