Friday, June 22, 2012

Trans*masculinity And The Pop-Culture Gender Binary

It may shock you to learn that I have been thinking a lot lately about trans*masculinity. (Holla at Genderfork, who recently ran a terrible photo I sent them probably a year ago! I look a lot more androgynous now, but my webcam is still just as terrible!)

It's occurred to me that there's an interesting pop-culture trope around trans*masculinity: it's okay to have a tomboyish/trans*masculine character, provided there's also a really femme-y girl to balance things out.

Like – okay, don't judge me too harshly for this, but between the ages of seven and maybe nine I was super into The Famous Five, and my favorite character was (of course) George. George had short hair, a rough-and-tumble attitude, and enormous pleasure at being gendered male. “I won't be a girl; I'm a boy!” I can remember her shouting at some point in the endless book series. George also had a cousin named Anne, who was timid, pretty, and conventionally feminine. (Anne was the one who was always, “Please let this be a normal field trip...”)

Or look at A Song Of Ice And Fire. Aggressively gender-non-conforming Arya wants to fight, hates sewing, and presents as male for a while. Meanwhile big sister Sansa is about as conventionally feminine as you can get. (I actually love what the series does with these tropes – it presents both of these choices, as well as those of other women like Cersei and Danaerys, as part of a range of possible options for AFAB people trying to stay alive and reclaim a little agency in a ferociously misogynistic society.)

Last year's lovely French film Tomboy also uses this trope, and it even crops up among portrayals of girls who are strictly on the cis end of the tomboy spectrum: Jo March has her sister Amy, Buttercup has her sister Bubbles, Petrova Fossil has her sister Posy.

I understand why it's a trope. I get that it's an easy source of conflict, a stark way to characterize two people as different, and an attempt to avoid accusations of either stereotyped femininity or femme erasure. But all too often I think it ends up reinforcing the masculine/feminine binary, even in instances where it might have been intended to disrupt it, because this constant pop-culture pairing of GNC girl and femme sister implies that the (conventionally) masculine and the (conventionally) feminine have some kind of yin-yang relationship that needs to be held in delicate balance. Plus, the hierarchized nature of the binary opposition means that all too often the femme gets denigrated (see: half of fandom on Sansa – including, admittedly, yours truly in the first book).

Then again, maybe there's also a grain of truth in this trope. I know I personally would have felt able to embrace androgyny a lot earlier in life if I hadn't been beset with the (probably instinctive, certainly not malicious) gender policing of parents toward their longed-for and only daughter. Maybe I am setting too much store by a pop-culture trope; maybe I am just making excuses because I am afraid; but every time I try to imagine having a conversation about gender identity with my parents, I think:

This would be a lot easier if I had a sister.


  1. This goes all the way back at least to the Nancy Drew series, which always featured Nancy's femmey friend, Bess Marvin, and her cousin, the butchy George Fayne!

    --ModernWizard from Shakesville

  2. This immediately made me think of the children's book I'm So NOT Wearing a Dress! - the main character is a tomboy, which is great! And then there's the super-girly next-door neighbor, who isn't really relevant to the goings-on anyway. I keep wondering why she's even there, and this post explains it perfectly: oh! just in case people might read the book and, I dunno, think that all girls are tomboys? ... because there aren't enough princessy depictions of girls in kidlit ...? /sarcasm

    Although, this is refreshingly absent from The Paper Bag Princess, which is still pretty popular with our kids, so, win some, lose some?

  3. I think you also see this is expectations of queer couples- the ever present assumption that one of you will be femme and one butch ("so, which of you is the guy?") that is so very frustrating to deal with.