A Theory of Femininity

Book cover

Released with Routledge January 2018

In January of 2018 my first book (based on my PhD research) Queering Femininity: Sexuality, Feminism, and the Politics of Presentation was published with Routledge. I also made the book into a zine for people to engage with given the prohibitive price tag. Queering Femininity engages with both an archive of Western feminist texts and interviews with self-identified queer femmes from the LGBTIQ community in Australia, in order to think through the queer potential of femininity. By ‘queer potential’ I mean, can we ever think about femininity as something that disrupts or ‘makes strange’? Or must we see femininity as always already problematic if we are to engage with it critically?

 

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My zine based on the book

As I found in my analysis of feminist texts, there is (unsurprisingly) a long history of feminist critiques of femininity, where feminine styles of the body are understood as evidence of patriarchal oppression. Here, what is identified as femininity is often collapsed into surface and “masquerade”, even when talking about behaviors or roles. This issue of feminine styles causes issues for those who identify as queer femme, who often find themselves in a space of being unrecognisable as queer in both straight and LGBTIQ contexts (they are assumed to be heterosexual). Yet, I also found that the queer femme response to the inability of the world to see the queer potential of femininity was frequently to over-invest in feminine surface styles (for example, through exaggeration or attempting to signify queer ‘mistakes’ in their presentation). It seemed to me that in many cases this contributed to anxiety about being “queer enough” – an outcome that seemed antithetical to the concerns raised by queer femmes in the first place.

The argument that I attempt to make in response to this conundrum can be summed up in this lengthy paragraph from the conclusion:

To identify precisely who will always fail and who won’t, and in which ways, coheres the normative versus non-normative in ways that misdirect our energies. The aim of all of this must be to see that everyone is failing to meet normative expectations all the time. Everyone’s gender has queer potential precisely because of this ever-present failure. How-ever, we generally only imagine failure as going in one direction: not enough. That is, failure as a failure to meet expectations. However we can also understand failure in terms of “too much”. This is the realm of the “hyper”, the “fake”, the “excessive”. We often refer to “hyperfemininity” but don’t clearly articulate what this means. But we can understand this as meaning the “too much” – too much makeup, too much hair, the heels that are too high, the dress that is too short, the breasts that are too big, the desire that is too rampant, and so on. Interestingly femme often positions itself in this space of the “too much”, the overdone, failing femininity. However, we ought not to rely on the “too much” (or the “not enough”) as our site of resistance because a new norm inevitably fills this space – the norms of not being “too much” or “not enough” (expressed as “not queer enough”). In this way, I take the idea of queer failure to be incredibly useful, but I disagree with Halberstam that “all our failures combined might just be enough, if we practice them well, to bring down the winner” (2011, 120). Under such a rubric, those femmes who would dance around so-called normativity, who manage to “pass” as heterosexual, and who fail to fail enough are sidelined as irrelevant, or assimilationist. Such a view misses the necessity of adaptability to normative fantasies, and the need to pass, or the desire to. While we might imagine a world where our desires could go in different and changing experimental directions, it cannot be overlooked that imagined normative spaces offer cruel but necessary shelters. With this recognition we need not celebrate norms or anti-norms as emancipatory, but rather see that the necessity of such spaces only emerges under conditions where survival is key (2018, 144).

One of the key points I was trying to make in Queering Femininity is that in response to oppressive constructs we too often invest in our individual bodies and identities as the site of the political. This works to dismiss the complex attachments and relations with our bodies and identities that cannot so neatly be enrolled in political projects without serious psychic consequences. Yet, we must still acknowledge that there are normative “ideals” of femininity that are celebrated and encouraged in society, and conversely there are non-normative ways of being (“non-ideals”) that are punished and regulated in violent ways.

Since publishing the book I’ve been thinking a lot more about these claims and how we can effectively think through the relationship between norms, structure, and the activism we commit ourselves to in order to challenge these ideals in productive ways.

Final femininity image

tumblr_static_1069I like to think in visual terms, and the diagram above (click on it to enlarge) is an attempt to sum up how we might connect structure, activism, and norms in a useful way. I’ve included a hammer here as a kind of nuanced update to that “If I had a hammer” image.

This above diagram relates to an Australian context, as a way to localise this discussion and acknowledge that alternative versions of this are needed for different contexts (even if structures are the same, their expression in local contexts may have wildly different effects in terms of “ideals”). This diagram reflects that “ideals” require an oppositional “non-ideal” in order to be intelligible (i.e. make sense). Yet rather than simply presenting the ideals versus non-ideals (which might suggest to the reader that we ought to invest our politics in embodying the non-ideals), this diagram attempts to unpack the activism, ideologies and structure that keep this system of ideals versus non-ideals propped up.

