My personal blog as a 'grown-up' Goth and Romantic living in the Highlands of Scotland. I write about the places I go, the things I see and my thoughts on life as a Goth and the subculture. Sometimes I write about music I like and sometimes I review things. This blog often includes architectural photography, graveyards and other images from the darker side of life.

The Gothic subculture is not just about imitating each other, it is a creative movement and subculture that grew out of post-punk and is based on seeing beauty in the dark places of the world, and looks back to the various ways throughout history in which people have confronted and explored the macabre, the dark and the taboo, and as such I'm going to post about more than the just the standards of the subculture (Tim Burton, Siouxsie Sioux and Anne Rice et al.) and look at things by people who might not consider themselves anything to do with the subculture, but have eyes for the dark places. Goth should not be limited by what is considered "goth", inspiration comes from all places, the key is to look with open eyes, listen carefully and think with an open mind..

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Gender, Femininity and Goth

This is a further elaboration on my previous posts about my struggle with gender identity, understanding my nature in relation to societal gender expectation and similar. These posts are ::here:: for the (now) introductory account of this struggle and ::here:: for a post that elaborates on how I see femininity and such things as society construes as feminine as not inherently inferior to masculinity and that which society sees as masculine. This post is supposed to both bring the above mentioned posts together, but also tie this in to my experience with the Goth subculture, as after all, my blog is theoretically about things Dark Romantic and Goth. 

As I have mentioned in previous posts, as a teenager I struggled with figuring out myself, my gender identity, and sexual identity because how I was as a person did not match the expected female role, and did not match the expectations I felt from my family, peers, and establishments like the schools I went to and the churches I used to attend and the way I saw women portrayed in the mainstream media. I did not fit the gender role given to men, though either. I didn't even realise that these gender roles were a product of modern society rather than some intrinsic womanliness I was somehow missing.  I theoretically knew about feminism, but was largely ignorant, and often man-blaming, and my thoughts on what constituted gender were very muddled.

I had always been a tomboy as a child, ardently refusing to wear skirts or have anything done to my hair, always up a tree somewhere, or climbing the architecture (it was getting to the point where my name could be mistaken for "get down from there!"). My knowledge of being a girl was limited to "I have different bits between my legs than the boys do and my aunties keep giving me 'boring toys' and the boy's aunties don't give them 'boring toys'". I liked poking dead things and collecting bones, skeletons and skulls,  I had no fear of going in the graveyard, I liked building with Legos and then playing with more complicated construction toys, I liked reading the car manual, vainly trying to understand how the darned contraption worked, I liked building simple electronic projects with my Dad, or building forts with him in the woods, or learning how to build shelters, track animals, what the plants that grew natively were and which ones were good for eating. I loved big fierce animals and had a temporary obsession with dinosaurs. When someone bought me a Barbie, I ditched her girly clothes and had her on space missions or helping Action Man save the world. The only 'girly' toys I liked were the play cookery sets, but I liked the play DIY sets just as much. They were for "playing house properly" - none of this larking about with toy prams and plastic babies for me! 

My heroes as a child were heroines, Jean D'Arc (I used to boo whenever I read of her being executed), Boudica (I was a bit too young to understand that her bloody rebellion was well, actually quite a horrid thing to subject the residents of the cities to), Xena the Warrior Princess (whom I really wished wasn't fictional), and Buffy the Vampire slayer (when I was a teenager, Willow was one of my first celebrity/character crushes) but all of those people were in the past or fictional, and they were very much "one offs", singular anomalies, something I didn't consciously understand at the time, but partly led to my belief that personally, as a woman I could not be strong or fierce, when I grew older. I eventually learnt that the ability to fight and lead people into battle was not the definition of strength, merely of military prowess, (not that those are "mere", especially if you've taken up a career in the forces - that's a job I could not do.) but it took me a while to distinguish strength of character from the macho idea of "bad ass". 

I did struggle with how it seemed that "boy things" were better, and somehow I had internalised this subtle misogyny, this idea that men were strong, brave, courageous, tough, bad-ass, etc, and only exceptional women possessed these qualities. This was partly because I had not yet learnt that just because I didn't enjoy playing with girly things it did not mean that they were inferior, just that I personally thought they were boring, but I did pick up on how "sissy" and "girly" were used as pejorative terms, and seemed synonymous with "weak" and "cowardly" and "boring". Part of my snubbing of "girly" things was because I thought they were weak, and I needed to be strong to survive what life was throwing at me. Part of this manifested in a distinct lack of interest in feminine fashion as I grew older, partly because I genuinely did not like the looks that were popular at the time (I still think '90s fashions are hideous) and partly because I did not want to be feel weak, or be seen as weak and girly. My clothes were my armour from the world, my costume, maybe if I could dress fierce and strong I could be fierce and strong, feel fierce and strong, convince others that I was fierce and strong... Powerful sentiments in the face of terrible bullying, a terrible relationship with various educational institutions, a perception of being ignored by those deciding my fate for me, and a history of violent abuse. 

