(WOMENSENEWS)–On the one hand, it was heart-wrenching to watch Bruce Jenner’s interview last week with Diane Sawyer as he described the pain of living his life as a physical male who enjoys dressing like a female.
On the other hand, the interview was a yawner because I kept thinking about how lots of women, like me, live their lives as physical females and enjoy dressing like males. For me, men’s clothes are usually more comfortable, especially pajamas. And as a lawyer, I like wearing pantsuits rather than skirts to court for the same reason I enjoy the wearing of white wigs in British courts – they dramatize the presumptive equality among all people who come before the court. While I also like getting glammed up in sexy dresses, my favorite piece of clothing by far is a rust-colored men’s super soft V-neck sweater, size large.
We’re so accepting of women wearing men’s clothes, the image of a woman dressed only in a man’s white dress shirt is seen as sexy, but switch the genders and change the shirt for a dress and it’s a freak show or a comedy.
Of course, the big difference is that women have cultural permission to dress like men, while men, especially superstar athletes, don’t have cultural permission to dress like women. In other words, Jenner suffered only because he was afraid of what others might think.
Indeed, Jenner described feeling happy and liberated when he wore women’s clothes, albeit in secret.
Narrow Masculinity View
Jenner’s pain is the product of an American society hell-bent on constructing a very narrow view of masculinity; one that forces men to fit within a monolithic version of maleness, often at the expense of a very different internal reality.
Lots of men who never cross dress or surgically change their body parts, but who enjoy "female" ways of being, suffer in silence rather than show how much they like to express affection, change diapers and enjoy sex without dominating their partners.
Gloria Steinem said a long time ago that we have done a pretty good job allowing our girls to act like boys, but we’ve done a terrible job allowing our boys to act like girls. Indeed, we raise our boys from birth to recoil at the idea of doing anything "like a girl."
My oldest son’s favorite color was pink until he got to kindergarten and "learned" that pink was a "girl color."
Feminists tried unsuccessfully decades ago to generate a public narrative celebrating women’s equality as a way of also liberating men from the chains of an existence that landed them somewhere between Fred Flintstone and Mike Brady.
Today’s TV shows are better, but not by much when it comes to men showing their sensitivities and emotional depths.
The Disney Channel and all the princess movies are the worst. And even seemingly progressive shows like "Modern Family" have characters following fairly traditional rules of social order because the males are either heterosexual or gay, and the females are dependent on males, and often portrayed as happily submissive.
Potential Depression, Distress
Shame caused by men’s fear of what others might think of their manliness has long been understood as a cause of debilitating depression. In her book "Stiffed," Susan Faludi writes about how American men often become profoundly anxious from having to behave in unnatural ways, and from worrying about proving their worth by achieving financial success and winning contests and conquests. Even the most superficial achievement is taught as desirable for men, so long as it occurs under an umbrella of "acceptable" male behavior. Men who feel differently about their purpose in life develop internal tension because they can’t make sense of society’s demands. Such unresolved stress can lead to serious health consequences.
As a superstar Olympic athlete, Jenner’s public persona and success as a human being centered around traditionally "manly" attributes, such as muscles and competitive drive. But then he would leave the stadium and trade his gym shorts for a dress, which changed nothing about his performance on the field, but caused him tremendous distress.
Society’s black and white rules about what gender is in the United States are as silly as black and white rules about, well, blackness and whiteness. Barely anyone in this country is only one "thing" anymore, and more diversity is our destiny. While it might be thousands of years before we all melt into one light-brown gender-neutral species, the era of being only one "thing" is over.
It hurts nobody that Jenner identifies as female. And the more men who dare to say out loud that they enjoy things that society labels "female," the faster the socially constructed gender divide will collapse, as it should, rendering the political and hierarchical differences between men and women, at long last, irrelevant.
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