Are Men Treated Better Than Women???
By Alan Cumming
Have you ever wished that men could know - even for a day - what it's like to be a woman? We dared Alan Cumming, of this summer's film The Anniversary Party, to brave New York dressed as a woman and compare how differently he was treated in a bar, lingerie shop, car dealership and on the streets.
Ask anyone who knows me and they will tell you that I love a challenge. I especially love a challenge that challenges others, and this is what excited me so much about this assignment for Marie Claire - trying to experience the difference between how a man and a woman might feel in exactly the same situations.
Here's how it worked. One day I got dressed in a nice suit and wandered around as me, Alan, a man. I stopped off at a bra shop, a Mercedes-Benz dealership, the changing room of a clothing store and a bar. A few weeks later, I went to exactly the same places, also in a suit, but this time as a woman called Marie, as I quickly named my feminine counterpart - for obvious reasons.
So now I had the opportunity to experience something few men have ever had the chance to. I was going to feel the joy, the laughter and the tears of being a great big beautiful girl. I would be transformed. I would have my arms and legs shaved. I would become a woman.
In the past, I have often played with the public's perceptions of my gender and sexuality. In several films and plays, and countless photo shoots, I have been asked to look feminine or androgynous, but in them all, I was still very definitely a man.
That, in a way, is what made it work. Yes, I did look good in eyeliner and a dress, but we all knew that I was playing, provoking, saying, 'Look at me. ' At the end of the day, there was no question as to what was inside my pants (or panties). So, going the whole hog and spending an entire day trying to pass as a real woman in the real world would seem right up my street, wouldn't it? Wrong. It turns out I am not a very nice-looking girl.
Becoming Marie was a major eye-opener. First of all, hello, who said looking good had to be so painful? Even getting your nails done hurts. And that's right at the bottom of the pain spectrum, after eyebrow-shaping, nose-hair plucking and, worst of all, arm and leg hair removal. I had no idea that women had so much hair in the first place. I thought it was just a bloke thing. But I guess the real guy thing is wanting our women to be smooth and hairless - in other words, to be nothing like us.
Well, screens please, Dr Freud, I think there are some major issues uncovered there. In the weeks leading up to my 'Marie day', I solicited advice from women about the image I wanted to project through my clothes, hair and make-up. And the biggest topic of debate? Surprise, surprise, it was hair removal. Every woman seemed to have a different opinion, and each was as vehement about it as the last. Marie Claire's beauty director told me that waxing was the best choice. But then, other women frightened me with tales of the ugly problem of post-waxing, ingrowing hairs and, of course, the massive amounts of pain attached to such an exercise. There was also the depilatory cream contingent. Who knew there was a product that could dissolve your hair away to nothing? Finally, when the day arrived, I decided on a combination of clipping and close shaving.
That's how I found myself, fully made up and bewigged, with one leg up in the air and resting on the sink, straining to get rid of those last pesky hairs behind my knees. I was feeling like a very vulnerable - although impeccably groomed - frozen chicken when my mobile rang. It was my mother calling. Now, she has heard some weird stories from me in her time, believe me, but this one, I am sure, took the biscuit - nay, the entire bakery.
Marie, I discovered, was a mass of contradictions, just as I imagine you are, dear reader. Marie wanted to look sexy and elegant, but was I worried that the combination of a shiny pink clutch bag and fishnet stockings might give the wrong signal to the gentlemen who would so blatantly eye her up on the streets of New York. Marie realized that the higher the heel, the better her legs looked - but by the end of the day, she would be removing her 4-in stilettos at every opportunity, cursing the fact that she had refused a more sensible pair due to blatant vanity. Marie wanted her make-up to be natural and light, so that it could be reapplied easily and without fuss, but heavy enough to cover her beard. (Hopefully, Marie is alone with this particular dilemma.)
Marie is intelligent. She feels angry at the way Western culture has made a generation of women insecure about their weight, body shape and age. She is a woman who feels that she and the media in which she works have a duty to change perceptions of what is beautiful. But when some padding was removed from her bra - a 38D, thank you very much - she felt disappointed, realizing that bigger breasts made her feel more confident. Such were the thoughts I grappled with as I set out from the comfort of the studio into the big bad world, on my own, as Marie.
Overwhelmed by Underwear
My first stop was La Perla, an upmarket underwear boutique which had hitherto never entered my consciousness. As a man, looking around was pretty embarrassing. There is something slightly shady about leafing through racks of lacy knickers, but the shop assistants were very helpful – they were obviously used to the demure mumblings of men in suits. Wary of my journalistic duties, I found out that if you want to try any of these items on, you are given a little pair of paper knickers to ensure that you and the item you are trying on never actually make contact. The fact that these are presented to you in a paper bag with the word 'toss' written on it was a source of great merriment to me.
Marie, of course, did not find this funny, but she felt, or actually I felt, that trying anything on would be pushing this experiment a little too far. After all, it had been hard enough getting these clothes on in the first place and arranging my manliness to avoid unsightly skirt bulges, so I felt it was best not to try to dislodge anything this early on. A simple browse, a dainty 'No, thank you' when assistance was offered, and she was out of La Perla and onto the city streets.
This is where, I have to say, the experience of being Marie was most potent. The combination of experiencing the way men look at women, the way both men and women look at a woman they think might be a man, and the way anyone looks at someone they think they might recognize as an actor but wonder why he is in drag, made for an intense series of emotions as a girl. Strolling down the street in fishnets and high heels, I felt like I had a huge sign above my head flashing, 'She's a guy, everybody!' And, what's even stranger, I really quite enjoyed it.
Car Talk and Girl Talk
As I approached my next port of call, the Mercedes-Benz showroom, I immediately drew the eye of a group of mechanics standing outside. The attention I received was very complimentary and, I have to admit, nice. After all, it's always a boost to your ego to be appreciated, isn't it?
By a stroke of luck, the salesman who helped Marie was the same one who had helped Alan a couple of weeks earlier. The difference in his patter was by turns extraordinary, hilarious and disturbing. When it was a purely guy thing, he talked about horsepower, the way 'she' handled and other butch stuff like that. With Marie, the first things the salesman pointed out to me about the car - and I kid you not - were how to adjust the mirrors and seats. What happened to equality? I didn't feel it was a coincidence when Marie was told that the car she was sitting in wasn't an automatic.
Next stop was a bit of eavesdropping in the communal changing rooms of a department store. Oh, how much nicer it was with the girls! Women talk to each other. They smile. They tell each other that they look nice, that whatever they are trying on suits them. Men don't. In fact, they don't talk at all and they barely make eye contact. I think that's possibly because making eye contact in the same place as undressing could be misinterpreted, but once again, I'll leave it to Dr Freud to explain the ramifications of that one.
I Enjoy Being A Girl
By the time Marie arrived at the bar, she and I were both in need of a Martini. Her feet were killing me and my head was spinning. As the night stretched on, with me chatting up a group of overly friendly Italian gentlemen at the bar, I began to wonder who is weirder - men or the women who put up with them. My bra was itchy. It was nearly impossible to use my mobile with long nails (and even harder to carry out a normal, male, toilet-type activity). I wanted to give in to the desire to scratch myself and to be able to open my legs when I got out of a car. It was time to say goodbye to Marie.
I took off the wig and looked at my reflection in the window of the bar. My hair had been bleached blonde a couple of days before, and the combination of that, the make-up and Mane's ample bosom and flawless style made me think that I actually was quite a nice- looking chick. Then again, it might have been the Martinis talking.
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