"That line, the line about femininity... the thing is, that just isn't true."
Last year a Hollywood professional said that to me about a bit of dialogue in season 1 of Husbands, the online show I created with Brad Bell about a pair of male newlyweds. The line he was referring to occurred in this episode, and it goes like this: Our lead character, Cheeks, played by my co-writer and the show's creator, Brad Bell, describes himself as "a man with an exotic femininity in a society that regards the feminine as a sign of weakness."
To me, this line rings with the high, clear tone of truth, and it makes obvious a very real way in which the fight for the rights of one group is part of the fight for the rights of another group. If we take the struggle for the rights of women seriously, we need to recognize that victory will have implications -- good ones -- beyond us, and recognize that the war next door is our war, too, and worth getting involved in.
The line makes an interesting assertion. It says that a negative reaction toward a feminine man isn't necessarily a reaction toward what we might call a perceived "lack of fit" between affect and gender, but that it is due instead to a bias against the feminine in general, toward perceived femaleness, even in a female. That, dude, is kind of stunning.
It's a definition of strength, of merit, as defined by a measure such that no woman can ever reach the threshold by definition, and only straight or so-called "straight-acting" men can.
The line was written by Brad, and it draws on his own lifelong experience, but you don't need to walk a mile in his uncomfortable-looking shoes to realize that femininity is absolutely still seen as something shameful among males. In season 2 of Husbands, we dug even deeper into this idea, building our story around the idea that the "gayer" character is less publicly acceptable.
Our anonymous Hollywood professional quoted above felt that barriers for women had fallen, but it's patently obvious that they have not. When income reaches parity, and when coaches stop scolding their teams of boy athletes by addressing them as "ladies," then we'll know a milestone has been reached. It should be about the same time that well-meaning TV writers stop making a point of writing pointedly masculine gay males because "they're not all like that." I should point out that Brad has a lot of thoughts on gender roles and stereotypes that he addresses in his own essay, the companion piece to this one, on the topic.
In a well-publicized report on employment for women writers in the TV and film industry last year, the Writer's Guild reported a shockingly low percentage of working women writers, actually down from previous estimates. The release of the report caused a flurry of concern among working and aspiring female writers, and a number of "females only, please" meetings in its wake. But if we take the "no boys allowed" sign off the door, look what we get. We can let in not only men like Joss Whedon and Ron D. Moore, among others, who employ, empower and write good women, but also men like Brad Bell, whose perceived femininity puts them right there in the discrimination splash zone with us.
Some would say that the battle for women's rights is a battle that women must fight and win on their own or the victory is meaningless. We want a legit win, not a concession granted by men. To open up that door is to take us back to square one.
I'm reminded of the reaction to the announcement that we were introducing a male slayer, Billy, in the Buffy comic book series. A number of fans felt that "slayerness," which had explicitly always been defined as belonging only to females, needed to remain exclusive, that to break off a piece of that power for a male slayer would be to return something precious to the very group from which the power had been wrested. The protests quieted when they read the book and met the male slayer, a gay teen with no special strength, who took on the role of slayer on his own, not to take it away from the women but because he admired them and shared their desire to make the world a better place.
Slayerness, like femininity, turned out to be something that a male could embrace, although we'd never before seen a man want to take that title. A young girl with power was a subversion of expectation. A young man doing the same thing could easily have been just a return to status quo, except that this young man was explicitly joining and honoring the female group, not stealing from it.
Husbands has also ventured into the world of comic books, with a series of digital stories created after season 2 of the series (available here as a hardcover collection). In these stories Cheeks and Brady take their adventures into a series of imagined fantasy worlds. In some adventures Brady has the key to solving the crisis; in others it's Cheeks. But the core of the characters remains the same. Cheeks is smart, funny and in possession of an exotic femininity that no one reads as weakness... at least not twice. In these stories we've moved beyond assertions of equality between the two characters -- the masculine and feminine -- and have moved on to the delicate balancing act of making the marriage work. Just like any other newlyweds. The message is sweet and simple and rarely expressed.
When I was studying linguistics, I learned that certain suffixes, like "-ette," as in "featurette," could indicate both "feminine" and "less than." It's time to stop thinking of those as the same thing.
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