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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