‘This is not about gender…’
No? Legler‘s opening statements ‘I am a woman. I model men’s clothes’ immediately beg the question, ‘but are they men’s clothes, when a woman wears them?’ She’s a woman, and they’re her clothes, at least whilst she models them. Legler might not wish gender to be the focus of critical discussion around her position in the fashion world, much as Eminem might not have wished race to be the focus of critical discussion around his position (at least initially) in the hip hop world; but the reality of those worlds, and the world at large creates a certain inevitability that it will be so. The suggest otherwise seems disingenuous, as does her offense at ‘…the notion of being so removed from reality as to require a school for trends, and repulsed at the blatant attempt to co-opt and commodify culture for business profit over participation and engagement with it.’ Really? In the fashion industry?
‘To limit this conversation to the red herring of gender is dangerous, careless and nothing short of ignorant – it takes for granted the intelligence and wellbeing of our communities … It shames those who are gender-conformative and perpetuates a construct of homogeneity and belonging that is nothing short of destructive for our youth. It offers a false sense of privilege and ignorance to those who “fit” the norm (or trend) while potentially destroying those who don’t and ignoring those who are able to survive outside of it…’
There’s nothing false about the ignorance of those who ‘fit in’, nor the privilege they accrue; and there’s little to suggest they feel much in the way of shame about it. In any case, there’s a valid distinction to be made, I think, between ‘fitting in’ out of a desperation born of ignorance, and making an informed choice to live the same way. It’s not discussion around gender which is destroying anyone, so much as the fact of its existence and that too many people are too busy, lazy, scared or exploiting its opportunities to question it. No one is suggesting the conversation ought to be ‘limited’ to gender; indeed, the inclusion of gender in any conversation seems guaranteed to open up and delimit discourse, if taken in earnest.
‘…There is a historical tradition you should know about and it is certainly not about gender. It is about being fierce… [t]he cultural context further supports this wider angled discourse on the acceptance of difference (or lack thereof) beyond the specifics of female-masculinity and masculine-feminity and posits the isolated focus on gender as incorrect.’
There’s something inevitably contradictory in these kind of statements. One wonders what ‘historical tradition’ Legler is referring to which is ‘certainly not about gender’. Whilst the lens of history and changing social mores have done much to rehabilitate ‘fierce’ women safely consigned to the past – e.g. Joan of Arc – fierceness is still overwhelmingly perceived/prized as a ‘masculine’ quality; i.e. appropriate to men. Tabloids and the public (male and female) revel in denouncing confident, assertive women as ‘cold’, ‘hard-nosed bitches’, ‘predatory’ and the like, whilst continuing to laud similarly-qualified men. Modes of behaviour and attire are frequently, if not always judged thru a gendered lens; twice-gendered in fact; depending on the sex of beholder and beholden. In a world free of such divisive social constructs Legler’s career as a model would be considered unremarkable, much less newsworthy. If she is taken to heart as a role model by those striving for ‘acceptance of difference’ as seems to be her aim that is all well and good; that she couches her argument using terms such as men’s/women’s clothes; masculine-femininity/feminine-masculinity and describes herself as butch demonstrates how far off we are from being able to get past gender. That such linguistic and imaginative shortcuts are probably necessary and still make any sense to us demonstrates how far off we are from getting past gender. I read a comment on another blog recently (neglected to bookmark it – doh! but will try and dig it out) from a butch lesbian expressing consternation that so few people apprehended the difference between (her) rejecting traditional feminine behaviour and attire and co-opting masculinity. To be butch, she posited was less about being masculine per-se than expressing a natural state of female-ness untrammeled by patriarchal norms of expectation. In an egalitarian world, she suggested – to approving comments from other posters – all women might be like this. Whilst Legler cautions against ‘…taking for granted the intelligence of our communities…’ her sartorial and identity choices are likely open to the same kind of misinterpretation… because gender. It’s pervasive to the extent that male and masculine, female and feminine are inextricably linked in most people’s minds, even many who consider themselves open-minded and liberal to a fault.
In a HuffPo article inspired by a dream, shortly prior to her death, Danielle Kaufman M.D. declared unequivocally Male Organ Or Not, This Really Is A Female Body. Gender sceptics might beg to differ, of course; but we’ll leave that debate for another day, and I touch on it only because Kaufman‘s florid testimony evidences strains of the same kind of confusion that arises when one attempts to confront gender on liberal terms, to redefine away the complexities of nature and nurture. The statement ‘I am a woman [and] I model men’s clothes’ makes no more sense to the gender sceptic than Kaufman‘s (above). To be fair, Legler makes no bones about entering a man’s world as a woman, though the phenomenon of butch women embracing full-on (faux) masculinity-as-survival-tactic is being increasingly reported. People in that siyuation, who have the most to lose under gender also have the most to gain by seeing the likes of Legler successfully negotiating it, maybe? (Or maybe that’s what’s making me uneasy here; she’s negotiating the diktats of gender to her advantage, kinda like men do… Does that make me perceptive or just more sexist than I care to admit: over to you prospective reader). At 6’2″ with her chiselled features, sculpted hair and fierce demeanor, feminine is not the first word one would reach for to describe Legler. I’d wager that any number of spectators on the fashion circuit wouldn’t clock her as a woman at all – a fact which perhaps brings her some amusement as well as satisfaction:
‘If images of me out there in the world make it that much easier for another kid, and the kids around them or their parents, to get on with the more important business of figuring out who they are and how they can uniquely contribute to the stream of life, then my job is done.’
How can this not be read as a statement on gender? On gender non-conformity in particular.
The main take-out for me on this subject is that our words need to reflect both our reality and our aspirations. Wishing for good (and bad) qualities to be recognized simply as universal human qualities is somewhat futile when the language we use undermines our intent. To describe a quality as feminine is axiomatically going to demean it in a world where female is valued less than male: denying that it is ‘about gender’ cannot gloss over such deep-seated connotations. One might dream of a day when ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are simply used in jargonistic parlance when discussing the anatomy of intersex people; paralleling the way Caucasoid and Negroid are respectable terms in scientific literature, but not polite conversation. But we are not there yet.
When Legler and her peers can simply state ‘I am a woman (or just someone) modelling clothes’ we will have arrived.