By the time I had reached high school, boys were confused by me. All my guy friends were getting crushes on other girls, ya know, the pretty ones. Tumbling around in the field and playing soccer with the boys were things I still wanted to partake in, but it wasn’t gonna happen – alas, we weren’t kids anymore. When I turned 17, I chopped off my long brown hair, threw away my bras, and began cutting up my girly garments and wearing those fragments as multi-layered outfits that I’d sewn into some boys clothing. Soon enough, I dropped out of high school, shaved my head, and found a lovely tribe of unfortunates who I could relate to: masculine girls and feminine boys. But until this miracle occurred, my encounters with my peers were few and far in between -like when someone stole my sandals after I’d fallen asleep in History class (causing me to walk around the rest of the day barefoot). There were other short-lived social scenarios – such as when I fell down the stairs on my way to class and someone threw an empty soda can at my head, or when that one barbie-girl spit on my hairy legs. Ah, those were the good ol’ days. I never desired ruby red lips or smooth virgin-like shaved limbs. Who has time for all that wretched hair removal anyway? Yet, I was getting kinda worried…
Was it time for me to become a girl? Would people like me better?
Despite all the fun and games back then, I was never convinced that becoming a girl, gender-wise, was the decision I longed to make. Screw ‘em! And as the years have provided me with new insights on gender roles, I find myself having conversations on the topic with other tomboys; as well as lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, asexuals, hermaphrodites, transgenders, and heteros. We all had identity markers as kids, but who became our new role models? I decided to do some research back at home, and what better way to understand the self, then by first re-visiting the past?
I began my journey by going through a box of old remnants I’d kept as a young one – can ya believe I still have all this crap? Let’s see, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics, rusted bottle caps, Jayne/Wayne County’s “Surrender Your Gender” album, a sealed up lipstick…hmm – Ooo what’s this? A VHS copy of a movie I used to watch all the time: The Neverending Story. Atreyu, the main character, was a very feminine boy. In fact, I thought he was a girl for years. I recall asking my 8 year old self, “Why does she get to run around with her shirt unbuttoned? Why does she get to climb mountains and fall into the mud, visit rock monsters, and ride a dragon…?” Of course by the time I was in high school, I realized that Falcor was just a big puppet, and Atreyu was actually a boy. Which was okay with me.
This leads me to the reason for choosing the following books to revisit and also interrogate for the first time. These are the source materials that gave me a sense of purpose as a blossoming tomboy. Stories that allowed me to feel less alone in a world that I, to this day, still can’t always relate to.
CJ Jung – Aspects of the Masculine – Intimate case studies, references to archetypes, dreams, and thoughts on the origin of the ‘Hero’. Get your notepad ready, there’s a lot to take in here. You might start to notice a habit of mine: I always start a complicated book from the middle. Is it the anarchist in me? I decided to start with Chapter IV “Logos and Eros; Sol and Luna. The Personification of the Opposites. The Moon Nature.” I’ve found that the following line reveals so much about the book in its entirety; “…the common occurrence(s) of a psychically predominate contrasexuality…wherever this exists we find a forcible intrusion of the unconscious, a corresponding exclusion of the consciousness specific to either sex…this inversion of roles is probably the chief psychological source for the alchemical concept of the hermaphrodite.” These are indeed intellectual, spiritual, and scientific findings. In Chapter V we encounter “The Masculine in Women”, where Jung discusses the anima into woman and the animus into man. I have interpreted this to proclaim that no matter which sex we are, or which gender we choose to identify with – men possess a feminine force, the same way that women possess a masculine soul. There are of course arguable insights to be had with this sort of research, and that’s why it’s taken me a few years to get through this book. If, for that reason, you hesitate to go this route with your gender studies, don’t forget that some of the most profound insights in life are worth that extra effort.
Cari Beauchamp –Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood – This is a highly political work which follows the history and impact of the original feminist movement. What led me to this book initially was a quote I’d found by Marion, where she talks about the novel she wrote to warn women, using storytelling and self-deprecating humor, that the entertainment industry was a big trap for the ladies. Marion referred to her book The Rise and Fall of Minnie Flynn (considered her lost novel of the 1920’s) as more of a propaganda piece. Warning -HUGE bibliography. So get out your highlighter! This would be a great book to teach in any introductory gender studies course.
