Be a Man

It's one of the catchier tunes in Disney's Mulan (1998)--

"Be a man
We must be swift as the coursing river
Be a man
With all the force of a great typhoon
Be a man
With all the strength of a raging fire
Mysterious as the dark side of the moon"*

--a movie which appeals to me for what should be obvious reasons (and not just Eddie Murphy's voicing of the dragon Mushu). Isn't this what I want, as a fencing bear? To don my father's armor, save the honor of our family and my father's life, join the ranks of those who fight and save my country from invading Huns? Okay, maybe not invading Huns, but what am I doing competing as I did today against all these young men if some part of me, deep down, doesn't want to be one of them?

Or do I? I was sitting on the sidelines watching this afternoon as bout after bout in the open mixed tournament went to the guys. Mind you, there weren't that many women competing today and some of those who were directing quite probably could have defeated (almost) every one of the men who were there, but still it was striking how nobody was left in the top 8 (out of 36) but guys. And there I was, envious, wishing....well, what? That I had legs like theirs, so strong and mobile; that I had strength like theirs, of both body and mind; that I could be there, fighting to be in the top 4, not sitting where I was, on the sidelines, having been knocked out bouts and bouts ago, without even getting into the top 16. Is it just that I want not to lose? To know what it feels like to have such power to be able to dominate everyone else in the room? Or do I really want to be a guy?

I don't think so, but sometimes I'm not so sure. After all, I have spent my life competing with men--for jobs, for status, for recognition. I would not be who I am professionally if I had not been able to compete with the men. But I like being a woman--perhaps more accurately, I like being a woman in a man's world. I'm not actually very good at being a woman's woman. I don't gush over babies (although I was/am fanatically attached to my own), I find it hard to engage in social gossip (unless it's professional), I'm only intermittently interested in make-up and hair styles (although I always wish I looked better). At parties, I am much more likely to end up talking with the men than I am with the women.**

And yet, I'm not very good at "guy" things either. The last few weeks have been a running drama at our home over whether I would have enough foils fixed for the tournament I am going to this weekend. Wiring foils is not that difficult, but it is fiddly enough that it is fairly challenging the first several times you try. I don't have my husband's or my son's practice with making things or using tools. In the end, it was my husband who fixed my foils for me; I--the helpless little woman--simply couldn't get the hang of it. I'm actually disgusted with myself for not being able to deal with these sorts of things, but my husband being the ideal husband that he is cannot bear to see me struggling so pathetically with adhesive and wires and so answered my pleas for help.***

And indeed, the chores in our household are fairly neatly divided along stereotypical gender lines. He does the taxes for us because the forms make me so anxious. He takes care of the car when it needs fixing (well, most of the time; I have been known to take it in for service and even fill it up occasionally). He changes the lightbulbs (sorry, "lamps") and takes out the trash. I cook and shop for housewares and do the laundry and worry about everyone's schedules and tidy up (or do the necessary yelling at everyone to clean his room--it doesn't always work). We tend to take turns on the dishwasher, but he does the grocery shopping (he's doing it now), while I make sure our son gets to the dentist. And so forth. To be sure, we pay somebody else (women) to come in and clean every other week because otherwise we would get into fights about whose turn it was to vacuum, but otherwise things seem to balance out fairly well.****

So what am I? I don't think I'm a wannabe guy; I'm certainly not a tomboy when it comes to cars and math and pretty much every sport other than fencing. But I'm not much of a girly girl either. I want to be able to beat the guys at their own game but I want to do it as a woman. Not, however, to prove anything about women being "just as good" as men; I can't recall ever not believing that we were. And yet, and yet, and yet--I can see that we're not every time I compete in an open tournament and no matter how good the women are, the guys almost always win.*****

There are a number of options. One could be a wife or lover or girlfriend of one of the manly men, delighting in his strength vicariously. It would be a lie to say that I don't notice my opponents' bodies, although as fencers we are so fully clothed, it takes some imagination to see what's underneath. When I was a teenager, however, I was a swimmer, and swimming suits leave very little to the the imagination.****** Embarrassing now as it is to admit, I loved the guys' chests and legs, but especially their stomachs. Shoot, even the cartoon version of a guy's chest in the above-mentioned scene from Mulan gives me shivers.

But guys that look like that aren't usually very interested in women who look like me. Sure, I'm in fairly good shape, but not nearly as sculpted as someone whom Captain Li Shang might fancy. Okay, maybe that's just my insecurities speaking, but typically guys who look and move like that tend to end up with women, well, a bit more girly than I am. Which, of course, is what makes Mulan such a tantalizing story because there the guy does go for the girl who can compete with--and outwit--the men. The problem is, I don't want to win vicariously through my lover; I want to win. My husband has very nice legs, but knowing that he loves me doesn't satisfy my desire to compete.

Nor, truth be told, am I that interested in the men whom I compete against as men. Not in that way, in any case. Watching them excites envy much more than lust. I want to be a worthy opponent, not a potential girlfriend. Which brings me back to the question I started with: what does this mean, to want to be able to fence with the men?

*Vocals: Donny Osmond and chorus. Music: Matthew Wilder. Lyrics: David Zippel.
**Unless, of course, the women are fencers. Or medievalists.
***More accurately, pushed me out of the way and did it himself.
****As my husband puts it, together we make one functioning adult.
*****One exception: when Olympian Ann Marsh was competing at a tournament at Northwestern a few years ago.
******Although, truth be told, they are sufficiently concealing for those with less experience--how shall I put it?--than I have now as a wife and mother. Which for the teenager that I was made swim practice rather, um, intriguing.


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