Opinionista Carien Du Plessis 12 August 2011

Even bright academics can be sheep crossdressed as wolves

Please excuse me, I don’t mean to be rude, but how can you argue that men should be at ease with their masculinity and then use the female gender to insult the guys that you mean to slag off? It’s a bit like calling a woman beater a cunt, isn’t it? Sort of ironic.

At issue here is Anthony Butler’s column in the Business Day last week, which was as much funny-ha-ha as it was weird.

He uses academic labels that I presume are used in “masculinity studies”, but those terms are loaded, and he sabotages his own cause, like a soccer player scoring an own goal. Except he does so without apparent regret.

In his piece, entitled “ANC’s young ‘men’ test our gender conventions”, Butler makes the point that there’s much confusion among (South African) men nowadays over what it means to be a man.

He sticks these labels (if he was a member of the League he’d probably be accused of name-calling) onto ANC Youth League spokesman Floyd Shivambu and his president, Julius Malema.

The parts about the young lions engaging in “provisional transgender experiments” that question society’s traditional gender conventions, on first reading evoke rather comical mental images of, say, Shivambu in heels, lipstick and fake eyelashes on a underlit stage. Butler writes Shivambu adopts “‘hyper-feminine’ submissive behaviours when listening to his ‘dominant male’ partner, Malema”, who, in this reading, one imagines dressed in leather and chains, and maybe also a Stetson hat.
Scholars of masculinity studies (who must have been sniggering in a puerile manner after coining the term) have called this submissiveness “sissification”.

Butler then goes further by not only playing the men, but also the ball, saying the League’s nationalisation drive involves “fetishistic ideological transvestism”, which involves “the erotically charged donning of the intellectual clothing of class opponents”. What this implies is that the League gets off on the way they go about pushing their nationalisation campaign by dressing up as the enemy.

And then Butler returns to the men, saying League bosses have engaged in “petticoating” and “pinaforing” when it comes to President Jacob Zuma, describing “a form of forced feminisation in which a man is dressed in women’s clothing in order to humiliate him”.

(In my mind’s ear, there’s an invisible pause after this sentence for more Beavis and Butthead-type chuckles.)

Butler then asks whether men like these described above (he also brought up fired Sowetan columnist Eric Miyeni in his piece) can “ever lead fulfilling lives, comfortable with their own gender identities”, or whether they’ll forever feel threatened by strong women like DA spokeswoman Lindiwe Mazibuko, DA leader Helen Zille, poet and performer Lebo Mashile and City Press editor Ferial Haffajee.

Then he takes the somewhat twisted humour to the loo, saying international experience shows that “gender-neutral toilets” in Luthuli House would allow the League’s leaders to go to the toilet without first having to ask themselves if they’re male or female.

Once the short-lived, but soundless giggles subsided, I got as angry as Germaine Greer, at least.

For Greer is well-known as an opponent of “man-made women”, or men who want to be women cosmetically, on the outside, i.e. minus penis and plus boobs and all the other pretty things, but who would change their minds on the sex-change if a uterus and ovaries came with the package.

She has also argued that men who crossdress adopt exaggerated “female” behaviour – applying too much make-up, wearing high heels and sexy clothing, and embellishing on their mannerisms. They are more woman-like than real women, in what seems to be “some ghastly parody”.

While the merits of Greer’s argument can be debated at a time where we want to believe that everything goes and every person is more or less equal, never mind how they choose to express their sexuality, she has a point.

In theatre, crossdressing men act out female stereotypes, often to comic effect. Butler does more or less the same. He makes the league’s macho male bosses out to be stereotypes of women, and this makes us laugh. He does the same thing  to the League that he is accusing the League of doing to Zuma (the “pinaforing”).

Butler makes submissiveness out to be a female trait, obviously with a lot of sexual overtones, and ditto “sissification” ( which means having unsuitable female qualities), which has associations of cowardice and weakness. These terms weren’t exactly what came to mind when I saw a woman the other day, obviously poor and with no shoes, astride a big log next to the road, fiercely wielding an axe with which she chopped firewood.

“Submissive” and “sissies” are also not labels you could give sports heroes like swimmer Natalie du Toit, the Williams sisters in tennis, or the Russian Nurgalieva twins, who are champions of several ultramarathon runs.

Similarly we have political figures like ANC stalwart Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, DA leader Helen Zille, and countless others who just don’t do submisison or sissy-hood.

That doesn’t make them less womanly.

So, when men behave submissively or cowardly, why should this mean that they cross the gender boundary (and what does this boundary mean anyway)? Can they not simply be considered as humans who behave in a certain way? Does submissive or cowardly behaviour have to be gender-specific? Can’t we homo sapiens just be multi-faceted, complex organisms in our own right, without dragging gender stereotypes into the mix? (Keep in mind that much of our behaviour as men and women is acquired through socialisation according to these stereotypes, rather than being absolutes present from birth, in the way our physical attributes are.)

It might be true that the young lions, and men like Miyeni, are uncertain about what their gender requires of them in a world where traditional perceptions are changing, but the reasons for this are way more complex and interesting than a petticoat here and a pinafore there. People well-versed in gender studies should know better than to be, on the surface at least, insensitive to this. DM


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