“Don’t be a weak little bitch.”
Did I just think that? About myself? I had been tense and frustrated while arguing with my significant other, the kind of fight where the two of you decide to take space, saying “FINE”—outwardly defiant, but inwardly feeling lonely. We collided with each other in the Campus Center, and it was awkward. But barely a minute into our stilted conversation, we were suppressing smiles, both realizing how much we’d missed each other’s presence. Love is gross that way.
Walking back to my apartment, I wanted so badly to go over to their place and fall asleep wrapped up in warm arms and reassuring, familiar touch. That’s when a knee-jerk voice in my head said, “Don’t be a weak little bitch,”—meaning, don’t give in when you’re not done being mad. But I wanted to be with the one I love. And since when is it okay to call anyone “bitch” and call emotional vulnerability “weak”?
Ah, right, the patriarchy says that… to men. But I identify as a woman, and consider myself pro-women, a feminist. While growing up, the strongest female-empowering voices in my life were the second-wave feminists of our mothers’ generation encouraging women to speak out more, take up more space, and implicitly play the men’s game until we’d claimed the CEO spot for ourselves. This second-wave, Lean In feminism leaves out the potential for women to succeed as anything other than CEOs, but more deeply concerning is its message to women: beat the system by playing into it. Rather than questioning the system that keeps women under a glass ceiling in multiple walks of life, this feminism encourages women to reclaim their power by adopting Western normative masculinity. It is disturbingly close to the saying that “to outrun a bear, you only have to be faster than the slowest person.” This kind of “empowerment” works by elevating a select few to be faster than the patriarchal “bear” and amplifying their success rather than calling attention to how this solution leaves most—especially those who fall outside the characterization(s) of cis/White/socioeconomically comfortable—as much at the fringe as they were before.
At a party with many people whom I consider friends, and in a space I considered comfortable and safe, an unknown cisgender man violated my body, and spurred my own reflections on masculinity. While a large part of my reaction was couched in the well-founded distress that someone would treat my body like an object, I realized that I felt betrayed by something more than one poor excuse for a human. All along, I had subconsciously relied on the idea that being tough, being confident—whether I knew it or not, being masculine—would keep me safe. A generous side effect of being confident: people would leave me alone.
It was not until fairly recently that I unpacked all the implications: much of my ‘power’ as a human comes from exhibiting traits that are either explicitly or implicitly gendered as masculine. There’s the obvious: I routinely get flak from extended family members for “sitting like a guy” or walking and standing tall and broad-shouldered. (Had I been born a cis man, I would be diagnosed as confident and strong, but that’s the double standard for you.) Then there’s the subtler things: I have a deeper-than-average voice, and I feel most comfortable when I pick up the tab on dates or make the first move, both with men and with women. I don’t like raising my hand in informal group discussions and would rather speak out when I have my thoughts—I rarely begin sentences with the apologetic standbys of “this might be a stupid question, but,” or “I’m sorry, but.”
If your immediate reaction is, “Wow that is so rude, all women can do those things too, you’re not special”—I understand. That viewpoint is part of why it took me so long to realize that, at the time I thought I was trailblazing, I was not conscious of how I as a single human cannot immediately overturn hundreds of years of Western gendered roles. In the immediate, I am still benefiting in part because much of how I act is classified in others’ headspaces as “masculine,” and therefore, “powerful.” There is certainly a hazard to being perceived as “too masculine” as a cisgender woman. (I am distinguishing this from the incredibly damaging phenomenon of transphobia, with which I have no personal experience.) But, I have realized that if I play my cards right, I get both the benefits of being seen as confident/powerful/masculine, and also the balancing benefits of being feminine-presenting and thus presumed to be more emotionally intelligent.
I’m trying to be not only a feminist, but also an intersectional one—which, as a cis woman coming from relative privilege, means I still have a lot of unlearning left to do. But why, as a supposed feminist, do I exhibit symptoms of toxic masculinity? Of late, I have reevaluated the spaces and relationships I partake in, and come to the realization that I used them as excuses to not critically evaluate my own behavior.
For example, my rewarding collegiate sports experience has been a source of inspiring athleticism and joy. However, team spaces too often allow or encourage me to co-opt harmful masculinity. The following reflections have come out of my own personal experiences over time, although I still have seen them have some resonance across a broader spectrum of experience.
