“Feminine” Discomfort

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There’s this conversation I’ve been having with myself for years now. I put it down, and then, a month or six months or a year later, prompted by an overheard interaction or an online essay or a dialogue with a friend or acquaintance, I pick it up again. This conversation has to do with the way I feel about being female, what those feelings mean, and why I seem to have difficulty relating to and maintaining friendships with other women.

meangirls

The latest provocation in this perennial dance flitted through my facebook feed in the form of a HuffPo blog post about Taylor Swift and the idea of “Other Girls” as a set of monotone foils who serve to set a particular woman apart.

The myth of the other girl can be seen in passive aggressive tweets by girls proclaiming things like, “I hate girls.” It’s present in proud declarations that someone only hangs out with boys, because girls are too much drama. It is girls frantically trying to convince others that they aren’t like other girls, because they are laid-back, drama-free; girls obstinately insisting that they are different, because they aren’t catty or fickle or vapid.

Essentially this myth is the manifestation of ingrained misogyny, a result of the longstanding stereotype that girls are catty, two-faced, superficial and gossipy. It is a stereotype meant to demean and dismiss girls, delegitimize and quiet them in order to maintain traditional gender roles. The “girl” part of the “other girls” myth is crucial, as it equates femininity with negative attributes like cattiness and superficiality.

On paper, this reads as gospel to me. It resonates with the part of me that wants to believe that we’re all just prisoners trying to break free from an evil system of social programming that turns us into a bunch of petty monkeys, and if we could only just make everyone aware of it, we could transform reality so that everyone would truly be free to express their true nature without the burden of stereotype and societal expectation based on superficial categories like sex.

When I try to take those ideas into my life, though, and lay them over my own experiences and alongside my constantly-evolving ideas about how to build society in a way best suited toward encouraging individuality and critical thought while fostering collaboration, problems arise.

Here’s the thing: I am a female uncomfortable in the world of women. I’ve never mixed well with other girls, and have often found myself on the wrong side of groups of girls and women within the various social circles I’ve inhabited throughout my life. There are a lot of reasons for this, mostly to do with my difficulty reading social cues, my tendency toward too-overt earnestness, and the fact that my similarly-built mother didn’t model for me how to “perform” girl. She never saw the point in putting on an act in order to fit in, and both she and my dad encouraged individuality and contrarianism. They allowed me the freedom to explore interests that other girls’ parents would have discouraged. I grew up immersed in hunting and fishing culture, and saw no reason not to participate. It didn’t even occur to me at the time that there weren’t really any other girls doing those things. I don’t think I really thought about things in those terms. The summer after fourth grade, I had my mom sign me up for baseball. Traditionally, girls played softball. But I didn’t want to play softball. I wanted to play baseball like my heroes on the Minnesota Twins. If there was controversy or conflict behind the scenes, I never knew about it. All I knew was that I asked to play baseball and I got to play baseball. I didn’t care that I was the only girl on the team.

I was an active kid. I attended volleyball and basketball camps in elementary school and continued to play all three sports through Junior High and into High School, on girls’ teams – organized, school-sponsored sports in a small town are a bit different than summer community education in terms of decorum, – but social politics gradually poisoned all of it. I quit volleyball after my freshmen year, because the other girls were mean to me. I was a decent player with a pretty badass overhand serve, but that didn’t matter. The important bit, for them, was that I was an awkward kid who didn’t fit in socially, and acknowledging me amounted to some kind of mythical treason to the idea of “cool”. The same thing happened in basketball a year later. Sports weren’t about the game anymore. They were about alliances and social displays and power dynamics and I hated all of it.

I stuck it out in softball, maybe because I loved it more than I had the other sports, or maybe because the coach was good at keeping us focused on the game – it’s hard to say in hindsight, but it never seemed as bad. It also helped that I had a fellow misfit friend on the team with me.

More recently, I found myself in what seemed to be a conglomeration of grown-up misfit girls. It was a dream come true. We were even considered “cool” within our particular subculture. But it fell apart when several of them decided they didn’t like my boyfriend and embarked on a campaign of passive-aggressive tactics (up to and including “crusties”. I’m not exaggerating) intended to punish me for transgressing against the group and undermining a social hierarchy that I had rather obliviously not recognized. I owned my part in it, but they wouldn’t own theirs, so I cut my losses and moved on.

The point I’m trying to get to in all this rambling and reminiscing is this: The idea of girls and women displaying catty behavior and appearing to value superficial things is not a fantasy. It’s something that happens in the real world. Now, we can examine the roots of those behaviors, and argue about whether they are innate “feminine” traits or whether they are the scribblings of a broken society writ on blank slates or whether the truth lies somewhere in between, but I think we do ourselves a disservice to simply dismiss these ideas as negative stereotypes and try to find our way across the chasm of imperfect reality and into the land of “should”, jumping between stepping stones carved from postmodern relativism.

The fact is, for me and other women like me, “the other girls” are not just cartoons with bitchy faces, starting catfights over a boy. As is usually the case, the truth is much subtler. I don’t think I resent “the other girls”; not anymore. I might pose questions about what society considers “properly” feminine, but I try not to put down individual women for their choices with regard to those items of gender performance. But I can’t say that the way I feel set apart from “normal” women isn’t real. I can’t accept that it is the result of unrecognized, internalized misogyny. Because when it comes down to it, I didn’t reject “the other girls”.

They rejected me.

Again and again and again.

Of course, this is my personal perspective and it is, by nature, limited. Maybe high school boys’ sports would have been just as traumatic for me if I’d been born male. There’s no way for me to know. But I do know that I have a much easier time navigating male-dominated social structures. I do construction work for a living, and maintain a jocular, “one-of-the-boys” standing with most of my coworkers. Sure, there are hierarchies and political struggles and plenty of drama, but the language of that drama seems more comprehensible to me.

I don’t think this makes me special. I don’t think it makes me better than other women, as if “other women” were a monolith. But I have to acknowledge that I do seem to be different from most of the other women I’ve encountered in my life. I’m still working out what that means.

The real Gordian Knot is this: How do you encourage girls to step outside of societal gender norms without illustrating those norms using examples that will inevitably lead to stereotyping, which will feed back into the system that keeps them shackled to those norms in the first place? Maybe you have to be a social misfit of one stripe or another to really escape it.

One thing’s for sure: Taylor Swift doesn’t have the answer.