Clothes have different meanings for everyone. For some, they’re simply something you throw on for the day. For others, clothing becomes fashion, which in turn becomes an art form. And for others still, dressing up is a conscious, charged decision every day of their lives — and an act of rebellion.
In a society that normalizes the gender binary, and people existing strictly in one box or another, stepping outside the binary and claiming your authentic self, no matter what society says, is powerful.
It can also be confusing and dangerous — discrimination, harassment, and even violence, still befall people who don’t conform today.
I wanted to be a prince, not a princess
I was often described as a tomboy growing up. My hair was never done, I rarely donned dresses (and only when I had to). I played all sorts of sports and climbed anything I could.
The term tomboy never felt right to me, though. It’s just another word reinforcing the gender binary and implying that certain clothing or interests are inherently meant for girls or boys. People use it as a way to try and understand that which they did not understand — female-born people, typically children, preferring clothing and activities meant for boys. It’s a term that ‘others’ while still adhering to the binary.
My relationship with masculinity ran much deeper than that.
I deeply identified with male characters when I was younger, much more than female characters. It wasn’t a mere matter of admiring them, though, it was wanting to emulate them, it was feeling much more comfortable in their skin.
In 2001, when The Princess Diaries came out, my grandmother took me and my little cousin to see it at the El Capitan in Hollywood.
After the movie, there was a lunch and various activities, including a costume and photo area. Once again, I gravitated immediately towards dressing up in a more masculine way. I put on a plastic suit of armor, and donned my shield and sword proudly.
Masculinity felt natural to me, and it brought out confidence in me, even when I was on the receiving end of snide comments.
Then I wanted to Bend It Like Beckham
Keira Knightley, as she was for so many others, was something of a revelation when I was growing up.
I determined my queerness long before I began to try and understand my relationship with gender. Keira Knightley helped me with both.
My attraction to her was readily apparent, but her film roles had a much bigger impact on me than I realized at the time. Bend It Like Beckham and the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy were the big ones for me.
Beckham wasn’t one of my favorite films growing up simply because I also played soccer, although that did help.
I also loved what the film said — and how relatable Knightley’s character Jules was for me.
There’s a scene in the film where Jules and her mother go bra shopping. Jules keeps moving towards sports bras, while her mother wants to buy her a push-up bra. It’s not the only time Jules and her mother clash over the way Jules presents herself as a woman.
While my mom always encouraged me to be me, I still found Jules’ character — and her rebellion against the patriarchy — both moving and profound.
It was the same in Pirates of the Caribbean, where Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann is an aristocratic young woman who longs to rid herself of her corset and become a pirate.
By the third film, she does indeed become a pirate, and a Pirate King at that.
One of Knightley’s most recent films, the dazzling Colette, also features the actor pushing back against strict gender norms.
Eventually I realized my admiration for Knightley also stemmed from seeing someone who allowed me to experiment with gender. I had someone I looked up to, and could aspire to be, who also didn’t conform to what society had deemed normal, both in her films and real life.
Where am I now?
I’m still figuring out my own relationship with gender performance and fluidity.
It wasn’t until college and beyond that I began embracing my own femmeness, and loving wearing a bold lipstick.
I identify as a woman, but my masculine identity runs much deeper than labeling myself ‘butch’. That terms doesn’t feel right to me, but I still don’t know if genderfluid or genderqueer do either.
I’m hung up on what I think I’m ‘allowed’ to be. Can I be cisgender and use she/her pronouns while also being genderfluid? It’s not androgyny, either. I don’t feel like a woman presenting as masculine. There are days when I feel more male than female, or female than male.
I shouldn’t need permission, but there are some days I wish someone would tell me it’s okay to fit in this in-between, just as Keira Knightley did for me when I was younger.
One day I hope to find more understanding about myself but until then, I’m grateful Keira Knightley inspired some confidence in me when I was younger.