The Geometry of Gender
We hear sometimes that gender is a "spectrum." One reason to envision it this way is to see that gender is not dichotomous: It cannot be neatly divided into two parts like boys' shoes vs. girls' shoes in a department store. Most of us are not one or the other; we're somewhere in the middle:
But even though the "spectrum" concept is useful, I've always found it troubling, because it understands masculinity and femininity as opposites. That means that if I'm deciding where I fall along the spectrum, I can't be more feminine without necessarily being less masculine--and vice versa. Here's what I mean:
Culturally, we know what most people consider "masculine" or "feminine" (even though most of us probably don't agree with it!). Fixing my car is masculine. Painting my nails is feminine. (Again, I think these characterizations are awful, but I'm talking about culturally dominant notions of femininity and masculinity.) So if gender is a spectrum, and masculinity and femininity are opposite ends of a continuum, this means that if I paint my nails, I become less masculine. An act that moves me closer to the right end of the spectrum moves me farther from the left end. If the "spectrum" view is accurate, masculinity and femininity are a zero-sum game.
But as I've been thinking about it lately, masculinity and femininity are more like a coordinate plane. (I suspect others have thought of this; I just haven't run into them yet.) Remember coordinate planes from high school geometry? Where you graph dots like (-1, 2)? Here's my version:
The idea is that masculinity and femininity can be high or low, but are independent of one another. If you paint your nails, you become more feminine, but this does not necessarily make you less masculine.
For many of us in the queer/boi/stud/dyke/trans/butch/genderqueer realm, such a conceptualization might be more comfortable and accurate. Mentally, it disentangles the two ideas a bit. Imagine a hot femme changing her own oil--she's performing a culturally "masculine" activity, but is she any less feminine? I'd argue the answer is no, just as I'd argue that a butch cooing at a baby might be more "feminine" in that moment than she was a moment earlier, but that she is no less masculine for it.
What do you think about this? Does it fit with how you think about gender?
I have a bit of a problem with even needing the designations of masculine and feminine. Why can't we all just be people? I have long hair, I'm under 100 lbs, but I wear men's dress shirts and ties and can change my own tire (and I'm beast at painting fingernails).
1/29/2013 04:46:30 am
I agree. I am female, I prefer feminine pronouns, I present as "androgynous," but at the end of the day, I don't really like to think of myself in gendered terms. My femininity is not "high" or "low." How can you quantify it like that? What does androgyny even mean? I use that term a lot to describe myself, but I don't even particularly like the term because it implies that having short hair and preferring neither dominance nor submission is what makes me a good combination of genders. This is a stupid definition of androgyny and gender if we're talking in essentialist terms. That's why quantifying it on a spectrum as if it were scientific annoys me... it's mostly pseudoscience.
3/30/2012 04:08:06 am
I consider myself a basic femme ( I've also been told a sporty femme), in other words I'm not high maintance. I find pleasure in the little things and don't require going out to dinner every night and I don't get my nails done, makeup is for special occasions. On the other hand, I love to get messy, have an insane giddiness over power tools, and think bondo (used for car bodywork) and gas are the greatest smells on earth. Oh, and if I can find something messy to get into, I will, and truely do enjoy it.
Yes! I think about gender up, down, and side to side. It is a process, an evolution. Sure, labels are no fun, but they are there to help in understanding norms and expectations placed on us by society. You can't reinvent the wheel, but you can send it turning in a different direction. (Does any of this make sense? I was up until 4:30 a.m.)
3/30/2012 04:46:17 am
I thnk it should some how be there because... If i Jay a stud is to be identified as a stud i gta do muscular thngs lyk nt do my nails n wori bwt my hair coz da last thng i want is another stud tryna make mves on me
3/30/2012 05:06:59 am
Why be obsessed with where one may "fit" on a graph or scale? What does it matter? It is what it is a various times...I am who I am...whenever, whatever, however...
3/30/2012 05:12:52 am
I don't think it's a matter of being "obsessed" about where we fit on a graph or a scale. Conceptualizing gender in some coherent, displayable way has at least two advantages:
3/30/2012 05:57:59 am
Good job on the graph idea for real. BUT I don't get the hole shin-dig of the pure butch, pure femme categories we are expected to be placed in. Im 22 drive otr semi and full blown gay been ever since 12 yrs old. I have a "mans job" driving flatbed and yes I wear mens clothes and have short hair. BUT I have an obsession with making sure my hair looks nice and gelled. When I go out to the gay bar I have my hair bangingly gelled up in a mohawk with glitter gel, eye liner, and some sweetness hot pink glossy lip gloss on. Yea I may have a physique of a heavily muscled girl but its not a choice its my job to play with heavy stuff. SO, with that being said I think that smack dab labels me as a "LIP-GLOSS LESBIAN" Boys wear masculine clothes but do they put gay liner on and pink lip gloss on when they go out??? I think not if their STRAIGHT. O and the hole "don't want certain girls hitn on me thing" that's why we half to have LABELS. Well ive dated many different kinds of lesbian woman, and sad truth is a butch or lip balm lesbian will be faithful and honest before a femme or rainbow lesbian will. PLUS a more boyishly looking lesbian is willing to give and receive. Femmes usually wanna receive receive receive... Yea, even with a dude and a chick im pretty sure they switch out eventually. Every lesbian has her on style and its how they care the style and attitude with confidence is what makes the girl SHINE.
