Friday, June 4, 2010

Wrestling Buddies and unicorns: a personal reflection on gender

This post is for the Hack Gender project, a collaborative online exploration of gender.

The Wrestling Buddy was the first hint I was doing gender wrong. I was six or seven years old, and I had "Wrestling Buddy" at the top of my Christmas list, because hey, Wrestling Buddies! They were these awesome stuffed dolls in the shapes of WWF wrestlers, and you could pound the crap out of them without them complaining (unlike my little brother) or get a pony ride from them while Dad was watching TV (unlike Dad). On Christmas morning, I tore into my presents, fully convinced that I'd have my very own pro wrestler BFF in minutes. But no, there wasn't a Wrestling Buddy under the tree for me.

There was, however, a Hulk Hogan Wrestling Buddy under the tree for my little brother, who hadn't even asked for one.

How could life (and Santa) possibly be this cruel?

I asked my parents how come my brother got a Wrestling Buddy and I didn't, and they said, "Because he's a boy."

I sat with that thought. The unspoken corollary was quick to sink in: "Because you're a girl." Girls, evidently, didn't get Wrestling Buddies. We also didn't get (if my Christmas list vs. Christmas loot was any indication) Tonka trucks or Ninja Turtles. We were also supposed to wear (if my family's Christmas photos were any indication) skirts and dresses for formal occasions, whether we liked them or not. There were rules to follow - rules I didn't get.

Being a girl wasn't something I thought about much as a kid - beyond the toy-related injustices, anyway. I lived in a patch of nowhere just outside a suburb, I was shy and awkward, and I'd much rather draw during recess than play with the other girls in my class. Gender didn't seem all that important at that age.

Then middle school hit, and gender was everything. Boobs happened. Dating happened. Cliques happened. Suddenly, if you came to school presenting any kind of flaw, it was like asking to be pecked to death by a flock of chickens. The flock saw a laundry list of flaws in me, which they picked at daily, most of them relating to my gender presentation: I was slouchy and uncomfortable with my overweight body, I wore boys' jeans, my haircut was utilitarian instead of trendy, and I didn't wear a bra.

I wasn't a tomboy; I just didn't care enough to present myself as A Girl. And so they pecked.

Secretly, I wanted to run away with my brother's Wrestling Buddy (which he still slept with every night), bind my boobs, and live the rest of my life as a boy.

Even more secretly, though, I wanted to be a girl - and not just any girl, but a capital-G, trend-setting, epitome of femininity, datable, respectable Girl. I had the right biological accouterments. I had the right level of socialized self-consciousness. Thanks to my parents' unintentional sexism around the holidays, I had the right toys in the back of my closet. What was wrong with me that kept me from being a Girl?

Near as I could tell, other girls had access to some sort of mythical well of girliness - some ace in their perfectly pressed sleeves that I didn't have.

I felt like I must've been out sick on the day they taught How To Be A Girl in school. Once I found that missing element, I thought, I'd be just like them - a perfect Girl.

And I tried. The funny thing was, every time I thought I had finally had it down, the definition of Girl seemed to shift. Gender was like fashion, and I was always a year or two behind.

There was a secret no one was telling me, but it wasn't what I thought. It took me a few heavy Women's Studies textbooks to figure out, and years after that to really examine in terms of my own actions:

Gender was just a performance. There was no binary boy/girl system, but rather a whole spectrum of ways to present gender.

I was putting on a show, hoping to mimic the people I thought represented the mythical Girl. There was no one true Girl - the girls I'd looked up to as examples were just putting on a show, same as I was. They had their own idea of what being a girl meant to them, and they shaped their appearances to reflect that. I didn't have to share the same idea - I could invent my own idea of my gender.

Slowly, I learned not to compare my version of my gender to other people's in a critical way, and slowly, I stopped feeling like I was somehow doing it wrong. I'm still developing my own presentation of gender that's just mine. I'm not femme. I'm not butch. I don't really identify with any sort of label - and not because I'm hard to categorize, but because I'm still figuring out how I want to play this part. I care about how I look because my presentation of gender is a way that I express myself, not because I'm worried that I won't fit someone's Girl mold.

Or at least, I'm trying. Gender is weird and amorphous, like so many other intrinsic parts of human life, and I find it difficult to talk or write about. Maybe someday I'll feel confident writing about it without illustrations to distract from my only partly-coherent written observations.

Maybe someday I'll buy my own Wrestling Buddy on eBay and we'll skip off into the sunset together, like it was always meant to be.


Nicole grew up to collect cute secondhand skirts and do crossplay at conventions.

