The other day I asked readers of my blog how they felt about men who wear skirts and/or make-up.
I’m a man. I’ve worn skirts, dresses and make-up on occasion in the
past. I imagine I’ll do so again at some point in the future, but I
wouldn’t dare to wear a skirt out in public (or at least not outside certain
’safe’ public places) because I value my personal safety too much. Whilst
I will concede that there was an element of deliberately doing so to be
‘different’, my choice was primarily based on the same simple reason I
wear anything: because it was comfortable and I thought it looked good.
Although I was genuinely interested in what you thought specifically about men in skirts/make-up, there was a wider context to the question too. It was about men choosing to do things which have traditionally been considered the preserve of just women. Wearing skirts is just one very obvious external sign of that. I could have added in all sorts of other things too. I could have asked what you thought of men who choose to stay home raising children while the mother goes out to work. I could have asked what you think of men with long hair, but I suspect that’s more of an issue in this country than other places. Essentially, I was wondering why society (or at least progressive society) seems a lot more willing to accept and support women who seek to push into areas traditionally considered the preserve of men, but a lot less concerned about men seeking to push into areas considered the preserve of women.
It’s a given that feminism and the battle against sexism is about supporting and fighting for the rights of women to break into traditional male-only areas, that they shouldn’t be confined to the things traditionally designated just for women. Thus the idea that women can work as builders or can wear trousers or can drink a pint of bitter is not really questioned as much as it once was. That’s not to say that prejudice has disappeared, but intolerance has declined and will hopefully continue to decline. But this doesn’t have seem to cut back the other way. Nobody bats an eyelid if a woman turns up for work in the office wearing trousers, but no man could get away with turning up to his office job in a skirt. Societal norms saying what each gender should and shouldn’t do are largely illogical nonsense. Women have been agitating and organising to break down the barriers standing in their way for a long time, and have made a lot of progress. There doesn’t seem to have been a comparable push by men. The wearing of skirts is a very visible example of this.
Any reasonably enlightened or even logical person should be able to see that there is no good reason why women are ‘allowed’ to wear skirts and men aren’t. If you accept that a woman wearing trousers is perfectly normal and acceptable, then what possible objection could you raise to a man wearing a skirt? I think most people accept this argument, accept that people should be free to wear whatever they want, but they still feel the need to qualify this by saying “but I think it looks stupid/*I* wouldn’t do it/I find it unattractive when men do”. Reaction to a man wearing a skirt is different to our reaction to a woman wearing one. I’ve been wondering why that is and I can’t help but feel that it has something do with a residual attachment to illogical norms, despite our professed enlightenment. Women wanting to dress like men is acceptable and understandable, but men wanting to dress like women is perverse and nonsensical. It’s put forward best by Lauren O in this thread:
I think it’s perhaps more likely that it’s easier for society to accept women taking on men’s roles than it is for men to take on women’s roles because women are seen as inferior. A woman wanting to take on men’s roles seems less offensive, because, the reasoning goes, who wouldn’t want to be a member of the superior sex? A man wanting to take on women’s roles seems more offensive, because what man would ever want to degrade himself like that?
I think there’s something in this. I doubt it’s ever considered in such explicit terms by the people, but it seems to me this is the underlying reason for the expressions of reluctance. It’s even understood on at least some level by the angry young man who would almost certainly kick the crap out of me if I tried to walk through the town centre at night in a skirt. He’d do it because he’d find what I’m doing offensive, because it’s not what men should do. However enlightened we think we are, we still make nonsensical connections between gender and behaviours, and ‘girly’ behaviours are still looked down on as being only acceptable for girls, whereas ‘manly’ behaviours are seen as acceptable for all. I don’t want to accuse anybody in particular of this, but if your reaction to a man wearing a skirt is in any way more negative than your reaction to a woman wearing a skirt, ask yourself why. Is this inconsistency mirrored in your reactions to men wearing trousers and women wearing trousers?
I am happy to call myself a feminist, but a more accurate term would be gender egalitarian. I support the goals of equal pay for men and women, equal suffrage and, yes, the right for women to wear trousers without getting hassled. But I do so because it’s part of a wider philosophy for me - the idea of decoupling societal assumptions from one’s gender. I don’t want to move to some kind of androgynous, homogenous, unigender. What I would like is a society without expectations being placed around gender. The idea of “men’s clothing” and “women’s clothing” is just one part of that. There is simply clothing. Women can wear trousers or skirts; men can wear trousers or skirts and it shouldn’t matter a bit to anyone. This goes for the many other things which are traditionally thought of as being exclusively or predominately male or female. Manly men and girly girls and manly girls and girly men and all shades in between should be welcome. There should be no prejudice faced by any shade. There should be no ‘only if (I think) it looks good’ caveat.
So much for the ideal. I think most people are still attached to the norms associated with their gender. They have no desire to jettison them and they shouldn’t have to. But what they find comforting and reassuring, others find restrictive and suffocating. The feminist movement has done a wonderful job at taking the sledgehammer to one particular set of assumptions, but there is a wider battle here. It’s a battle to be fought by everyone. It’s why feminism is not just for women. Men are in a relatively privileged position, but are constrained by gender assumptions just as much as women were and are. Perhaps when men start challenging these norms, by wearing skirts for example, it will be a sign of that battle being won. And maybe one day men wearing skirts will be as unremarkable as women wearing trousers.