Today a customer complimented my “nice voice” and “pleasant demeanor.” I’ve gotten comments like this before. I am a little forest bunny at work. I am shy and sweet, and my voice is a good half octave higher than it is when I’m just chatting with friends.
Working in the service industry for the last ten months has taught me, more than any previous experience I’ve had, just how much of a performance gender really is. It’s not that I’m totally faking it; I am genuinely very shy, and I do want to be nice to people. And it’s not like I wake up every morning thinking, “Okay! Get your girl face on!” In fact, it’s weird how subconscious this role-playing is. It’s something I fell into right away when I took this job, without even thinking about it.
In truth, I would place myself about smack in the middle of the gender spectrum. In high school, when I was first exploring my identity and researching the options, I took a lot of stupid online tests. Including one – which could not possibly have been scientifically sound – that was designed for people struggling with the possibility that they might be trans women. The result I got on that test was (paraphrased), “You are probably not trans. You are a perfectly ordinary man.”
And yet, when I have to negotiate an anxiety-provoking situation with potentially dangerous people (and any stranger is potentially dangerous), demure femininity is always there for me. It’s the only way I know how to win people over. It smooths over problems – when something goes wrong, I’ve watched people instantly switch gears from anger to understanding when I apologize in my sweetest tones.
I watch my co-workers and their own methods of keeping customers happy. Some of them are really funny. Some of them are hyper professional, borderline intimidating. Some of them are cheerful and polite. We all have our tricks for avoiding danger and getting people to like us.
I don’t think I’m being a bad feminist by using femininity to survive. It’s possible that I’m mistaken, but I think the feminism lies in the awareness of what I’m doing, coupled with the fact that I generally know where “nice” ends and “putting myself in danger by being a total doormat” begins. I’d like to live in a world where these kinds of tools aren’t necessary, or where I at least have better tools. But this is the scary, heavily gendered world we live in, and these are the tools I have.