I love people watching. My favourite people-watching place is the University of Cape Town campus outside the arts block. I love to look at what art students are wearing. Their jeans are tight, their t-shirts are tighter and they spend more money on hairstyles than they do on shoes. I think that a person’s look can tell me something about that person. However, I also know that if I got to know any one of those art students, I would also realise how much their look doesn’t tell me about that person.
For me, art students can really mess with your brain if you are not open to new experiences of how to define and describe masculinity and femininity. They can send mixed signals via their clothing or look, even to the point where it becomes difficult to know what sex they are; never mind their sexual preferences. Art students tend to flirt within the boundaries of androgyny. If being masculine or feminine means that you are straight, then all art students would be labelled bisexual, which they are not, of course.
Another great example is the metal head. Both male and female metal heads exert this image of toughness and brutality, yet the women love lace and the men could be models for shampoo advertisements. Metal heads, despite their manliness, can also have a soft spot for Eric Clapton and I won’t go into the glam metal bands of the 80s. They too exist within an amorphous zone where anything goes.
Before I drown us in some more stereotypical examples (the metrosexuality of jocks, anyone?), I must get the point of this article. Well, the point is this; “masculinity” and “femininity” are not singular notions. Both are defined by the current cultural and social norms of the day and can fluctuate and change within different countries, communities and even spaces. This is why there are many ways of being masculine and being feminine. These terms are very closely linked to sexuality and the relationships within and between genders.
Unfortunately, the University of Cape Town campus outside the arts block is just one of the few safe spaces in South Africa where people can explore these with little cost to their integrity. They are also free to do so without people having preconceived ideas about their sexual preferences. Their masculinity and femininity is very fluid to the point where there is a mixing of both.
The trouble with this country, and I have said it before, is that we are very confused by what the norms are because of the radical changes that occurred post-1994. In South Africa, sexual and gender norms are different across ethnicities, races, religions and income levels. Although the Constitution is supposed to be guiding our behaviours towards others, by affording them bodily and emotional integrity, we still have some of the highest levels of violence in the world.
The level of sexual and gender-based violence is indicative of how wrongly we have allowed masculinities and femininities to be defined in certain cultures. In fact, I think that the confusion created by progressive versus traditional roles of men and women are driving some of the violence. The problem with this is that all genders suffer, not just women. Men are expected to be tough, funny, sexually driven and strong, and if they don’t live up to these societal expectations, they are subject to brutality from other men, and even from other women. Personally, I could define masculinity as being able to satisfy a woman sexually every time you have sex. But then that definition would exclude all men and include all lesbians (just joking).
One of the biggest issues I have with masculinity and femininity is that we tend to view them as polar opposites. Even the aspects of each are polarised: strong, hard, ambitious men; nurturing, soft, sensitive women. What utter rubbish. Of course there are differences between men and women, but they don’t have to be so dissimilar. People are people; every person has different attributes and character traits. Both progressive and traditional notions of what it means to be a woman or man should be able to be attributed to every person without creating confusion and violence. Unfortunately, these are often incompatible.
When babies are born they are slowly gendered by their parents and society until they take on certain attributes of their sex. But your bits do not define you. My vagina does not make me soft and nurturing, or predetermine my career, or make me prefer flowers and men and shoes. In fact, I am terrified of babies, swear like a sailor, find flowers utterly pointless, love chocolate, wear big, black boots and love men with long hair. Am I a feminine woman or a masculine woman? I guess that depends on your definition. Me, I think that I can be both!