Invisible men, invisible women

A brief moment in the discussion group last week was incredibly telling to me: we were talking about stereotypes about men and women in the workplace, and one man mentioned an industrial environment he’d worked in, where men and women did the same amount and quality of work, and got the same pay and treatment. He then mentioned as an aside that there were a few jobs women never did, because they involved an extreme amount of heavy lifting, but “a lot of the men didn’t do that work either… those jobs were saved for the” he paused and flexed his arms “men.”

I and everybody else in the group understood what he meant. There are men and women, you see, and then there are men. (And women, but we’ll get to that in a bit.) Men who are men, not by virtue of a simple set of chromosomes and genitalia, but who express their man-ness by specific man behaviors, like feats of physical strength. Who have actually succeeded at being men, instead of just being placed in the category by default. All those concepts resonated through my brain when he talked of the subset of men who did the heavy lifting. And then my rational, observing brain went “Wait… what the fuck?”

That category is bullshit, y’all. There is no such thing as a man who is better at being a man than another man. That’s like, if I met another Ginny in town, assessing which of us is better at being a Ginny. It’s nonsensical. We’re both Ginnys, those were the names our parents gave us and we’re comfortable with them, and we get to live the rest of our lives defining what “being a Ginny” means for us as individuals.

I looked around the table — of the four or five men present, I didn’t imagine any of them would have been capable of the heavy lifting jobs in the factory. I don’t imagine my boyfriend or my brothers would. But none of these people were less men than someone who would.

I thought about it again later, when one of the men present clearly had something to say, but kept getting talked over, and wasn’t assertive enough to speak until the person next to him noticed and said “Go ahead.” It’s an experience I’ve had many times, and it’s a phenomenon I’ve usually thought of as gender-relevant: the woman has something to say but is too soft-spoken or socially deferential to get the words out over men who charge ahead without noticing that she’s waiting to speak. Seeing a man in that position, my mental reflex was to shift him one peg away from “man-like,” but I stopped myself again. He is a man. He’s not less a man for being socially deferential to the louder speakers around him. And then I wondered, “How many men are there, who sit in situations like this, hearing ‘manhood’ described and defined, and thinking ‘That isn’t me at all’?”

We have a tremendous confirmation bias around gender roles. We have a set of things that we consider “man-like” behavior, and every time we see a man doing these, we think “Yep… that’s how men behave.” And when a man does something outside this set of things? We don’t see it. We might literally observe it, but it doesn’t get put into our mental category of “things men do” because, well, it’s not something that men do. So maybe this one person did it, and he’s technically a man, but it still doesn’t count because he wasn’t engaging in man-like behavior at the time, so anything he did doesn’t count as an example of man-like behavior. A man engaging in not-man-like behavior is invisible.

(Of course if the behavior goes too far in the direction of the feminine, the invisibility vanishes, and the man is harshly penalized for transgressing the gender boundary. But that’s a whole other blog post/doctoral dissertation.)

Women are subject to this too: just try being a woman who doesn’t want to get married or have kids, and you’ll see the entire culture sticking their fingers in their ears and going “la-la-la-la.” Women want marriage and babies. You may not want them yet… you may not have wanted them to any significant degree over the course of your life so far… but you will eventually, because you’re a woman. And women want marriage and babies.

And then there are the women who don’t meet conventional standards of attractiveness. As I mentioned in my last post, when sexuality is anywhere on the horizon, “ugly” woman magically cease to exist. Most people will agree that a sexually available woman can get laid any time she wants, without even noticing that their mental category of “woman” only includes attractive women.

The baby Shaun and I are taking care of has two very progressive-minded mamas who want her to be as free of gender restrictions as a city-dwelling American can be. One thing they do is dress her alternately in “boy” clothes and “girl” clothes. (When I was working at the preschool, I made an lengthy and detailed list of differences between boy clothes and girl clothes… very telling.) And it’s amazing how the gender signals encoded in her clothing affect the way I talked to her. The first day we watched her she was in a little pink onesie with flowers, and I naturally cooed at her that she was sweet and cute and adorable. On the second day she was wearing a blue outfit with firetrucks and the words “little hero” on it, and I automatically started to pay attention to the way she was moving her body and flexing her muscles. I encouraged her to do baby exercises and praised her for her strength. I noticed this pretty quickly, and once again marveled at how far behind my rational, educated brain is my instinctive brain.

I don’t know what exactly this thing we call “gender” is made of… how much of it is innate, how much constructed. People spend their lives studying it, and as far as I can tell they’re not sure either. But I do feel quite sure that it would behoove us all to unlock those “male” and “female” categories in our brains. Try to catch yourself assessing people’s behaviors in terms of “man-like” or “woman-like.” Try observing the people in your life and saying to yourself, “That man just cleaned the kitchen, therefore cleaning the kitchen is something that men do.”

3 thoughts on “Invisible men, invisible women

  1. Yes! Yes yes yes!

    I’ve had to observe the same kinds of things very consciously as I transition. For example, I’ve found I really enjoy doing a lot of tasks that involve heavy lifting and generally getting messy. I initially thought it was about the fact that being more masculine makes me feel more male, but then I noticed my friend Taylor is much more contented to let other people continue to do the heavy lifting for him. Now I see it as being more the kind of man I want to be, and its interesting to look at the masculine stereotype and see how much I do or don’t want to conform to it.

    I’ve gotten a few tips from other people on “passing,” and those tips generally come down to “act like the stereotypical male,” no matter how few men actually fit the stereotypes. Interestingly, even the tips I give myself in my own head tend to come back to those stereotypes. I’m learning to tell myself “screw it,” and act however I feel like. While I wouldn’t describe myself as masculine, most of my gendered traits to seem to be masculine rather than feminine. For the most part my behaviors are what you call invisible, neither particularly masculine or feminine. I still hug like a girl though, and I do not intend to change that. 🙂


  2. One of my friends knows a married couple who is expecting their first child. Upon finding out that they were having a girl, the husband flipped out and was like “She’s not going to want to play ball or video games with me!” His wife replied “She might want to?” He said “She won’t be able to play guitar!” She said, “Um, we can get her ukelele until she’s big enough to play a guitar?”

    Why can’t more focus be put on people in general just being decent, fun people, and not fit a specific role?


  3. Yes! One of the photography holy grails for me in terms of gender stereotypes is a picture I think maybe Robert Mapplethorpe took of a woman body builder gracefully holding a completely buff and grinning Arnold Schwarzenegger over her head like a 250 pound barbell.

    I want that photo because it illustrates your point perfectly. Most women couldn’t do that, sure. But neither could most men. (More to the point, Schwarzenegger weight almost twice what she did. There are very, very few men who could hold twice their weight overhead.)

    Anyway, I just stumbled across your blog. I’m glad I did.

    Take care,



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