My Gender Stuff
Sunday Content #25: February 6, 2016
The other day I had a friend come with me when I went inside a Sephora. She didn’t know that that’s what she was doing. I’d presented it as a random idea, going into Sephora. We were meeting up; we were nearby one, and I suggested we go in there because I had an errand to run.
She didn’t know that for some months, I had spent lots of hours thinking about buying red lipstick because the one I bought three years ago had finally fallen apart. I like to have some red lipstick around in case I have to go to a party or something. It makes me feel powerful in a feminine way. I had looked at the internet for a long time trying to buy some red lipstick. I couldn’t commit myself to buying something that’d show up through the mail; I’ve made that mistake a few times before and only failed. Makeup is expensive and some of it is terrible. I’m bad at makeup. I’m bad at girly things. But the thing that’s good about Sephora is you can theoretically try a couple of things on.
I’ve always been a tomboy. When I went to college, I taught myself to wear a dress. Nothing stresses me out more than having to affect femininity. It’s only been very recently that I’ve starting being honest with myself and others that these attempts at affecting femininity are just that, for me, performances. When I was 19 and briefly friends with the kinds of girls who’d pre-game in heels and walk into a club, I think what I felt was I was passing.
When I was little, I couldn’t tell you why, but my favorite character on television was Bugs Bunny, specifically when he dressed up like a lady:
When I was a senior in college, I wrote a thesis. It was an essays collection. (Essays I am glad I never published.) There wasn’t an essay about gender. What you’re reading right now, this is the most honestly I’ve ever written about gender in my life. To the consternation of my thesis advisor, I titled the collection, “The Bunny in Drag.” “Why did you call it this?” he asked. I told him I didn’t know why I called it that, which wasn’t a lie.
I know now that what I felt when I saw Bugs Bunny was identification; I titled the collection, then the most important thing I’d ever written, about a big aspect of my identity and how I navigate the world. The bunny in drag was the closest depiction I saw of what it felt like to be me.
A few weeks ago, chatting with that same friend who accompanied me into Sephora, I referred to my own gender as “whatever I am.”
It just came out. I’d never vocalized so casually my Gender Stuff. I said it and felt relief. That phrase—“whatever I am”— felt way more honest than any other way of describing my gender I’ve ever tried on.
I think it’s because of this stuff, stuff I’m finally starting to address at age 28, that whatever small amounts of femininity I manage to pull off are achieved only despite much anxiety. I would say for every one time I’ve emerged from a space like a Sephora not feeling like total shit and having successfully bought the item I theoretically came to purchase, I fail another three.
Did you see this?
Maybe you already did. Or maybe (like me) you just saw the coverage:
I had avoided reading / watching all the Star Wars-y things until I finally went to see it recently (& omg it was so great). (I’m not one of those ‘I’ve never seen Star Wars’ humans; not at all. I’ve just been really busy; I’m turning in a book in a week.) Anyway the way this interview was covered and how I watched it weren’t the same at all.
I’d summarize it like this:
Carrie Fisher asked to be interviewed alongside her dog. Her dog has a funny tongue that doesn’t fit in its mouth. These topics—her dog and her dog’s tongue—were addressed in the interview’s first 30 seconds, setting the ‘comical’ tone.
Thereafter, though, Carrie Fisher more or less declined to pretend in the ways that a woman is supposed to (specifically on television, but we could also say generally). Her interviewer thanked her for being there, to which Fisher responded: “I wouldn’t be anywhere else at this hour, except on TV.” During the discussion of her dog, she tossed in a crucial aside, “I think in my mouth, so I don’t lie.”
Like the thing about women, a lot of us, is we’re trained to lie. We’re trained to be nice, and to not say what we think. Especially if we’re somewhere other people can see us, for example on TV.
When she was asked the first real question of the interview—whether she was excited to have been contacted to play Princess Leia again, she answered: “I’m a female in Hollywood over the age of 40 but let’s also say 50… They don’t have to ask you if you want to work at that age. You’ll see someday.”
“I’m over the age of forty, I hear ya,” her interlocutor responds.
Now, I didn’t know this interviewer’s name before watching this clip. I don’t know the names of a lot of people on TV. I don’t watch TV, really, and the way that women are supposed to act and look on TV is a big part of why I can’t really handle the medium.
