Gender expression is social bargaining

Miri
4 min readJan 13, 2023

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As a newly emerged infant I am sure I did not understood the words ‘It’s a boy!”, but I did soon understand from the tone and chatter it was a good thing in most people’s eyes. I knew for sure the label meant something important.

In childhood I quickly began to understand the detailed dualism of gender assignments. There was no doubt boys and girls were supposed to stay on just one side of so many kinds of fences!

I also could feel the intensity of enforcement of gender rules, and all the positive reinforcement felt negative. Why the stridency? Why the threats of nameless danger? Why the effort to shame and humiliate?

It was as if we all had to keep up appearances as a group — so that we wouldn’t question what was clearly questionable.

I felt sorry for my sister and all girls who were being told [it was the 50s] that they couldn’t do this or that desirable thing because they were girls. I also felt traumatized, radically dismembered, by being told first that I couldn’t cry, and soon enough that most feelings I had were unimportant.

The explanation was that men had to get things done, and emotional sensitivity, caution, or even thoughtful rumination about caring for others interfered with that.

As a man I was free to indulge feelings of anger and pride, as these both simplified the relationship story, maintained the heroic fiction, and justified threats or actual violence, as an efficient way to get your way with others. If violence was out of the question- whether out of fear of reprisal, respecting a social or religious taboo, or just impractical under the circumstances, the accepted alternate was laconic stoicism- quelling all feelings until there were none and communicating only about the work to be done.

Anger or pride often led to rash decision making, so the idealized journey for a man was from youthful and erratic wannabe action hero to affable mature societal grunt. The goal was willingness to do mind-numbing or dangerous tasks without complaint. Raising sacrifice to an art form with humor, banter, and signals of mutual approval. A successful few might aim to become a smart and aggressive leader, consolidate power, and enjoy its fruits. Their fate was to reduce and manage competition from others like them. 2r

Any hesitation to agree to this bargain was considered a sign of weakness or disloyalty- pursuing some individual goal and disregarding the group sacrifice of other men. Wherever we stood, our role was specifically to handle a whole set of survival problems by specialized labor. Showing weakness was tantamount to being like a girl, stepping outside the circle, and was punished with abuse. Disloyalty was answered with shame and ostracism, or negotiated power sharing.

The purpose of this social and cultural dynamic in my eyes simply to weed out the weak men, and weave a social safety net out of strong but compliant men. We would guard the nest, and leave the emotional explorations to women. This idea seemed to be rooted in the idea that physically aggressive men and their weapons were a threat to be expected. It was a simple enough calculation that males were the ones most likely to be able to be trained to repel marauders and save our families and reproductive future. Boys got this and practiced bullying and humiliating each other.

For girls. emotional freedom, along with our adoration, would be our reward to them for the constraints we placed on them- to ensure they made the nest a nice place. They were outside the fence of competitors and to be prized as objects of our … genderal protection, selective attention, diminuitization, lust, etc- the list gets progressively worse.

Amazingly, and gratifyingly, women seemed to mostly adopt the challenge of staying beautiful via cosmetics and clothes, and competing for men’s attention, and accepted the bargain. I felt it was simply that they really had no choice, because there were too many angry men insisting on a power relationship.

It was clearly a conflicted situation, as couple became parents and there was tension over exactly how this cycle would be repeated .

As I saw it, the critical conflict inherent in life was that feelings enriched relationship, but for a man were- due to the presence of male threat, inconsequential and in the way. The only escape I could see was to at least imaginatively cross over into the world of women, where I was free to feel.

A crossdresser was born. Dressing in girl’s clothes was a way to message that I wanted to renegotiate the social bargain. I wanted desperately to make room for myself in the social network- to be able to express the feelings I knew I had inside, to relate to the world in a whole new range of connectedness- to feel my center of gravity shift from my shoulders to my belly, to walk without defensive tension, to fearlessly be able to listen to the birds sing or admire someone’s clothes or smile, to not have to take action.

Of course, this was met with a storm of protest and in my case violent shaming. The expected expressions of gender were the required signaling of cooperation with the social bargain. It was obvious that everyone knew at some level this was a forced bargain, with a lot of downsides, but the underlying message of ‘comply or die’ is embedded and enforced very thoroughly. Death is figurative, usually, through isolation- but physical violence is clearly the next leel of enforcement, as we see in the backlash today against gender freedom.

Renewing the social bargain towards a better life for all is as difficult in gender issues as it is with class and race. The same complexities of individual, social, hisorical, cultural, and political habits and power-related privileges exist.

We are fortunate here in the west to be able to find some relief in the public sphere, but I suspect that generally as gender non-conforming people we will only find it posssible to enjoy a full relief within small groups around us- the people we interact with most frequently and intimately.

Loving partners and friends are the key.

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Miri

We can all help each other a lot by freely expressing our gender