Saturday, 13 October 2007

Trying to be female

Can a man ever really understand a woman? Even if he's the most sensitive, observant, imaginative and open-minded man of all time, I think the answer has to

It's often claimed that man X has an uncanny and astonishing insight into a woman's psyche, that he manages to transcend masculine limitations and get right under the skin of the opposite sex, but I don't believe it. It's just wishful thinking.

It's most often said in an artistic context, of a film director or novelist or playwright. And it's not just men who say it, women say it too. But do they honestly mean it, or are they really saying "Considering you're a bloke, you get pretty close, but the truth is you're still on the outside looking in."

Because let's face it, however much I as a man can empathise mentally and emotionally with a woman's view of the world, I'm not actually a woman, I'm not seeing things through a woman's eyes, I'm not being treated the way she is, and I'm not immersed in the female culture and subject to the same onslaught of male-defined expectations.

How can I really know what it's like to be relentlessly propositioned by an ugly, boorish male? Or told in a hundred ways that however smart and capable I might be, my contribution is always worth less than a man's? Or dismissed instantly by a man because my bum is too big, my tits are too small, or I don't look like a stick insect?

Or on the other hand what it's like to enjoy greater physical beauty, emotional sensitivity and articulacy?

I think the best I can do as a man is admit a woman's experience is often foreign to me, accept that it's just as valid as my own, and above all listen carefully when women explain that experience, so I can get as close to that reality as I can short of sprouting breasts and my willie dropping off.


  1. Peaceful coexistence and a collaborative spirit, that all we ask!

    Country to what my husband "claims", most women have no desire to be men, and we certainly don't want men to turn into women. What would be the fun in that?

  2. Good Lord, so many typos! What I meant to say was:

    Peaceful coexistence and a collaborative spirit, that's all we ask!

    Contrary to what my husband "claims", most women have no desire to be men, and we certainly don't want men to turn into women. What would be the fun in that?

  3. Tipoes, wot tipose?

    I think turning men into women for a few months would be quite educational for them, if they then turned back into less sexist men. Of course if they became women permanently there would be a bit of a reproduction problem - the remaining men would be much sought-after.

  4. This is tricky, Nick. I get what you mean, but the idea that you can't understand women echoes Freud's famous "what do women want?" as if we're an inscrutable mystery or "the other" that no man could possibly understand. When really, you do actually understand that it sucks to be treated as sub-human and inferior because we're women. Or that it's creepy to be designated a sexual target and propositioned by men all the time.
    We're not different from you in that we want a life worth living, have hopes dreams and the rest. We're not at all difficult to understand.
    The real test for men is to deny laying claim to their gender privilege and call other men out when they do it.

  5. Ah, it seems I'm not making myself quite clear here, Medbh. Yes, I hope I understand women to the extent that they share the same hopes, dreams, experiences etc that I do. But I feel there's a dimension beyond that that I can't entirely understand because women are treated in a different way and face different expectations. And for that matter also have bodies that behave differently. However much I try to grasp those differences, I'll never totally succeed.

    Freud on the other hand seemed to regard women as a completely alien species with nothing whatever in common with men - the age-old sexist stereotype. And obviously that was nonsense.

  6. Or how about a white/black analogy, Medbh? Obviously I as a white person can have some understanding of persecution and prejudice, but I've never gone through the grinding everyday reality of abuse, violence and contempt that some black people have to deal with.

  7. I would disagree with you on some of your comments, Nick. for one I don't think physical beauty is limited to the female of the species, also sensitivity and a better articulation are the qualities of some men I admire. However, I agree on the fact that a man could never understand the sadness and rage that exist within us, a tribal memory (see my current blog entry on Mother Church)of wrongs and abuses and erasure and invisibility. Our places in the world are far less certain, even though we are the primary procreators. We are afraid of our own power most of the time. And I think at a very ,very deep level men are afraid of us - thus the ongoing patriarchy with its little economic/job/community support for child care, elder care, etc. that would allow for equal participation in the political process.

