I’m not going to be ready in time to post about the Quran this week. It’s just been a weird week. I’m traveling and haven’t devoted the right amount of attention to my blog to get a good surah post done. I thought I’d write about something less intense for today. Last night I’d been talking with my husband about a social interaction that day within a group of men. A good social interaction, in which I felt extremely comfortable and enjoyed myself as “one of the guys.” My husband asked me what that felt like, and I found myself struggling to encapsulate how I quantify that phrase. I’d like to ramble a bit and process it, going back into my childhood to figure out where this feeling comes from in me.
I was very different as a little girl than I am now. Nowadays, people might describe me as minimalist or functional. Back then, I insisted on all things frilly, sparkly, and purple. I also maybe didn’t quite understand that these things were only allowed for girls, and that boys were not socially allowed them. From my youngest years I always had some percentage of good friends who were boys. One such friend from my pre-school years had confessed when we were watching TV commercials that he thought the Songbird Barbie was the coolest toy ever and really wanted one.
When this friend’s birthday came up, I insisted to my mom that the only acceptable gift to give was the purple edition of the Songbird Barbie. (He and I both shared a liking for purple.) I hinted no alternative option and would not let Mom steer me any other way. When the party happened, I was one of only two girls there and we were from his preschool days. The rest were new boy friends from his kindergarten. I couldn’t understand why my friend wasn’t excited when he unwrapped the doll in front of them. I know my Mom was really embarrassed for him, and later I felt embarrassed too. Going to different kindergartens was really the force that ended our friendship, but as a little kid I thought it had ended because of that present.
Going into the future, I found that there was always a dichotomy between the things I knew my guy friends liked and wanted, and the things they were allowed to have and do. I never felt that I was fundamentally different than them, even though we had different tastes that might be coded as “boyish” and “girlish.” One of my best friends in second grade later became a sort of enemy in third grade. We had been split into different classrooms, and I became part of an all-girl trio and he an all-boy trio. That school had a miserable playground and recess was usually spent in territorial gang warfare over patches of painted pavement or individual chunks of playground equipment. Our trios often came at odds over who got to loiter on what plot of equipment, and for some reason a bunch of girls sharing with a bunch of boys seemed unacceptable. The fighting could get pretty intense, and one of his friends once tried leveraging my arm against a wood beam to break it (to my friend’s credit, he stepped in to make the boy stop). I remember him telling me “you used to be nice, what happened to you?” The thought was mutual. Then later he (or maybe his mother? It was a surprise) reached out and invited me over. We hung out at his house playing games and talking. It became pretty clear that we still connected and really liked each other. That was my first clue that something built into our lives was wrong. Why was it so hard to be friends with boys at school? What were the pressures that could make us turn on each other so easily?
I should also describe my own sense of being a girl. My mother’s role in my upbringing cannot be understated by any amount. Mom has a sentimental fondness for Edwardian femininity that competes with a strong pride in her pioneer do-it-yerself roots. To hyperbolize my upbringing, I’d say I was raised to chop down trees with poise. While Mom frequently paid lip service to soft femininity and taught me how to stand, sit, and eat, I’d say that her value for grit was communicated more effectively and consistently by her own life choices. She liked feeling like she could spite her so-called limits, using her ingenuity to accomplish tasks of heavy lifting and manual labor, and the boosts to her esteem and the productivity from such actions had better and longer rewards than her moments of feeling pretty.
Looking pretty, as it was, became harder and less rewarding as I got older. It is a strange process, going from being a little girl who is pretty by default to a teenager who is pretty…but not enough. Slowly, it became clear that one was not enough of a girl unless one exaggerated it with the proper girly things. One strange benefit of my mother’s Edwardian sensibilities is that I was not allowed adult-woman things like makeup or shaving my legs until I was in my late teens. Perhaps that kept me from developing a sense of esteem that relied on augmenting my features or sexualizing my body. Maybe it was just my already well-established sense of spite against society that made me resistant to makeup. At any rate, I’d decided fairly early in my teen years that I was going to be beautiful by virtue of being healthy and happy, and that my female anatomy was all the girlishness I needed. I already was spiteful to societal pressures, and this just became another means to that end. It also alienated me from other girls.
There was also the influence of my Dad and brother. Neither of them are hyper-masculine types. My Dad is not particularly outgoing and I never really saw him interact much with other men except professionally. My brother had a rough time relating to his fellow boys about anything other than video games. Indeed, my brother often preferred the friendship of girls when he was a teenager. It wasn’t because he was gay, but he didn’t relate to the general male culture and found the teasing of the girls more fun and friendly. For a long time he fondly wore the be-sparkled “I’m allergic to glitter” shirt his all-female marching band section made for him. Dad and my brother drove most of the media interests in our house, and we often watched action movies. It has to be noted that most of the characters on screen were male, but I never thought of them as such. Those characters had interests, sought romance, fought for happiness and justice. I related to them. After all, I was being raised to apply my interests to college, find romance, and fight for happiness and justice. I didn’t notice that the characters I related to were male. They were human, so was I.