I have seen—and participated in—the pursuit of toughness and determination blur with damaging notions of invincibility. We are often silent about mental health other than mentions of homework, and a teammate who cries or is frustrated in a competition setting is expected to go pick themselves up elsewhere. Naturally, there is a time and a place for everything, and competition, by design, demands that we stay focused in the moment. But we do not always make space to address the problem after the fact. How often does anything get addressed by anyone other than a close friend on the team? How often do we dismiss genuine emotional responses as mere complaints? Pushing emotions to the side, often to go unaddressed, is a facet of toxic masculinity. It plays into the implicit notion that to be athletic, we must leave feelings and traditionally feminine traits at the door because society tells us they are signs of weakness. But not addressing teammates’ well-being because it doesn’t seem directly relevant to the sport at hand is an act of silencing that does a disservice to the environment in which we excel, compete, and grow together as athletes. When we do address someone’s emotional state as a group, it is often in the frame of “boy drama.” Sometimes talking about “boy troubles” is a stress reliever, but why is that the case? Is it to bond as a group? If so, why do we often default to a topic which is often an emotionally avoidant comparison of hookups? This heteronormative topic limitation does not bode well for our emotional availability to one another. It is tempting to respond that emotional availability is not the point of sports, but this would ignore the reality that some of the strongest teams or event groups are those that can rely on one another for more than simply athletic support.
There is a world of difference between responding to emotional outburst in a competition setting with “Tough it out now, we’ll talk about it later,” and responding to that same outburst with “Tough it out,” and later enforcing, amongst a circle of teammates not including the person in question, how that outburst was unacceptable. I can remember times teammates have been sympathetic or supported me, and these are important to acknowledge. However, the culture that I realize I have both helped foster and fallen victim to is one of a narrow ideal of athleticism, and citing anecdotal evidence to the contrary does not erase this overall cultural environment.
People are fairly unsurprised that I am on a sports team, nor are they that surprised that I am the only girl in my family. I grew up with two physically large, heterosexual, normatively masculine cis male brothers, which often leads people to assume my strong personality comes about as a survival instinct. Yet my brothers are two of the softest, kindest muffins that could ever exist, and I wouldn’t be the same without their love. That said, I do not always bother to correct people on their presumption that my toughness or visible co-opting of masculine behaviors comes from my brothers. I have certainly been shaped by the desire, while growing up, to emulate my brothers, especially the older one, and to be cool and “one of the guys.” But it took me quite a long time to realize that that ideal in itself was strange—that I assumed being cool meant masking any noticeable feminine traits. And rather than challenge that norm, I have often simply taken advantage of knowing how to work that norm to my advantage.
I have realized that much of my credibility with cis men comes from exhibiting those normatively male traits—my instinct to scarf down food, propensity to wear clothes sold in the men’s section, and ability to talk about women. Especially as a queer woman, the latter is an easy trap to fall into: the trap of getting along with cis men by objectifying women or otherwise conveying “I am a woman and I am participating in hurtful behavior xyz; therefore, this allows you to do so in the future and cite me as a source.” Furthermore, given my racial location, my strong confidence can be almost brazen without my being characterized as a societal trope of an “angry woman”; in fact, as a mixed race Asian American woman, speaking up is encouraged. The same society that sustains with one hand the stereotype of meek and submissive Asian American women credits me as “special” for breaking out of that archetype.
It’s been said that feminism helps everyone. Then we must come to terms with not only how normative, societally constructed masculinity can hurt everyone—and further, how each of us exhibit this hurt in our own behaviors. I am still reflecting on how to value those around me, and myself, even when we do not fit into confident, unapologetic, traditionally masculine modes of acting. When, for example, I hear a cis woman speak up in class in a less-than-steady voice and I subconsciously want to dismiss her, I still have to remind myself to focus on ideas rather than how well she aligns with our societal ideas about power. Unlearning has been an ongoing process, and a critical one. It is not enough to outwardly think I am being level-headed, not when years of internalized messages say otherwise. Instead of running from the bear, or saving ourselves at others’ expense, we must turn around and face it.