If only I had had a better understanding of what strength was, and how I was squashing my own by forever seeking strength in being something else, whether it be in the delusions I had at the time of being a mythological creature, or in seeking to be more masculine because I equated masculinity with toughness and toughness with strength. I couldn't accept myself as who I was, so all my strengths were founded in illusions, ones that would crash down around me periodically, leaving me vulnerable and suicidally depressed.  That was not strength at all, that was semi-protective fantasy.

As I drifted through subcultures, I tended to pick ones that matched up with my favourite fantasy, whether it was of being an elfin forest creature, a terrible demon or a modern-day Keats,  and as my fantasies changed, so did my subcultural affiliation - hippie, babybat, then anachronistic, but none of these reflected who I really was, just what I wanted to be. The time where I was in the Romanticism phase was also the time when I crossed dressed, and this was not just an reflection of the poets and musicians I idolised, but a symbol of how I did not feel right being "girly" and "female", how I felt alienated from other women and from the roles set out for young women my age. I was intellectually aware that girls could do anything boys could do, but part of me was afraid to grasp that, despite having been raised by Dad without that sort of limitation, part of me was still clinging onto the words of bullies, narrow-minded educators and busy-body relatives, part of me thought that what I could do and what I ought to do and what I wanted to do did not match.

I then re-discovered Goth, and in this wardrobe was a new strength, but this time around it wasn't based on fantasies of myself as some scary bad ass goth-chick, it was based in me wearing clothes because I actually liked them. I had somewhere, discovered where my aesthetics lay, some where between Romantic and Goth, in the darker ends of fashion, and while I had always had the confidence to dress differently, before I had been wearing my strangeness as a shield, now I was simply getting dressed, being myself, and I was so much MORE confident, it was no longer a deliberate and strangely precarious rebellious sort of difference, it was the confidence that came with knowing that this was simply who I was and that there was nothing wrong with this. In Goth I had also found a community of like-minded individuals, where there was less of an importance on what was trendy, and practically no importance on being traditionally male or female, as I saw in the women on the dance floor wearing combat boots, combat trousers, black tank-tops and short cropped hair and the men wearing makeup, long hair, tight trousers and frilly shirts, and the men wearing nail-polish and make-up with their New Rocks and the women wearing New Rocks with their corsets and ruffles. The emphasis was on being yourself rather than even conforming to the subculture, let alone conforming to society's norms.

I had, on occasions as a teenager, detested my female self, and felt almost like I should have been male, because I certainly didn't feel feminine, but then I came to understand that these concepts of "masculine" and "feminine" were drawn up by society, and were variable between societies and time periods, especially as I looked at women's roles through history, and the gender ideals set up for men and women and how those also changed between times and places, and I came to understand that I was not unwoman simply because how my mind worked did not match how society thought that my mind should work according to what my biological body looked like. 

There were also these strong female role-models, like the wonderful Siouxise Sioux, who was clearly a strong woman with a powerful voice, who yes used the appeal of her body to promote her music to some extent, but that was very much tertiary to her appeal as primarily a musician and frontwoman for Siouxsie and The Banshees - I noted that it was Siouxsie AND the Banshees, and how she was very much the iconic and key member of that group - and to her secondary appeal as a female face for the burgeoning outgrowth of Punk and Post-Punk that would become Goth. Women like Siouxsie Sioux and Patricia Morrison and now Emilie Autumn are as much icons of their genre, and their strength was a personal strength of character (although I know Emilie has done a few things to alienate sections of her fan base and I feel she over-capitalises on the "mad girl" concept) and one also born of talent, and the determination to make something of those talents. 

As I stayed in the Goth subculture and got further into it, I found myself experimenting with wearing more feminine outfits, and then with makeup, no longer shunning them because they were girly and a 'sign of weakness'. I stopped seeing male and female fashion archetypes as these really important gender signifiers, and simply as clothes, and realised that it was OK to wear combat trousers, stompy boots and a plain black button-up shirt and equally OK to wear Lolita-esque pile of black ruffles and frills. There was nothing actually stoping me wearing anything I liked to wear, whether it be deemed "girly" or "masculine" by society. My choices were no longer limited by either what I felt was gender appropriate or by trying to give the appearance of a gender, because I realised that these concepts were arbitrary. I also realised that killer heels and frilly shirts did not make me weak, and combat trousers and New Rock boots did not make me strong, even if the latter are a lot more practical. I did not have to take on traditionally male roles or male signifiers to be strong, and not wearing things traditionally thought of girly did not make me 'unwoman' or masculine, they just made me not traditionally girly. I  am a woman, but also, like everyone else, an individual. Wearing things that were traditionally feminine did not mean I had to take on a demure, submissive and passive mindset the same time I tightened my corset or put on my petticoats.

Somehow, my choice in subculture and its associated fashion helped me discover who I really was and what strengths I possessed. 

