In my family, we have a little rule my mom likes to call an “open closet policy.” Foreign as she is, my mom has invented all sorts of little words, phrases, and mispronunciations that have become common place within our home. Having grown up with her, the “open closet policy” is just one of those terms that has permanently entered my lexicon. The policy more or less guarantees that all clothes purchased by any given member of the family automatically become communal property. This was clearly created to prevent common sibling squabbles over new sweaters and stolen jeans between my older sister and myself. However, when my sister grew enough to equal my mom’s size, which did not take long seeing as my mom barely hits the five foot mark, the “open closet policy” expanded to include my mother’s clothing as well. For the last ten years or so, my mother, sister, and I have shared everything without a second thought or a single complaint.
However, the newest development to our family policy has been a little less than expected. Recently, I’ve developed a penchant for oversized, masculine sweaters and jackets. At first my dad was a bit ruffled when I started rummaging through his closet. He’d find the very jacket he was looking for buried in my hamper or strewn on my bedroom floor. Often I’ve heard him say that he thought he would never have to worry about people borrowing his clothes in a house filled with girls. Despite the slow beginning, he soon adjusted. Now he isn’t bothered when I quite literally take the clothes off his back. More and more, I find myself wondering why he was so blindsided in the first place. How could he have really been that surprised by a female wanting to borrow his clothing? Had he never seen a heroic young man offer his coat to his date? Had he never seen a rack of boyfriend jeans in a woman’s clothing store? Had he never seen a stunning starlet walk onscreen wearing nothing but an oversized dress shirt? Media and common culture constantly, and subliminally, instill into women an acceptance of masculinity that expresses itself in women’s appearance, characteristics, and consumption.
Women are expected to understand the male perspective. As Roberta Sassatelli, an interviewer for Theory, Culture & Society Journal, explained while discussing Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” with the filmmaker herself, “the male gaze is also the female gaze – namely that women look at themselves through the male gaze… So you can’t escape the male gaze as it is ‘the gaze’” (Sassatelli). An extensive history of patriarchal society has taught women to obey their men. To serve their men. And a good wife knows exactly what her husband wants, without him even having to ask. Following this line of thought, in order to be a perfect woman, a lady must be able to think like a man.
The notion that this is a man’s world and women are only living in it is offensive and degrading in every possible way. However, that is not the issue I aim to discuss. Because despite the fact that such a narrow minded worldview has hurt women for centuries, women have also benefitted, in some ways, from assumed androgyny. When women are expected to have masculine traits, they are less boxed in by feminine stereotypes. Women have the liberty to dress in a wide array of styles, which includes pants, suits, ties, and even short hair. Women are not restricted to cooking and sewing. More masculine activities, such as sports, are more than acceptable for women. According to an article in Daily Mail.com, men are more attracted to women with athletic bodies as opposed to curves (Macrae). Sporty girls, despite their engagement in a traditionally male activity, are more desirable than docile housewives. A quick glance at society will prove time and time again that nobody is able to fit perfectly into the restrictive boxes created by gender stereotypes. The demand that every individual relates to the male perspective, while in some ways demeaning, does at least provide women with outlets for genuine self-expression.
Men, on the other hand, neither suffer the consequences nor reap the rewards from this strictly one-sided phenomenon. Needless to say, we live in a patriarchy. Men hold most positions of power and are assumed to be natural leaders. Now, I don’t suggest that we pity them this unfortunate superiority. However, it is necessary to recognize the strong, oppressive confines of this stereotype. In our world, men hold power. Therefore, in order to be powerful, one must “be a man.” Not all males find it possible to live up to such a standard. Not all males feel comfortable being assertive, powerful, callous, or outgoing. As I stated earlier, no one fits nicely into prepackaged stereotype sets. Whereas women have more room to mix and match their personalities, men are taught to shun and deny anything feminine.
The fear of the feminine seems to stem from an industrial adaptation. During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, industrialization truly took over America, and most working class men moved from farms to cities. Within factories, specialization of labor made it so that individuals were replaceable, disposable even. Men could no longer base their identities on the important work they did. As women slowly began to enter the workforce, men also lost the ability to define their masculinity by their breadwinning. With industrial smog clouding their minds, men were struggling through an epic identity crisis.
As John Higham details in his essay The Reorientation of American Culture in the 1890’s, a hyper masculine counter culture sweeps the nation as a reaction to industrial monotony. Masculinity is redefined as a rough and tumble, pick yourself up by the bootstraps, rub some dirt in it, and fight on mentality. Collegiate sports become extremely popular. Teddy Roosevelt publishes The Strenuous Life. Being a man in the modern world, where technology challenges your physical power, means exaggerating every quality testosterone would naturally create until you are Teddy Roosevelt riding a moose through a raging river in the middle of the wild west. This sort of masculinity leaves no room for a feminine touch.