Picture3At the very base are the “structural foundations”, which accounts for the economic, colonial, and gendered power structures that are the foundation of the dominant organisation of social relations in this context. Flowing from this foundation, but also feeding back into it, are the dominant ideologies that invest in and maintain these social relations. For example, neoliberalism is an ideology that supports capitalism. Similarly White supremacy is an ideology that supports imperialism. Flowing from this, there are various forms of activism that respond to these ideologies in ways that either bolster these ideologies or reject them. The activism that bolsters these ideologies also works toward cementing what is understood as the “ideals”.

Picture2It is clear for example, that heteroactivism supports the feminine ideals of heterosexuality, cisgender identity, reproductive bodies, etc.

However, some activism that rejects the underlying dominant ideologies also inadvertently invests in “non-ideals” as a response. For example, lesbian separatist projects advocate for the “non-ideal” of homosexuality, as a political response to heterosexist ideologies. What this does is cement the boundary between the ideal and the non-ideal, by investing in the non-ideal.

This leads us to the heart of the debate around assimilation versus transgression: how ought we to respond politically to “ideals” without simply creating a new set of normative non-ideals in opposition?

This is where the hammer comes in. This represents activism that invests in neither the ideals nor the non-ideals as the political solution. For example, we can imagine forms of queer feminism that challenge ideologies of sexism, heterosexism, cissexism and so forth without advocating queer exceptionalism. The activisms listed on the hammer aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, so much as drawn out to show how they might go to the heart of challenging the (capitalist, colonial, gendered) structures at the base of ideals of femininity without rejecting or investing in femininity as a style of the body.

Picture1Perhaps this is what might mark out a new wave of (feminist and other) activism around femininity: challenging gender ideals without investing in non-ideals as the political response. From such a perspective, there is no femininity that is “empowered”. Power is exerted and ideals are enforced, but the reaction to this is to focus on the structural foundations and their ideological props rather than the individual effects alone (which might for some involve complicated attachments).

I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below. Does this work at all? Is it useful? Is there anything in the wrong place, or missing altogether? What might this look like in your context? And a reminder: this is only one theory, and, a work in constant progress.

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Apocalypse Now! How I Cope with Everyday Anxiety

Often it's easy to imagine the worst

Often it’s easy to imagine the worst

When I was little I remember being enthralled with an episode of Sesame Street, where Elmo talked about the wonders of having an imagination. At the time I marvelled at the fact you can create all kinds of amazing worlds with your mind alone. But as I’ve aged, I’ve also discovered that having a powerful imagination combined with anxiety means your mind can jump to all kinds of unpleasant fictions.

For example, I have this amazing ability to catastrophise to the extreme in any given situation. It ranges from the absolutely minute – Got somewhere to go today? Better wake up early and set two alarms just incase one doesn’t work. To the moderate – Got to get to the airport? Better leave four hours ahead of time in case there’s an unforeseen accident along the way. To the absurd – Slight turbulence? Better figure out which God to pray to because I am now facing certain death.

Anxiety can be very debilitating

Anxiety can be very debilitating

Unfortunately my proclivity for fanciful worries is not limited to stressful situations like travelling, but is instead an everyday part of life – Going for a short walk? Better put my valuables out of sight in the house in case I get robbed in the next 20 minutes. Or Going to bed? Better check the stovetop to prevent the fire that will inevitably happen while I’m sleeping. And my favourite – Home alone on a sunny day? Better lock the doors incase a murderer comes to visit. Sometimes having a catastrophising mind can be exhausting.

Anxiety

There are normal worries, and then there is full blown anxiety – if you’re not sure what you’re experiencing, it’s best to go and talk to a mental health professional

Living with worry can be pretty tricky, and becomes exaggerated when things get hectic, morphing from simple stress to full blown anxiety. Anxiety is a real condition that is more than just normal worries and stresses – it’s something that stays with you and is often triggered by ongoing pressures. Unfortunately doing a PhD involves a constant and very low burning level of stress, which tends to exacerbate my anxious tendencies. If you’re like me and suffer the occasional panic attack, you’ll know that having strategies for calming yourself is super important. Given that I’m in the third year of my PhD, and (according to everyone I speak to) am now “in the final stretch”, I’ve had to come up with some coping strategies to get me through the everyday. So, here are my top five tips for keeping calm, and carrying on:

