A Conversation Between A ‘Real’ Woman And A ‘Pretend’ One
ELLEN: One of the things I said on the homepage was that I had a problem with the term ‘stereotype’, as in Ellen conforming to the stereotypical image of a woman dressed in skirts, make up, lingerie and heels. However, I have come to realise that Ellen is a stereotype. This causes problems for me. I mean, there are women who conform to this stereotype, but, by dressing in this manner, I am almost saying that this what I think a woman should look like. And, when you consider that almost none of the women I know dresses like this, it makes things somewhat difficult for me.
JEAN: It was a problem for me, too, before I met Ellen. I was nervous that she was going to be someone frighteningly girly, all frilly collars and giggles. And, yes, I did feel that there was an implicit criticism, that as a woman who doesn’t do “skirts, make up, lingerie and heels” I was somehow not feminine enough. And that’s from the standpoint of someone who’s just a friend, I really sympathise with the partners of crossdressers who have problems with this.
On the other hand, that was before we met; the problems came not from Ellen herself, but from my nervousness about her, and maybe also from the way you talk about her. For example, you say that “Ellen is a stereotype”, and maybe that’s your aim, but she isn’t. Even if we are only talking about appearance, she isn’t a stereotypical woman – there aren’t that many six-foot women, and those there are tend not to wear high heels! – she’s just herself, someone I enjoy spending time with. She’s girlier than most of my friends, but so what?
In fact, that’s an argument in your defence: yes, here is this person who aspires to the stereotype of femininity, but, guess what? He’s a bloke! Surely that subverts the stereotype rather than reinforcing it?
ELLEN: Crossdressing is almost entirely ‘non-P.C.’ (although that term is now almost completely debased and abhorred) in that it DOES stereotype. This makes the whole thing very complex and makes me feel quite uncomfortable. For me to reinforce the stereotype is for me to go against everything that I feel is right.
But, at the same time, for me to dress in this way just feels right. I suppose that this is, in some way, an excuse for it all…
JEAN: We’re both using the same argument: It can’t be wrong, because I enjoy it. If only things were that easy…
ELLEN: I am not really saying that all women have to dress this way. I could even argue that I am putting forward the proposition that anyone can dress anyway they want. After all, if a man dresses in a stereotypically female way, why can’t a woman dress in a stereotypically male way? For that matter, why can’t a man dress in a stereotypically male way and a woman dress in a stereotypically female way?
JEAN: Fair enough, this isn’t about what other women ought to do: it’s much more self-absorbed than that! And I’m sure you do support the proposition that anyone should be able to wear what they like (that’s the Eddie Izzard argument, isn’t it?). But this isn’t about men having the right to wear skirts or bright colours or fine fabrics, or whatever else you feel deprived of. You aren’t interested in wearing African tribal robes, for example!
If we had a culture in which all these clothing styles were equally available to both/all genders, which in theory you support, in practice you would no longer be able to crossdress, because the categories of male and female clothing would no longer exist for you to cross between. So that although you don’t actually endorse stereotyping, you depend on it for a large part of the pleasure of dressing as Ellen.
And it goes further than that, doesn’t it? It isn’t just a matter of “dressing as Ellen”, but of “being Ellen”…
ELLEN: The next question that I need to tackle, is why do I make myself look as female as I can? I already dress in a female way, why do I need false breasts and hairless legs, chest and armpits? Perhaps I can argue that (a) I don’t really like having a hairy body and (b) it’s all a question of personal taste again but can I say this about the false breasts and the attempts at hiding any male ‘bulge’ between my legs? Why am I so obsessed with attempting to pass as a female? This is where my ideas and arguments about stereotyping fall down. If I was just refusing to accept the strictures of gender then I wouldn’t care about that stuff, but I do (even to the extent of accepting the discomfort of ‘tucking’ – pushing my genitals between my legs). I haven’t the faintest idea about this one. This all starts to get entwined with the reasons why I crossdress and I really don’t know about that one.
JEAN: The stereotype of femininity goes beyond dress, and affects women’s attitudes to their bodies as well. And since it’s easier to change your dress than your body, this is where I think the stereotype becomes harmful, rather than just annoying. You may not “like having a hairy body”, but a hairy body is what you have, and so (with a slightly different distribution of hair) do I and all the other adult mammals. Your preference for hairlessness (especially in women) is more than purely personal taste, because you are culturally conditioned to prefer that stereotype (which I find a bit worrying, because lack of body hair is actually a sign of immaturity… – but that’s another issue). Similarly, there are a lot of pressures on women to be dissatisfied with our body shape: does my bum look big in this? are my tits too big? too small? Buying a pair that are just the right size isn’t always an option!
