Whatever you're doing, don't.

Whatever you're doing, don't.

I've been thinking about this post for a while, but I'm still not sure exactly what it's about. So I'm going to do the opposite of what a good English major has been taught. I'm going to dump all my evidence on you first, with no context, and then see what happens at the end. Okay? Okay. Let's start at the beginning.

Exhibit A: Cecilia Bartoli

A while ago, I saw this article in the New York Times about a production of Handel's opera "Ariodante." The title role would've been played by a castrato in Handel's time, and is now typically played by a woman. A cursory Google image search tells me that the manliness of the women who have played Ariodante in the past has generally been signified by male clothing - armor or a dapper suit or something. In this production, Cecilia Bartoli wears both armor and a dress as Ariodante; she also wears what the Times calls "convincing" facial hair. I call it "uncanny."


Exhibit B: Michaela Quinn

Episode 2.1 of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman is "The Race," in which Michaela dresses up as a man in order to enter a horse race.

Chawin' tobacco

Chawin' tobacco

The advice she gets on impersonating a man, from the men in her life, is this:

  • Point your toes out, plant your heels, swagger
  • Hide your delicate neck
  • Hide your tiny hands
  • Don't talk
  • Don't smile

The following exchange occurs:

Sully: Don't swing your hips.
Michaela: I never swing my hips.
Sully: Whatever you're doing, don't.



Exhibit C: Margaret Brown

Lark Rise to Candleford got to its penultimate episode before featuring cross-dressing. In that episode, Daniel Parish needs Margaret Brown on his team for a cricket match, but she can't play because she's a woman. So she practices being a man.

Swaggering is stage three. Margaret is at stage zero.

Swaggering is stage three. Margaret is at stage zero.

The advice Margaret gets from her female friends is along the same lines as the advice Michaela gets:

  • Chin up
  • Back straight
  • "The male plants his feet"

Here's what she says to Daniel when he later finds her at home, wearing her husband's postman uniform:

"When I walked out into the street as a man, I . . . I experienced a kind of transformation. I couldn't understand why it affected me so. And then I realized: I had glimpsed what it was like to be a man in this world. All my life I have felt a little afraid of men. There has always been a certain timidity to me and . . . to wear those clothes . . . to walk with a stride . . . it was like an escape. An escape from being Margaret Brown. Little mouse."

The postman's wife at home. In the postman's clothes.

The postman's wife at home. In the postman's clothes.

Exhibit D: Agnes DeWitt

Agnes transforms herself into a man for her own reasons (you have to read Louise Erdrich's The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse to discover them). The advice she takes is her own, which she records thusly:

Some Rules to Assist in My Transformation

  1. Make requests in the form of orders.
  2. Give compliments in the form of concessions.
  3. Ask questions in the form of statements.
  4. Exercises to enhance the muscles of the neck?
  5. Admire women's handiwork with copious amazement.
  6. Stride, swing arms, stop abruptly, stroke chin.
  7. Sharpen razor daily.
  8. Advance no explanations.
  9. Accept no explanations.
  10. Hum an occasional resolute march.

Here is what she thinks about a lover from her youth:

The difficulty was that he subtly condescended to her. He was unaware of it, but in all worldly situations, where they stood side by side, he treated her as somehow less. She couldn't enunciate the facts of it, but of what she experienced she had no doubt. . . . It was never anything that others might note, but when they were together, he spoke first, took charge even when he felt most ill, took information from doctors regarding his disease and translated it for her into terms, simpler, he thought she would understand.

And there was another thing: that tone in his voice when they were alone. An indulgent tone, frankly anticipating some lesser capacity in her -- whether intellectual, moral or spiritual, she could not say.

The fact that this resonated with me so deeply made me tear up when I read it. I would rather not understand.

This is not an exhibit, this is an observation. Michaela's face says, "Anything you can do I can do better." Margaret . . . is beaming. The point of the Dr. Quinn episode is to show that women are just as competent as men. Michaela nearly has a man's name, practices a man's profession, and possesses a will of streamroller-level strength. She essentially is a stereotypical man, which is probably why that episode went the direction it did.

