On Effeminacy

Posté sur YouTube en 76è réponse à une question demandant une explication – en des termes parfois offensants – sur pourquoi foutre l’un des deux types faisant la vidéo était aussi efféminé, ce qui gênait beaucoup le demandeur, d’une homophobie assumé (“disgusting” est le terme employé), mais, non sans ambiguïté, cherchant à comprendre d’où pouvait venir l’efféminement, qui en rajoutait, disait-il sur son dégoût. La question avait déjà fait en réponse l’objet de beaucoup d’insultes – sans intérêt – et de quelques interventions qui avaient commencé à satisfaire le demandeur. Ce qui m’intéressait était un brin à côté de la réponse directe – quoique pas tant que cela. Et comme d’habitude, je me suis laissé emporté. Je replace ici ce pavé probablement maladroit, dans mon Anglais passable, pour mémoire.

It is very uneasy to grasp the complexity of our attributing values to the movements of people around us. It is fascinating that mere movements be the cause of such unease as Mr Birkaya says he experiences when confronted with a guy having what he perceives as effeminate gestures. What I find fascinating are these two facts: 1. we categorize and judge behaviors as easily as we acquire them and 2. this is a strong political drive, probably central in the way human groups and cultures build themselves. A few far-too-many-words about that. I probably could be terser in my mother tongue.

1. We are able to categorize perceived behaviors in a very short time, a few seconds, almost instantaneously. This is masculine, this is feminine, this is aggressive, this is ironic, etc. It is a very keen social skill which may appear as absurdly developed when dealing with gender recognition and attribution. I do wonder where it comes from. Quite interesting things pointed by +aznmarty256 about this, I think.

Its development in a given individual might well have a strong cultural basis, as, as has been noticed, if behaviors are learned, the way to categorize them is learned as well : I learn to “act as a man” and recognize “manly behaviors”. This is probably systemic, though it would be interesting to have facts about when both these skills are acquired during the child’s development – it must have been studied, but I am no specialist… of anything actually.

What is surprising is that sometimes, the acquired behaviors do not match what was expected. The social cost of this seems absurd. But actually there might be many ways to explain this out – and I shall certainly not enumerate them exhaustively! One of them would be that their is some biological (“innate”) necessity in this. Another coud be the cost of the (more or less) compulsory expected behavior being rather high – it is sometimes quite hard to “be a man”, to “act like a man” – and impossible to afford to some individuals: it simply does not match their own capacity to implement it, and other repertoires may be less stressful, however despised they are. In favor of the latter: some effeminate men are not gay at all. As far as I know, most of the time there is no actual conscious choice in this. All of this is often built at a very early age, or is discovered at a later age as coming from very deep inside, in a quite irresistible way.

In the same way, we usually do not choose to despise or value such or such attitudes. We happen to find these things in ourselves – I like this, I do not like that, I find this pleasant, I find this creepy -, and they are usually transmitted by our communities as their main ethos, linked with all kind of justifications and value systems which make the cultural background in which we have to find our place. Which is not to say there is no biological root in this as well: we spend too much of our time judging other people behaviors for it not to be a biologically induced behavior, at least as a general trait. But I will not try and decipher what is “innate” and what is “acquired” in this as it requires skills I do not have.

Anyway, there is a wide variety in this: some of us are less judgmental than others, while others cannot help but judge all the time; some of us are very permeable to the group’s values and will do their best to implement and defend them in their lives; some of us will be more readily questioning and aware of the unfounded or ill-founded beliefs which always structure such value systems. In the same way as some of us will over-masculinize their behavior, to try and embody a macho stereotype, sometimes fighting a real or fantasized effeminacy due to group pressure (and this always costs them a lot in terms of energy), while some will not be able or want to do so.

2. The behavioral categorizations have almost always a political flavour – the only exception I can see is the search for a mate. On the personal level, its aim is to classify whom I can associate with, and who I will try and keep away from as much as I can. On a social level, it contributes to reinforcing/fighting the group value/behaviour system – that is the political dimension.

It seems quite often associated with ways to build our “normal” identities as counter-images of the despised ones. And this goes mostly in a non-conscious way, through acts such as laughing at, sneering, despising and, alas, bullying, all being reaction to the strong emotions arising from what seems non-normal. Actually, one of the best way a group has to build a “normal identity” – such as you will call “natural” – is to define it against visible minority, the archetypal despised traits being always hyperboles of traits found in some only of its members, or even sheer fantasies – or even, ouch, pure conventions, as the frightful and awesome “experiment” of “a class divided” has shown.

(Note : I have always been shocked – my own feelings, there – by people talking of such others as “them”, “these people”. It is always “the others”. In some languages, there are two “we”: the inclusive one is used, when talking to somebody else, to include him in the community of the speaker. The exclusive “we” is used to mean “we, my group, which you do not belong to”. I always felt very strongly that when talking about “the others”, this second, exclusive, “we” was implicitly used all the time.)

What I find normal, the behaviors I will call natural, are quite often those who create pleasant feelings in me. Justifications come afterwards, as tools to root such feelings into justified behaviors, therefore giving them the flavor of truth or good or justice: of the main axiological categories of the group I live in. In some societies, justification is my birth, or my strength (and I might have little or none). In ours, justifications are made of reasons and sometimes beliefs (though I find the latter rather weak, it is nonetheless still a strong justification pattern for many people). I am thus expected by the group which raises me to learn “normal” behaviors, the normal way to judge them, and what justifies such judgments, thus reinforcing the group’s identities, contributing to its reproduction/enduring.

Therefore some behaviors might have a direct political, activist meaning. Some of the main actors of gay rights movements were actually over-effeminate flamboyant men.Visibility was required. All stigmatized minorities have to answer such strategic questions: adopt the behavior of the dominant, its dress codes and ways of speaking, or build your own as a weapon, to destabilize.

What fascinates me here is the complexity of this all. What I believe and the way I feel towards such or such part of the world, the way I act accordingly or not is made of experiences most of which I inherit the form – be it through biology or education. Trying to make my own mind in this is a really heavy task. It is not easy to get some freedom from a system you are a part of – your search for freedom as well.

I know, Mr , that I fail to provide you with any precise answer about your question – I do not have one, nor does anyone yet: many are plausible. I do not think however “the will to attract attention” to be a proper one in this particular case. Anyway, I hope I have not wasted your time, it was not intended, please, accept my apologies. Maybe all this words opened a few paths – maybe not, feel free to discard them.

Note : A book that helped me once to understand a bit of this all – though it has blended in my general ideas – is Erwin Goffman’s “Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity.” It is an old book (1963) but it still has lots of great insights in it, I thought at the time (read it 20 years ago).

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