The truth is, my relationship with being a woman has always been… complex.
On the one hand, if you know me, you won’t be surprised to hear that I was never a tomboy. I grew up loving unicorns and glitter, and deeply infatuated with the color pink. I loved She-Ra and Wonder Woman, and while I did also love Thundercats, I’m not going to lie and tell you that my interest in Lion-O was platonic. That identity didn’t fade with adulthood. I am a great connoisseur of high-end cosmetics, a hopeless fan of heels that are much too high to do my once-broken ankle any favors (roller derby related incident…), and while pink still has a special place in my heart, I have graduated to a deep-seated adoration of all the colors. I mean, my hair is blue. Make no mistake about it, I love being a girl.
But, on the other hand, I grew up loving science, loving space and wanting with my whole heart to be an astrophysicist, and believing (whether it was true or not) that I was not welcome in that profession. I wrote my first computer program when I was 8 years old on a Commodore 64 that I kept running in my bedroom with a great deal of cautious love and a little bit of duct tape. I cut my teeth, like any appropriately nerdy 10 year old boy, on Asimov’s Foundation and Herbert’s Dune, and it was a great many years before I met a girl who had read those classics. I was the first kid in my class to beat Super Mario 3, only because I spent my birthday money on it the day it came out, and then spent two and a half days awake, feverishly playing it while my female friends drifted in and out long enough to play a level or two until sweet, sweet victory was mine. To this day, I don’t know that I have ever heard a song as hauntingly beautiful or perfect as a page-long mathematic equation.
I don’t know that any of the things in the first paragraph have much of anything to do with the biological realities of being female, and I feel fairly certain that nothing in the second paragraph does either, but there is an asynchrony there that I have felt, keenly, every day of my life. For a long time, I was the only girl I knew who wanted to take apart computers and play Wolfenstein 3D. Then, around college, I did start to meet others (though I was still the sole female in my particular crop of computer science majors) but among many of them, there was a common sentiment of rejecting the ultra feminine. As though it made us more fit to love what we loved if we just turned our backs on those lesser qualities. (Don’t get me wrong, no one should pretend to anything that isn’t in them, in either direction, but there was a definite suggestion, at least to my ears, that to indulge in girly things was somehow to fail to live up to the scientific ideals to which we all aspired.)
Fast forward to today. I go back and take a class or two whenever I can, still inching toward that astrophysics education that I know I’ll never be able to use, but unable to resist the allure of all of those numbers on the page. I am a code junkie, and I can outshoot anyone I know on my custom built gaming rig (with the exception of Jason, depending on the game in question) I work in the construction industry (strike 1) solving a lot of IT problems (strike 2) and building business development tools that no one has ever used before (strike 3) and my relationship with my gender has never been as complex as it is today.
I wish I could tell you that no one has ever thought my presence in a world where I ‘don’t belong’ gave them liberties that they most certainly did not have, or that no one has ever thought it appropriate to criticize my appearance in ways that I don’t imagine they would have done to another man. I wish I could tell you that no one ever suggested, in precise and unquestionable words, that my work was inferior because of my gender, or that no one had ever failed to be able to fathom that my work could possibly be mine. I have borne witness to mansplaining, manspreading, and even mansplaining of manspreading.
Don’t get me wrong. The vast majority of people, men and women alike, are just people, and I don’t imagine I have it so hard as all that. I am lucky enough to love the work I do, and work with people who respect me, people whom I respect, every single day. I am no victim of the world.
But sometimes I think even I don’t realize how deeply the sense that I don’t belong goes.
This post is already too long, but it’s a big issue, so I hope you’ll indulge one more anecdote. If you aren’t much of a video gamer, you might not know that fully playable female characters are a bit of a rarity. It doesn’t really matter who you move around those maps, but the truth is that I do really like when I get to play a girl on screen. Often, in games, you get to build a team of 3 – 5 characters to range afield and explore alien planets, or underground caverns, or metallic space corridors. Any time I play a game that offers the chance, I will assemble a party of all female characters, and spend an afternoon laying waste, sublimating my frustrations, or whatever it is we gamers do. Jason and I will refer to this team, whichever characters, in whichever game it may be, as ‘the patrol’ as in, “I see you’re taking the patrol out for a spin this afternoon.”
So it was that when we opened our office, I became inspired to build my own ‘patrol’ in plastic figurines. Painstakingly, I pondered for days. Who would be the healer? The tank? There was never a question in my mind of who my commander would be (Wonder Woman. The answer is always Wonder Woman, boys and girls.) I built out my party, and I proudly put them on a shelf beside my desk.
We brought out the incomparable Ben Bender, incredible photographer and all around interesting and talented guy to take some photos of our office. Toward the end of a long day of taking photos, he asked if there was anything specific we wanted him to shoot, and I told him the story of the patrol. I asked, could he take a quick shot of the shelf where they were? I expected a quick couple of clicks, and the end of a long day’s work. Instead, he got a certain glint in his eye, and said “I want to do something really interesting with the patrol.”
Suddenly, I realized that he got it. I mean, he really got what those silly figurines meant to me, which was a bit of an undertaking, since I don’t think I really knew myself. There were tears in my eyes as he moved furniture and lights, all setting up just the right shot to capture just what I was getting at with those toys. There was a silence while he worked, and I realized that something about this one photo made me feel *visible* Like, for once, maybe it wasn’t so silly to want to be exactly what I am, all the way through, and it was like a lightning bolt.
That lightning bolt is what I still feel, every time I see the photo that resulted from that serious, suddenly emotional moment of what felt, to me at least, like genuine art. It feels serious, and silly – like calculus and code and shiny high heels. Like beating Super Mario 3, and fixing a computer that no one else could fix, and having whatever color hair I damn well please while I do it.
Not a simple feeling.
Maybe I’m okay with complex.