In my Sociology of Gender course I talk about how gender conformity isn’t simply a matter of socialization, but often a response to active policing by others. Single women usually avoid having too many cats, for example, not only because they’ve been taught that too many cats sends the wrong signal, but because they may be called a “cat lady” by their friends (a joke-y slur suggesting that she is or will be a batty old spinster). Or her best friend, with her best interests in mind, may discourage her from adopting another cat because she knows what people think of “cat ladies.”
People who find community in subcultures that are seen as “alternative” to the “mainstream” often feel like they are freed of such rules. But these subcultures often simply have different rules that turn out to be equally restrictive and are just as rigidly policed.
A recent submission to PostSecret, a site where people anonymously tell their secrets, reminded me of this. In it a lesbian confesses that she hates cats. Because of the stereotype that women love cats, the “cat lady” stigma may be lifted in lesbian communities. This lesbian, however, doesn’t feel freed by the lifting of this rule, but instead burdened by its opposite: everyone has to like cats. So she feels compelled to lie and say that she’s allergic.
Related, see our post on a confession, from another lesbian, about suppressing the fact that she’s really quite girly.Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.