Gendering role models

This post was originally written in 2012 and posted on a defunct blog. It’s been migrated here because I still think it’s worth sharing. My gender has further morphed since the time that I wrote it, however.

A bit earlier today, I had some interesting thoughts about childhood/adolescent role models, in the context of gender & being trans.

Namely, it generally seems to me that commonly (or in popular expectation), young trans guys, non-binary FAAB people, tomboys, butch women, and other FAAB folk with trans/nonconforming gender & gender expression… well, there’s just this whole idea that our heroes, when we’re growing up, are the myriad literary characters or characters in other media who embody the trope of “a badass girl, young woman, etc., who dresses up as or disguises herself as a boy/man, either because she’s not comfortable with femme things, because she must in order to get around societal conventions, or because of some other necessity.” In Game of Thrones terms, we admire— or are expected to admire— the Arya Starks of the world, the Briennes. Our preferred Shakespearean heroines are the cross-dressing Viola in Twelfth Night, not Juliet or Ophelia.

I am sure there is much truth to this; actually, I feel safe saying I KNOW there is truth to it. However, while I can’t say anything about other people’s experiences, I realized today that I largely did not have that sense of admiration or identification when I was young. I’m curious as to whether other people with my background— trans, FAAB, male pronouned, etc.— might read this and express similar feelings. Some people have already written a lot about how it’s problematic and even anti-femme to idolize the proverbial tomboy Arya over the proverbial girly-girl Sansa; I’m not going to venture into that territory, since I more or less agree with it but I actually have a separate problem.

See, I grew up reading and watching various great stories with great girls-dressed-as-boys, tomboys, and what have you, and I often did like all of that, but while I admired those girls for being tough and doing what they had to do to survive, for being a marked antidote to all the stereotyped damsels in distress I got from other media— admiration was never identification. I identified much more readily with actual male characters. The only thing I really felt deeply invested in reading about with those Aryas and Violas, gender-wise, were the moments where they managed to be read as male, and how this affected them. I always felt disappointed by the numerous lost opportunities for such characters to treat their assumed male persona as something other than an act of survival. I knew nothing about actual concepts like “being trans,” but I still got tired of reading about these characters who were never “girl becomes boy” and always “girl must pretend to be boy.” In retrospect, I think it’s clear that many of the people who write such narratives for children, teens, and even adults do not have much experience with trans identity, only with popular concepts of gender bending. So many of these lauded female characters are precisely that: female. And cis female, to boot.

I have tons of respect for cis women & girls who crossdress or otherwise have a nonconforming gender presentation; they face many of the same social problems that trans FAAB people do, even though there are significant distinctions, just as cis males who crossdress etc. can run into similar issues as trans MAAB people with distinctions. Therefore, I can’t possibly say that Arya Stark et al. are subpar role models. They’re just… not role models for me, not from a gender perspective. To me, a girl who must pretend to be a boy often, depending on context, sounds a lot more like a trans girl than a trans guy.

The character identifications and fascinations I had, growing up and continuing to this day, are the male characters who are either “mistaken for female” or deemed “deficiently” masculine. If I see myself in anyone I read about or watched in movies and TV, it is not the female-identifying and female-assigned person going around with male gender presentation; it is the male-identifying and still often male-assigned person going around with “pretty” aka delicate features, short stature, physical weakness, sexual innocence. The eternal boys who are mocked by their fellows for their effeminacy, their romanticism. The fey, or the impotent. Not necessarily queer, although that is a reasonable chance.

Some might say that this has happened mostly because I am a queer, genderqueer, often quite femme sort of guy, but I prefer to think of it as a self-feeding cycle. I was initially drawn to these characters because there was no question of their maleness on a fundamental level, for me or for people who treated them respectfully, but they were often not taken seriously as men. These characters over time influenced my own self-image as a male person, which then fed back into the characters I identify with, which then affect my self-image, and so on, endlessly. I no longer identify with exactly the same characters that I used to, because I’ve also evolved due to separate factors. But the point is, I seem to have had a different character-identification experience than what a lot of trans guys talk about, or what people expect for us. I loved Éowyn in The Lord of the Rings as much as the next fan, but I never read the book for her. (Honestly, I’m not sure there’s a character in it I identified with at all, even as a diehard for all things Tolkien.)

Does anyone out there have stories of personal experiences they can contribute to this topic?

DLJ

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