I don’t know if I need to spell this out too much, but women on TV look like this:
Women on TV are white—mostly. White women on TV are blonde—mostly. I am white and am nominally blonde, though my hair has darkened with age (and I’m really allergic to dye, it so happens). Unlike me: women on TV have big boobs. Unlike me: women on TV have long hair. Regardless, all women on TV, really, are the kinds of women who’ve spent a lot of time and money and energy looking like this.
Like, they’ve put time into a lie. And that’s fine. If they’re happy with themselves, that’s great.
I have no problem with femininity per se, or with people who are feminine. I don’t even have a problem with makeup. (As I said, red lipstick makes me feel good sometimes.) I actually have a great deal of respect for people who are really good at makeup. I love what I might call makeup culture online. I’ve tumbled down YouTube makeup tutorial holes. My day is always brightened when I see Jeffrey Marsh’s face:
Fisher’s interviewer next tried to ask about her “physical transformation”—by which Fisher sort of cut her off and answered that yes she “lost weight” for the role of General Leia. It was clear that was all she was going to say. There was laughter off-camera and her interviewer was now laughing too as Fisher said: “I think it’s a stupid conversation.”
She then flipped the interview entirely, asking her interviewer how she stays so thin, and what music she listens to that makes working out every day “worth it.” In other words, Fisher made the interview’s topic the specifically feminine artifice that we’re all supposed to ignore. By which I mean: that it’s anybody’s fucking business how a woman acts or looks, let alone what she weighs.
Not only was she not acting or looking like women are supposed to, Fisher was talking about the fact that women are supposed to look and act a certain way. The topic itself is taboo, and hence, I think, her interviewer (and by the sounds of it, the studio) was laughing hard when Fisher finally made an actual joke, I think to soften the potential insult here: “Your parents mated well, please congratulate them.”
When they cut back the GMA hosts — who were all haha-ing too—the interviewer summarized how it’d gone thusly: “The whole studio was just in tears. She’s so great and she’s such a great sport and so funny.”
I disagree, for the record. I think Carrie Fisher is a gloriously terrible sport. I do think she is funny — or witty, as I’ve heard her prefer to be called. But I don’t think much of what she said during that interview was, in any way, a joke. I don’t think those laughing necessarily knew why they were.
I think what she was doing was the opposite of ‘hilarious’; I think it was serious as fuck. I think she was doing what, as a woman who’s worked a long and successful career in Hollywood, is morally responsible. Fisher was speaking honestly—with witnesses—to the younger woman in the chair across form her, a woman who’s in that privileged position in part because she looks a certain kind of beautiful. She looks that way because of genes, I’m sure, but also because I bet she works really fucking hard to look that way. In order to do that, I bet she’s had to totally buy into this image—one that I think comes from the brains of old white men—of what women must look and act like. You know, fit and blonde and nice and when you’re confronted with something unexpected, you giggle. You condescend that the nonconformist is a “good sport.” You write off her behavior as comedy.
I think what Carrie Fisher did was awesome. I think that others laughed at her to her face, or at that the coverage this incident received painted her to be some kind of jokester, is what still has to change. What she did was very powerful, potentially. As a guy writing in the Guardian put it (though I don’t think he and I mean it the same way): “Disney executives must hold their breath whenever she goes on live TV.”
I feel better that I wrote about gender today. I feel better that I told you a bit about who I actually am, which is to say, that I’ve got some more reading and thinking to do.
Anyway while I do, I’m going to try to follow Carrie Fisher’s example and behave honestly.
And I’ll occasionally put on some red lipstick.
I was looking up that interview and I found this old one, featuring both her and Mark Hamill on a British children’s show where they spoke very carefully and quietly while stroking various live animals. Don’t miss the part at the end where they serve sausage stew (that’s not a joke).
I really dug this profile of Thinx CEO Miki Agrawal.
I bought some Thinx and I’m digging them. I for one am stoked we’re figuring out better ways to deal with this whole blood-falling-out-of-my-body-for-a-week thing because it’s whack as fuck. (Here’s the link to How Metal Is Your Period?, by the way, one of the best-ever BuzzFeed quizzes, by Erin Chack and Heben Nigatu.)
I liked this brief Verge piece about how we can deal productively with people on the internet who are just wrong about things:
Speaking of NdGT, I loved this random clip of Steven Tyler asking him questions about space:
Which had this great GIF: