Updated: Aug 23, 2022
You Got To Be Real – Cheryl Lynn (1978)
There are few things in English I hate more than the insistence of modifying a social construct with the term “real” (e.g., “real woman” or “real man”). Every time I see this, be it with gender, sexual orientation, race, or kink, I chafe. Adding “real” to a social construct attaches a judgment and valuation to whatever concept is being modified. “Real” is used to discriminate, to devalue, and to excise someone from a group.
The Rise of “Realness” in Gender Representation
The concept of “real woman” and “real man” is growing in popularity in the media. Over the past several years news outlets have increased their use of modifier “real” in front of gender (see the Google Trends chart below). The variety of articles which use “realness” in their headlines are varied. Most include discussions of what makes a “real” man or woman (e.g., “real women have curves”).
The implication of adding “real” in front of gender (or other social construct) is that there are people who are “real” and therefore valuable and acceptable, and those who are “not real” or “fake” and do not belong nor should be valued for their contributions in that social construct.
I haven’t crunched the numbers, but I would be willing to bet that the rise of visibility of gays and lesbians and the recent rise in visibility of transgendered folks corresponds and drives the rise in the the quest to find “realness.” Non-gay people and cis-gendered folks tend to take offense at being lumped in with “queers” and “trans.” In a desire to reaffirm their own identity, they need to increase their value or decrease that of others. Adding “real” does this.
Google Trends for Terms “Real Woman” and “Real Man” – Downloaded Sept. 08, 2015
Take Ann Couture for example. This sanctimonious bigot got her thong in a twist over comments that she looked trans. She went on an absurdly offensive tirade about being a “real” woman. First, let me just say, Ann, trans folks don’t want your insipid, bullying, and flat-out hateful ass as part of the click. Second, by becoming so deeply offended at being compared to transwomen, you worked hard to tell the world that this groups is unacceptable and disgusting. Your tirades about this issue actually fuel the fires that lead to trans murders.
In that discussion and many others, “real women” are reduced to two things: the presence of a vagina and the presence of breasts. As a woman, I am deeply offended by that. I am, and have always been, way more than just a nice rack and a vagina. That type of reductionism should offend each and every person out there. Everyone is more than their secondary sex characteristics.
The same thing happens with the idea of “real man.” While much of the literature about gender representation focuses on women, men’s gender is under equal flux. The men’s literature that focuses on gender identity development is out there and occasionally pops up in the headlines. When I was young, there was the whole brouhaha about, “real men don’t eat quiche.” Now, real men don’t manscape, or real men hunt or real men love women.
The whole realness of gender attaches values to a narrow scope of physical attributes and behaviors. It is an attempt to reify the construct of gender. There is no recognition that gender, by and large, is performative.
Gender as a Social Construct
The idea of a social construct is that through social communication we communicate ideas about what something means. It usually involves taking something that is related to a physical characteristic and then values and ideas are attached to it. Race is largely understood in academia to be a social construct.
Some people think about race simply as the color of the skin. Take a moment and think about that more deeply. People with the same skin color but different eyes and noses may be considered different races. Over time, we have changed what signifies race groups. Skin color is obviously attached to our ideas of race, but it is much more than that. In the United States, family lineage was critical for many years. We defined people as “Black” by the “one drop of blood” rule. If a person had any member of their lineage who was Black, then they were defined as Black. Skin color did not matter.
Plessy (from Plessy v. Ferguson) was removed from the White train car because he was partially Black. Looking at his image (below) Plessy could easily pass as a White man. However, race is more than skin color and plays into the concept of “Blackness.”
Gender is less commonly referred to as a social construct. Many people, including some academics, see gender as less socially constructed and more rooted in the actual body parts. I don’t believe that is true. Yes, body parts do help define gender. It is the secondary sex characteristics that lead to the assignment of gender at birth. But gender is much more than the presence of certain body parts. It is performative.
In the cannonical documentary about Black gay drag queens in New York, there is a good explanation of “realness” when it comes to preforming gender and race. The clip is embedded below:
Paris Is Buring “Realness Explained” (August 1991)
For drag queens, gender is a conscious performance. It is a performance for most of us on a much less conscious level. Our choice of clothing, hair styles, accessories, walk, voice and gestures are all chosen to construe our preferred gender identity.
Using the term “real” to describe gender is an attempt to distance yourself from the performative aspect of gender identity. It implies that there is something inherent or innate that makes us one gender or another. It denies the gender fluidity that many people experience at some point in their lives. It is a way to devalue someone with a different gender concept and presentation then yourself.
How “Realness” Plays Out in Kink
I offer the following example as a way that the concept of “real man” injects itself into the kink community.
I was teaching an introductory class about Dominance and submission at a vanilla bar in town on a “fetish” night. Most of the people in the class were there because they were new and interested in how this dynamic can enter their play and relationships. One young woman in her early twenties was helping host the night at the club. She had been open with people that she was not part of kink, but just interested. She was extremely attractive and dressed in a tiny school girl skirt and bra.
Toward the end of the class she skipped over to introduce herself the the class members. One older man identifying as a “Master” had attended the class. He had been hostile to people from the moment he entered the club and trying to assert himself as the “supreme” expert on kink and bdsm. When the young woman introduced herself, he gave her a very nasty look and tried to crush her hand. When she left he made the comment that, “Well that young thing got herself into a situation she can’t handle.”
I asked him to clarify what he meant. He claimed she asserted pressure while shaking his hand and was thus asserting that she was the “real Domme” in the room. He claimed he “crushed that tiny hand” and that she “didn’t know how to deal with a ‘real man.'”
This was not a kink space. This was not a protocol space. This was a space for newbies to get introduced to kink and bdsm. This old man’s insistence that he was a “real man” and a “real Dom,” was used to try and bully this young woman and make him somehow feel superior to people in the room. I called him out on the reductive concept of both “real man” and “real Dom” and how I felt the concepts were inappropriate in the kink community.
He continued to try and bully me and insisted he could “fuck a new girl every night of the week” if he wanted. He was angry about being called out and left a long post about the incident on a social media site claiming that “real men” and “real Doms” were basically into bullying.
The use of “real” to justify bad behavior and try and reify social constructs is harmful. Gender, race, and so much of our world is socially constructed. The longer we explore different topics, the more we understand we are moving beyond the binary and that concepts based on bodies are much more fluid then we generally give credit too.
We need to stop using “real” to distance ourselves from people we are uncomfortable with. We need to explore who we are and why we are personally upset by the idea of someone with a different construct of gender then we have.