When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be a tomboy. I refused to wear skirts and tried to seem sporty. I had all my best friends memorize my favorite color – “Romy likes all the colors equally except pink.” I even bought a skateboard. However, this didn’t bar me from my own sense of my femininity. I still played pretend with Polly Pockets and Littlest Pet Shop. I even named my skateboard Jessica and gave her a backstory. Being a tomboy didn’t make me a boy. Nor did it make me an outcast. I had friends. Some were tomboys like me and some were not. Being a young girl who preferred boyish activities and styles was perfectly acceptable.
There’s a young boy I know who, for anonymity’s sake, I’ll call Charlie. He’s a few years younger than me, in middle school, and he goes to my theater. And thank goodness he does because that kid belongs on a stage. He’s got personality bursting from his pores. He’s flamboyant and full of energy. I happen to know that his more feminine characteristics are far less accepted at his school than my masculinity was at mine. Where I was labeled a tomboy, and proud of it, the other kids have labeled Charlie in a much less flattering manner. They call him a fag. The term for a masculine girl is harmless, simple. The term for a feminine boy is an all-out slur.
This view is oppressive to every possible party. Men are told that they must crush any feminine tendency they may have because it would make them weak. Women are told that they are weak. So men are taught to look up to men, and women are taught to look up to men, and everybody is taught to look down on women.
We like to think that in this day of age we challenge the old stereotypes, and in many ways we do. But the truth is that we are still living with a double standard. The very technology that makes us so modern can be a tool that shows just how backwards we can be. When you look up the phrase “female athlete” on Google, seven of the twelve results on the first page have the word “hottest” in the title. When you look up the phrase ‘male ballerina’ on Google, zero of the ten results on the first page refer to attractiveness. Instead you see confusion, questions like “what is a male ballerina called?” We don’t know how to handle men who choose arts over sports, but we desire women who have embraced the superior gender and adopted some of their characteristics.
This antiquated standard extends past the social realm into the world of business. In her work Manly Boys and Enterprising Dreams: Business Ideology and the Construction of the Boy Consumer, 1910-1930, Lisa Jacobson discusses the way advertisers have used assumed androgyny as a marketing tool. Streckfus Steamers Steamboat Company created an ad campaign directly aimed at boys, which focused on male nostalgia and legendary battles, and distributed it to not only Boy Scouts and YMCAs, but also to Girl Scouts and Fire Side Girls (Jacobson). Advertisers counted on the fact that girls would read boys’ magazines and books, listen to boys’ radio programs, and look up to boys’ heroes. They paid for an ad that would presumably only appeal to half a market, with the knowledge that where the boys went, the girls would follow suit. Never were advertisements directed at females with the goal of reaching both genders. As Jacobson put it, “advertisers concentrated on reaching the boy primarily because they perceived girls to be far more flexible and boys far more rigid in their gender identification” (Jacobson, 237).
Jacobson may have been writing about 1910-1930, but a glance at this year’s Super Bowl ads would reveal a distinctly male perspective. The two big Dorito’s commercials, for example, portray masculine nostalgia via dogs trying to break in to a market to buy forbidden goods, and masculine humor through a chip-chasing fetus. Neither of these commercials was geared towards the females who doubtlessly watched them. Advertisers knew that women would accept and appreciate the masculine approach in a way that men would never accept a feminine approach.
With commercials comes consumerism. Women are literally buying masculinity off the shelves. All of my girl friends own a pair of boyfriend jeans. Many also own oversized army jackets and combat boots. We think we look more attractive when we butch it up. Not once have I seen one of my guy friends wearing a pair of girlfriend jeans, or a shawl, or heels.
So yes, the “open closet policy” will continue to stand in my household because in order to fit the trend, I have to wear the kind of clothes I can only find in my dad’s closet. Any yet, the openness of this policy is restricted. Because no matter how generous we are within my own family, the world will not let my father borrow clothes from anyone in his family. I am supposed to look up to the man in my house, see him as a hero and role model. And I do. But no one ever taught my father that he is allowed to look up to the women in his life. So I’ll wear his sweaters, and he’ll wear his sweaters, and life will go on as usual.
Romy Dolgin is an incoming senior at de Toledo High School. Beyond academics, Romy volunteers with The National Council of Jewish Women Los Angeles' The Talk Project, working as both a peer-educator and a peer-trainer.
Jacobson, Lisa. Manly Boys and Enterprising Dreams: Business Ideology and the Construction of the Boy Consumer, 1910-1930. Santa Barbara: Business History Conference, 2001. Print.
Macrae, Fiona. "The women who'd rather have Jessica's figure than Christina's: Both sexes prefer athletic bodies over curves." Daily Mail.com. Associated Newspapers Ltd, 6 Mar. 2014. Web. 9 Feb. 2016.
Sassatelli, Roberta. "Interview with Laura Mulvey: Gender, Gaze and Technology in Film Culture" Theory, Culture & Society. Vol. 28 No. 5 123-143. September 2011.
Weiss, John, and John Higham. The Origins of Modern Consciousness: Essays by John Higham [et Al.]. Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1965. Print.