I think our culture here in the decadent West has a giant identity problem. Somewhere, in our little tiny brains, we’ve accepted this notion that the stereotyped ideal of 1950’s television shows WAS and IS the proper norms for human behavior. Everything else we do and say seems to stem from that colossal misunderstanding of history, fashion, mores, morals, and cultural shifts.
It gives me a massive headache, because it’s like taking all the richness of human history and cramming a portion of it to fit into a teeny tiny little box . . . and then claiming that the box is enormous and filled with treasure. It’s almost like a golden calf that we’ve created and no one seems to see that the idol is false. Either we’re reacting against the idol or we’re busy telling ourselves that the idol was and is the best of humanity and them was the good old days. Somehow, people seem to actually believe that the “normal” that was on “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” and “The Donna Reed Show” was ideal, right, even attainable.
I love history. I have many nonfiction history books on my bookshelves. I have a series about the private lives of people during history, a book or two about sexuality in history, and books about different time periods and their little quirks. I’ve even got economic history and sociological studies in the bunch. Reading all these books has given me a much more nuanced view of human possibility. What I’ve mainly learned is that the idealized 1950s American life is a ridiculous set of norms, and trying to live by them OR reacting against them is just plain silly.
I’ll give you an example– men’s hair. Now, I personally live in a very small city in the middle of the Bible Belt, a city that’s taken that ideal and stamped down hard on anything that deviates from it. Forget that, over the 6000 or so years of recorded human history, men have had hairstyles that have varied in every single possible way, from the huge curled wigs of the Restoration period in Great Britain to the “hack it off” look of the Roundheads that were the king’s nemesis. Men here have to have men’s hair as defined by the ideal– short, preferably a high and tight fade, something that wouldn’t look out of place under a fedora and above a white button-up shirt from Sears. Anything else is evidence that you’re some kind of deviant.
The schools around here, naturally, enforce a strict hair code for boys. They can’t have hair in their eyes or touching their collar, they can’t have facial hair, they can’t dye it interesting colors or cut it in any radical styles (like mohawks. or even fauxhawks.) Anything out of the “norm” is absolutely forbidden and you will be suspended or expelled if you defy the rules.
Girls aren’t much less hemmed in, really. No “unnatural” hair colors, no radical styles, the only difference is that they’re allowed to have long hair. There’s rules on the books forbidding any clothing that may be seen as “emo” or “Goth”, no black nail polish and lipstick, no trenchcoats, nothing to suggest that you’re not just another one of the herd. A lot of those rules got pushed forwards nationwide after the Columbine shooting tragedy, under the wrongheaded notion that forcing kids to dress in uniforms or forgo dressing in any “suspicious” manner would somehow solve the deep-seated issues that school shooters tend to have.
And the parents go along with all this. They obediently trot their sons off to the barber shop and buy the school uniforms and punish their kids if they’re caught breaking one of the rules. The effect is to push this silly notion of “appropriate” behavior on to yet another generation. If the rules say that boys shouldn’t have long hair or wear nail polish or dress in black, well, there must be a good reason for it, right? It must be proper and normal.
That was one of the saddest and stupidest things about the whole Bruce Jenner/Caitlyn Jenner story, to me. Some interviewer asked him/her what they were looking forwards to the most about “transitioning” . . . and he/she said something to the effect of “I’ll be able to wear nail polish and let it just chip off instead of having to remove it and hide it.”
This man has so internalized the rotten and horribly circumscribed possibilities that men are allowed in our culture that he thinks he has to change himself into a woman to be allowed to wear nail polish in public.
And, in a way, it’s a form of cowardice, not bravery. Because bravery, in this world, isn’t to say that “I like nail polish and lipstick, therefore I must be a woman.” Bravery, in this world, is to wear what you damn well please, when you damn well please to wear it. Bruce Jenner was a gold medal winning Olympian and also extremely freaking rich to boot. If he wanted to go around wearing nail polish, who was going to really care? What were we going to do, strip his medals from him and boot him out of the country?
It’s precisely because people are afraid to defy the norms that things have stayed in this straightjacket of dress and mannerisms for so long. We’re willing to allow, oh, heavy metal musicians and Alaskan survivalists to wear long hair even if they’re men. The rest of you had better chop it short, though. And apparently only musicians and drag queens can wear nail polish and lipstick.