Alfred Jarry – UBU ROI – Translated by Barbara Wright – “Pooh what a dreadful beast.” Spoke the poppy and the dandelion. When I’d first come across Jarry’s work, I was learning myself how to better address the outsider within. So if you’re an avant garde theatre enthusiast in training- this is a perfect stop on your journey. People back then seemed to be too tepid and uncultured for Jarry’s liking, thus his intention was to shake up the masses of the 1890’s – by creating scenarios like the Latin spewing orgy scrawling down the walls of snowy Lithuanian cliffs. No, these are not madmen, nor crackpots -these are the revolutionists in UBU ROI, destroying the reputation of the French Czar- tempting the bourgeois to climb out from their polished shells. If you know his work, then you know his life. Jarry was an ether addict, and was said to have lived in a filthy room with a sagging ceiling, his two pet owls, rotting flowers, and personal effects of the many Belgian girls who visited his squalid flat. Smells like home.
James Baldwin – Giovanni’s Room – A steamy and outspoken coming of age story, further delving into the manner with which desire barges its way into our lives, promising a new identity, disappointment on X-mas morning, and an endless amount of Coca-Cola on tap. Each one of Baldwin’s works offers the reader a glance into the poetry of hardship. My go-to James Baldwin book.
Judith Halberstam – Female Masculinity – The chapter I departed from in this case was Chapter 6 – A Rough Guide to Butches on Film. What’s wonderful about this segment is that you are given an insight into a very specific history. In the chapter titled “The Androgyne, the Tribade, the Female Husband”, Halberstam reveals to the reader specific sexual practices associated with each social category of the “woman”. On page 200, Halberstam discusses films such as Caged (1950), which was directed by John Cromwell. It’s here where we explore two types of lady prisoners in film: “The innocent femme who needs to toughen up and the predatory butch who will either protect the femme or take advantage of her.” Everyone loves role playing, right?
Linda Stone –Kinship and Gender – Welcome to the evolution of the patriarchy, and all that stinks about the farce of male dominance. Stone’s extensive collection of theories and case studies introduces the reader to conflict resolutions surrounding distinctions between public and private spheres, and how these influence our domestic, political, and sexual relations. We come to focus on the rejection of biology as a determining factor to gender roles, the history of women’s subordination to men, father and son tensions, separation anxieties, and marital consummation rites. One of my favorite segments is on page 47, where Linda reveals information about primate interactions; how the females attack without warning, and how the males precede with their aggression within ritualized threats. Fertility ideologies intertwine with the meanings behind divorce and marriage – no matter what race, class, or age. Did you know that way back when, men were actually dependent on women? The question still remains though, how do we let re-emerge an equality amongst the sexes – is it all just one big fantasy, or is there still some hope?
Gilbert Herdt – Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History – 486 pages of gender bliss. This book covers topics such as adolescent male prostitutes, and explores mutual masturbation techniques, Polynesian gender liminality, and FTM & MTF true life stories. The text explains further the realm of androgyny, discussing ancient and modern embodiments of Western gender paradigms, changes in the transgender communities, challenges for women athletes, and wholly transcends alternate somatic models of feminine fragility and ultimately, feminine strengths. A fantastic introductory read for your Gender Book Club.
Beth A. Firestein (editor) – Becoming Visible: Counseling Bisexuals Across the Lifespan – I’ve come to believe that insights surrounding bisexual identities are somewhat ignored, culturally. So this book came in handy. During the Stonewall Riots of 69’, gender variance had just begun to pierce the social sphere, rendering our expectations of love and relationships into a totally new light. Not only does Firestein comment on Western gender ideologies, she also explores gender roles in the Middle East and Latin America. There are some vital chapters in this book, such as “Race and Ethnic Minority Status as Cultural Factors affecting Bisexuals, and Sexism and Heterosexism”. These gender wars have such a vast and complicated timeline, how can we not do as much research as possible? I would love a revised edition, as this one was published in 2007. So much has changed in the last ten years.
Will Self – Cock and Bull – The title might be misleading, and I can’t promise you that any other books by Will Self are worth reading, so stick with Cock and Bull. This tale is an unusual one, but it strikes me in the best of ways. As a tomboy, you gotta know the options out there. I remember really enjoying Chapter 8, “The Icing Gun”. “Dan’s sexual feelings had never been anything but intensely vulnerable, childlike and sentimental. The fabled coupling when he had accidentally sandpaper-stroked Carol into orgasm had almost scared the life out of him.” What’s so intriguing about this story is that you are given access to a fascinating new world; where girls grow a boy’s pleasure stick, and boys develop a woman’s sacred cavern. Finally, equality amongst the sexes..?
