Saturday, 22 May 2010

Cisgendered men don't wear tie tacks: A theory of performative masculinity

So the way I want this blog to start heading is less about the considered, slow and, above all, painfully delay-prone musings about big asexual issues (though asexual issues will still be central), but to open the scope out to more general ideas about sexuality and gender. The gender bit is important. I have a lot of thoughts on gender.

So today, leaving my basic ideas about gender for another time, I’m going to dive straight into the big questions I have about performative masculinity. I may be inadvertently transphobic in this post. If you think I am, please bawl me out on it in the comments.

I’ve always been annoyed with how women can wear things that look pretty, ornament without merit other than the fact that it’s simply good to look at. Men’s clothing is dominated by status, and prettiness is difficult to work in. The image that burnt it into my brain is this one.

See how all the men wear boring suits while the woman has something original? It isn’t very exciting, no, but that just demonstrates how little freedom men have. Even something as simply-tailored as little white bits on the lapels is too effeminate.

Ok, so I realise this freedom screws women over. It’s the freedom to be dolls, judged only on your appearance, the freedom to be cookie-cutter cute, but still. I want the pretty.

And with this sensitivity to the plight of the poor, ugly and unloved modern man, I’ve been casting my eye over various fashion blogs and internet resources designed for people presenting as male. I won’t link any of them here, because I’m going to be rude about most of them. The ones for straight cismen weird me out. They have a tendency to go on and on about how amazing it is to be a gentlemen, and how much better we are than those filthy degenerates who wear white after labour day, or don’t take a stand on the big ‘how many vents should a suit have’ issue. Because that kind of person is just worthless.
The ones for transmen and butch women are a slightly subtler kind of weird. At first, it seems like almost the same plunge into the world of your grandfather. The same excitement about pocket squares and trilbys, clinging to the relics of a bygone age because there is too little beauty in this modern world. But it’s more of a personal feelgood factor. ‘I have this cool new tie tack, isn’t it awesome’. Everything in the cisgentlemen’s wardrobe is designed to create superiority. Not even that, designed to create a snivelling and imagined inferiority in others. Because that’s what these men get out of clothes. Wheras these people raised as women, they, like me, seek out the pretty. They just want fun and style.

I don’t know how many cisgendered men really wear tie tacks. Apart from the very elderly, there are probably a few. It doesn’t stop me imagining the entire tie tack industry being kept alive by transmen and butch women who buy into this idea of performing masculinity.

Men don’t seem to perform masculinity through clothes. Or when they do, it’s about clan allegiance or status symbols. And I feel slightly sorry for these people raised as women, who’ve thought “Right, I’m going to go out and dress like the best guy ever.” Because that’s applying female principles to the thing. They dig through the history books and the antique shops, looking for ways to perform masculinity, when masculinity is performed through absence.
I see myself in them. Looking for something that will be positive, that will be pretty, when all men seem able to hope for is something simple enough to make them look good, or status-filled enough to make them better than scum like us.


  1. Everything in the cisgentlemen’s wardrobe is designed to create superiority. Not even that, designed to create a snivelling and imagined inferiority in others.
    People do this in a thousand different ways--with clothes, with how you speak, with what you eat, with who you hang out with, with what you like, etc.

    A feeling to be superior to (most) others or to view (certain) others as inferior is deeply present for many people, and can be based on the most trivial of things. I've known people who, in their more honest moments, admitted to such feelings based on ability at Tetris or Neopets, despite the fact they they themselves felt this to be absurd. But the feelings were there nonetheless.

  2. AHC, I see your point. Thinking about it, I'm certainly guilty of the same thing myself.

    However, what I really objected to in these sites wasn't just the occasional undertones that less formally dressed people were worse, but this idea that the followers had attained a new level of manliness, and everything else was worth hatred, not as an underlying topic, but as a self-justification method that bound the group together.

    I also think that what you're saying is interesting from an asexual point of view. I'm sure you know of asexuals who've joined the asexual community, decided it was the best thing ever, and then got a superiority complex.

  3. For the kind of thinking I'm describing, I suspect that it's something that most of us are guilty of to some degree or other. But some people recognize it and are able to temper it, while others (like the people you're describing) just go all out with it.

  4. All right, this is part one, because I'm still not sure how to explain my thoughts on your last two paragraphs.

    I think your sample group is possibly problematic for observing the fashion sense of men in general, because the people who do fashion blogs are more interested in such things than the average person. There may be trans guys on the internet squeeing over tie tacks (speaking of which, where have you found trans fashion blogs? All my searches have failed), but there are lots of trans guys who are about as interested in that stuff as any given cis guy—not very.

  5. Espikai, you're right. The sample (which is a tiny enough sample group to base an observation off) is only representative of people who are really into the technical details of fashion, so biases itself.

  6. As a thoroughly cis-hetero male I think your last paragraph is brilliant. I'd add, though, that at least in part that masculine absence of performance can be highly performed. The performance, I'm pretty sure, is fueled not so much by homophobia per se as by homophobia-phobia -- a possibly irrational fear of being mistaken for, and then ridiculed or pummled for, somehow appearing gay.

    The point of your last paragraph stands, though, because the attempted negative performances men attempt are absolutely opposite from the impulse you're referring to to affirmatively perform looking masculine.

    Cool post. Also cool blog! Your intro says you're going nowhere fast. I'm not sure I'd agree. I might be cis/straight/sexual but I don't think I can't ever stress often enough how important it is that asexuality be recognized enough that people can feel comfortable being out about it. Because not believing in asexuality, whether it's situational or lifelong, seriously distorts society's understanding of sexuality.

    So again, cool post and cool blog, SlightlyMetaphysical!



  7. Thanks, Figleaf. The intro was written 6 months or so ago, when I was a lot less regular in my updates. I should go and change it. And you have a cool blog, too.

    True, loads of people perform non-performative masculinity. I see it in reactions to the rise of the male cosmetics industry, and things like manscaping. Looking back on it, this post is an awful lot more gender essentialist than I normally am, and the way men have been told to perform (or not perform) masculinity is obviously highly socialised.

  8. I wear a suit everyday and I happen to wear tie tacks and most of the friends that I have that present male also dress as I do but the superiority that you speak of in your blog doesn't seem to be the reason. The reason that most dress that way is because those are the only suits your going to find unless your willing to have one made, as for tie tacks and clips most of the ones that you find in regular stores are generic clips or pins. The person who must wear a suit but doesn't make loads of money doesn't have a lot of choice in their suit selection.
    I think a large part of that has to do with the fashion industry. Men's suits are just starting to come back into fashion as something worn outside of the office and because of that I suspect you will see more changes in men's suits that allow for more infusions of beauty and more diversity in design.
    Most men that I know care about their appearance but don't consider their suits to be a true fashion reflection of who they are. Instead they view them as a uniform you must wear in the office so they buy a generic suit and wear it everyday.
    I also think it is important to note that the man standing in the back is wearing a pinstriped suit a shiny purple tie and a purple and white shirt with a purple pocket square and a lapel pin that is very shiny. I find the colors of that tie combined with the shininess of the tie and pocket square to be very pretty. Yet he doesn't strike me as effeminate. It is much more diverse and ornamental than the woman's plain black and white dress. In fact all of the men in that picture are wearing more color and variance in design than the woman. Lastly, I'm sure that everyone of my friends in fashion and design would flip out about the notion that men's clothing cannot be pretty. Although a lot of men balk at the idea of being pretty and not handsome it doesn't change the fact that men's fashion, while more subtle than women's fashion, has a great deal of beauty in it. And white lapels is a really old school style of suits that men wore in the thirties.

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