I could also take some comfort in that the dark imagery of Goth fashion would off-set any "girly and weak" perceptions in the eyes of others who still believed in that sort of misogyny.  Yes, such theatrical menace is unnecessary, but sadly I am still not quite as confident wearing things I think others may dismiss me as weak for, even if I know my clothes do not change who I am, but I worry that I will have yet more to fight before being taken seriously. That said, I am still a LOT more confident in a skirt than I used to be, because even if I worry about other's perceptions of me, I don't worry about who I am. I also realise that somebody who is strong in the guise of something perceived as weak can give me an advantage in such as it can throw adversaries off kilter as they do not see it coming! 


6 comments:

  1. This is a great post. Too often we equate "girly" with "stupid and boring," which isn't any more true than saying everyone needs to conform to 1950s gender roles. One nice thing about alt fashion is that it's possible to wear frilly clothing and still make a statement about who you are that doesn't fit into any boxes.

    (And I agree with you about Emilie Autumn. I still love her songs, but as someone who's worked in a mental hospital, I have some real issues with her message.)

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    1. Thankyou :) It amazes me how even I, when an avowed feminist, was still equating "girly" with "stupid and boring", and subconsciously with "weak and passive". I certainly agree that you can make statement about who you are in alternative frills that does not fit into any box at all, and that, I think is partly why I love the "alternative". That and I just love how those sort of fashions LOOK, after all, I'm an artist, a visual person. Also, a love of Gothic music is a bit of a big pull for me ;)

      I can't say I've had a very positive experience with the mental health system in the UK - lots of very long waiting lists, patronising and condescending therapists, things I've said being cherry-picked, distorted and misinterpreted, several mis-diagnoses etc. and the mental hospitals I've been on the inside of (only as an out patient for various therapies) were not pleasant places (to be honest, they scared me and I was always terrified that I'd go in for a therapy session and never come out) but that said, I can't say I agree with Emilie on a lot of things. I must admit that I did have to fix my own head despite mental health help instead of with help from it on many occasions, but the good therapists I did have were invaluably helpful, and I worry that she may discourage people from seeking help, and if you don't seek, you won't find the helpful people even if you do run the risk of finding the unhelpful people too.

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    2. I'm sorry you had to go through with that! There are plenty of shitty health care folks, and even the doctors I worked with complained about not being able to give good treatments due to the management wanting the patient out as soon as possible.

      But like you said, I worry about her discouraging people who really need the help. Pills aren't the devil, and sometimes help is really needed to save a life.

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    3. Pills, if prescribed sensibly (and not handed out to dull things that could be sorted with therapy) can really help people whose mental health issues are caused by a chemical imbalance or similar, and some people with mood disorders can really benefit from a medicated lull in their symptoms in order to make progress with therapy and suchlike. I know a couple of schizophrenics who do very well on their medication.

      I must admit I got prescribed anti-pyschotics and I had to have quite a high dose to try and remove the hallucinations in the mirror of my alter and to level out my mood and theoretically ground me in reality, but all it did was dull my perceptions, make me feel even more like I was in a cocoon, and make playing a musical instrument or doing any other fine motor skill at speed impossible and zombify me (to begin with I was sleeping 18hrs a day)...

      What I actually needed was to address the events in my early childhood that had caused me to fracture and replace he unhelpful coping strategies I had devised so that I could live a functioning life in the present to use as a stable base from which to address past issues. Thankfully I got to the end of the waiting list and had help from a very nice therapist who actually helped with those two things.

      I think a lot of people who aren't easily diagnosable because their symptoms are the result of a complex web of harmful, traumatic and negative life experiences rather than a disorder fall through the cracks in the system in the UK because the NHS tends to work on a bureaucratic system that doesn't process irregular issues well. I went to a group therapy circle where I met quite a few people who had similar experiences. I ended up at that therapy group a few years to late to be of help to myself, but it does show that steps in some localities are being made to help people like that.

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  2. It's really sad that society views half the human race as being weak even though the facts speak otherwise. It's equally sad that individuals are expected to live up to that expectation.

    At the same time, the expectation placed upon males is often equally damaging as we're expected to be insensitive brutes that shun the softer, gentler things in life.

    You had a tough time of it HouseCat. I'm glad you found your way.

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    1. I don't consider my path particularly tough - a lot of people are victim of much greater pressures and homophobia than I was, and at least my father was supportive - I know of people who have been disowned for less divergence from societal norms than I.

      I quite agree that the expectations placed upon males is equally damaging, and perpetuates a stereotype of men that perpetuates a lot of negative behaviour - think excessive drinking in frat-houses, unnecessary fighting because walking away or talking it out are seen as "weak" ways to resolve conflict, and that's just the obvious. Men are pressured into not being in touch with their feelings, not showing emotion, and there are guys who have pushed aside a love of cooking or crafts simply because they've been told that those hobbies are "for girls".

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