Tobi Hill-Meyer

Unexpected Gender Role Models

Filed By Tobi Hill-Meyer | September 30, 2010 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: butch, childhood development

I've been writing a lot recently about the gendered aspects of my childhood, Mulan-Shang.jpgtrying to piece together that part of my trans narrative in a way that can be explained and understood by others. Whenever I heard messages about what little boys were supposed to be like, I sought to be the exact opposite. I occasionally found strong girl role models, but the overarching memory I have is the experience of being repulsed from the idea of prince charming, warrior heroes, and any type of masculine virtue - except in one case.

I have a distinct memory after seeing Disney's Mulan when I was 15 and visiting my cousins. There was one song all about celebrating maleness and masculinity. Repeated again and again were the lines "Be a man!" with the emphasized conclusion "I'll make a man out of you!" I was hooked on it, singing that song ad nauseam for a week or two. On a conscious level, I've never been sure what drew me to that song. It certainly doesn't fit with my overall childhood narrative. And over the past several years my mind occasionally returns to ponder the puzzle.

For a while I thought a way of explaining it was how the song was constructed around the actions required to become a man - that being a man was something you do rather than something that you are - and as a result I took it as an example that I could make my own gender and be what I wanted to be. I explained it to myself by saying that it essentially became my personal anthem that biology is not destiny.

Some elements of that may be true, but it's always felt like a half truth at best. A couple weeks ago when I was writing about trans childhoods and thought about that example again. Suddenly it hit me. It could hardly be any more obvious: the main character - the character who is being made into a "man" - is a woman!

After rejecting masculinity and maleness at every turn, it was the first time I had found permission to be masculine on my own terms. If a woman could be masculine, be a warrior hero, and pass herself off as a man to survive, then perhaps I could too. So while singing and dancing in my cousins' living room, I awkwardly took my first steps into a type of masculinity that could work for me - a female masculinity.

After a week or so, the macho factor of the song left me somewhat nauseated and I retreated back to my comfortable stereotype defying gender neutrality. But I still was fascinated with every movie I could find with a female character passing as male. It wasn't until a few years later when I put a few more of the pieces together and realized something else that should have been obvious. Growing up within the lesbian community I had an abundance of masculine female role models, and eventually I looked to them for support. But I suppose it's bound to take a while when you have to figure out gender for yourself rather than having it handed to you. The funny thing is that my parents spent so much time fretting about the male role model issue, while I scoffed at the suggestion I needed one. What I really needed, and got, was butch role models.

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ShipofFools | October 1, 2010 3:02 PM

Hey Tobi,
I love your pop culture texts!
I'm curious about your growing up with the lesbian community- have you written about that somewhere? I think for me it was the other way around, growing up with the gay male community.

Tobi, your posts rock my socks!

I've always had an affinity for strong female leads...if there's anything I hate it's portrayals of weak women (ugh Ally McBeal). For instance, I love Samus from Metroid, Sarah Connor from Terminator, Ripley from Alien, Captain Janeway and Seven from Star Trek Voyager, etc. etc. (is it a coincidence that examples off the top of my head are all sci-fi?? I are nerd).

Everything relating to character that is supposed to "make you a man" certainly applies to "make you a woman", and I think that's where most people's understanding of gender falls apart. What makes a man a man and a woman a woman? I always see conflicting messages, when you hear about a trans person in mainstream media the writers often say "so and so lives as a man but was born a woman" (and vice versa), and yet all these narratives about young people "becoming a man" or "becoming a woman". You know, that whole Britney Spears complex:

"I'm not a girl
Not yet a
All I need is time
A moment that is mine
While I'm in

So, society tells us that we are what we're born as, and we can never change that, because that's what god intended, and you also have to prove to other people that that's what you are, and only in their judgement and approval are you to be accepted as that. Their validation is most important, but what you were born as is also most important.


Feminine/Masculine = gender
Female/Male = sex
Woman/Man = strength/valiity of character?