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Gender and stuff

September 23, 2011
The Pyro from Team Fortress. Picture from the Team Fortress Wiki.

This post brought to you by the Pyro. (A fat videogame character in an all-concealing red protective suit, heavy boots, huge gloves, and a gas mask, pointing a flamethrower towards the camera.)

Yesterday I was in town, and had a look in a couple of charity shops, as you do. In one of them, I was browsing a rack of jeans when a couple of goths about my age walked in and asked the bloke on the counter about the price of a dress on one of the window mannequins – a little black thing with lots of buttons and a ruffle or two. Having established that it was £3.99, they started bickering over who should get it whilst the volunteer was taking it off the mannequin.

Both of these two were a little taller than me, both long-haired – one with dyed-black hair worn loose, one with a wavy brown ponytail – and both in the kind of goth gear that (and here, finally, the point) defies attempts at conventional gender-classification. Baggy long-sleeved T-shirts, capacious black jeans with chains, trainers, nail varnish. And arguing over who got to wear the little ruffly dress. (Eventually they agreed that the slightly taller one got first dibs, and if it didn’t fit, the slightly shorter one could have it.)

The incident stuck in my head, both because it’s not every day you run into pretty goths in charity shops, let alone two at once, and also because I had been having thinky thoughts about gender and stuff anyway and they gave me more food for thought. After all, both of these two were presenting a clear, consistent and legible identity: they might as well have been holding big signs saying “GOTH”. And yet too often, no matter how obvious it is what somebody’s outfit is supposed to ‘say’, it’s not treated as a valid or complete message if it isn’t clearly gendered. (I’ve written about gender and other messages before.)

The temptation to assume that there must be a simple, binary answer, and then to try and deduce one from circumstantial evidence, is deeply conditioned. I suspect it’s also helped along, or at least bolstered, by the way that we (as a society) currently talk about and understand sexuality. Ambiguity can be threatening, because if you’re vastly attracted to someone and then it turns out they’re the ‘wrong’ sex underneath, opprobrium awaits: even in relatively progressive communities, the reactions to people whose self-stated orientation is perceived not to ‘match’ with their sexual history can be toxic. (You can’t be straight/gay, you’ve slept with someone of the same/a different sex. You can’t be bi/pan, all your partners to date were the same/a different sex to you. You can’t be asexual, you slept with someone once. Etc.) It’s not always entirely externally imposed, either: sexuality is a cornerstone of identity for a lot of people, of all orientations, and it’s disquieting to have things you thought were axiomatic about yourself show signs of mutability.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 23, 2011 3:18 pm

    Ah, the good old “I wonder what they are REALLY?” trap.

    I had an amazing moment at the jobseekers’ office yesterday, where the person behind the desk (having difficulty squaring my appearance with the sex on my paperwork) came out with “smirdam” (“err… sir, err… madam, er…”) and I got to respond with a nice clear “Yes”.

    I’m actually curious as to which charity shop it was that was selling a nice-looking dress for four quid!

  2. September 23, 2011 3:23 pm

    And (Since I can’t edit my reply) it’s comforting to know that someone else out there is reminding people; One’s history doesn’t always reflect one’s preferences. The number of bisexual women I know who’ve had their sexuality invalidated because they either prefer men, or have been with numerically more men than people of other genders is mind-boggling. Nobody seems to remember that “You must be straight!” is a pretty pervasive message, so OF COURSE a lot of people will have more hetero encounters than queer ones.

  3. September 24, 2011 8:14 pm

    Smirdam! That’s awesome. Reminds me of “smizmar” on Futurama.

    The shop in question was the RSPCA branch down by the market. To be fair to them, it was a pretty small dress. (I am still wondering which of them wore it, and where to.)

    On a vaguely related tangent to your latter point, how’s the sex spreadsheet going?

  4. September 25, 2011 4:13 pm

    Really slowly – In fact, it’s stopped. The computer that it’s stored on is sitting in an unusable heap at my feet, so I’ve yet to do anything with it. I think (when it’s working again) I’ll pick a series of questions (suggestions welcome) to be asked about the data, then try answering them.

    Ah, that is a good little shop – Funnily enough, I bought a nice dress at Help the Aged yesterday, also for four pound. Charity shops don’t get half as much love as they should.

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