Playing the Game
I think it was Jake who first used the term ‘playing the boys game’ in a conversation about the behavior I was getting annoyed with. I always think of it as just that. Something I have done for many years past, something I still fall into. Just like playing the parent game, or the worker game, the boys game has unspoken rules that we all sort of know but don’t always acknowledge, and generally don’t talk about unless griping because someone broke the rules, or we want to but can’t seem to let ourselves. The boys game is no easy task, mostly because it is the hardest game to understand, and it’s not always easy to know when the game is being played. The boys game is much more of a daily reality, something that seems ever present.
Here’s how I describe it; it comes from straight culture. It means some positive things like being strong in ways usually reserved for men. For me, I was trying to be tough, aggressive, loud- all good things at times. The problem was when I would try to be over the top in any of these things, to the point of not listening to people (most especially other women; particularly quiet ones). Also, interrupting and talking over people (usually women) with my loudness. Because women often have troubles finding their voices, and using them, often playing the boys game means overriding quiet people- women. Often playing the boys game means trying to be raunchy to the point of making insane sexist jokes, turning men and women into a meat market, notches on a belt, trying to be far more bawdy than the jerkiest men. Teasing people, being viciously competitive in a way that devalues people who aren’t at your ‘level’ of expertise, challenging to the point of being insensitive. It can also mean having mostly male friends. It is living in a highly polarized heterosexual world, where there are really distinct roles for Men and Women; not thriving in the vast array of different gender expressions, trans people, queer, etc and thinking about gender really rigidly. It is also being overly supportive of the biological boys- but not being supportive of women and others. It means spending a lot of time making relationships with men and guarding those connections like a mother guarding a new human.
Playing the game often means believing men who are accused of sexual assault with arguments like- how could our boys do this. Men will often be in support of their guy friend, even if they are also close to the woman. It becomes a ‘which side are you on’ argument instead of a positive healing process where all people involved are supported. Girls playing the game will often have the same loyalties, maybe condone the behavior with comments like ‘I think (the accused) is a great guy, we always have fun together. He’s nice (or sweet or passive) not macho enough to do this (she must have been hinting she wanted it, or she just wants his attention, or she’s just sad they aren’t serious).î Sometimes the excuse is ‘he’s in a good anti-sexist band. So he couldn’t have assaulted her.’ Instead of acknowledging there could be the possibility of an assault, and trying to find help; therapy, talking about helping each person heal and not repeat the behavior, the woman is doubted and her reputation destroyed.
The prime objection of the game is to be the best at being a ‘guy’ of all the guys in the pack. When I was fully immersed in living the game, it was about 5 years ago, I lived with all boys and the girls I knew were from school and I rarely hung out with them. I would never wear skirts, because that would acknowledge that I was (gasp) a girl, and I was crusty- and hiding any mention of my female body. I thought it was more powerful to be a woman wearing pants than a skirt. Years later, I find it really rad when women wear skirts and fixing a bike, building a wall, or doing something else mechanical. Doing hard labor and wearing femme clothes; challenging our perceptions of appropriate dress and gender roles. I’ve read a few books lately about fashion and gender. The first is ‘Men and Women: Dressing the Part.’ It is kind of vague, not super radical, but it is interesting as it tries to trace the history of masculinity and femininity in clothing fashion in America, particularly for people of European dissent and middle/upper class. It pinpoints a change of women’s fashion coinciding with their roles in society with the introduction of the bloomer around the turn of the 20th century. Though it was more available to women of leisure, the change began a trend that provided women with an athletic dress that opened up possibilities for more movement and freedom. A woman, Amelia Jenk Bloomer, created it and its purpose was inextricably tied to its design. The dismissal of the corset is another example. There is some discussion on the gendered dress of babies and how it is just in recent years that there is such an emphasis on defining the gender of a newborn. For many many years infants all wore dresses regardless of their sex and there wasn’t an emphasis on masculinating boys at birth. It’s only been in the last 200 years of human kind that gender has gotten so polarized.
