#titlewatch Where I tot up the number of times I'm addressed by male / female titles in public. Starts today.
(today being Good Friday, 1st April 2010)
I should add for clarity that this is when I'm dressed male, which is most of the time. Not sure how long I'll sustain the experiment. Maybe I'll run it for, say, the tax year 2010-11, as a random duration: April - March. Who knows. I'll probably get bored eventually. Maybe quite soon. A research academic I'm not.
Rationale (or rather 'irrationale')
I decided to do this as I often get mistaken for a woman in public, and to be honest it annoys the fuck out of me. In a previous post, I tried to explain-
...the confusion and ambivalance I feel at being "ma'am"-ed. It happens a lot and I guess what I dislike about it is the sense that I'm surrounded suddenly by a spreading ring of ripples of wrongness that emanate from the person who's called me "madam", or "miss" or "young lady". It's funny writing about it but at the time it feels wrong, because it feels so wrong to the beholder. It's deeply uncomfortable but usually shrugged off with a smile, or even an apology on their part. 'Things I Have Learnt' - Nov 9th 2008
Anyone who knows me will tell you it's almost impossible to actually mistake me for a woman in real life, despite the lengths I might go to in my selfportraits. I just don't have the raw material. However it does seem that some of the accoutrements of my appearance - my long hair, my androgynous manner of dress, perhaps aspects of my posture and manner - might cast confusion and this is what causes the mistakes of titular address, especially at first glance.
Methodology (if you can call it that)
It's very simple really. Every day, I tot up the number of times I'm referred to as male against the number of times I'm referred to as female by strangers in public and announce the score (along with a Twitter sized description of the events). You can see how it works by exploring the #titlewatch hashtag.
At the end of each month, I'll add up and tweet the cumulative scores. At the end of the year I may write up some sort of summary on this blog. Or I may not. As longtime readers will know, it's very rare that I actually finish anything.
For avoidance of doubt, a female so called titular referral might be any of the following (these have all happened):
- being called madam or ma'am, miss, young lady or similar
- also, being called luv, my dear or darling by a man who is obviously not a friend of Dorothy
- Non-sarcastic wolf whistling (you can tell if the piss is being taken or not)
- Lavatorial confusion - explanation: this is when I'm using a men's toilet in a public place and another man walks in, does a double take upon seeing me, and walks out again (then usually back in, though in one funny case, he walked into the ladies' opposite). This honestly happens a hell of a lot. A related example is when I emerged from the men's room, and a woman, mistaking me for a woman exiting the ladies, walked into the men's room I'd just left.
I'm wondering if a lot of this is cultural. For example, in Asia, I very much doubt this confusion would arise at all. Since I've been thinking about this issue over the last year or so, I'd say also that in Britain, it's about 90% men who've mistaken me for a woman. Very few women are taken in.
This is a great contrast to the USA. In a trip to New York a couple of years ago, I literally could not believe the number of times women mistook me for a woman:
It started on the first day - we were mooching around SoHo and went into Bloomingdales to get some make-up. (I should explain that I'm with my partner, who's a bona fide lady, while I'm in my usual lank rock boy look which you're no doubt familiar with from my flickr stream, especially the Deathline photos)
So we're striding into the back of the makeup floor when we're greeted from behind by a cheery "can I help you, ladies?"
We turn around with a smile and there's a funny double take when she spots the actual gender composition of the couple she's addressing and a good humoured apology. We buy what we need and leave.
The next incident occurs as I'm leaving Century 21 two days later. I'd been standing for a while by the Cortlandt Street exit watching people leave the store. A fair few of them had been setting off the security alarm as they left and had had to have their bags searched by the tough looking Latina security guard - there was clearly a malfunction somewhere as none of them were obviously shoplifting.
Anyway, it came my turn to leave, and sure enough, the alarm went off on my shopping bag too.
"Ma'am! May I see your shopping bag please?"
I stood confusedly looking round for the woman the security guard was addressing.
"Ma'am, your bag!"
It was me of course. I handed over the bag and she examined it, nodded and looked up at me.
"Have a nice day ma'am."
I was propelled out of the shop into the drizzle outside.
Thing is, this time, not only was I face to face with her when she addressed me, she made the mistake three times and she and I had been standing near each other for minutes beforehand exchanging occasional looks.
It happened twice again that day, once while we were buying fruit at Wholefoods Market on Union Square and a shelf-stacking woman politely asked me to move, again using the "ma'am" epithet. And again a little later when the waitress at Fanelli's Cafe on Prince Street addressed us as "ladies" when serving us.
The next morning a builder wolf-whistled me from a building site on Lafayette Street. I'm not kidding. I was the only one on the street all round.
Then I was "ma'am"-ed twice by different shop assistants at JFK airport on the way home. Excerpt from 'Wham Bam Thank You Ma'amhattan'
the draGnet 4.0, 22 Nov 2007
Commenters on that piece back then pointed out that such confusion is common, James Bridle noting that:
While it does sound like quite a myopic epidemic, I think people use a lot fewer cues than we think to establish gender - and once established, it's hard to revise.
I think it's the hair. Travelling in North and East Africa where long hair on men is simply unknown, my shoulder-length hair (at the time) elicited the universal response that I must be female, even when sporting a ratty beard. Confusion frequently arose, but hair length was still taken above all other cues.
Perhaps, as I've noted before, it seems somewhat paradoxical for someone who has a penchant for trying to create an illusory femininity about themselves to feel disquieted by these fleeting and probably trivial errors of gender perception. When I was a child, I was often mistaken for a girl and I took a childish pleasure in these affirmations of my own gender unease.
But as I mentioned earlier, it's not necessarily the mistake itself that's disquieting, but the sense of wrongness that accompanies it. It's uncomfortable. Which is why I feel compelled to think it through some more.
In the meantime, watch the hashtag.