Sunday 18 March 2012

More on "women's" clothes.

Last June I wrote (in this post): “if most aspects of human behaviour are not inherently gendered, why should inanimate objects attached to humans be gendered? Why should the majority of human clothing be designated either as male or female? What in fact are women's clothes?

Nine months on, I'm increasingly taking this view: that the entire construct of "men's" and "women's" clothes is just so much bullshit. (Even those designed for specific body-parts.) I mean really.

This may seem like a strange view for a cross-dresser to take, since I'm hardly coming at it from a neutral position: the gendering of clothing has always been fairly important to me. Indeed, it's important at a deep emotional level that my clothes are "women's" clothes. But intellectually... it's a load of crap, isn't it?! Why should we, as individuals or a society, be insistently gendering pieces of fabric by garment, pattern, style, texture, etc? The more I think about it, the more ridiculous it seems.

Going back to last year: in December I read Sandra Bem's 1993 feminist opus, “The Lenses of Gender: Transforming the Debate on Sexual Inequality”. Okay, Bem may not have been, shall we say, "fully up to date" on trans issues, but I'm not going to critique those bits of her book here because I love the rest of it. Her basic premise is that gender is distorted by three artificial cultural lenses: androcentrism, gender polarization, and biological essentialism — in other words, that male perspectives are taken as standard; that all aspects of humanity are divided according to binary gender; and that these perspectives and aspects are determined by biology and hence immutable — and that these lenses perpetuate a dystopian gender reality, in particular for women and sexual minorities. If you want to know more about these matters, you should read the book itself; I've mentioned it solely in order to quote one passage (from "The Construction of Gender Identity"; p150):

Although the terms sissy and tomboy do not apply to adults who have crossed the gender boundary, the asymmetry between male boundary-crossers and female boundary-crossers is as strong as ever for those who have left childhood behind. This is why a woman can wear almost any item of male clothing—including jockey underwear—and be accepted socially, but a man still cannot wear most items of female clothing without being stigmatized.

The heavy-handed suppression of impulses in males that are culturally defined as even slightly feminine—including what I see as the natural impulse to adorn oneself in vibrant colors and silky textures—makes it extraordinarily difficult for many men to acknowledge the existence within themselves of desires that have even the slightest hint of femininity; the layers of their psyches are thus filled with the kinds of repressed impulses that cannot help but constitute a continuous internal threat to the security of their gender identities.

Well, we could probably debate the relative truth of all that for quite some time, but again I'm not going to. Instead, I just want to highlight this bit:

the natural impulse to adorn oneself in vibrant colors and silky textures

These twelve short words – virtually an aside – leapt at me from the page. Because: Bem thereby degenders clothing, posits femme expression as human rather than female (or merely a stereotype) and negates cultural prohibitions at a stroke.

Bravo! :)