Another great book is ‘Radical by Design’ by Bettina Berch; it is about Elizabeth Hawes, a fashion designer, labor union organizer, and author. She worked in fashion after graduating from Vassar, in Paris and then the U.S. during the 30ís onward. She started her own company and was involved heavily in high vogue wear, but while she was working with mass production she got really interested in challenging the gender coding in fashion. She designed for men and women factory workers, more playfulness in color for men. There was strong resistance to her designs; people seemed to think only the wealthy should be able to afford interesting clothing, but also what she was saying about clothes was too challenging of the standards of feminine and masculine roles. Hawes began to notice the different ways clothing could be used to express identity; and her notions that women looked stylish in trousers were unpopular. Later in the late 30ís and 40s when she began writing, she encouraged men to become the peacocks with their clothing. Men still haven’t caught on, not en masse, today.
Icky pointed out to me that WWII was also a challenging era for women’s dress; as men were at war abroad, industries needed womanpower; pants were tightening so they didn’t get caught in the machinery, and a new style was born. Hawes herself designed multiple pants for the workers. Though paid less than men and expected to do housework for a living when the men returned, there were lasting changes. Women were becoming a force to recon with outside of their homes. Other fashion designers toyed with gender roles in the 70s; some male designer, the name eludes me, was trying to create androgynous clothing for men and women; long flowing robes. But his sketches still had men posing with authority and women in submissive gestures. Though he was encouraging dress fluidity, his ideas of gender difference were still apparent.
When I think of the 90s and beyond it seems like in mass media we are going even more backwards; women are half dressed or less in advertising ranging from clothing to bottled water. The excuse is ‘sexy sells’. Even with ladies wearing pants women are still underpaid in more than 50% of our jobs. And straight men still won’t wear skirts! It has a lot to do with our ideas of power and masculinity. When women began wearing pants we were stepping up. But for a man to wear a skirt is stepping down. When I was playing the game I also validated the power of pants, I had ideas that being more masculine would make me stronger. I was scared to call myself a feminist because I thought I’d have to have read academic books. I thought I’d have to admit we were still fighting for ourselves, and I wanted to be stronger than that. I couldn’t see the gray areas. I wanted to be the most elevated female, even better than men. I gave a lot of power to gender stereotyping. I thought femininity was weak; I thought makeup was reserved for 50ís rhetoric of the perfect housewife. I couldn’t see that a person could be feminine and a feminist. Or that understanding that there is still inequality in this world brings the ability to change it. There are huge gray areas in this world and keeping issues polarized at extremes keeps us divided and unable to work for change. I thought women talking amongst ourselves was cheesy, talking about our bodies or dealing with sexism was stupid, and I didn’t feel like my sexuality was on display. I didn’t understand a lot of it until I DID started getting harassed on the streets and ignored in communities I was a part of.
I started seeing rad women kicking ass, organizing, confronting sexist bullshit. I started learning about taking charge of my body, health care, and making my own decisions instead of looking for so much validation from my guy friends. Working with a bunch of rad women at Crescent Wrench Bookstore (rip) opened my eyes. I started valuing women, I saw a different type of power come out when the women were alone, without men to dominate discussions I started hearing a lot of other voices than the straight white male rhetoric I lived with for years. I got bored with all the bands being all men, with the same aesthetic everyone had, and how many times ‘cool punk boys’ didn’t have to deal with their sexist shit. I got tired of my art being devalued while the men’s art was flaunted over. I started seeing weaknesses with the boys world and power with the ladies, but I wanted to envision a better place for all of us, without two extremes. Where we can rock out, be loud, obnoxious, but not at the expense of others or reinforcing heterosexual standards or alienating queer people from our culture. Giving lots of people value instead of one at the expense of another. Spending quality time away from biological men and being aware of women being devalued in mixed gender spaces and challenging that. A lot of my closest friends have been boys, but now I have great friends of varying gender expressions.
The teenage boys I used to live with are years past, and most boys I know now are rad feminists. Instead of being critical or disinterested in women’s only spaces, I enjoy them like I enjoy mixed gender spaces. It’s important for me to have a balance; places where women/trans folx can discuss safety issues, health issues, and also having places where all folks talk about this stuff together too. I think it is important to be openly supportive of women around us, about our headsmarts and critical thinking. Also that there are spaces where we can inspire each other directly, validating our experiences and loves so that we don’t ignore or compete with each other. There is always room for change, to better ourselves. Once I started seeing the complexities of gender imbalance I began letting go of some of my own sexism. Instead of playing the boys game I’m trying to support the kick ass people around of all genders- cause not all boys play the game either.
reprinted from Crude Noise #2