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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Skirting Sexism

It was one of those music shows where people shushed angrily if you dared to speak quietly to a friend standing next to you. During any of the bands or spoken word performances if you tried to talk at all someone would glare at you, snap a forefinger to their lips and give you an angry SHHHHHHHHHHH, which was inevitably louder than your whispered conversation. My band was playing a very short set in a very long lineup of what was being billed as “revolutionary radical political women performers.”

The three of us were on stage sound checking franticly when one of the women organizers elbows her way past the sound guy. She’s an L.A. suntanned white girl with long blonde dreads spiraled in a lopsided pile on top of her head. She’s sporting an ankle length “wrap” made from a multi-colored tapestry that looks like she bought it at what she might call an “ethnic” store. She has a tank top tied around her neck in the same pattern, different color combination of red, orange, yellow. She has a clipboard, she’s in charge and she’s pissed. Slapping her palm down on the stage, she points a finger at the bass player and barks, “you know, if you’re a guy you have to wear a dress on stage. You need to find a dress. Now.” We look at each other. It was almost nine o’clock. Stores were closed. We were supposed to play in ten minutes. Matt, our bass player who’s round face is always sporting a smile, looks up from his bass, smiles and asks, “Um…know where I could find one?” Eric, our lanky drummer who in addition to drumming does double duty as a father and clothing designer, pulls out a crumpled white prom dress from his bass drum. Tries to yank it over his head. “Is everyone wearing a dress?” It’s to small for him. He tries to pull it up over his knees. Still too small.

Rebuffed and snorting resentful puffs from flaring nostrils, she blurts out something like “Work on finding one—give it some effort guys. You need to support your sisters, yo.”

She pronounces sisters like sistahs and yo like a command. Why do I find it irritating when white people say yo? I don’t think it rolls off our tongues easily. I know a couple of white people, whose working class tongues can wrap around yo gracefully. But for the rest of us, it sputters out from between our lips like two pieces of stringy spittle—yyy-ooo. Makes my teeth itch.

Great, I’m thinking. A tightly wound event organizer with an attitude, who thinks making men wear skirts will help close the gender divide. Don’t get me wrong, I’d gladly wear a skirt for a good cause. The guys in my band love to dress up. If the promoters of the show wanted it that way, none of us would have any problem showing some leg for an evening. I don’t even have a problem with dress codes in general—they have their place. However, no one had mentioned a dress (or skirt) code. Now, we have a embittered stage manager yelling at us to just go find a skirt—like we all had one stashed in a back pocket or backpack and hadn’t put it on yet just to piss her off. I went to the bathroom wondering why they didn’t keep a box of skirts backstage for instances like this?

What got me muttering under my breath was the idea that making men wear skirts equalizes anything. I know misogynist drag queens and homophobic frat boys who wear dresses on stage—neither of which address gender oppression in any particularly revolutionary way. Having men in skirts doesn’t make me believe they know how to back me up any better than they could wearing pants, or shorts, or suits. What about the trans men and women in the show—do any of them have to wear skirts? If so, who has to and how do you decide? How is “feminizing” men via dress code (and being really rude about it) going to build an anti-sexist community? Hemlines have changed along with gender roles, women’s rights, civil liberties for g/l/b/t folks. The skirt it’s self has stitched a new identity threaded with various possibilities. Each skirt is a symbol as variable as the legs it covers. Mini skirts, suit skirts, business skirts, wrap skirts, flowing skirts, ankle length skirts, Betty Page skirts, punk rock skirts. Each one gives definition to a person. What I’m struggling to understand is how putting male performers in skirts creates a safer, or more feminist, or more women centered environment.

Instead of making men wear skirts, can we help them in addressing gender oppression of all kinds? Can we help them learn how to call their friends out in a locker room sexist shake down? Can we help them gain the skills to interrupt homophobia when it happens across bar stools at their local watering hole? Gender oppression puts us all in tight, narrow boxes. Neither feminine nor masculine is inherently bad and personally, I want macho, heterosexual (looking) men of all kinds to know how to call out sexism—in their own language. I can’t expect that a man calling out homophobia at a football game or on a construction site will use the same language I would.
I keep wondering how identifying sisterhood with dresses will liberate us? How are men on stage in skirts backing up a woman any more feminist or revolutionary than two guys in pants backing up said woman? How can we learn to support each other if we have codes about what a feminist man looks like (or a feminist woman)—especially if that “look” involves using rigid codes of gender identity that keep us isolated and separated from each other—like said skirts? Instead of wrapping our white middle class feminist consciousness around serapes bought at “Authentic/Ethnic” stores, let’s drape our brothers and sisters from everywhere in love and respect and dignity.
We can work with the men in our lives, in our bedrooms and in-between our legs to create models of liberated and respectful relationships. We can share and compare these with each other. For those folks who don’t want to be around men, have at it—as much as you can, don’t be. But, please don’t think forcing them to wear skirts when you do have to be around them makes them any less male, or masculine, or threatening, or capable of understanding gender oppression, or even better dressed.

Making men wear dresses does not break down linear definitions of gender and does not help us see gender as the fluid and ever developing phenomena it is. How can we learn to embrace trans people of all kinds of genders and orientations, fems, butchs, girly straight chicks, macho-feminist men, women who like porn, sex workers of all genders and orientations, fat chicks, muscled chicks, skinny dudes, beefy dudes, bisexual folks, asexual folks, pan sexual folks and everyone else on this sexual planet if we treat each other so badly at some “revolutionary” performance show? Getting distracted by a skirt means we often miss opportunities to do the real work; changing how gender oppression connects to and supports other forms of oppression; creating revolutionary gender oriented change in our shows, our relationships, our non-profits, our sex lives, our families, our bedrooms, our friendships, our social interactions and our way of being in the world.

I’m not feeling it in the skirt—yo.


  1. I don't even know where to start to tell you how strongly this resonated for me. Thanks for saying this, and thanks for sharing it!

  2. a construct is a construct is a construct

    I think that men at this event backing a feminist performer would have a left leaning consciousness. I do not see how making them dress in skirts would do anything except show off their legs.

    I know many men who don't wear dresses but are feminists. They are well versed in feminist theory and more important they respect gender expressions.

    Enforcing your own gender construct on others is not opening the space for all gender expressions - even if you call it sisterhood - your just taking people out of society's gender box to stuff them into another gender contract of your own definition.

    How about this - we let people define themselves.

    To the control freak white girl.

    newsflash: you aren't black. Cultural appropriation is a sign of entitlement. Why not stop trying to control what other people wear and take a look at your own privilege and entitlement issues.


    Respect for a culture is appreciated, appropriation is theft. Learn the difference.