I grew up next door to four boys, all more or less my age. We shared a fence. In the afternoons I’d climb up on our compost barrel with a handful of Pokemon cards, stand on my tiptoes and reach them over to exchange for others. We all played together, but it was clear the boys came over to see my then-brother Alex, who has since transitioned. I was always the token girl. I wasn’t allowed to pee in the ditch we’d all dug in the yard. I was chased with sharp sticks if I tried to enter the tinfoil castle. No one stuck around for my turn to climb the tree.
Then there was school, the playground. My classmates and I loved to play capture games — boys chase girls. The girls loved it because these were the times we got to play with the boys. When I played with my girl friends, we built fairy houses or practiced cantering like horses. When I played with the boys there was shrieking, jumping, bloody knees and a little fear.
The phrase “boys will be boys” refers to boys acting childishly or without weighing consequences. No one says “girls will be girls,” but if they did, it would probably refer to cattiness or hypercontrolled competitive behavior among girls. Of course, not all girls or boys are like this. I must sound dated with my stereotyping. But still, these phrases persist. They are terms that categorize certain behaviors as “masculine” or “feminine” with roots in “male” and “female.” At this point in history, society largely accepts feminine men and masculine women but these adjectives are still tagged on, marking when someone acts contrary to their expected gender norms.
I’m a woman now (with blood on my sheets, not my knees) and a year ago, I acquired a pair of men’s jeans. I found them in the donation bin at my grandmother’s retirement home. They’re work pants: two layers of thick denim at the knees, deep pockets, loops to hang wrenches and ratchets, extra clasps around the waist for a tool belt. In the retirement home basement, I stripped to try them on right away. It embarrassed my younger sister Lauren, who was 16 at the time, the same way my not wearing a bra embarrasses her. She shrieked. We were past two doors and a long hallway but there was still a thrill of possible discovery. She squealed. Finally, she giggled. I rolled my eyes. She compared me to the lead of her favorite comedy-mystery: “That was such a Sean Spencer move.”
When Lauren was a little girl, she wasn’t so easily frazzled. As an elementary schooler, she was rough-and-tumble, strong, masculine. All of her friends were boys. They’d meet after school to flip tricks on their skateboards. She wore black skinny jeans and a kind of fringed bowl cut that hung in her eyes. She’d toss her bangs out of the way, sweat sticking them in place off her forehead. In photos, she’d pop up two peace signs, smirking in that nonchalant kind of way that boys do. When she swam, she went topless in trunks. “Topless” would be redundant and insignificant if she were a boy. She didn’t understand why this should be significant and felt uncomfortable when adults made her put on a shirt. Why did she have to be the one to dress differently from all her friends?
While Lauren was friends with her skater boys, I was best friends with Madison, a tall blonde fourth grader. Our favorite game was “slutty suburban mom,” though we didn’t call it that. We’d put on tube tops (stuffed busty with thick socks) and large sunglasses, snag our mothers’ phones and sit out in her mom’s Ford Explorer pretending to pick up kids and gossip. Our moms caught us stuffing our shirts once, when we were searching for the car keys. They told us we looked very cute.
Madison’s mom, Karen, was a cheerleader until she dropped out of high school to be a groupie. I thought she was much cooler than my mother because she could paint my nails perfectly and bought Madison her own lipstick. She thought she was much cooler than my mother too because my mother sent me to math groups and Karen taught us what it meant to transition an outfit “day” to “night.” She had done just fine without school, Karen told my mother, and everyone loves a pretty girl.
Madison and I loved pretty girls. Madison was the one who taught me to use YouTube so we could watch the plastic bodies of Barbies stripped and arranged precariously around each other. We realized our own bodies could look that way too. It fascinated us. We read the American Girl “Body Book” and bounced up and down in the bathroom mirror to check how far along our chests had developed since last week. Madison taught me what discharge is and, once we were 11, told me I should probably start shaving my pubic hair so I wouldn’t get made fun of like Amanda H. had been by the boys in her PE class.
