A few days ago PDDs and I were doing a killer legs workout at the gym. After my third set of smith machine sissy squats, I wiped the sweat from my brow, tried to catch my breath, and said ‘I am so done.’ ‘Oh no,’ said the energetic PDDs, ‘I will pursue my dream of defined quads with yet another 15.’ Before she could start, however, an unknown fit man wearing baggy shorts and a basketball jersey intervened to offer advice: ‘The next time you are at M and M meats,’ he intoned, ‘I suggest that you try the apple pie.’ Shaking her head in puzzlement, PDDs continued her reps. Afterwards, we wondered if his reference to apple pie was sexually loaded. I vaguely recalled the famous pastry humping scene in American Pie, though that would not be as much fun for a woman. My subsequent search of the slang dictionary confirmed that the number one meaning of the term apple pie is: ‘a woman’s vagina,’ with the secondary implication being ‘a dessert consisting of crushed or chopped apples often mixed with sugar inside an external pastry shell.’ Could you please use that in a sentence? ‘Gonna get me a lil apple pie!’ And yes that is the example supplied by the online dictionary. In the end, PDDs and I mused that the ever-so-helpful workout interrupter was either: a) implying that PDDs should fuck dessert; b) encouraging her to turn lez; c) longing for her to grow a fat ass; d) awkwardly deploying a guerrilla marketing technique; or e) all of the above. While remaining open to correction, I personally support option c. It might seem like I am paying too much attention to a minor albeit slightly annoying incident at the gym, but it stands in for many similar occasions. Sometimes the male interlopers are more direct, cautioning us to avoid lifting heavy weights lest we diminish our soft-as-baby-lambs feminine charms. Here is what I have to say to them: Get stuffed you self-important bozos! But really, who am I to judge? For I often cut in on male bodybuilders to proffer nutritional information while letting them know that I prefer defined calves to hulking biceps. And why shouldn’t I? It goes without saying that these muscular guys exist for my visual pleasure, reshaping their bodies in an obvious effort to please me. Being a generous soul, I am only too willing to help out with this worthwhile project.
Okay, so I suspect that you, kind and gentle readers, are beginning to tire of my pissy sarcasm. Unfortunately, FFG is all riled up and needs a good vent! Will you bear with me as I denounce gym oppression, standing on the incline bench to shout into a megaphone? (Aside: I actually have said voice magnifier boxed up in the front closet, right beside the blue strobe light and dented bicycle helmets). Testing 1, 2 3. Is this thing on? ‘Listen up gender policing assholes: I am calling you out. Yes you. You who tell women to learn to make it softer, stop growing their mid-backs, and avoid intimidating men with their sculpted shoulders and veiny arms. You who monitor bodies and behaviours to insist on strict gender conformity. You who are uncomfortable with the fabulously femme gay men at the gym, and simply don’t know what to make of the various bears with their otters as they hang from the chin up bar or do hammer curls. You who exist in a constant state of vigilance and insecurity, all nervous and twitchy, identifying yourself as ‘not them.’ It’s exhausting to be a member of the Gender Police, isn’t it? Especially now that Sting has gone solo.’ Everyone else, turn to your chant sheets, raise a clenched fist into the air and rock this gym, because together we are strong. Hey hey, ho ho, gender policing has got to go. Not the church, not the state, women must decide their fate! Hey hey mister mister, get your laws off my sister!
Well, clearly old habits die hard. But I feel much better now, and hope you do too. Deep cleansing breath. In and out. In and out. There.
I became aware of the expression ‘gender policing’ this week while reading a fabulous book by Niall Richardson, called Transgressive Bodies: Representations in Film and Popular Culture (Ashgate, 2010). About a third of this study analyzes bodybuilding, which the author claims is potentially transgressive—exceeding the limit of social acceptability—for both its male and female practitioners. Extreme male bodybuilders like Jay Cutler are revered and admired within the subculture, but may provoke shudders of disgust from the ‘average’ person, who denounce him as a monster or unnatural freak (labels that hardcore bodybuilders recuperate, embracing them as positives that sell muscle building products).
