I’ve got electrode pads attached to my neck and shoulders. A very nice woman—always relying on the kindness of strangers!—is pushing buttons on the control device to stimulate my muscles with tiny electric shocks. “Can you feel it? A little more? How about a little more?” My muscles start twitching freakishly. This is supposed to relax me, and I do need relaxing, because I’m feeling wholly out of place at this booth at the Southwest Women’s Expo at Cashman Center.
To be fair, I was twitchy before I got here. I am in fact a woman, which seems like it would qualify me for a good time at this gender-specific event. But as a queer person, I’ve spent half a lifetime faking my way through heteronormative bridal showers and those uncomfortable old-school parties where the menfolk swig beer by the TV football game and the fashionable ladies chat in the kitchen and I awkwardly trot back and forth until, unmoored, I finally just take a seat with the cat on the sofa.
Thankfully, it’s 2016 now, and we’re past binary gender roles, right? We’re a gender-fluid woke world, right? I’m thinking about that while I’m getting an electro-massage at a women’s expo where every third booth is peddling appearance-related products—makeup, Botox, plastic surgery—aimed at achieving conventional feminine beauty standards. I start thinking about Alicia Keys’ recent Twitterverse-exploding choice to appear sans makeup. And I consider my partner’s son, who is a talented makeup artist and wears makeup himself.
Suddenly my neck muscles start convulsing. “Oops, sorry!” the electro-massage demonstrator says as she fiddles with the control buttons. “I went the opposite direction!”
It happens. Would that it happened more.
Alicia Keys wasn’t the only one to take issue recently with our culture’s stifling gender expectations. In another flap, a mother posted a letter on Facebook to the editors of Girls’ Life magazine, which is touted as the “No. 1 magazine for girls age 10-15” about the messaging on its cover. She compared it to the same month’s Boys’ Life magazine: “Your cover has a lovely young lady with a full face of makeup and you invite your readers to ‘steal her secrets’,” wrote Shoshanna Keats-Jaskoll. “The Boys Life’ cover has in bold letters: EXPLORE YOUR FUTURE surrounded by all kinds of awesome gear for different professions—doctor, explorer, pilot, chemist, engineer, etc., subhead[lined]—HERE’S HOW TO BE WHAT YOU WANT TO BE. Could there possibly be two more divergent messages?” Keats-Jaskoll goes on to break down each cover line and image.
It was like 1952. Her post drew a lot of attention. A Minnesota graphic designer even remade the Girls’ Life cover with more empowering messages and tweeted it with the post, “Suck it #GirlsLife#DoBetter.”
I didn’t have a bad time at the women’s expo, although I had to keep dodging the salesperson in the miracle facelift booth who was eyeballing my jowls. There were cool deals on athletic shoes and fun dance demonstrations and good-natured people all around. But as we deal with a political season that reflects our tragic intellectual recession and undying racial prejudices, it’s exhausting to also see the same tired beauty messages dominating our understanding of what it means to be female—and by exclusion, what it means to be male. As sociologists put it eons ago: “Women are taught to think of themselves ornamentally.”
Here’s where we should discuss the hyper-sexualized images of girls in pop culture and the largely heteronormative messages in Las Vegas, and debate whether all of this can be empowering if done consciously. But the frustrating redundancy of it—like our fresh wave of vintage xenophobia and retro religious bigotry—just makes me twitch.