A couple of months ago, I decided I wanted to take an improv class. Various happenings in my life had led me to want to learn, and a fellow actor in a theater troupe I'm in mentioned they were studying at Huge Theater in Minneapolis. I went to sign up, saw that classes were starting soon and that they were both affordable and fit in my schedule.

There was only one problem. The only class for people with no experience that still had openings was the WTF class. (For those unfamiliar with the improv community, WTF stands for women, transgender and femme.) 

I have never felt comfortable with being singled out for being a woman. For most of my life, I've felt like to truly succeed at something, I need to be able to hold my own with everyone, including the men. Separate activities for women felt like a way to separate women from men because whoever coordinated the activity thinks that women are fragile and can't keep up and need to be coddled. 

I wanted to learn badly enough that I figured I could overlook the gender segregation element, so I signed up...and ended up finding an incredibly accepting, welcoming and supportive environment where I learned a lot, and even decided I wanted to take the next level with the same group of people.

It's also got me thinking a lot about just how much internalized misogyny I'm dealing with and how long it's been there.

I remember being a preteen and sometimes arguing with my sister. I remember how if I was really mad at her and wanted to say the worst thing I possibly could to her, I would say, "Well, you're a GIRL!"

Being the logical person my sister is, she would respond with, "You're a girl, too."

My comeback would be, "At least I don't act like one!" And this would turn into an argument over who was more of a tomboy and therefore, cooler. (I should also point out that at that age, I was a dress-wearing, long-haired fashionista with a penchant for the Victorian look.)

It horrifies me now to think that even at the tender age of 11, I thought the worst thing someone could possibly be was female, and the only way to redeem yourself if you were female was to not act as if you were.

I remember being in 8th grade and how all the girls in my class except for me loved No Doubt. I remember despising them because I thought Gwen Stefani's voice sounded too feminine. I liked the idea of a woman in a band, but I wanted her to have a big, powerful metal voice. As close to a man's voice as possible. 

I wish I could go back in time and tell 13-year-old me that No Doubt was (and still is) actually pretty amazing because a lot of their songs dealt with fighting against sexism and challenging stereotypes, and she did it all while still having a wicked sense of style, which I'm surprised 13-year-old me didn't pick up on.

I remember being in high school and overhearing a couple in my grade discuss breaking up. The male half of the couple was stating his point calmly, the female half was a little emotional, but definitely not over the top. I remember automatically taking the guy's side and refusing to see that the girl also had a right to her feelings about the matter, even though I liked her and considered her a friend. In my mind, she was just being a hysterical, irrational female, confirming all the worst stereotypes about being a woman.

I remember all the times I read or watched A Midsummer Night's Dream and thought of Helena as a pathetic stage five clinger who just couldn't leave poor Demetrius alone and stop stalking him, and how I only saw that character as having a valid point of view and being worthy of my sympathy when I was in a production of Midsummer where Helena was portrayed as a gay man. It probably helped that our director added a prologue that showed Helena and Demetrius as having had an established relationship in the past and Demetrius suddenly changing his mind and leaving Helena in order to be with Hermia, but what really helped me see Helena as anything other than a clingy drama queen who just can't take a hint was seeing that character portrayed as male. Interestingly enough, the male actor who played Helena portrayed just as emotional a character as any female actor I've seen play the role, but somehow, I couldn't see Helena as having a legitimate point of view until she was a man.

It's hard to pinpoint where it all came from. It was little things here and there. A joke that reinforced gender stereotypes when I was old enough to internalize those stereotypes but not quite old enough to question whether or not they were really true, and then getting the sense that if it made me uncomfortable, I didn't have a sense of humor. Comments here and there about men and women being fundamentally different, usually with the undertone that men found women annoying and only put up with us because they wanted things from us. The constant message that boys don't cry, because they're strong, and the underlying implication that girls do cry because they're weak. The religious beliefs in my community that taught that women were supposed to be subservient to men. The messages that in a relationship, the man is supposed to take the lead and make the first move, and if the woman does, she's "throwing herself at him" and that she's "easy." The people who honestly believed that having a female president would be a terrible idea because she'd get emotional and start a war, as if all the men in history who'd started wars had done so for perfectly rational reasons. It was a combination of all of those things and probably quite a few more.

Of course, as a feminist, I know intellectually that all of those things aren't actually true. I know that both women and men can possess any number of positive or negative characteristics. I know that showing emotion doesn't make a person weak, it just makes them human. I know that people are individuals regardless of their gender and that even if there are differences on average between men and women, it doesn't mean all women are one way and all men are another way. I know that culture and the media perpetuate negative stereotypes of both men and women that are not helpful to anyone. I've come to realize that the whole idea of men being stronger than women is skewed because it only deals with one aspect of physical strength, and that is the ability to lift heavy objects and there is so much more to strength than just that. 

At the same time, however, it's hard to get rid of the emotional residue of ideas that I internalized when I was either too young to question them, didn't have the life experience to know better, or was at a crucial stage in forming my identity as a person.

Being in the WTF class was a great way to realize that doing something just with other female-identifying people could be fun. It didn't have to be about creating a special space for all the delicate little women who can't learn when there are men around. It wasn't about that at all. It didn't have to be some kind of hen house pajama party where we giggled about the men we were interested in or talked about the cute things our kids did (even though that can be fun, too!) It was about creating a different kind of environment to learn in. Not a better one, not a worse one, just a different one. This class environment had a lot of warmth, empathy, and support. Those characteristics are often feminine stereotypes as well. I'd often felt like the nurturing side attributed to women was more smothering than anything and that no one actually wants to be taken care of, but in this environment, there was a very positive side to it as well. We supported each others' efforts and enjoyed both being supported and being supportive. And we all still learned a lot.

That's not to say I'll never take a mixed gender theater course again. I've enjoyed performing with the men who are in the other classes at Huge Theater as well. But having a chance to create art with other women has allowed me to start letting go of some of the negative ideas about being a woman and replace them with positive ones. I can show emotions without being considered hysterical. I can enjoy putting together a great outfit and doing my makeup without it having to mean I'm somehow less intelligent. I can embrace my nurturing side without it meaning I'm smothering someone. I can be taken care of without being pitied. I can share my crazy ideas and have people have fun with them. I can be a woman, even show stereotypically feminine characteristics if I feel they fit me, and still be a worthwhile person.