Female bodybuilders have it even worse, because muscle is associated with hegemonic masculinity, requiring them to compensate with over-the-top signs of feminine appeal, such as high heels, long hair, pouty lips, and thick make up. Though meant to be reassuring, the often jarring combination of male and female signifiers challenges femininity, revealing it as an unnatural act, a masquerade, rather than a biological continuum. While some people find this thrilling, empowering, even erotic, others feel uncomfortable and somehow threatened. Instead of embracing this dis-ease as an opportunity for learning or self-reflection, they resort to gender policing, calling these women ugly or disgusting. Of course, this kind of punishment is not dished out exclusively at the gym; nor is it reserved for athletes. It happens all the time, often to children. Little Miss Bossy Britches will likely be shamed into submission by the time highschool rolls around, while the boy who prefers baking to hockey is probably in for a rough ride both at home and school.
Gender policing is nothing new, but I suspect that it is on the rise. After all, it is a key theme of many popular reality TV shows, which insist that women are worthless unless they pay attention to their appearance and speak in well modulated voices. I am thinking, however, that even those programs about hoarding, pest control, homemaking, and childrearing are ultimately about policing lifestyles in terms of gender as well as class. Drawing on anthropologist Mary Douglas’ thesis that dirt is really just matter out of place—ie the hair on your head is lovely until it falls into the soup and becomes repulsive—Richardson argues that all kinds of disorder can cause terror. His examples include the failure to manage body fat, with obesity blurring gendered lines as women grow large man-bellies and men develop moobs, similar to the way in which ample female muscle can cause confusion. Along the same lines, the messy home can be associated with a sloppy body; both realms are polluted by personal failure and lack of order. The other day my brilliant professor friend Needlenose Pliers (NP)—when I asked what would be her hypothetical ‘roller derby’ name, she hesitated slightly before selecting this one—explained that the heroic Mike Holmes, from Holmes on Homes, becomes a temporary husband to women suffering from renovation dysfunction, before he leaves to allow the real husband to resume this role. While I adore any man in coveralls, I especially enjoy Holmes’ gruff sense of moral outrage, just as I appreciate the gentler approach of Billy the Exterminator. Despite performing unique forms of masculine behaviour, in the end both shows are dedicated to restoring things and people to their proper place. Believe you me, I understand how appealing that can be.
Perhaps at this juncture I should state that this post, however pissy, is not an anti-male rant. It is an anti-gender policing rant, something applicable to both sexes. By no means is it a problem for men to talk to women at the gym, and vice versa. A man may even offer weight lifting advice to a lovely lady friend. A few weeks ago, for instance, RenMan noticed that PDDs was struggling to lift her 45 pound dumbells into position for incline chest presses. His helpful suggestion that she kick them up with her knees enabled her to pursue her own goals on her own terms. See the difference? Good.
When I was having a delightful discussion with Sarah Hampson of the Globe and Mail she advised me not to bother reading the comments section of the online version of the article. She said that it was standard for haters to dismiss any woman’s ideas by declaring her an ugly man-hating bitch. Well of course I never listen, but she was right: I had become an ideal target for misogynist anti-intellectuals claiming that I was hideous, selfish, and deluded, instead of what I should be: modestly retiring and unambitious. Basically the gender policing comments—and not all of them were written by the gender police; several mistakenly believed that I had claimed that wearing a bikini and having long hair were in and of themselves feminist acts—can be summarized in one sentence: ‘Shut the fuck up FFG!’ I have to admit, however, that a few remarks were quite funny. My favourite one affirmed that I was ‘Professor Useless from the University of Who Cares.’ This has now become my partner’s favourite pet name for me. In turn, I call him my Deadend ‘Man,’ being sure to mime scare quotes in the air every time I say ‘man.’ Oh how we laugh together in our neat and tidy home, with its clear division of labour. I clean the toilets while he changes the lightbulbs. Still, Professor Useless is only human, and she has begun to have niggling, darkly secret self doubts. Then again, I have been informed that insecurity is a properly feminine sensation. This is all so unsettling! Maybe you can help me sort things out? Please respond to the following questions, and be as honest as possible. Even if the truth hurts, I will still love you. At least a little.
In your opinion, which is more useless?