The Clothes Make the Role

By Georg(ia) Penfold

I’ve always had a thing for worn and battered shoes — shoes that are literally on the edge of falling apart and with enough holes in the soles that, if it’s raining, I know I’m going to get wet feet. I like them for two interlinking reasons: the first is that they are comfortable — moulded to my feet after heavy-duty use; the second is another form of comfort, a psychological one which comes from the story that my shoes tell. To me, they symbolise a hardness of life that my otherwise sharp and clean appearance would neglect to reveal. They are the part of my apparel that remind me that life isn’t always easy whilst letting others know that I may be more than I first appear, finalising my outfit by helping complete the picture of who I am. A picture which now more than ever seems to be the subject of constant change.

Clothing is a very prominent part of our society. It is one that we often take for granted and give little consideration to — as a result we often forget what our clothing says about us, and how both other people and we ourselves behave because of this. I’ve been aware for a while of how what I’m wearing affects the way people interact with me. Donning a dress in place of my tight trousers and paisley shirt, for example, is often met with purposeful looking away from some people but admiration and deep kindness from others. If I were to go out in tracksuit bottoms and a hoodie with my hair tied back out of sight, I would likely be ignored for completely different reasons. This said though, it wasn’t until purchasing a pair of knee-high lace-up punk boots with a 2-inch block heel, that I came to realise how my own attitude changed as well. I suddenly felt more outgoing and confident in myself: knowing that my shoes gave off connotations of rebelliousness and ‘not-to-be-fucked-with’ vibes, I felt a shift in persona as I embraced the ‘do-what-I-want’ attitude that my appearance was alluding to. I found myself grooving and singing along to the music playing in my headphones, making eye contact and smiling where previously I would have glanced away, and making light humorous chit-chat with cashiers and shop assistants, all because the story I perceived my clothes to be telling about me, made me feel more comfortable in myself. 

I feel that this comfort comes from realising new ways that we can be, opening up the possibilities of who we are and how we are perceived. Before I started wearing make-up and “women’s” clothing, I found it very hard to ever consider myself as beautiful — I could see myself as handsome or good-looking, but never beautiful. To be beautiful always felt distant and otherly. But once I started wearing what I wanted without sparing a thought to gender, this sense of otherness began to break down and I found I could look in the mirror and not just see myself as beautiful, but feel it as well. Since then, I have begun exploring the power of clothing more and more, aided by my ingrained philosophical belief that the world we experience around us is no more than an interpretation of a world we can never come to know — we are all merely actors playing out these interpretations on the stage of life. I have started making up whole new personae which I attribute different aspects of my life to, a bit like a mental filing system. This has allowed me to play about with the gender spectrum and take on roles which are highly gendered — something which I particularly enjoy for the mockery it makes of the conservative views which have caused this ingraining in the first place. The more I do this, the more I realise that we can be anything, or at least appear to be anything. I know some people will think of this as lying or as not being true to oneself, but I don’t really think there is a self to remain true to. How could there be when we’ve seen so little of the world and can barely even begin to conceive of things that are yet to be?

All in all then, we are capable of being many things. I feel that understanding the power of clothing can help realise the potential that we all have, although I imagine some will experience this more than others, depending on how variable they are in the way they dress and how fluid they find themselves to be. For all of us though, much as we are surrounded by symbols that inform us about the world, so we are surrounded by the symbols that we wear: symbols that we can pick and choose at our own desire and use to express radically different parts of ourselves, and in so doing uncover ways of experiencing ourselves as well. Clothes may seem just material, leaving one a material girl in a material world, but they have the power to express just as much as any book cover or painting. So next time you go shopping remember to keep in mind that you might not just be buying a new outfit but a whole new way of being. 

Should I Come out as Genderless?

By Kitty

While I hide behind the anonymity of the Internet to pose this question, I feel obligated to provide readers with a little description of who I am.

I am a heterosexual female, born female and I’m 99% sure that if a stranger looked at me they would think that too. I’m what most people would class as a “normal” girl.

But I’m not like other women. There’s something inside me that is proud to be different and deeply frustrated by the gender normative assumptions of what it means to be born with a vagina and only fancy men.

Originally, this desire to be different manifested itself in my seeking to prove I wasn’t what society would call ‘girly’. I took an online BBC test which supposedly calculates whether you are female- or male-brained and was thrilled when my result was an “average male brain”. I saw it as proof that I’m not condemned — intellectually, that is — to being a female and all the negative connotations attached to this title.

