I may be starting to figure out why people are so often panic-stricken (and frequently enraged to the point of violence) by others who don’t comply with gender norms. I believe that it is because the norms are fragile, but also something we’ve been taught to measure our identity against. So, this aspect of identity, which most never question, and which has always seemed to them to be as solid as bedrock, turns out to be a social construct, something of an illusion.
This is how I’ve been pondering it: Babies & kids up to puberty are essentially undifferentiated as regards male/female traits in their faces. Even after that, teens can be very neutral. So, there’s a lot of attention paid to making the labeling clear: behavior, haircuts, clothes, even makeup. Parents, perhaps without realizing it, watch every aspect of this. Is that boy playing a bit too much with dolls? Has that girl gotten a little too carried away with toy bulldozers & trucks? Kids can’t be allowed to wear the wrong clothes, have their hair outside of norms…
If you mess with any of those signals, observers are confused. In my childhood in the 1960s and 1970s, I recall hearing adults saying, ‘you can’t tell if it’s a boy or a girl.’
So? Why would it matter to adults that a complete stranger doesn’t look a particular way?
Well, you’re told (verbally & otherwise) practically from birth that ‘being a man’ or ‘being a lady’ is essentially the foundation of your identity. If some other guy can be mistaken for a girl or woman just because their clothing isn’t precisely within a narrow range of guy-appropriate clothes, then the difference between men & women might not be as clear as we’ve been taught all our lives. Translation: “Oh my God! Someone might mistake me for a woman! NOoooooo!”
It can be very threatening to start to realize that the foundations of your identity are built on sand, not bedrock.
Men who dress as women on purpose are really threatening, because it shows the importance of makeup & clothes in making women look like women. Many women and men, shorn of hair and beard & sans makeup, look alike. It’s not easy to tell which face is male & which is female. Humans look alike. Shocker. I suspect that as with most things, there is a bell-shaped curve, where most people are neutral & an observer wouldn’t be able tell with certainty which sex they are. Outside the middle of the bell curve, some men might be mistaken as female, some women might be mistaken as male. Then you have the smaller number of cis men & women who would not be confused by any observers. I imagine that our societal rules for gender presentation work to push men to look more like these ‘prototypically masculine’ individuals and push women to comply with the ‘prototypically feminine’ individuals.
The fact that most humans just look human, not like either of the prototypical gender models, becomes clearer if you look at people who are past their youth. Photographers can help us see this. Portraits of elderly people, where the clothing & makeup signals have been minimized, frequently look undifferentiated to a large degree.
I believe that the anger directed toward those who don’t match gender norms is rooted in people’s fear of losing their identity, of having their identity challenged. I think that a ‘challenge to identity’ lies at the base of a lot of the anger in our society.
Shout-out to the memory David Bowie, who frequently challenged my notions of what it meant to be a man and a human being.