Over a year ago, I went to see a production of the musical A Man of No Importance. It’s not a particularly well known musical, I think, but it did win the 2003 Outer Critics Circle Award. It’s based on a 1994 movie of the same name, and tells the story of an amateur theatre group in Dublin, Ireland—but mostly their leader, Alfie Byrne—as they attempt to stage Oscar Wilde’s Salome against the objections of church and community. That’s the generic, reveal-nothing description found in press releases and Wikipedia pages. So, spoilers ahead: A Man of No Importance is at its heart about Alfie’s struggle as a gay man in 1960s Catholic Ireland: the conflict of his reverence for the unapologetic flamboyance of Oscar Wilde against his self-fear and the fear of the society around him.
The production was put on by the university theatre program that produced me: I went to the theater to see my friends, knowing only really the press-release synopsis of the play. The musical, rather unexpectedly, affected me deeply. We’re talking deep, gut-roiling emotion resulting in silent, ugly tears. What I call weeping. I went to two performances on successive days, and probably wept through about eighty-five percent of my time in the theater. The strange thing about about weeping, as opposed to sobbing or crying, is that it doesn’t affect my ability to watch what’s going on. I just sit there leaking my feelings.
The root of the affecting power of this musical on me felt like self-recognition more than empathy. It’s a feeling of self-recognition I don’t quite understand. Growing up when I did, with the blessedly accepting parents I had, I would say I have questioned my own sexual orientation at least more than those from previous generations. I’ve concluded that I do seem to be attracted to men more often than women. Orientation’s a spectrum, and I am somewhere on the heterosexual side of center. If you ask Alfred Kinsey, everyone’s a little bit bisexual.
So what is it in the story of Alfie Byrne—and other similar stories of gay men—struggling against his homophobic society and the self-hatred generated by such a society, that so affects me? What is it about this story that I recognize in myself? If it isn’t the root, it must be the result.
Specifically: a self-hatred derived from your society telling you every day that you are Wrong, you are Other, you are Less Than. I have a sense, imperfect though it may be, of what it feels like to be the target of heteronormativity because I am and have been the target of malenormativity.
I am targeted every time someone treats feminism like a dirty word. I am targeted every time someone asks what an assault victim was wearing, or how much she had to drink, even as her assaulter’s swim record is lauded in the news. Every time a teacher calls on their male students statistically more than their female students. Every time women’s health is made a political issue when it would be laughable to politicize men’s access to fundamental, necessary treatments like cancer screenings.
The underlying assumption of these examples is that it is normal to be male and abnormal to be female. Male irresponsibility is expected and excused while female irresponsibility assigned and condemned where no blame should be given to a victim. Male speech is sought and female speech passed over. Male healthcare is the standard and female healthcare is the special service. I have even turned this type of thinking on myself: when my criminal law professor critiqued a justice-oriented speech I gave to the class, he told me to channel my rage even more. My immediate response was, “Yeah, but can a female advocate really show her anger without turning off the jury?” Male anger is normal. Female anger is abnormal.
Only until recently it was acceptable to refer to a generic person as ‘he’ in academic spheres, and you still won’t see the use of “he or she” in every article, essay, speech, or book you come across. Legal writing currently demands that the writer pick one or the other when speaking generally. In fact, I was blown away my senior year of college when my Hinduism professor insisted we do something I had stubbornly argued for in other, supposedly feminist-oriented, classes: use a singular “they” in our papers in order to do away with the gender binary entirely.
I’m not saying this malenormative assumption is openly expressed everywhere. Obviously the first and second waves of feminism made a lot of strides in changing systems and standards. But it is much, much harder to change hearts and minds. That is, I suppose, why the third wave of feminism is so difficult to define. Biases are hard to detect when they’re your own, and they are absorbed insidiously through the media and the people one is exposed to: one’s personal culture. It’s so insidious, that the psychological theory of stereotype threat suggests a simple affirmation about the equitable nature of a math test is enough to level the disparity between the scores of male and female test takers with equal credentials. The idea of stereotype threat is that female students (and black students, too) absorb stereotypes about their academic ability, and in a high-pressure moment their self-doubt can, even momentarily, distract them from performing as well as their white, male peers.
Our culture is malenormative in no small part because our literature, our media, is malenormative. The entire English Canon consists predominantly of men writing about male protagonists. Young girls who love books—young girls like the one I was—more often than not are invited into worlds in which the male protagonist is alive and active and vibrant, while the female characters, if they are present, are caricatured or off to one side: shrewish, or simpering, or flat. (I’m looking at you, A Tale of Two Cities). These female characters are unattractive and unrecognizable. A fully realized human will identify with a fully realized character. It is not a problem confined to books: it has made it into television and movies precisely because writers continue to be predominantly men telling stories about what it means to be human through a male lens.
How can one tell a story through any lens other than their own? Surely it must be possible.
Perhaps my recognition in the character Alfie Byrne is less perplexing than it seemed at first to me. I have, after all, been conditioned by my culture to recognize humanness in the male. Does that make me less female or less feminine? Maybe. But it has, more importantly, helped me to see humanity all along the gender spectrum.
There’s a fun little anecdote I heard once about the fantasy author George R.R. Martin: asked by an interviewer what his secret was for writing such convincing women characters in his A Song of Ice and Fire books, Martin just sort of smiled and said, “You know, I’ve always thought of women as human.”
I, for one, look to the day when a young man can sit weeping with recognition in a theater while a woman+ sings on stage.
written 2/28/17; edited 8/24/18; published 9/16/18