On Womanhood and (my) Queerness

Recently, I watched an Actors Roundtable featuring seven female comedic actresses. They discussed, as one might guess, comedy, the film industry and how being a woman intersects and – at times – clashes with those things. Here’s a link to the video if you care to take a look.

One part of their discussion struck me. It’s a brief exchange, but what was said kept ringing around in my head like a bell. The actresses were asked what they like about their characters and if they’d apply anything from them to their own lives, which drifted toward a conversation on womanhood. Here’s an excerpt:

Jane Fonda: “We [women] are not supposed to tell our truths specifically. It’s very revolutionary….”

Maya Rudolph: “I’m telling you, I learned how to be a woman by watching other women, like I grew up without a mom so I felt like a female impersonator my whole life.”

J.F.: “Me too, me too.”

M.R.: “Right, and so like, I didn’t want to ask for the information, so I’d go to my friends’ bathrooms and I’d peek in their cabinets and be like, ‘Oh that’s facial cream, okay.’”

Regina Hall: “And the thing is even if you have your mom, I had my mom but my mom and I are so completely different. My mom didn’t want me to shave my legs. She didn’t grow hair. She thought it was sexy. I was like, I’m 11-years old and I look like a man by the legs. …But you know there are things when you’re watching television or I could’ve just asked the white girls at my school ‘cause they knew. …But you know, you learn from other women…”

Alex Borstein: “It’s interesting to hear about the mom. Like my mom’s still with us and we’re very close but she’s always been just beautiful. This Hungarian queen, you know, this princess. And I felt, like similarly, I was always impersonating, like I never felt like a real female because…okay that spot’s already taken in our house. I’ll be this other thing.”

Regina Hall: “I’m a tomboy. All my mom wanted was a girly-girl.”

Maya Rudolph: “I thought I was a tomboy, too. …Then I realized later all my characters were… these elaborate ideas of ladies, and then what I didn’t realize that this forum that women inherently have to share and learn from each other is actually quite normal. I didn’t know to ask other women for advice or opinions because I was embarrassed I didn’t have the answers…”

Phoebe Waller-Bridge: “I was a proper tomboy. …I remember going into the Gap with my mum and the guy asked, ‘What does the young man want?’ and I was like, ‘Yes.’ And when I started getting hair on my legs I was like, ‘Thank you!’ And I was so serious about it and I think it was because I was really battling against that idea of having to be a girl or girly, or whatever it was.”

Jane Fonda: “Totally healthy. Very healthy reaction.”

 

My jaw dropped. I had never heard other women speak out loud thoughts I’d had when I was younger; thoughts that left me feeling foolish and weird. But suddenly here were these women – smart, funny, successful women – saying my thoughts out loud.

That got my mind racing. Years ago, those same thoughts had left me feeling like a freak when, as a pre-teen, I stood staring at my body in the mirror of my parents’ bathroom, wondering why this skin, this outer shell, suddenly felt so foreign. My body hadn’t felt right, and its alarmingly sudden rate of change left me dizzy. This can’t be right, I remember thinking. I’m not ready for this. No, I thought, I don’t want this.

It was absolutely terrifying. I was a girl who had no idea what it meant to become a woman.

Now, let me say this: I always have and continue to identify as female. I’m a cisgender individual. I use she/her pronouns. But at that time, standing in front of that mirror, I didn’t know what that meant. What does it mean, to be a woman? And why did it seem like there was nowhere to turn to for answers to what was a thousand burning questions?

I was raised in suburbia, one of three daughters in a white, economically comfortable household that, overall, was a stable one. During childhood, being a girl meant having good manners, getting good grades, and helping out when asked to do so.

But then womanhood came knocking on my door – not necessarily letting itself in, but certainly trailing close enough behind so that I couldn’t not notice it.

As it loomed near, I knew that I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready to embrace any sort of womanly-thing. I felt like the opposite of a woman. Like the actresses in the roundtable mentioned, I, too, was a tomboy. I played soccer and biked through my neighborhood and read adventure stories at the library in t-shirts and athletic shorts.

Furthermore, I was nothing like the women in my life, women whom I looked up to (and still do). My mother, and her mother for that matter, were to me polar opposites of myself. They are the matriarchs of my large, southern Catholic family. Growing up, I was convinced that we were nothing alike. My grandmother is whip-smart with a subtle, cunning sense of humor. She’s strikingly beautiful, a woman of her time who is tough as nails and fiercely protective. Her daughter (my mother) is what many might conjure when they imagine a Texas woman: blonde and blue-eyed, astoundingly accommodating and charming, she is a saint reincarnate and the strongest most generous person I know.

Being the oldest of my siblings, these were the women I had to look up to. And while I adored them, they remained these unattainable pinnacles of femininity I felt acres below.