Her brother is twenty-two, and the Hulk Hogan Wrestling Buddy still lives on his bed.

No one has heard from the unicorn since the makeup party at WisCon.


  1. I just wanted to tell you that I love you, and that I would have totally bought you the toys actually on your list.

  2. Oh neat essay, and the pictures enhance it.

    My parents were all the time trying to get my brother and I non-normative gendered toys and we often gravitated to the normative ones anyway. Exceptions included stuff my (older) brother was into that I had to get into because I looked up to him. So thankfully, I got my wrestler action figure the year I asked for one. Names escape me now, but you pushed down on him and he jumped up in the air and it was soooo cool. I also confiscated my brother's Luke Skywalker and made him hang out with my barbies because I only had one Ken doll to go with my dozens of girl ones.

    I'm sorry you never got to have the wrestling toys. I like the bit about caring how you look but to your own standards and not someone else's. :)

  3. @String - Love you, too, hon. You'd be an awesome parent.

    @Sophy - That toy sounds AMAZING. I used to combine the "boy" and "girl" toys, too. The best was when I brought my Puppy In My Pockets to my afterschool daycare program and the boys and I spent a whole week stuffing tiny plastic dogs into the cockpits of toy fighter planes and crashing them into each other.

    The weird thing about my childhood toys was, for the first few years, my parents were adamantly against letting me fall into gender stereotypes. They banned relatives from buying me anything pink until one Christmas, my grandparents snuck a Barbie into the mix and I loved it. Then they sort of just...gave up.

  4. Oh, wow. The unicorn/fairy pair of pictures so perfectly sums up my experience of trying to be a girl in middle school.

    I still sometimes feel like there's a manual that everyone got but me. (And now that I have a socially awkward, sometimes-tomboyish sometimes-feminine nine-year-old daughter of my own it's stressing me out all over again. How am I supposed to teach my kid to shave her legs when I never learned to shave my own? I have sparse body hair and since the puberty books all warned in dire tones that ONCE YOU STARTED YOU HAD TO KEEP SHAVING, I decided I'd just never start.)

  5. @Naomi - Same here. Every time I have to dress up nice, I still wish I had a manual.

    I think for a pre-teen girl, an open line of communication with an older woman would be helpful for stuff like that - if not always mom, then an aunt/cousin/friend of the family/whoever. (I had no one to talk to about that kind of stuff, since my mom clammed up whenever body stuff came up. When I wanted to try shaving my legs, I stole a razor from my mom's bathroom and sliced a big chunk out of my shin because I didn't know what I was doing. My mom still doesn't know how that blood stain got on the hallway carpet.)

  6. I sell jewelry, sometimes at outdoor festivals. Part of my line is a collection of fantasy-themed sterling pendants, which includes some pirate items. At one show a few years ago, there was a little girl about 8 or 9 years old who absolutely fell in love with the skull-and-crossed-swords pendant. She kept coming back to look at it, and her parents refused to buy it for her. They actually SAID, "Now, if it was a little heart or something like that..."

    My heart broke for that poor girl. I wish I'd had the presence of mind to bring up Anne Bonny, or even Belit (the pirate queen from the Conan movie), and to tell her it was a good thing that she wanted to be a strong person who could defend herself and not take crap from anyone. I hope she hasn't grown up feeling like an outcast in her own family, but I don't have much confidence in that outcome.

  7. This post is all kinds of win. I am in my mid-thirties and I am still struggling with gender perception & performance (although outwardly you would never guess, I suppose).

  8. Hi! I am emailing because we at Hackgender have decided to extend the project and open up an archive! The archive isn't quite ready yet, but it will be for the relaunch on July 1st. Each month will have a theme, with the first month, July, having a theme of Personal Reflection. We encourage you to submit something or multiple somethings! The archive is not limited to the written word either so podcasts, images, video, etc are all acceptable and encouraged! We were wondering if it was ok to copy and paste your hackgender submission into the archive. As our early adopter, we would be happy to do this work for you so that your submission could be included in the archive. Please let us know if it is ok! We really want it! If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to contact us, Thanks! JJ and Ana

  9. OH NICOLE. This was completely me in grade school, henpecked and teased and rather read a book than play 'girl' and I'm 32 now and really glad I never figured it out.

  10. Wow. This could have been written about me. It seems sometimes like if you don't go completely one way or the other, you have no way of fitting in. You have to be either butch or completely girly-girly.

    I ended up coming to the same conclusion you did, and just finding my own definition of my gender. :D I'm glad I found this.

  11. Was linked this by a friend on Twitter. Not much more to say than 'Bravo.'

    This is an excellent personal essay on a subject which is personal for everyone.


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