GENDER NORMS AND CLOTHING MESSAGES

alpha

Last night’s Presidential debate, and the randy Donald Trump tape leading up to it, have elicited much comment about “alpha males.” By which is meant, I guess, men aggressively hitting on women: which when I was growing up was the assumed model of what “guys” were like. There were certainly plenty of guys who were not aggressive alphas. At the boys’ prep school and college that I went to, there were many shy guys — some of them “nerds,” some quite dainty — and there were several other brands of boy: fat and unathletic, artistic “beatniks,” aristocratic snobs — you name it.Still, the role model — the image that everyone pointed to when the word “Princeton” was mentioned was the ‘Jock” : the ultimate alpha male. The rest of us were left playing catch-up.

Today, that’s not so. The rise of gay male visibility has given us an entirely different role model, the “metrosexual” : a male who may well be “straight” — indeed, usually is so — but borrows mannerisms and tastes from  his gay male contemporaries. We used to call such guys “effete,” but today that [pejorative doesn’t hold. The “metrosexual” — not the “jock” — holds pride of place in today’s urban beehive.

Still, there are plenty of “jocks” — “alpha males” — and they have great cachet, much of it attached to the nation’s professional sports culture, sports bars, sport clothing, sport behavior and pastimes. Thus it was that Trump described THE TAPE as “locker room talk” rather than “trendy bistro conversation” or some such. Instantly we all knew what he meant despite “grabbing them by the pussy” not being a frequent phrase even in locker rooms. Two days ago one of Trump’s sons said that such talk was what ‘alpha Males” do. The term actually derives not from sports talk but from dominance games played by primates. It refers to the behaviors by which one4 male of a herd assumes dominance over the other males in the herd as well as its females and thus wins the right to breed. (Analogously, female horses selected by alpha steed are called “brood mares.”)

That Trump’s son should describe his Dad’s talk as that of an “alpha male” is quite instructive, isn’t it ? Is it a matter of pride for a wealthy, famous man living in our civilized nation to see himself as a breed animal ? Evidently so.

Clearly the description is liked by many millions of his followers too.

Yet today there are other models of maleness and more gender roles too. Living in an economy of options and a society of innovation — a world in which invention is prized and experiment is masterful — many. of us are thinking about sex and gender, thinking deeply about them in ways no generation has done before. What does it mean to be male ? Is “male” a fact or simply a social convention ? How can a person be able to perform sexually in a manner associated with “maleness” yet feel herself entirely female ? Answering these questions, all is conceivable, and much is provable on the ground, as it were, where personal behaviors take shape in the moment responding to interactions in the moment. And in these decisions we find that the “alpha male” idea isn’t dominant at all. many “males” deciding to pursue gender feelings don t even think of the “alpha male” concept :” it simply isn’t them is as far from their imperatives as a free lunch is from a wanderer in the desert.

I suspect that almost every boy growing up confronts the question “who am I” experimentally. Try out various who’s on the path to one “who am I” that fits. Some boys never settle the issue. There are no givens in life, in which identity is a mystery and feelings are difficult to interpret. But some of us know who we are. We simply know it, the n spend time — lots of time, perhaps — grasping it and accepting it. This is likely true of “alpha males” too. I know of many transgender women who once behaved in an “alpha male’ manner only to confront that that behavior was not who they knew themselves to be. It isn’t easy to be comfortable in one’s own skin, because no matter how strong a society’s gender norms, the individual person lives first of all inside herself: social norms stand at a distance, usually in the shape of other people who perforce do not occupy one’s own space.

Experiment means uncertainty, and uncertainty is assumed to be uncomfortable. I differ. For many people living in the diversity of a city, uncertainty is opportunity, is an invitation. And so the children of toady experiment with their selves. In the course of which some find that social norms of gender and dress aren’t a priori but a choice, as are all societal conventions. And if the society has chosen one set of conventions, rather than another equally compelling, why cannot I choose a different convention ? Here I am not speaking of transgender chiefly. Transgender people accept the societal norm; they simply embrace the side of it opposite to social expectation. Powerful an exception to the norms transgender is; but many men (and women) today who are NOT transgender are experimenting with the accoutrements of gender norms and adopting gender presentations for their own sake, not because they know they are not the gender that biology and/or society insist them to be. I enjoy seeing people do this sort of experimentation. The looks they adorn themselves with are fascinating, and liberating to my own normed assumptions: why can’t a guy, who knows himself to be a guy and who is NOT transgender, present in female norm ? (And vice versa as well.)

After all, in clothing there are messages about gender and norms, tailored in, as it were, that can be put on and taken off, just as can the norms themselves.

As an option rather than a must, the messages of clothing can be fun to send. Choosing the clothing associated with an opposite gender norm is liberation, empowering; it opens all kinds of search doors.

When gender non-normatives become an option, not an imperative, embracing them demonstrates to all of us that who we are — and can be — may never be boxed, that the choice is of the core of our lives; and that “alpha male,” too, is not a fate but a choice; a choice that comports just as great risks for the alpha as for those upon whom he aggresses.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

Author: hereandsphere

Here and Sphere is an online journal of news, opinion, reviews, advice, & bits n' pieces of everything else - from HERE to SPHERE...... Co-founded by Michael Freedberg, a long-time Boston Phoenix journalist, and Heather Cornell, a South Coast Massachusetts columnist and editor.

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