It's simple, but eating well can keep you calm

1. Eat well, exercise and breath
This one is pretty fundamental, and something I struggle with sometimes when things get sticky. If you have a tricky relationship with food, sometimes anxiety can result in things like binge eating junk food, or not eating much at all. Both things can really tip anxiety over the edge, so it’s super important to try and get yourself into healthy eating habits (and get help with this if you need it). I absolutely don’t mean diets (or calorie counters – the guaranteed way to develop an obsession with food), it just means making sure you have lots of fruit, vegies and protein every day. Nutritional deficits can put your body way out of whack and can seriously affect your mood on a very real bodily level. Exercising is also notoriously helpful for staying grounded, and when I’m feeling really overwhelmed a bike ride or a walk helps so much. I am the opposite of sporty, so I have to force myself to get regular exercise, but just making sure that I walk to and from uni for instance, can really help. My mum also always texts me “remember to breath”. And she’s right – taking a few deep breaths when you’re feeling overwhelmed can really help.

FRIEND-HUG2. Surround yourself with supportive people 
My tendency when I get very anxious is to be extremely socially avoidant, which can be quite debilitating. Sometimes it’s good to make sure that you schedule regular catch ups with someone you can rely on, and that way you know you’ll have at least one person you’ll have to chat to during the week, who can keep an eye on you if things get tricky. For example, I see my grandma once a week and she keeps an eye on me, always making sure I’m well fed and have all the things I need. It’s also really good to have someone you know you can rely on – that will believe you when you saying you are having a hard time, and will help you get the assistance you need.

little-boy-at-movie-theater3. Have mental health and Hannah days
My mum was always very insistent when I was a child that I should have “mental health days” when stressed. Sometimes I’d have massive fights with her about it because I felt so guilty about missing school, but she was always right – sometimes I just needed a rest. Another great initiative by my mum was the “Hannah day” experience, which was pretty much the same as a mental heath day, but with more pizazz. Once a year or so, I would get to skip a day of school and go to the movies and buy a bookmark. It was a simple treat, but it made me so happy. My mum’s theory was that it was empowering. I still do Hannah days sometimes, go to the movies and buy a bookmark. It’s a great way to relax, and by naming the day it feels like it has more meaning and legitimacy (by all means, I encourage you to take a Hannah day too!).

Sad Pug Puppy4. Try not to worry about being worried 
This is a tough one, but key. Worrying about worry is one of the main things that keeps you in a destructive cycle – so being able to name and then acknowledge that you have worries and that that’s okay is important. If you’re struggling, one thing that can help is either keeping a list of worries and designating a time to worry about them, or dedicating a whole day to worrying. On a worry day, when a worry comes up you can just say “it’s okay, it’s a worry day!” It is surprisingly helpful.

black-woman-watching-television5. Remember it’s okay to relax
I’m the kind of person that doesn’t like to nap, because I get stressed that I’m losing time where I could be productive. Basically, I have trouble relaxing. And the thing is, if you’re trying to be constantly active, sometimes you can actually be less productive because you burn out more quickly. Giving yourself permission to do nothing at all can be very helpful. Reading magazines, watching crappy TV, lying down or taking a bath, can all be great for keeping calm. While you might be able to “legitimise” watching trashy TV because you can critique it academically, it’s also important to remember that it’s okay to enjoy watching trashy TV! You don’t always have to have your brain on.

It's okay to ask for help

It’s okay to ask for help

I’m certainly not a mental health professional, and the ideas listed are just things that help keep me on track generally. But it’s also really important to seek professional help when you’re finding it difficult to cope. Ironically, I always worry that I’m not truly anxious enough to see a counsellor or psychologist. But really, if you’re wondering whether you should go and talk to someone, you probably should. They’ll certainly tell you how you’re tracking. If you’re in Australia you can visit your GP and get them to do a mental health care plan, which means you can access visits to a psychologist via Medicare (which makes it much more affordable, or if you find someone who bulk-bills = free!). Plus if you’re under 25 you can access Headspace, which doesn’t cost anything.

Mental health is real - and should be taken as seriously any other aspect of health

Mental health is real – and should be taken as seriously any other aspect of health

You can also access the Beyond Blue website, which has lots of helpful resources. Or if you are in Australia, in times of crisis you can call Lifeline on 131114. I once called them up because I had lunch with a friend who was having suicidal thoughts. I got help for my friend and made sure they were okay, but was feeling very distressed afterwards. I called Lifeline and they talked me through things, which made me feel much calmer.

Mental health is a difficult thing, because not everyone you will encounter in life will take it seriously. It can be really hard if you have a colleague or a friend who doesn’t “believe” in mental health issues. The most important thing is that you take your own mental health seriously – and when things are feeling off, remember that it is totally legitimate to seek help.