There’s nothing more frustrating than when science and then business science conclude that, by nature, females have greater empathy and nurturing skills. Not because there is anything wrong with those traits — I’ve noticed a growth in society’s appreciation for them — but because they aren’t exactly me. Petty as it may sound, I feel left out of my own gender.

My deepest insecurity about being female is our implicit and explicit vulnerability in comparison to men. It might be one of the reasons I have pursued some traditionally masculine activities such as a year’s soldier training in the Army Reserve, and more recently, becoming a police Special Constable. When I tell men about these achievements I can’t help but register their shock. Their first question is usually “What weapons do you carry?” or “Ohh you’re a PSCO, not an actual police officer” (No, that’s a different role, I’m actually a police officer). The first response implies I need something to protect myself because I’m inherently weaker; the second assumes I partake in a role somehow less dangerous, with less authority, like a good woman should.

The news channels reinforce this, offering nothing to make me feel strong, secure and safe. Reading about such atrocities as those in Cologne or even the articles on this blog about gender-based violence, make me feel sick to my stomach. Even the fleeting use of the R-word is enough to send me into an hour or so of despair.

Then I pick myself up and vow to do all I can to end gender oppression. I’d rather gender identity didn’t exist at all, but in the meantime I will fill this void with a vow to be a kickass feminist. Yes, I will complain to my boss when a supplier sends the men a notepad and the women a nail file for Christmas (true story). Yes, I will try to inspire young females to break free of gender roles like I believe I have almost done.
But some way, somehow, I’m not quite ready to declare myself as genderless.

Neither Man Nor Woman: Coming to Terms With my Transsexualism

By Georg(ia) Penfold

I have moments in my life when everything kaleidoscopes together, whereby my entire sense of the world is shattered and rebuilt with both new and old pieces, and in so doing, it reveals aspects of myself that were previously unknown, neglected or repressed until then. Today was one of those days, for the first time in my life I had come to understand and accept my own transsexualism.

I had been reading Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl the night before and found myself physically unable to put it down. I’d reach the end of the chapter and begin closing it, but then catch a glimpse of the first few lines on the next page and feel compelled to go on. I read through it ravishingly until I reached the fourth chapter, “A frank discussion about hormones and gender differences”, in which I found a near identical account of the emotions and rationale I had been knowingly going through since I was sixteen. 

Up to this point I had been ignorant about the distinction between transsexual: feeling that the sex of your body does not match your subconscious sex — and transgender: feeling that your gender does not match the one you were assigned at birth. I had conflated these issues, thinking of them as equivalences, and in so doing, I was ignoring the finer psychological issues at play. For although I had experienced many moments in my life where I wished I had been born female, where every ounce of my being would internally scream at itself that the way it was wasn’t how it was meant to be, resulting in both physical and verbal self-harm, I had always reduced these feelings to wanting to be able to have the experiences that women typically have but with little importance as to actually being female or appearing so. This formed my world view which I had been living with up to now; I had discarded gender and removed the idea of sexed differences (other than those most physically apparent) and thought that I could create a new way of being that broke free from gender norms with which I could experience those things which I had so longed to feel. I became androgynous in my style, clashing masculine and feminine aspects together in a way that highlighted that which I wanted to express most about myself, finding comfort in being able to express myself in a way that I had not been able to before. But it still never felt quite right, I still never felt comfortable in my own skin.

I tried hard to rationalise my feelings, to make sense of transsexualism in a way that showed it as misguided and inherently oppressed by a binary gendered society. I saw trans people as failing to realise the potential they had to create wholly new ways of being; I saw the use of hormones and surgery as no more than superficial cosmetic practices, no different to a face-lift. I realise now how my insecurities about my own feelings had led me to this trans-phobic way of thinking: by denying who I was, I had to give reasons for why those who deep down I identified with most, were wrong and lesser than me. I now realise how much more complex trans identities really are, for although I still don’t identify as either a woman or a man, I now realise that I do feel the  need to be female-bodied, that my physical and mental form do not align with one another and that this is ultimately the cause of so much self-inflicted harm in my life.