Urgh. It’s so dumb. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
Listen, fashions change. Manners change. I’m sure that Jenner has plenty of other psychosexual issues besides wanting to wear nail polish. But it’s definitely worth asking if people would have such severe problems with their identity and sexuality and gender if we as a society didn’t have an absolute freak-out about any deviations from the norm.
And where you see the freak outs start is in childhood, precisely the time when people start having these problems. My older daughter decorates cakes for a living– she can tell you how freaked-out people become if they can’t find a cake decorated in “boy colors” or “girl colors” (as defined by them.) To give a boy a cake with purple on it is, apparently, some kind of radical and frightening deviance. Purple, you know, the color of royalty and majesty as well as penance and mystery. Yep, it’s not a permissible color for boys, at least on birthday cakes. Forget about pink. What, do you want to make him queer? (sarcasm intended)
It’s just such a small way of looking at things. And the only way to change it is to refuse to be cowed by it. I’m religiously conservative, sure, but my sons are free to dress in any manner they wish. One of my sons is fond of nail polish. He loves the stuff (as my bathroom tile and rugs can attest, he’s also very bad at applying it.) And I don’t say anything negative about his wish to wear nail polish on his fingers and toes, except to yell when he gets it all over the new bathroom rug (yet again.) He’s just being himself, and he is a guy who likes to decorate his toes. So what?
Another of my sons has hair down below his shoulders. He looks really good, too– long hair suits his face shape and features. He doesn’t look like anyone else but himself– but he has to constantly put up with people mistaking him for a girl. It’s ridiculous, since here is a kid who is wearing clothes that are obviously meant for boys (he’s 8, he thinks camouflage is an acceptable fashion choice) and nothing else about him is remotely effeminate. But long hair = girl even when there is no other evidence that the person is a female. Which is, frankly, stupid. Male DNA does not keep hair from growing. Men’s hair grows much more copiously on their bodies and possibly faster than women’s. I figure that because I have to cut my kids’ hair, and a fresh trim grows out WAY too fast on the boys. My daughters’ cuts seem to last longer.
So why do we hang on to the lazy shorthand that long hair is for girls only? What, exactly, would we lose if boys had long hair just as often as girls do? Total chaos? Riots in the streets? Dogs and cats, living together? Or just a bunch of kids who have hair that suits them, whether long or short, depending on their own fashion sense and their mothers and fathers willingness to brush it in the morning? (because trust me, boys are no better at wielding a brush than little girls are.)
I think, on the part of some people, it’s a fear that breaking down the “gender barriers” would lead to the dogs and cats living together option. But I don’t see it that way. I think that, if men and women could just be themselves, with whatever fashion and hair and makeup and dress they like, there would be LESS pressure on people to “choose” a sex. Maybe people could actually love the bodies that they’re in without feeling that they’re somehow wrong or bad for wanting to adorn themselves or feel pretty.
And that’s what we want, isn’t it? People who are just happy to be themselves, no matter what body they are born with. Men who can find a way to love their masculinity precisely because they’re not trying to fake being a man in the mold of Ward Cleaver. People who can love their bodies without feeling like they need to lop anything off, people who can be themselves without other people scorning them for matters of dress that are, frankly, not moral issues. If we insist that all women must be feminine in a precisely defined and limited way and all men must be masculine in a severely defined and limited way, we’re, in a way, lopping off our own human possibilities. We’re mutilating our own future.
The problem isn’t with Hollywood celebrities and whatever sloppily-dressed musicians happen to be topping the charts– these are down-on-the-ground problems, problems of moms and dads and the next generation. Problems of grandmas who sneak kids off for haircuts and grandpas who ask if you’re trying to “make a girl outta him.” Problems of us defining ourselves by such small metrics. Yes, fashion and hair and makeup are shortcuts to figuring out where a person “belongs” in our world. People will always use lazy shortcuts. But if people stop using those particular shortcuts, I think we’d live in a better world.
Besides, we can always find something ELSE to judge our neighbors by, thereby reducing them from the fullness of their humanity into objects for us to sort. Why, we could start putting stars on our bellies . . . . ;-P
Ahh, I’m tired. God bless, whether or not you’ve got stars on thars.