It seems clear to me that there are a lot of issues around stereotyping and your desire to “feminise” your body; but I’m not clear yet where they lead to. The idea that there is a typical feminine body type (which you try to match) may accept the stereotype, but the demand that Ellen’s rather untypical body type be accepted as feminine is a blow for diversity! And while your vested interest in different dress codes for men and women might just help that distinction to survive, the physical differences between men and women are going to survive without your help!
You haven’t said much about make up. Ellen is almost always quite heavily made up, it contributes a lot to your ability to pass, but she doesn’t strike me as the sort of woman who would normally wear make up all the time: the stereotype works against you here. Or maybe I’m wrong, because there is a quite stereotypical femininity in this aspect of your/Ellen’s behaviour, the narcissism of all this concern with preening your body, the passivity of making yourself beautiful in order to undergo the scrutiny of others, the constant shopping. On the other other hand, these are actually apects of your (STEPHEN’s) behaviour, a necessary prelude to being Ellen: Ellen herself spends more time playing records, giving parties, talking about comics. Her personality draws on all of who you are.
Some passages from Susan Faludi’s book Stiffed, about men, all taken from the excepts in The Guardian 7th September 1999:
But just because men have ended up in a beauty-contest world doesn’t mean women have put them there. The gaze that plagues them doesn’t actually spring from a feminine eye. The ever-prying, ever-invasive beam reducing men to objects comes not from ogling women but from the larger culture. The “feminine” power whose rise most genuinely threatens men is not the female shoulder hoisting girders at a construction site, not the female foot in the boardroom door of a corporation, not the female vote in the ballot box. The “femininity” that has hurt men the most is an artificial femininity manufactured and marketed by commercial interests. What demeans men is a force ever more powerful in the world, one that has long demeaned women. The gaze that hounds men is the very gaze that women have been trying to escape…
Glamour is perceived as a feminine principle, but really it is an expression not of inherent femininity but of femininity’s merchandised facade. Ornament is wonderful as frivolity, as something one adopts or discards for one’s own fun and enjoyment. But when women came to feel that beauty had been stolen from them as a pleasure and was being peddled back to them as a commodity, they began to revolt…
Because as men struggle to free themselves from their crisis, their task is not, in the end, to figure out how to be masculine – rather, their masculinity lies in figuring out how to be human. The men who worked at the shipyards and coalmines didn’t learn their crafts to be masculine; they were seeking something worthwhile to do. Their sense of their own manhood flowed out of their utility in a society, not the other way around. Conceiving of masculinity as something to be turns manliness into a detachable entity, at which point it instantly becomes ornamental, and about as innately “masculine” as fake eyelashes are inherently “feminine”…
I haven’t had time to work out where this fits in to what I am trying to say, but I am sure it is both relevant and significant.
Another quotation, this one from Susan Brownmiller’s book Femininity: “…for women are all female impersonators to some degree…” Femininity is a construct, a set of behavioural rules which have to be learned by women as well as by men who aspire to pass. It imposes submissiveness, modesty, quietness, expertise only in a appropriate fields – and Ellen has no truck with it. Although you talk of going to great pains to pass, you don’t change your behaviour, your mannerisms or your voice. Ellen’s beautiful big laugh gives you away every time. Is this a subconscious decision to play along with the stereotypes thus far and no further? Or is it simply too much like work, too much of a restraint, while the effort that goes into dressing is pure enjoyment?
ELLEN: I think that the lack of any change in mannerism is a large part to do with being comfortable. When I visit you as Ellen, I know that I am completely accepted – sometimes, I think Ellen is more accepted than Stephen – and so my ‘defences’ are down – because I know I don’t need them. However, when I am elsewhere – in a pub, a nightclub, or in town or whatever, I do revert to the quiet, shy type. Recently, when I went to have a make over in the middle of Fenwick’s Department Store, I was very nervous and shy. I kept my eyes down and tried to avoid catching anyones eye – as if that would make a 6’1″ person in a skirt less noticeable! There was no way my ‘big, beautiful laugh’ was going to be heard here. So, I think that at least part of who Ellen is depends on where she is.
I hope that you found this conversation interesting. Please send me a comment letting me know what you thought of it and if you have anything to add.