Gender Fictionalism: How I Learnt to Love Eyeliner and Live My Own Life

By Georg(ia) Penfold

I wear my hair long, my eyeliner thick and I shop ever more frequently in the “women’s section”, but I’m not trans, nor do I identify as any of the other ever-growing gender categories that are used within queer culture. The reason behind this is simple: I’m a gender-sceptic.Years of personal and academic philosophy have pushed me more and more towards the conclusion that identity, and with it gender, are no more than fictions which we construct to try and make sense of who we are and our place in the world. This may seem somewhat out of place on a blog specifically about gender, but this is to assume that I take these fictions to be useless, and this could not be further from the truth.

I personally don’t identify as anything. I don’t eat meat but I don’t identify as vegetarian. I’ve only slept with men but I don’t identify as gay. I was born in England but I don’t identify as English. I don’t identify as these things because I feel that they fail to tell you anything about who I am and about who I am becoming. Yet I hold the belief that these identities have some importance, much like how even the most sceptical person still accepts that they have hands. The reason for this comes from the fictionality that I take to be my basis for rejecting self-identification, for although by being fictional there is nothing that it is to be a certain gender, there is something to identify with a character in fiction even if it’s just a small part. From this, ‘man’ and ‘woman’ (I use the binary genders for ease and emphasis as they are most prevalent) are not ways of being. The stories we tell of them are not guides to how our sexed bodies should be, rather they are characters in fiction through whom we tell our stories, but what we so often forget is that we can create and live stories that have never been told before.

Familiarity, by nature, is comforting — it makes us feel safe. Many of us are taught from a young age to shy away from the strange and distinct, and in so doing we tighten the realm of possibilities. Existence precedes essence: there is nothing that we are meant to be, no destined fate, or prophecy to follow, we are all our own beings. But the familiarity of gender roles that we see around us obscures this and we fall into line too often out of fear and uncertainty, fear of our own freedom. By following the familiar fictions that have been told through generations, we fall under the illusion that our lives will be carried out in the joyous and happy way that those fictions so often present. That marriage, kids and family dogs are not ways our lives could be, but the way they need to be for us to be happy, complete and have our place in the world. But these are just fictions and, like any old story, so rarely do they come true.

These fictions of gender, seen in this way, can become dangerous, causing harm to the self and to others. For example, taken to the extreme, one might feel that they cannot truly be who they take themselves to be until they have had sex with a member of the opposite sex, therefore building an ever more aggressive and hateful set of feelings out of the frustration which not feeling ‘complete’ can manifest. Feelings that, in an even more extreme example, can force one to feel a need to cause violence. Another example is a life followed without thought to how else it could be lived — doing everything right by society because that’s all you were ever told to do; reaching middle age with everything that you were ever meant to have, but ending up feeling empty inside with no understanding as to why.

To follow these fictions as truth, to see them as the way one’s life needs to be, is clearly destructive, harmful and stagnant. It casts aside any thought of Darwin’s theory of evolution — for how can we evolve if we always repeat that of old? However, as I said earlier, I still think there is some use to gender (at least for the time being). It allows us to understand the way the world has been, to grasp why things are the way they are, and hopefully how we can change them. It’s useful to recognise parts of ourselves in others, to begin to understand what we might want and desire. My own experience has shown me this for, as I departed from manhood, I found stories of women who I identified with, whose stories made sense of my own life and so helped me develop who I am. Yet those stories still left me wanting (as did many stories of men), for I only ever saw parts of myself in them. I could have tried to follow one of these fictions, to find their ways of being happy, but I knew that I would then have to create a new fiction — a new way of being that would depart from the fictions so frequently told.

However, this is not a fiction I tell, it is a ‘fiction’ that happens to me, as my life takes its blind twists and turns, throwing new people and emotions at me. I know there is no way to tell this fiction, no point in trying to tell myself where it will go and how it will end, for it is all yet to happen. Life, then, is not a fiction we tell ourselves, but one that others tell about us; a fiction in which gender is there to suggest but not to guide us, to make sense of the part but not the whole.

Author: Gender + the City

Intersectional Feminist digital magazine

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