I’ve been researching gear for some upcoming travel, and one of the items on my list is a daily carry bag. What I mean by “daily carry bag” is a small bag with a shoulder strap that I can use to carry a few important things: wallet, passport, phone, pocket camera, pen, notepad, emergency medications like aspirin and antihistamines, maybe a water bottle, sunscreen, antiseptic wipes, etc. In other words, a purse.
That word though. When researching options, it is staggering to me how far retailers go out of their way to avoid the word. Many use “messenger bag,” even for bags clearly too small for the kinds of papers or notebook computers that would call for an actual messenger bag. Similarly, some get called “satchels” or “briefcases” when they clearly don’t fit those purposes. Some retailers have come up with newer terms: go bag, utility bag, gear bag, or even — I shit you not — urban tactical pouch. The styling of these male purses falls over itself to be unambiguously macho, with camouflage, overly robust metal fixtures, boldly-stitched leather stamped with faux-military stenciling, and so on. Many are designed to look like ammunition carriers or tool utility belts. They are absolutely, in no conceivable way, items that could be confused for purses.
It’s clear that men still fear the word “purse.” If you had asked me a week ago, I would have said my generation was probably the last where anyone would have had discomfort over the idea of a man with a purse, but my casual search shows that this is pronouncedly not the case. Men are evidently still so terrified of being thought feminine that there must be a strict demarcation between male and female luggage.
While still in high school, my brother made the wise observation that “identity is expensive.” We went to school in the rarefied environment of a wealthy, exclusive, largely homogeneous town. As a high-school student, there were many opportunities to craft your own identity. It was an angsty exercise for some of us because — like any place — there were cliques and all kinds of subtle divisions. There were the jocks, the socs, the popular people, the nerds, and so on. People like me, who were socially inept, largely created identity based on strange rigid rules. In my circle, the music you listened to was extraordinarily important. But every clique and grouping had its shibboleths. In some circles, it was the clothing you wore, in some the car you drove (in some circles, everyone had a car after they were 16), or in others the sports teams you supported. In many, it was a combination of these things. But as my brother noted, a great deal of energy was dedicated to the creation and maintenance of identity.
Even as a middle-aged adult, it’s often hard for me to understand the complexities of identity. In the real world it’s so much more complicated than the high-school microcosm, with all kinds of culturally imposed identities trumping the ones we create for ourselves. Some of the books I’ve read (books on class in America, Johnstone’s discussion of status and masks, Zinn’s histories of American class) have opened up to me whole vistas into the problem of identity.
In recent months, I created a new Twitter account and started following people on Twitter specifically to understand my own discomfort levels. I’m following people who might be characterized as social activists, but more accurately are people who discuss social oppression based on identity. They are women, people of color, trans*, and other marginalized people. They are people who speak out because they are angry, and they are angry because society treats them badly. Much of what I read makes me profoundly uncomfortable.
My initial response tends towards anger, resistance, and desire to argue. I feel myself wanting to explain things away. I want to offer possible mitigating situations. I force myself to analyze why I have those reactions, and assess what ideas I’m vested in and why. I continue to learn a great deal.
In my high school, identity was to some extent a choice. To be sure, we couldn’t choose our sex, or how wealthy our parents were, or whether or not we were beautiful. But in that time and place, there was very little visible deviance from the norm. There were almost no people of color in our town. Religiously, there was slightly more variation. We were one of a handful of Jewish families; there was a Catholic church and a Mormon community, one or two Muslim families, but the vast majority was Protestant. There was no visible queer culture at all. When a friend in college mentioned that he was gay, I told him (and honestly believed) that I’d never met anyone gay before. The struggle for identity was within these narrow bounds. I’m sure in retrospect that there were people who suffered abuse, addiction, and illness, but this too was virtually invisible.
My high school world is a tiny piece of the world against which I see such strong reaction today. The alienation I experienced as a bullied socially-awkward Jewish nerd in a WASP community was a tiny piece of the alienation I see in people speaking out today. At one time, I thought that my experiences gave me insight into the experience of marginalized people. Now I appreciate that it perhaps gives me empathy for their plight, but can’t yield any understanding.
The problem is much deeper and more entrenched than I can wrap my head around. It’s pernicious, subtle, and pervasive. And yet it’s also so obvious once I begin to be able to look. It’s as obvious as calling a purse a “urban tactical pouch.”