Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Feminine Socialization

Maura has pointed out that the activities which I was not able to comfortably participate in as an adolescent girl are not essential to femininity, that they are superficial and culture bound. I think it's important to acknowledge that the superficial, cultural expressions of femininity are not actually irrelevant. These are the social activities that women perform in order to socialize one another. Feminine social grooming takes place at the mall, in the cafeteria, at sleepover parties where girls give each other makeovers, and so forth. Girls get together as girls and they learn from one another how to be feminine, how to present themselves as feminine in the wider culture, and how to think and identify as women. Basically, there's a set of techniques for developing the self, a stylistics that communicates and signals femininity to other people. When a woman develops a feminine aesthetic that is acceptable to her culture, it also produces a corresponding sense of comfort within her own psyche. Her femininity is constantly reinforced and buttressed within the social sphere, and this contributes in a substantial way to her ability to relate to herself and to other women in a way that is conceived as “feminine.” This whole process happens very naturally for women who are “cisgendered,” that is, who are largely or completely comfortable with the identity between their physical sex and their social/psychological gender.

There are any number of reasons why this might not happen for a particular woman. Sometimes it's a matter of social opportunities, isolation, exclusion and so forth, in which case I would say that a person is accidentally queer – they have gender confusion as a result of having been left out of the loop during the process of gender-socialization in childhood and adolescence. On the other hand, I think that there are characteristics that are related to femininity in all cultures which some women lack. Excitement and apprehension about the development of female sex characteristics is, for example, a more universal feminine experience; it's normal for a girl in any culture to have a desire for womanhood and to work that out in the context of a female social sphere where her feelings are validated, shared and possibly given some sort of ritual catharsis. That's why I think that there's some basis for gender-queerness that goes a little deeper than mere socialization. If it were just that I found the cultural expressions of femininity in postmodern North America alienating and dull, that would be a fairly superficial matter. The problem is that there are certain elements of female development and female psychology that are generally included in notions of “essential” femininity which I happen to lack.

The lack of interest in my nascent femininity during adolescence is one example. Another is the fact that I'm generally oblivious to social cues and body language. Most people who try to describe essential femininity will include the idea that women are more sensitive to other people's emotions and to the subtextual cues in social interaction. One of the classic examples in the Catholic world is of Mary noticing that the wine has run out at the Wedding at Cana. She sees this and intervenes to remedy the situation before it becomes socially embarassing. It's generally felt that this kind of awareness is one of the great strengths of femininity – and it's something that I don't have. Now I happen to know that the reason I don't have it is that I come from a family where practically everyone can be pegged somewhere on the autism spectrum. If I was at the Wedding at Cana, I wouldn't notice anything: I'd be suffering from massive information overload and would be only vaguely aware of my surroundings at all. In a social situation there's simply too much information to process, so my mind either fixates on a single person or a single activity and becomes completely oblivious to everything else, or else I sort of sink into a cloudy haze where I'm not even conscious of what I'm doing or saying. In a private conversation, I'm almost completely blind to the subtle cues being given off by the other person – this is another classic high-functioning autistic attribute. My ability to process or read other people's emotions is exceedingly primative, and I often get it wrong. I miss massive clues and I'm unaware of subtle shades of meaning. In this respect I'm more incompetent than a lot of perfectly “masculine” men. Needless to say, the inability to participate in conversation and social life in this respect serves as a massive impediment to full inclusion in the female social world. I come across as weird, masculine, “queer.” This creates a sort of self-perpetuating cycle, where because I'm inept at being included, I am excluded, and because I am excluded I become increasingly inept.


  1. Melinda,
    First, sorry for commenting under the wrong post yesterday. I'm probably doing the same today because I want to respond to your post on loneliness. You said:

    The difficulty is that no matter how you slice it, most people in the LGBTQ crowd really and actually are different. Not everyone, but most. It's something that I still deal with in my own life, because frankly all of the personality traits and weird gender-attributes that made me think I was lesbian in the first place are still here, and they're not going away.

    Both Janelle Hallman and Richard Cohen, who have written books on their work as therapists with people who have unwanted same-sex attraction, tell us that people in the LGBT community are generally extremely sensitive and often the most gifted child in a family. So what you call your weird gender attributes and personality traits - like your perceptiveness about your peers and about society in general and your obvious intelligence - are in fact the very qualities that may have contributed to emotional wounding at some early stages in your life. Not trying to psychoanalyze you and sorry if I am being intrusive. However, many parents of gay children will tell you that this is the child who is the "most" something in their family - gifted, loving, intuitive. So, yes, they are different.

    Add to that the complications of family dynamics where perceptive and sensitive children observe imbalances between their parents or dysfunctional family dynamics. Then send that child to school where a lot of crazy and shallow gender inculturation is going on - the stage is set for someone to feel lonely and isolated.

    These are all issues that need to be explored, especially in families. For families faced with with a son or daughter or loved one "coming out," this is often an opportunity to get past the mistakes, imbalances and dysfunctions to achieve the loving wholeness we were created for, But it ain't easy, and you and I both know that.

  2. I never really thought about the true and good nature or outcome of this process, because at the age when I would have gone through it I was also turned off by all the things in which it consisted, and I was the new and different kid in town, and many other factors similar to yours. Now, in my early thirties, I'm starting to genuinely enjoy a bit of girliness. Now I just need some 13-year-old friends.

    I also have an introverted and autistic-type personality. I've been thinking lately about social skills. I think, just like any other kind of skills, they can be developed. I know I will never be a star socially, because I lack both the natural talent and any desire to spend that much of my time socializing; but I do believe I can become competent, just like most people will never love taking math tests (like I do) but can learn to overcome their mental block and do well enough. I'm finding out in my research that in fact most people don't have it all together socially, we're all somewhere on the learning curve, and with practice and patience we can improve.


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