Lark Rise is more complicated: it acknowledges that manhood comes with certain undeserved advantages, while supporting the idea that you should be proud of the person that you are. If Michaela is a steamroller, Margaret is more of a wobbly wheelbarrow, so her transformation affects her far more deeply. It's not an internal change becoming visible, it's a visible change becoming internal. She gets to pretend to be confident and see how it feels.

I can only imagine that Cecilia Bartoli went through a period of training in which she learned to swagger, both outside and in. Look at how she walks when she's wearing the suit of armor. And how she stands when she's sweeping her hair back: that is a man's pose.

Oops, I think I need another exhibit.

Exhibit E: John Wayne

Written by my friend Philip:

"As fellas growing up in this culture we had to make (or specifically NOT make) decisions about our identity based on the John Wayne Fantasy ideal."

Okay, no more exhibits. I brought in that last one because that "man's pose" with the hair-sweeping and the knee slightly turned out - that is also a woman's pose. It's simply the pose of people who are accustomed to professional photographers arranging their bodies for them. I only associated it with men because Cecilia Bartoli had a beard on when she did it. Maybe her impression of being a man isn't so uncanny after all. Are any of these markers of masculinity actually valid?

For a cis-gendered woman, I think a lot about what it's like to be a man. I have to represent their words, actions, and motivations in a believable way. When I write characters, I become them, and I feel what they feel. When I write men, I often worry that I'm only dressing up - and worse, dressing up in the trappings of a John Wayne Fantasy Ideal that doesn't exist. Plant feet, swagger, be large, make statements even of questions, condescend. Well, we all know people like that, so that kind of man does exist, but it seems like just as much of a front as stuffing your long hair into a hat and pretending your wad of licorice is tobacco. We all have to reckon with how well our gender identity matches the rules we're supposed to follow. "The male plants his feet" really should be "the confident person plants his/her feet" - masculinity and confidence need not necessarily correlate.

I'm still not sure what this post is about. Perhaps it's all by way of showing that I've given real thought to how often I make my male characters cry, or by way of saying that it's nearly impossible to understand what it's like to live under the opposite pressure from that which you experience yourself. Although women, too, are denigrated for possessing the very traits that society demands they have in order to fulfill their gender role. What Sully says - "Whatever you're doing, don't" - applies to anyone exhibiting stereotypically feminine qualities. Men have an impossible standard to live up to; women have to live up to and simultaneously avoid their impossible standards. It's lose-lose for everyone.

Which is why I love these particular tv episodes, and Little No Horse, and talking gender with men. I think it helps to talk about what it's like to be the person that we are and the pressures that we're feeling to be not who we are.

Oops. I just thought of Exhibit F.

Exhibit F: Jake Slicker

Dr. Quinn explores both angles - in episode 3.11, Jake Slicker wears a dress (because reasons) and gets kidnapped by outlaws (of course). One of the outlaws takes a shine to him, and Jake gets a taste of what it's like to have a legitimate concern that your body is up for grabs (literally).

This episode contains one of my all-time favorite moments, wherein the outlaw says: "Met me a girl once. Strong as an ox. She used to take horseshoes and bend 'em into little shapes. Made me a heart one time. I thought that was kinda . . . romantic."

This episode contains one of my all-time favorite moments, wherein the outlaw says: "Met me a girl once. Strong as an ox. She used to take horseshoes and bend 'em into little shapes. Made me a heart one time. I thought that was kinda . . . romantic."

Jake also gets a taste of what it's like being judged by certain standards of femininity. The following exchange occurs:

Outlaw: So, you got a husband?
Jake: . . . no . . .
Outlaw: I reckon a gal like you don't get many suitors. . . . I mean, being, well, as tall as ya are.
Jake: [visibly insulted]

The whole episode is full of indignities for Jake, which he seems to feel both as the man that he is and the woman that he's pretending to be. It's funny, but it's also instructive. Jake Slicker dresses up like a woman and gets harassed; Margaret Brown dresses up like a man and feels a sense of power she has never known before. I've been struggling to find a real solid point to this post, but actually, that pretty much says it all.

Perpetrating Hooptedoodle

Perpetrating Hooptedoodle

Angels can do no more!

Angels can do no more!