  8. But that's the very nature of empathy, Nick. I was thinking of the race analogy as well.
    You don't have to be a woman or be black in order to understand and sympathize with such a perspective or point of view.

  9. www - well no, I agree, beauty, sensitivity and articulacy are not limited to women, of course I'm generalising here. Interested in your comment about women's sadness and rage. And I think you're dead right that most men are afraid of women deep-down - because they know women are actually smarter and more civilised than they are.

    medbh - yes, but I still think the understanding only reaches a certain point. Or am I just making out women to be far more complicated and unique-in-experience than they really are?

  10. oh but it is always a two way street - it is not for one 'side' to understand the other but for each to be aware of differences. Differences are good. That said I have enough problems trying to understand my own sex without any other complications hehe

  11. Yes, with you there, Con, about understanding each other's differences. I know plenty of women would also say they're totally baffled by a lot of men. And I also agree about understanding other men, who're even more of a mystery to me, as I explained in my earlier post on Masculinity.

  12. "A guide to understanding women" or "Women 101 for the Dummies" written by a man is just as credible as "Bible" or "Koran" or any other book written by a man or few men, in my feeble mind of minds.
    All and all, men and women are simply people and for anyone to understand another there is only one prerequisite, the desire to understand has to exist.
    And that be my professional (!) opinion on this one.

  13. I have the desire to understand all right but as I say I think there's a limit to understanding if you're not actually a woman. How can I possibly know what it's like to give birth or go through the menopause or be labelled a promiscuous slut? My imagination can only go so far.

  14. Hello Nick,
    Found you through Medbh's and wanted to say hi.
    This is a great post on a very interesting topic."Trying to be female" is something I was accused of all the time and it was soul destroying for me every time I heard it.
    It was impossible for some people to grasp that I wasn't trying to be something I already was.The "Man Suit" I wore to lay claim to male privelege was a hated necessity.It was so successful a disguise that many people preferred that falsehood to the truth.They (many women among them) were outraged by my walking away from that privilege.Their weapon of choice was that accusation of being a tourist on 'their' side of the gender wall.

    In the eyes of some I went from being a feminist male ally to being a " Spy for the Patriarchy"(actual phrase used)

    I could go on and on but there must be a limit to your patience.Thank you for this.

  15. Hi Devin. I've been making occasional visits to your blog for a while, since I discovered your little 'secret'. Believe me, I know a lot about this subject, but my lips are sealed for all sorts of reasons.

    I'm familiar with the whole range of perspectives on this, from complete acceptance on one side to Janice Raymond's The Transsexual Empire on the other. It's a very tangled issue.

    Yes, the attitudes of other people, including women, when you make that change must be very hard to cope with. You know categorically that you should have been born the other sex but others just don't get it, and there're all the hostile and abusive reactions you refer to.

    I was wondering just the other day whether transsexuals would say from their experience that you can't really understand women unless you've lived as one?

  16. Nick,
    I've learned the hard way that the only experience I can categorically state I have knowledge of is my own.
    I would suggest that a M to F's (not suggesting that transmen aren't worthy,I'm just not one and have no experience there)trans perspective may be interesting and provide some of the insight you seek.
    Only some though because our experience as women comes later in life and therefore lacks the formative years and gender indoctrination that females have to contend with from the day they are born.
    Perhaps that's why many transwomen piss off some of the femininst establishment so much.To some it would appear that women like me have no right to that title as we haven't had that lifelong struggle to contend with.A differnt struggle perhaps but one that's difficult to imagine for someone who isn't trans (Sound familiar?:) Of course many transwomen are their own worst enemy and I find much of their activism extremely tedious and focused on completely the wrong issues.

    As in most other things a bit of empathy,imagination and a willingness to listen and be good to each other will go as far into the experience as you need....maybe:) I can only speak for myself.

  17. That is one major problem, isn't it, that you don't have that early-years female experience that life-long women have had and that can make them feel you're not really one of them. Hard to see how you can successfully overcome that scepticism. I guess at the end of the day, as you remark, it's about being good to each other and respecting whatever route other people have taken to fulfill themselves.