Fran Lebowitz – Metropolitan Life – I remember dumpster diving with my younger sister, back when we lived in those dumpy apartments. We worked alongside three other little girls and their lesbian mothers. When I first saw an interview with Fran, I thought -oh my god, my old dumpster diving mama? Of course, it wasn’t her, but I believe it’s one reason why I got so into Fran. Her bold attitude, clever, smart, cutting edge commentary took me away! A cheeky intellectual Jew from NY – an outspoken one – Lebowitz was not afraid to cut you down with her comments. She’s also a big ham. A delightful combination. She’s not a pauper, but she ain’t no wealthy gadfly either. Aspects of her remind me of a female Woody Allen. Hope that’s not an insult, Fran. Leads me to wonder why she doesn’t have her own radio show. It’s hard to use one label on her. Maybe she’s a thinker… or a critic? Fran is the outsider I can relate to. Maybe next time she comes to LA she’ll come over to play…I got plenty of old dictionaries from the 1700’s, a few different types of coffee, and potato-chip-ketchup pie; just waiting for you, dear Fran. Kommen mit mir Lebowitz!
Camille Paglia – Vamps & Tramps – I LOVE this publication! The majority of Vamps & Tramps consists of lucid confessionals by Ms Paglia. And even though Camille isn’t writing about sex and women anymore, we can still come to appreciate her old set of balls. I love this conversation from page 281, which is a transcribed segment from the film Glennda and Camille Do Downtown.
PAGLIA: I was not happy with my sex role. I was, you know, butch for decades, and now I know how to put on a dress, Glennda.
GLENNDA: Absolutely. Well, you know, a lot of feminists accuse drag queens of mocking women. Have you ever heard them say that?
PAGLIA: Oh, God! Oh, they’re so naive. Please! Drag queens have preserved the power of woman! I call my feminism “Drag Queen Feminism.”
Ernst Haeckel – Art Forms in Nature – My interest in Haeckel’s work stems from my fascination with all things gooey, abstract, and visceral. As sex, gender, and all that romantic stuff comes in many different shapes, forms, and – well, let’s not forget all the magnificent smells! So it’s through my interests in these ahem…materials…that led me to the inner workings of nature through the detailed but somewhat cartoony illustrations from Haeckel’s curious hand. He exhibits a kinship with biology, while provoking “Perceptual Experiences”. Prepare your senses for detailed monographs of Jellyfish, Collosphaera, and Epeira -ewww those are arachnids. In 1862 Haeckel began his career as a lecturer on the subject of zoology, biology, and of course the not to be forgotten graphic charts of nerve cells from the temporal cortex of an ape. In order for me to really make sense of my own being, I have to look deeper into the bottomless cosmos of biology itself. If only I could be a plant, or a jellyfish. Then my worries within the social sphere would all disappear.
George Platt Lynes – Photographs 1931—1955 – Growing up alongside Tomboys and Gay men, I was intrigued to explore the more sensual and delicate side of the male body, and the rough edges of the female body, and this is so important. For hundreds of years we’ve shoved both sexes into boring and absurd categories. The men, expected to be the bread-winner, the stone-face, and the construction worker. I mean sure, do what you gotta do to survive. Dig a little hole, build some walls. But don’t forget that men want to feel nurtured and adored for their intuitive side the same way that women do. Regardless, this book changed my life. The men are sensual, and the women are frumpy. These images were first exhibited in the 30’s, where George shared the walls of Julien Levy’s NY Gallery with others, the surrealists: Man Ray, Moholy-Magy, and Max Ernst. Captivating and self indulgent portraits of Jonathan Tichenor slumped against faded backdrops compliment images of sultry nude men amidst shadows and mirrors, often dressed as erotic mythological creatures. You are in for a treat with this body of work.
Looking back on where I initially got started in my gender studies, I’ve realized that although the Gender & Sex section of my bookshelves are getting crowded, I still have so much to dive into. I started at such a young age too. Ahh what a strange time that was, when Y2K was just a broken theory, I still thought I was a boy, and 9/11 had instilled all that fear into our souls. To the lot of us born in the 80s we had only dreamt of the bright future which is ever so recently collapsing before our tired eyes. Gender roles have definitely changed over the last twenty years, and I have to say that these books helped me to embrace the boy that I am inside. I always say, why pick one side? Enjoy the best of both genders. I know, a longer discussion than what we have time for is at hand. And okay, I didn’t get into losing my virginity. Was it with a girl, or a boy? Well kids, I didn’t lose it ‘til I was in my 20’s. So that’s a whole other story that I’ll save for later…