3/31/2012 03:15:07 am
Your response upsets me. I am what YOU call a lip balm femme, and I have NEVER felt so upset about what someone has written. Who are you to classify that all femmes only want to recieve, recieve, recieve and ONLY certain femmes are loyal? Ever stop to think that maybe it was the type of women you were with, or possibly yourself that made them move on? You should really stop and re-read what you type before posting it, or at least know what you're talking about.
3/30/2012 07:07:34 am
This is very interesting. I have to ponder this some more.
3/30/2012 07:48:06 am
I like the graph concept. At least it adds dimensionality, as opposed to the straight line. For the "no labelz" purists, it's all good; you don't have to be a coordinate. As for me, I want to put stickers on it. Upper right corner: David Bowie. Lower right corner, Marilyn Monroe. Upper left corner: Buck Angel. Lower left corner: Spatula.
3/30/2012 08:31:43 am
I love the idea of stickers, K-Chop! Mine are:
3/30/2012 08:44:18 am
okay... I confess.... I give... wtf is "Spatula"? Google was no help, sorry.
3/30/2012 09:09:54 am
It's an object used to flip food over -- yeah. my sense of humor is a little strange.
3/30/2012 08:28:35 am
Whether we like no-label or not, the rest of the world labels us and we're socialised from birth with labels, not to condone or encourage the use, but to name ourselves on our own terms is very liberating. It's like choose ur own adventure! ...if ur an 80's child like me, you might get that reference. :P
3/30/2012 08:35:46 am
I LOVE this as I consider myself femme (I wear dresses, stockings, heels), but I'm the one who wields the power tools in our household. My lesbian husband on the other hand, wears men's suits and all things that are men's clothing, but hates to get dirty.
This is close to a concept that came up during my Genderqueer workshop at the Portland Butch Voices conference. We were talking about similar issues -- how to describe ourselves in a world that was biased toward a two gender system. This was a room full of about 40 folks, most of whom were self-identifying as genderqueer. The idea of the spectrum was not a great fit for most in the room, so we were visualizing a 3 dimensional sphere (or ball'o' gender) as a way to break out of the 2 dimensional spectrum model. Your idea of the coordinate plane comes very close to that. I like it. Do you mind if I crib off you?
3/30/2012 10:48:28 am
Signing on to what @RadDyke said. I like this better than the binary, but it still leaves a lot of stuff out. My personal spectrum isn't feminine/masculine, it's femme/butch (I fall towards the butch side except when I don't); I really don't understand what masculinity and femininity mean (for myself, that is - totally cool if it works for other people), and I'm especially bothered when people try to equate masculine/feminine and butch/femme. 'Cause hey, I'm a butch who isn't masculine, and yes, I do get to say that.
3/30/2012 10:14:03 pm
I sppreciate this approach as it gives permission to be who I am without de-butching myself. I love my butch identity and I am a diverse person with many interests not considered butch (I bake a mean muffin). What it seems with those saying we ought to drop all labeling is that it is not about the labeling of ourselves but the labeling of the activities we engage in as ourselves. This model truly does liberate all of that labeling as it is just another dot on a graph of who I am. Fantastic.
3/31/2012 02:08:18 am
I DO love the way you think, BW.
this is a sweet idea, but it sorta erases folks whose gender has nothing to do with masculinity and femininity. at first, you talk about gender as a spectrum, but then you start discussing masculinity and femininity as a coordinate plane; i'm not sure if you're extracting masculinity and femininity from the gender galaxy in order to focus on them or if you're erasing all non-masculine-non-feminine genders. i'm going to assume the former, but i though i'd bring it up anyway.
This is pretty much the way I try to explain or introduce non-binary / genderqueer genders:
4/5/2012 05:08:47 am
I absolutely love your coordinate plane idea! It's so refreshing to have someone discuss the fact that high masculinity and high femininity are NOT mutually exclusive. I'm not sure where exactly I would plot myself; but this plot definitely reflects my gender identity far, far better than "the gender spectrum" does.
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