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Femininity, I learned, was the viciously Darwinian competition for a man.

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Darwinian Gender

by Kelly Cogswell

OCTOBER 9, 2000. Where I grew up, gender was filtered through rage. Men's was like a baseball bat, women's like the screeching pain of a knife. I blunted myself into something different altogether, a pen.

Femininity, I learned early from a sister, was the viciously Darwinian competition for a man. Her eyes were constantly bruised with green or blue eye shadow. Her fingernails were sharpened and painted. Her hips, round but aggressive, like grenades. Her hair puffed up like a cockatoo's annunciatory crest. After a certain age she fought violently with her friends, dragging those fingernails down the nearest flesh. I tried to stay out of her way. She even wept violently.

Boys from the neighborhood were broad and tough. They played football and baseball. The toughest carried chains and scratched tattoos into themselves. They didn't have much to say, and grunted when they said it, like their fathers. They lived for fast cars and escape. Those were the white guys.

The black ones bussed to the middle and high school were loud and flashy. They talked all the time. They were my first exposure to wit. Black girls didn't seem so different from white ones, though they sometimes didn't shave their legs, which was both interesting and repulsive because hairs poked through when they wore white tights. Now it is my legs that are hairy. I should try white tights.

My father didn't really belong in the neighborhood. He'd played football in school, and been in the service, but his games now were tennis and golf. His family was nouveau riche and less coarse than us, despite my mother's pretensions at refinement. He was a failed business man, and never around because he traveled most of the time, or retreated to the basement. My mother was the hick daughter of a poor farmer. It infuriated her, and still does.

I've noticed femininity collapses with age, at least out in the United States of not quite middle-class white people. After babies come, there's no time to fuss with long hair, or elaborate makeup. Kids thicken the waist and breasts. McDonald's melts the body into a sexless, unambitious putty. Later, when the arthritis hits, they all walk like truck drivers.

The only residual signs left in my aunts were the nice pink and lavender pastels of their polyesters, and their perfumed soaps, and tight permanented curls around the kitchen table. My mother was skinny with a horrible temper, so she kept more of her feminine edge.

duane hanson's football playerMasculinity is softened too, after decades of doilies on the tables, and crocheted toilet paper covers and afghans, blank eyes trained to the blind screen, and yes, yes, yes to the boss. Testosterone is gradually banished like a wrench to the corner of the basement or garage, with the football players confined to the den's TV.

I feel sorry for them all. No one wins in the gender wars, especially children. What is acceptable at the tail end of middle age tortures teenagers, and gets them killed, or makes them killers. Girls get called dykes, boys get called fags, whether they are or not. We refuse to admit how whimsical gender is, that spirit of movement and desire that shapes the tilt of a hip, the stride.

We don't acknowledge the effort or the artifice. It is hard to be a woman. And hard to be a man. The America that celebrates the individual is a myth. At least where I grew up.

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