I’ve always wondered why men don’t wear skirts. Is there something about the nature of skirts that makes them an intrinsically female affair? Is there something about the female body that makes it natural, expected for it to wear skirts? Does it have to do with biology: is it hormonal, for example? You see, I think the answer is no – and if you’re going to argue this, I’d be very interested to hear what you have to say. I think the answer is no. There are no hormones for wearing skirts, or gowns, for that matter. Clothes are made to fit their wearers’ bodies – or should be – and, following this logic, it makes sense for bras to be women’s clothing. But what’s the justification for the feminizing of skirts? How do you explain it? Maybe it made sense once long ago when all women did was sit at home and be no different from a sex doll that cleans and cooks. Because, you see, it’s much easier for men in the spasm of desire to find their way around skirts and gowns than around trousers. I should know.
Our time, after all, is not the only time; our existence not the only existence; our norms not the only norms.
But wait. Has it always been like that? Has skirt-wearing always been considered a female-only activity? History helps to clarify.
The skirt is the second oldest form of clothing in human history. In ancient cultures, both men and women wore skirts. Trousers didn’t appear until much later, in the 13th century BC. That’s about three thousand years ago. Modern humans have been on earth for two hundred thousand years; before that, about six million years ago, our ancestors lived. So, three thousand years ago is pretty recent in human history. And guess what: in the Middle Ages, short skirts were considered a men-only thing, a taboo for women. This doesn’t make sense to the average millennial, but it’s true. It’s not a joke. The skirt is nothing more than a mere piece of clothing. Whatever it is supposed to be today, it hasn’t always been that; it has picked up different sociological connotations as centuries and cultures have changed. Our time, after all, is not the only time; our existence not the only existence; our norms not the only norms.
But how exactly did skirt-wearing come to be a feminine affair? And why is it now considered a taboo for men? What is the worst thing that could happen if a man wears a skirt? He’d be called sissy? a cross-dresser? You see, I find this very interesting, because, in the end, what is at work here is a deeply-ingrained form misogyny. Bobrisky cross-dresses (I don’t even like that word) but that’s not why he’s hated. Cross-dressing by itself does not intrigue anyone: lots of women cross-dress every day and no one even gives them a second look, or if they do, it’s usually in admiration. A few weeks ago, in a chat with a female acquaintance who calls herself androgynous, I talked about how her ability to safely bear that tag is an immense privilege that is linked solely to the fact of her being female. I said, ‘A woman likes to wear men’s clothing. Doesn’t care much for makeup. Bounces when she walks. She comes across as interesting. They say she’s cool. She’s got style. Swag. All of that. A man likes to wear women’s clothing… Different story. Bobrisky. John Maclean. If I had put ‘Androgynous’ on my profile, I’d probably be getting hate messages.’ Well, of course, this ‘privilege’ I speak about is not that simple. It’s not even really a privilege, if we get down to it; it’s a flattering form of misogyny, because, isn’t it amusing to see a woman, something less, aspiring to be more by dressing the part? Maybe it’s a little ambitious, but we have to concede, don’t we, that it’s just sheer adorable. And aren’t we just good, good men to indulge her like that?
A man that cross-dresses leaves all of these reactions in us. We hate him, finally, because above all else he reminds us of what we would be like rid of all the fuckery that is gender expectations: ourselves truly, which, I concede, can be daunting.
But Bobrisky, alas, is not a woman. And this precisely is the problem. Grass-to-grace stories inspire us – Joseph in the Bible, Obama, Oprah – but how do we react to stories about people who work hard at relinquishing privilege for no just cause, about people who foolishly let wonderful opportunities slip past them? We’re confused. Irritated. We don’t understand. A man that cross-dresses leaves all of these reactions in us. We can’t for the life of us wrap our heads around it. Why, why would anyone aspire to be ‘less’? we think. It’s preposterous! Unthinkable! We hate him, finally, because above all else he reminds us of what we would be like rid of all the fuckery that is gender expectations: ourselves truly, which, I concede, can be daunting.
Gender roles are not naturally-existing – how hard can it be to understand this? Gender is not nature, it’s a system that was created by humans. I have no doubt that it had its uses once upon a time, but that time is not this time. (One of my favourite quotes on feminism is by the Islamic feminist scholar, Amina Wadud: ‘Patriarchy was necessary to get us out of the caves, but now that we’re out of the caves, patriarchy will destroy us as a civilization.’) Things are so radically different now. The world is moving towards more choices, greater freedom, and gender doesn’t make sense anymore, because what it really does is prescribe to us how to be in the world based on what is between our legs, completely disregarding how we truly are. It creates a binary, a he-or-she divide, and the problem with this is that not everyone fits into these boxes. Some do, no doubt, but others don’t. It doesn’t mean there’s a problem with them; far from that, it means the world is a wonderfully diverse place and gender is just not sufficient. Gender has no provision for the Other.
I’m asking us to educate ourselves, to liberate ourselves. Life is for ‘everybody’, not ‘some people’; everyone deserves a shot at it.
To be clear, I’m not calling for the radical eradication of gender. Sexy as that may sound, I don’t think it’s very possible; and even if it were, I don’t think most people are ready – gender has always been so important to us, we might not know what to do with our lives if it were taken away. What I’m asking is that we interrogate gender. We, all of us, should sit gender down at a desk and ask it to justify itself, to reform itself, because, in the end, isn’t it here for the sole purpose of serving us? And since its creation and sustenance is all thanks to us, what I’m asking really is that we interrogate ourselves. A man likes to wear skirts – why does that bother us so much? How does that affect our lives? Why must others give up their happiness to sustain an insidious culture, to cater to our insecurities? I’m asking us to educate ourselves, to liberate ourselves. Life is for ‘everybody’, not ‘some people’; everyone deserves a shot at it.
In 2014, Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina shocked most people when he wore a skirt to deliver his Ted Talk in Euston. The skirt is called a tutu, worn as a costume in ballet performances. It is a deep red, the same shade as the little round carpet he’s standing in, the silk handkerchief in the breast pocket of his purple suit jacket and the single-line patch of hair on his bald head. What is most memorable to me about that talk is his attitude; there was no self-consciousness. You couldn’t guess, looking at Binya on that stage, that he was doing anything worth paying attention to. He was completely at ease, comfortable in his body. And that, for me, is a revolutionary act.
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