I had not developed that open attitude towards women. Individually, that wasn’t the case, but on a categorical level I felt contemptuous of my fellow females. In second grade, many of the girls around me were already arranged in a pecking order based on who was the most talented, whose hair and clothes were prettiest, who talked the right way, who had the coolest things, who knew the most Backstreet Boys lyrics. Enviability was the key to dominance, and cattiness was the warfare. Those of us who were deliberately or indirectly outliers of this competition called those girls the “popular” crowd. By fourth grade, it became noticeable how much of the talk amongst my female peers obsessed about who was crushing on who and which boys it would be most enviable to date. Even in my sparkliest, purplest phase of childhood I primarily saw boys as friends and rivals, so I was disgusted by such talk. It became hard to make and keep friends. I felt really alien compared to so many of the other girls I met, and eventually my impression of girls was that they were all too “popular” for me. I started to voice a preference for the friendship of guys, purely based on wanting to be different from those shallow, vain, petty females. Not being one of them stoked my self esteem. I took on the identity of the elite pariah.
It wasn’t until college, after my first semester, that I stopped and counted my friends to realize I somehow still had more female friends than male. It was a near-even balance, true, but certainly not accurate to my prideful assumption that “I get along better with guys.” On a categorical level I had not considered women to be fully human, with relateable goals and interests. When I inventoried my girl friends individually, I realized that none of them conformed to my generalizations. We were friends precisely because we shared similar human interests. I realized that the catty traits I disliked constituted a sort of hyper-femininity, and it was not as widely inherent to women as I’d accredited (despite being dominant in advertising and media). Once I realized this, I dropped my categorical discrimination and embraced the reality.
Yet still, being “one of the guys” feels like an accomplishment. On one level, it feels like breaking into a society by your own merit, a society that you technically aren’t allowed into otherwise. Some girls get defensive about ensuring they are the only girl amongst the guys. Such girls might resent the presence of other women in a circle of friends because having another girl there dilutes the accomplishment. I’ve had to fight traces of that resentment within myself when in guy-dominated things like percussion groups, but on the whole it isn’t my problem. It didn’t feel like I was breaking into the male crowd by being masculine. My knowledge of sci-fi and basic comic book lore helps (although the latter mostly expanded under the influence of female friends), but hanging out with guys has never required me to achieve any levels of machismo. The guys never forget that I’m a woman and often drop the machismo around me (unless to crack an ironic joke at their own expense). We bond over music, movies, politics, food, theology, games, student grievances, and post-college-identity crises. Since none of those things are forbidden to me, I don’t feel like I’ve infiltrated a forbidden society. I don’t feel resentment when other women are contributing to the group as such.
The real level of accomplishment that I enjoy when being “one of the guys” is breaking the stereotype that guys and gals can’t interact without sexuality coming into it. Think about it: how many platonic examples of mixed-company characters can you think of? “X-Files” held out for so long…but then Scully and Mulder started having sex. Ron’s jealousy for Hermione is part of Harry Potter VII, and of course they end up married. The TV show “Friends” was certainly not friend-zoned. Major Carter and Colonel O’Niell’s sexual tension in Stargate: SG1 just barely escaped canonized dating, although the cast and production team intended their relationship to fulfill itself as such. Jesus and Mary Magdalene can’t even be kind to each other in the Gospels without people fan-fictioning a romance for them. More insidious than the trope that women always find romance at the end of the story is the trope that men and women can’t work together without pairing off or making drama. The message is that men and women cannot set aside sexuality in relationships, that meeting each other as equals inevitably leads to attraction, and that gendered segregation is the means to avoid drama. My all-girl trio playing with my friends’ all-boy trio in school would’ve just been tempting too much fate, according to that expectation, or at least it would have invited too much gossip. Enjoying platonic mixed company and sharing mutual interests is the ultimate dashing of that trope, and it feels good.
So for me, personally, the joy and pride of “being one of the guys” is not that they’ve forgotten I’m female, or that I’ve merited my way into some otherwise exclusive group, or that I’ve renounced femininity. Instead it is a pride that I and my friends can interact as members of a greater human race, that sexuality does not have to dictate our interactions, that our anatomy does not limit what kinds of thoughts and feelings we can share. And as my awareness has grown, I’ve realized that I get this same satisfaction whenever I’m in a group of girls who can talk about interests beyond sex-centered things. “One of the guys” is the phrase I use to describe the feeling, but it is a feeling that can be found in any company.
Some of my vocabulary for this post comes from this video by Pop Culture Detective about masculinity as communicated in our entertainment and culture. His description of hyper-masculinity was useful for me in qualifying the false traits of femininity that I’d understood as normal when a teen. In that video, it is pointed out that male culture tends to abuse men who fail to be suitably masculine. I would like to point out that in female culture the internal abuse goes both ways. Women often police each other on who is properly female (how attractive their body is, how well they wear clothes and makeup, what kind of men they can attract), but we also police each other on who is too female. This happens by insinuating that whoever takes too much interest in traditionally female things is being shallow and un-fulfilled. I have been policed by both sides at times, and sometimes it feels like being a woman means you just can’t win.