My New Normal
Growing up as an African-American, middle-class, heterosexual, cis female, I personally did not face many struggles. I grew up in a home with both parents, and I never had to want for anything. I was always smart, talented, and had a lot of friends. The only thing that was different about me is that I performed my gender a little different than most girls. Society places a gender on people based on their sexual organs, and people are supposed to act in the way that society feels that gender should act. The way a person expresses their gender is called gender performance. Society says a girl should perform one way and a boy should perform the opposite way. The expectations on how each gender should act are a social idea called gender roles. If a person wants to be a successful member of society, they must perform these roles that are assigned to his/her given gender. A female should be sensitive, nurturing, obsessed with her physical appearance, weak, and many other things. So the fact that I liked to play sports and hang with guys and that I was not fond of dressing girly and other “girl” things made me feel a little different. I still had plenty of girl friends and I was still interested in boys. So although I and everybody else knew I was a little different than the average girl, I still lived a pretty normal life.
As I got older the fact that I did not perform my gender in the way society showed me started becoming more of a problem. I liked to wear jeans, sweatshirt and sneakers. I didn’t get my nails done every week or wear make up everyday. It was unnatural for a cis female who identified as heterosexual to be like this. Friends and family ridiculed me. Everybody told me that I should try to be more “girly,” and it even started affecting my relationship with guys I was interested in. I was not an outcast by any means, but I started feeling the gap between others and me. It wasn’t that I was way too masculine, but I just wasn’t feminine enough. There were even points where my sexuality was questioned because I did not perform being a female well enough for society’s standards. My confidence was always strong, but I was starting to feel more moments of weakness than I hadn’t felt before. Trying to understand myself, as a woman who may not be as feminine as other women, was a challenge. I was not willing to change being me for others, so I needed some understanding. My use of social media and Netflix helped me gain this understanding.
I had always been interested in communicating with people over the Internet, but Twitter and Instagram opened up a new world for me. I could see and connect with people from different backgrounds and cultures and understand to celebrate people’s differences. I started connecting with people who had the same interests as me, but maybe their sexuality was different. I also met people who identified as female as well, but performed in more masculine ways. I met people who would perform as a female on one day and perform as a male the next day. I saw people express themselves in different ways that transcended the norms that were forced upon me in life. I started to see that gender and how you perform it might not be as black and white as society makes people think. This social construct of gender was way greater than just male and female. People like to reduce it to just those two so they can understand it and feel normal, but I learned that life is not always that simple.
We were all taught that men are supposed to perform masculinity and women are supposed to perform femininity. The motivation behind these performances is to keep up the system of patriarchy (men holding the power) in society. Masculinity requires men to be strong, unemotional, leaders, and hard working. Hegemonic (ruling or dominant in a political or social context) masculinity is the highest form that all men aspire to. Society has made hegemonic masculinity synonymous with white, heterosexual, rich, able-bodied cis males. Hegemonic masculinity not only allows for a hierarchy of different types of men based on their personal identities, but it legitimizes women being subordinate to men in general. Because of this there is not hegemonic femininity because women cannot be dominant in society. There is a thing called emphasized femininity, though. Emphasized femininity has elements of fragility and nurturing. It is a concept that makes women compliant to men’s desires and needs. That is why the stereotypes associated with femininity are often soft and visual. Society created these ideas and labels to uphold these hierarchies of sex, race, class, ability, and sexuality. The people I connected with through social media were showing me that these labels truly meant nothing. It is more important to perform how you feel despite how unnatural society tries to make it. It’s possible to identify as a female but still want to perform in certain ways that society would deem “masculine.” I understood for the first time how it was okay for me to not fit into these norms. These roles were not a real thing and nothing was wrong with me for not always following them. It was Netflix, though, that brought me an understanding that was deeper than my own existence.
I had a real understanding that gender performance was not always as distinct as the two genders everybody talks about, but there was more I had to learn. Netflix introduced me to the ideas that there are more than just two genders and that sexuality had nothing to do with how you perform gender. Just last year I started getting into binge-watching shows on Netflix. The first show that I watched was Orange Is the New Black, created by Jenji Kohan. People had been talking about this show for years and I was familiar with some of the actresses who played on the show, but I did not know much about the show itself. While watching it I was introduced to many characters like Piper Chapman who is a bisexual white woman played by Taylor Schilling, Sophia Burset who is a transgender black woman played by Laverne Cox, and Stella Carlin who is a gender fluid lesbian played by Ruby Rose. That is just a few of the characters I was introduced to, but the show represented a variety of women from many different backgrounds and identities. It was something I’d never seen before in entertainment.
Orange Is the New Black really challenged these norms society has instilled in my head. The first thing that challenged these norms was the main character, Piper Chapman. She is a middle-class, white woman who is tall, skinny, and blonde. She is what society would look at and feel is the epitome of femininity, but there is one issue; Piper is bisexual (a person who is attracted to both males and females). Society conditions us to see a woman like Piper, who performs as a female, as heterosexual. I loved that this show challenged this assumption that women who perform femininity “well” are always heterosexual. It also solidified my thoughts that we are not always what people expect. I can be heterosexual and not be the epitome of femininity. How people perform the gender they identify with is truly an individual process and it has nothing to do with their sexuality.
The next character that really opened up a new world for me is Sophia Burset. This was the first time I really saw a transgender woman (a person who was assigned male at birth, but transitioned into a woman), especially one of color, have a real and significant storyline. Although there was a focus on her body parts and sexuality, they really let this character have a great storyline and complicated relationships. It wasn’t the usual prostitute story of a transgender woman. It opened up an interest of transgender people and their struggles that I did not know I would ever have. Following the actress who played Sophia, Laverne Cox, on social media made me more informed and ignited to stand in solidarity with trans people. The last character that really challenged the norms I had in my head was Stella Carlin, who is a gender fluid character. The concept of a person who does not specifically identify with one fixed gender was new to me. The actress, who played Stella, Ruby Rose, is also gender fluid. Following her on Instagram, I saw that she sometimes performs in masculine way and other time she performs in more feminine ways. Sophia and Stella (and Laverne and Ruby) inspired me to look into gender identities. I learned that male and female are not the only two things a person can be. Gender is a wide spectrum of things, and everybody performs these many genders in different ways. Putting a box around gender is unhealthy, and society should stop trying to impress its gender binary (gender in two distinct, opposite masculine and feminine forms) ideas on everyone.
The usage of these media channels and technology allowed me to see into a world that I would not have seen if I just were around the people in my community. I was not only able to feel comfortable with the complexities of me, but also with people who are different from me. I am able to erase the ideas of gender, gender performance, gender roles and sexuality that I was exposed to at an early age and understand and appreciate the areas of greys in all of these concepts. It has made me want to understand, empathize with, and fight for people who are like me and different from me. My struggles with gender issues were small compared to what other people go through, and I am grateful to the technologies of today for showing me an outlook that sees everybody as “normal.”