Once our days “as moms” ended and the “kids” were put to sleep, we’d go “out to the club.” We closed the door, dimmed the lights, played Britney Spears’ “Womanizer.” We started by strutting across her room, pulling off the oversized sunglasses to reveal our eyes. We parted our lip-glossed mouths, slid off our skirts, then our shirts. The socks fell to reveal our shapeless frames. We moved to the bed. Side by side we pretended to kiss her pillows. We knew none of the physicalities of kissing; we could only mimic what we’d seen. I wondered what that word meant, “womanizer.” Madison jumped up, “Did you hear that?” She was quick to the door, “I think we must go feed the babies!”
One of these adolescent days, I arrived back home from school to find Lauren crouched in the bushes wearing a floppy hat, button-down shirt and jeans. She tossed a rope at me when I approached the door and belted the Indiana Jones theme song.
It’s one of those things I’ll never stop feeling guilty about: stealing her wig and boxers, hiding them. I’d see her dressed like a boy and I’d scowl. “Girls don’t do that,” I’d insist, “you can’t do that.”
Now Lauren is 17 with long silky hair. She sent me a photo last week making fun of herself for having uneven eyebrows. Her eyebrows did look slightly lopsided in the picture but she’s beautiful nonetheless. In the photo, she is wearing fitted jeans, a patterned blouse, two necklaces; she tucks her hair behind one ear shyly, smiling beside another two girls her age who are dressed similarly.
A search for “feminine traits” turns up: gentleness, empathy, sensitivity, caring, sweetness, compassion, tolerance, nurturance, deference, succorance. Imagine the phrase, “She’s so tolerant and nurturing.” Listen to it played in your mind. Can you imagine that sentence with a tone of voice implying intimidation? No, positive “feminine” traits are admirable because of the restraint they represent. They are measured reactions, never an initial force.
I’ve never been seen as a man and never wanted to be but I love the power I feel in my retirement home jeans, in my father’s shirts, in my friend’s brother’s jacket. Dressing femininely makes me feel powerful too, but the kind of powerful that is measured by who notices. I wore a tight black dress to prom with a plunging neckline that harnessed so much attention even my teachers gossiped about it. I savored the eyes. But that is an empty kind of power, a vacuum of power. The leverage, like with character traits, comes from restraint. The power isn’t just that you look good. It’s that you look so good that people want to have you — except, they can’t. Otherwise, you’re just a slut.
But why do we need the words “masculine” or “feminine” at all? “Masculine” is a title for a collection of character traits. It means nothing besides labelling an ill-defined sum of characteristics we’ve decided appear more commonly in males. Traits such as assertiveness, aggressiveness, strength, independence, lack of sentimentality. Traits which are powerful and admirable. When a woman possesses such traits she is powerful and admirable. We dub these parts of her “masculine” — less female. We admit she is still a woman but she is acting counter to her gender’s nature. We have gendered strength so women can never fully embody it; they can only try it on. Strength, on a woman, is drag.
Last week, I performed in a drag show in a cast of 10. Three of us identified as cisgendered. The other seven performers are nonbinary. My friend Lola, who’s nonbinary, performed “Candy Store” from the musical “Heathers” as a critique of queer spaces valuing masculinity over femininity. They held the stage in plain clothing: jeans and a jean jacket with a shirt underneath. The characters Heather, Heather and Heather who perform “Candy Store” in the original musical are all popular, conventionally attractive high school students. The song is coarse: “If you lack the balls, you can go play dolls, let your mommy fix you a snack. Or you could come and smoke, pound some rum and coke, in my Porsche with the quarterback.” Their point was: It’s always the same. It doesn’t seem to matter gay, straight, bi, male, female, genderqueer. We all see that masculine is powerful.
In my early years, I was a girly girl, Alex was a crafty boy-scout-boy and Lauren was the infant we bossed around. Then, we grew up, a little at a time. Now, Alex wears dresses more often than I do; her hair is longer than mine; her legs are shaved smooth and mine remain hairy up until I have a date. It begs the question: How much does acting femininely have to do with being female?