Perhaps because I looked so different from those women, and emotionally felt worlds away, I tried to push their ideals of womanhood away. The number of times my mother and I fought over what I was supposed to wear are innumerable. I raged against every dress she bought me. I swore up and down I wanted nothing to do with anything “womanly,” I think because the visuals of womanhood known to me seemed completely out of reach and, frankly, unappealing.

So, if I was so avidly rejecting my mom and grandmother as role models on how to be a woman in this world, who could I look to? There were no conversations being had about what it meant to be a woman. All I knew was what I saw. And what I saw, I did not want. What then?

For me, the answer was in television. I watched women like Scully, Buffy, Xena, Topanga, even Jessica Alba in Dark Angel (anyone remember that one?). These were women I could see myself being like. They dressed in clothing that appealed to me (pants! sensible shoes! breastplate!); they liked different things than the women in their worlds; they were quirky, angry, and could fight like the guys…and win!

It didn’t matter to me that these women were fictional characters. In them, I saw flashes of myself, a way to be who I felt I was inside.

But, despite finding new role models, there was a hitch in my carefully laid plans to womanhood. Hormones. When I was fifteen, I experienced my first real crush. The kind of crush where she’s all you think about and you doodle her name in hearts in every available margin in your school notebook, then quickly scratch it out because – hold on a second – she’s a girl.

How was I supposed to navigate not only womanhood, but queer womanhood? There was definitely no guidebook for such a thing. Right when I felt like I had the most tenuous grasp on growing into being a woman, I was hit with the knowledge that I was a woman who loved other women, and that was not in my life’s plan. I needed help!

Where, though, was I supposed to look? There was a total of zero queer women in my life, as far as I knew. Where could I turn for guidance on these overwhelmingly chaotic feelings?

Again, I looked to television. I poured my longings into Xena, knowing she and Gabrielle were more than friends. I was simultaneously shocked and in love with the show’s use of “soulmate” in describing their relationship, and despite the lack of main-text affection, the subtext was good enough for me to hold tight to in my search for my own truth.

Later, Willow and Tara came along, giving me more hope. Then Callie danced her way into Grey’s Anatomy. I searched for books, too, to try to find myself. I was thrilled to discover Sarah Waters, and enjoyed losing myself in her Victorian thrillers where queer women were at the forefront.

All of this helped me realize I wasn’t alone (this was all also just before the boom that became the internet, YouTube, etc.) and I slowly began to piece together a rough patchwork plan on how to go about life as a queer woman. I had a long way to go in fully accepting that part of myself, but I at least had a road map to get there.

Watching that exchange in the Roundtable discussion showed me that that initial, ardent rejection of womanhood was something I wasn’t alone in experiencing. In their words, my feelings were justified and gave me a retrospective lens to allow me to better understand that rejection.

Over the years, I’ve grown and changed. I still consider myself a tomboy. Outwardly, I still think I’m the opposite of my wonderful mother, but I have come to recognize and embrace our similarities. “You’re turning into Mom,” one of my sisters told me a while back. “Really?” I replied, smiling at such news that, fifteen years ago, would have left me angry and terrified.

I’ve embraced all facets of what womanhood means for me, and enjoy discovering new aspects of it every day. I still feel most comfortable in shorts and a t-shirt, but I also love slipping into a dress that makes me feel sexy. The queer side of me – while braver and with actual real-live friends – is a part of myself I’m not afraid to talk about anymore. Though, I’m not as bold as I would like to be. Still, progress has been made.

Being a woman is complicated. It’s messy. It’s wonderful. It’s terrifying. It’s painful. It’s thrilling. And as much as I, at times, can’t stand being a woman in this world, I absolutely love it.

Still, I wonder, why was this a conversation I never heard before? And, what about you? Did you run from being a woman? What, if anything, helped you embrace it? Or did you reject it and never look back?  What does womanhood (if that’s how you identify) mean to you?

 

Phew, that was a long one. Thanks for reading! Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone. More importantly, happy Black History month, y’all! Have a great weekend 🙂

2 comments

  1. My mum wasn’t at all femme so she didn’t wear make-up, shave her legs etc. and never taught us how to. My older sister figured out how to shave and taught me. With regard to feeling like a woman infertility was the thing that kicked me … I looked at myself and said, real women can get pregnant, I can’t.

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  2. Thanks for such a thought provoking blog. I too was a tomboy, jealous of my brother’s toys and clothes and just couldn’t understand why I didn’t naturally want to do what my two older sisters did with make up and boys. As part of a “good catholic “ family I knew nothing about homosexuality. First awareness I had was Boy George in the 80’s. I remember my mum really liked him but dad was very negative about him. Lesbian fiction has been my saviour in making me feel normal. Fortunately never had to come out to my parents as they’ve both passed away, I think my mum would have been ok and probably suspected given my lack of boyfriends and close female friends:-)

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