30 July 2007

Men (1): The Beautiful Amazons

I’ve been thinking a lot about men recently, straight men and gay men and DL men and transmen, boyfriends and “girl” friends and regular ol’ friends and tricks and acquaintances and passing strangers. A series of inchoate thoughts disorganised by theme and genre. The other day I was wandering listlessly with La Gamine through Macy’s, she detoured to look at the silver jewelry while I went in search of the Biotherm counter, when I was confronted with a huge image of the latest Lancôme woman, wet and pink and mauve and huge, perfect eye shadow and luscious, full lips spread over with a creamy, glittery lip gloss. As I stood in this veritable centre of femininity, focused on this seductive image, senses heightened by the smells and reassuring chatter of the cosmetics counters, the glass and chrome, the pure white light, the last redoubt of women and girls and fags, it struck me that my threads of thought leading towards “men” were pulled through and mediated by women— the women I have known, the “woman” I am, and “Woman” as paradigm.

As readers of this blog will have noted, I was raised by a fierce pride of women, with my grandfather the only permanent man in residence. The absence of the father was never remarked upon either in a positive or negative sense. It just was. I was not one of those children who pine longingly for the absent father. I never knew him, and my relation to him was almost wholly abstract, a racial stain perhaps, an equation with no solution necessary. The various Lotharios that passed through my mother’s putative sexual-romantic life were hardly better than the absent father. Some were nicer than others, some lasted longer than others, but they all came and went without leaving much of a mark, aside from their various peccadilloes, their strange habits, their general description.

Recently I remembered that one of them had a house in Redondo Beach with a large backyard that featured blackberry bushes and a tree with a bent limb that was perfect for climbing and sitting. My mother had a photo of me sitting in the tree, preternaturally blond and in a perfectly hideous jean jacket ensemble, very circa ’76. The mechanism for the memory was of course the fact of the photo. That one was named Michael, and I suppose in the spirit of the times, he had a bit of the dreamboat about him. He was blond, fashionably shaggy and moustached, drove an MG 5-speed convertible, but the exact year or two of his presence are lost to me. I do remember disliking his obvious self-involvement, in spite of or perhaps because of his sexy car.

In any event, my maternal grandfather, the one constant in the constellation of masculinity pendant ma jeunesse was hardly what one would call an affirmation. I never felt emotionally connected to him, fascinated as I was by my grandmother and her sisters, with their matronly woolen dresses, their big dyed hair (Chicana "Blondes," aka Orange), their penchant for brooches and turquoise rings, their mysterious dressing rooms with small tables loaded with cremes and lotions and toners and perfumes, their appointments at the Beauty School on Hollywood Boulevard, followed by suppers at Love’s BBQ, where the rib platters were served with small bowls of rose water for rinsing one’s fingers. The fascination was similar but different from many gay men’s narratives about identity formation through the magic and performance of femininity.

While it is true that I was known to wear my mother’s high heels on occasion, in the privacy of empty bedrooms on hot Southern California afternoons, my role in relation to the mechanics of femininity was definitely under the hood. Very early I understood and demystified the superstructure of the feminine for the women in my family, and adopted their critical eye, their manera of self-presentation, which was a very obvious but at the same time subtle application of make-up, clothes, and hair. Just tonight, Philosopher Mom, in response to my disdain for her sock collection, accused me of being an Aggressive Femme. And on some level I had to agree with her assessment. I had, after all, the most excellent teachers, task mistresses all.

Femininity, a particularly virulent strain, I knew from. It held no mystery or sexual compulsion. Often, one reads in straight men’s memoir, about the power of the objects of women’s sartorial and hygienic cultures on young male protagonists, the touch or thought of a bra triggering an orgasm (or several). I washed the bras and panties from an early age, applying Spray n' Wash to the occasional stains caused by a sudden, unexpected menstrual flow on my mother's undergarments. I dusted the jars of potions and lotions, and used them myself, as we did not support separate toiletries for women and boy in my house. I grew up with the original green smell of Clairol's Herbal Essence and Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific in my nose. I used Dove soap. I untangled the cords of the curling irons and makeup mirrors in an attempt to plug something in, and dusted foundation powder off the phone when I went to use it. I watched and assisted as my mother and the other women in my family made themselves into the feminine, surrounded by impenetrable clouds of hairspray and Chloé. The unknown territory for me was men, men and their worlds.

Understanding the aerodynamics of the feminine superstructure was easy enough, but getting to the base was a harder task. Like many proud, fierce tribes of women, those of my family were hard as nails, critical, not coquettish: a sort of take-no-prisoners and suffer-no-fools kind of school, for which I was always glad I was born a boy. To be raised as an actual girl by these women would have been difficult. Their surface was soft, pretty in pink, but underneath the layers of chiffon and Maybelline and ashtrays overflowing with crushed lipstick-stained butts, their depths were harder to plumb. Capricious Amazons, they seemed to simultaneously disdain and need men. Some were better at this game then others, with my mother being more on the losing end than her other woman relations, with their gentle hen-pecked husbands in tow as their high-heels clacked on the walk into the house. They were unburdened by the feminist principles of equality in relationships that so drove my mother nuts with men unreceptive to such ideas. They were, in short, the boss, a position that struck me as about right.

They encouraged my effeminate antics, the dressing up, the lip-synching to diva hits with a towel on my head, they helped me perfect my Wonder Woman spin, they bought me Bionic Woman dolls and saintly icons. It was only later, after I had begun to break into adolescence, that the opprobrium of my mother and grandfather in particular began to attempt a course correction, a shift in perception, but by that time it was rather too late. My maternal grandfather was a man’s man. He had been a submariner in the Pacific theatre during the war, he had tattoos on his arms, a rather large penis that I saw once in passing. He worked for the government in something mysteriously nuclear, with a Q clearance. He sported an astronaut’s buzzcut his entire life. His abundant masculinity, in contrast to my grandmother's strength, led to a strong sexual frisson between them. While he may have turned his eye during my early youth, indulgently, the arrival of the age of masculinity triggered, among a host of other things, a sharp reaction to my engrained effeminacy.

In the tortured interregnum between my grandmother’s early death and his own, his displeasure came through violent tongue-lashings on appropriate masculine behaviour, the usual things, nothing too special to recount here, although once, while with my mother, she channeled his critiques by pointing out a teenaged boy my age and asked why I couldn’t walk and act like him. At that moment, I was wearing a loose white cotton shift over a golden oversized vintage business shirt with Sally Ann plaid pegged slacks and white Vans slip-ons, with heavily gelled hair and soft, manicured hands of which I was particularly proud of the buffed, glossy nails. I was in no position, at 16, my 16, to transform myself into an appropriate boy. For I was a boy raised as a girl, in a culture and a society that viciously hates women and the men and boys who identify with them.



Sisyphus said...

A gorgeous post (as usual). It reminded me of _Volver_.

Hilaire said...

I am returning quite late to this piece, which stayed with me. And now I've read the sequel.

Anyway, I think what I love about this place is the question that seems to haunt it, but that you never answer: a question of causation, of "sexual inversion." The question of what relationship your being raised as a kind of "ur-girl," as you put it in the next piece, had to your sexuality. Thank you for remaining ambiguous in this regard...refusing such questions is an important performance. It makes one examine one's own assumptions about whether the question is actually there in the first place.