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?