Again, the complexity of the situation goes even deeper, for when I say ‘female-bodied’, I do not mean that I solely desire to have breasts, a vagina and an overall more feminine form, instead what I mean by this is that I feel a need to be Estrogen dominant, not for physical form but for psychological harmony. In essence I believe that the potential effects of female hormones (increased emotional response, reduced sex drive, etc.) would be beneficial to me, as they would allow me to experience my life with reduced dissonance. The question of how far my transition will go, will rest upon my feelings once I have taken these first few steps, once I have been given the chance to psychologically be the person I know myself to be, removing the persona I have been building my entire life to pass.
Although my being trans means that I desire to be female-bodied — and in a way then identify as female — this is not how I want people to relate to me. My reasoning for this is that if they relate to me on their level, as opposed to appealing to my own, then I know that they would perceive me as a person based upon my appearance, behaviour and an understanding of my own personal feelings. I do not seek to choose pronouns that I will correct people on. Rather, I’m far more interested in seeing which pronouns people would feel comfortable using. Furthermore, this allows for both my actual identity and my perceived identity to flow, as I begin to relate to myself differently as well. For I cannot truly say where I am heading, all I know is that I need to take this path even with the uncertainty of where it goes, so although I currently identify as trans-female, non-binary, indifferent to pronouns and comfortable with the name “George” (Georg(ia) being little more than pen-name), I cannot say how I will feel down the line.  

Feminism in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

By MariaJose Guevara

After all the holiday frenzy, I finally managed to watch Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. It was all it promised to be and much, much more in many aspects, but it especially exceeded my expectations when it came to feminism.

I am a Star Wars fan. I have been since childhood when I went to the cinema with my mum and dad to watch Episode I at the age of eight. Years before I even knew the meaning of feminism, I knew that I wanted to be like Queen Amidala. The hairstyles and the make-up were cool, but it went beyond that. She was a strong-willed leader who would not budge under pressure and who was not afraid to speak her mind or engage in ‘aggressive negotiations’.

After being Queen, she becomes a senator and continues being badass — at least until she falls in love with Anakin Skywalker. Padme Amidala is quickly transformed from a diplomat to little more than a pretty face. Yes, she is in love, but her personality is completely changed. When Episode III came out, I felt that Padme’s character had been killed off long before her on-screen death. From Episode I through to Episode III we see the destruction of her character. The big screen showed us all how a strong, powerful and independent leader could turn into a sobbing mess who dies of grief.

The original movies (which I watched after episodes I-III) brought Leia to us, who is badass, kidnapped, badass, and kidnapped again, by the adorable Ewoks of all, um, ‘people’. She is pigeonholed into the traditional female role and stripped of her agency. After she is rescued (by men), she fights in the battle at the end of Episode VI, gaining some of the agency she had previously lost. In a way, she is a better female character than her poor mother, Padme, especially when we consider the latter’s diminishing strength of character.

Overall, it seemed that the Star Wars franchise lacked positive or even decent female characters.

Then came Rey.

Rey is not only an amazing character — she is the personification of the changes women have struggled to make over the years since the first Star Wars film came out in 1977. She is loyal and caring, but she is also strong and independent. She is a leader from the very beginning of the film and transitions from orphan, to awesome pilot, to fighter and finally to wielder of the Force. Rey is the feminist hero science fiction lovers have been asking for for decades.

Rey neither needs nor asks for anyone’s permission, and she does not need help either. I almost clapped at the beginning of a fight scene when Han Solo, saying ‘you might need this’, hands Rey a weapon. She replies: ‘I think I can handle myself’ and then he answers ‘that’s why I’m giving it to you’. This was a true fists-in-the-air moment for feminist sci-fi lovers and for pop culture as a whole. It is just an example of multiple moments in which the dialogues between Rey and Han Solo left me open-mouthed in my seat, proving that common sense could be and is, part of some Hollywood blockbusters.

We all loved (and hated) Padme and Leia, but they were not protagonists: they lacked authority and, in the case of Padme, were completely obliterated. Rey is not only front and centre in the latest film but she is also strong, independent and unapologetic. Moreover, not only does the new Star Wars film give us Rey, but we also see a stronger, matriarchal Leia. We are also introduced to Maz Kanata, a wise new Yoda-like figure, and Captain Phasma, who pulverizes gender standards being a ‘kickass’ warrior who is presented in a traditional stormtrooper silver outfit for the whole movie. No cleavage necessary, thank you very much.

There are still four more Star Wars films to come (at least). I sincerely hope that we see many more strong and inclusive female roles which will have us all glued to our seats and will provide many more fist-pump moments.