If you have any coping strategies that you would suggest, feel free to share them in the comments below! 🙂

The Creative Process (with cats)

Before I mired my self in the land that is PhD, I used to be active in the theatre scene, directing and acting. This is a little comic that I drew for the writer of a short play I directed in 2012, about the creative process. It might not have much to do with gender, but I do have it stuck up at my desk at uni to remind me of good times with friends. It keeps me going during the rough troughs of writing my thesis, so I thought I’d share 🙂

cartoon

Soundtrack for Hard Time PhD Blues

Doris will sing your blues away

Doris will sing your blues away

It is fair to say that I have reached the infamous “Valley of Shit” stage that people say comes at some point during a PhD. I decided a little while ago to drop a big section of my thesis that I had planned, as it just didn’t fit. That was a hard decision, not least because it was the bit that involved talking about Doris Day, who I am completely in love with.

Of course dropping this section has made me focus on the other chapters, which seem somewhat threadbare now that they’ve got to be the bulk of the work. And while my thesis is interdisciplinary in its approach (marrying elements of feminist, queer, affect and social theory, in an overall framework of cultural studies) sometimes that can just leave you feeling like you’re doing a crappy job of all the disciplines. haters-gonna-hateMuch like that Britney Spears song, my thesis is “Not philosophy, not yet anything substantial…” All this feeling bad reminds me of this lovely encounter I had with a pair of ass-hats from high school that I ran into when I had first quit my high-level public service job to do a PhD. Sipping cocktails in their work suits they asked me what I was doing with my life, and when I told them, they said “Oh…everyone I know that has done a PhD has ended up on antidepressants”. I left the conversation there.

Are you feeling equally bummed out with your study/work/life? Here’s a playlist of songs to try and get you through the hard times, a few go-to songs that are always playing in the background as I write.

Playlist in full:

1. Don’t It Get You DownDeadstar
From a time when it seemed like there were a lot more lady-fronted alt rock bands.

“Well don’t it get you down…It’s like the heat that burns you /  The knife that cut you / The heart that broke you / Just like the first time”

2. Where Is My MindPixies
This one just really sums it up sometimes.

“Your head will collapse / If there’s nothing in it / And you’ll ask yourself / Where is my mind”

3. The Golden PathThe Chemical Brothers
One of my favourite all time songs. I used this as a text in my year 12 exams back in the day. I think I analysed it as a “journey”.
“And I gained control of myself / And I decided to press on / And as I walked along the supposed golden path / I was trembling with fear all the lions and wizards yet to come”

4. HyperballadBjork
Bjork was the first person I saw live. When I was eight years old, my mum said to me, “it’s time you saw a concert”. And it was great. This song haunts me in difficult times.
“Every morning I walk towards the edge / And throw little things off / Like car-parts, bottles and cutlery / Or whatever I find lying around”

5. Suspended in GaffaKate Bush 
When I discovered Kate Bush for myself a few years ago, life changed. I think I was reading Wuthering Heights and then found the song. That was a good day.
“Suddenly my feet are feet of mud / It all goes slo-mo / I don’t know why I’m crying / Am I suspended in Gaffa?”

6. Adore YouMiley Cyrus
Given my first name, I have often been jokingly called “Hannah Montana”. But it’s only recently that Miley has really come into my life. I am pretty obsessed with her to be honest.
“Wondering where you’ve been all my life / I just started living”

7. Buffy Theme Song
Look, if you’ve never watched Buffy, PUT EVERYTHING DOWN AND GO AND START RIGHT NOW. People have been telling me for years to watch it, and I only started in June this year. It is literally the greatest thing of all time. ALL TIME. TRUST ME ON THIS ONE.

8. Party in the U.S.A. Miley Cyrus
Another Miley song, in here because it is such a great pop song. Guaranteed to make you feel a bit better about feeling out of place.
“Too much pressure and I’m nervous / That’s when the D.J. dropped my favorite tune / And a Britney song was on”

9. I Make Hamburgers The Whitlams 
I may be vegetarian, but that doesn’t mean I don’t dream of making hamburgers to get all the girls.
“My fourth customer was Sandy / She came in for nothing I could see except me / So it was I too, was eating a hamburger of sorts within an hour”

10. This Charming ManThe Smiths
My mum gave me the Smiths Singles CD for my fifteenth birthday, after I said that I really liked the intro song from Charmed. In this video, Top of the Pops insisted that they play a pre-recorded track. So Morrissey came on with gladioli instead of a microphone. Classic.
“I would go out tonight / But I haven’t got a stitch to wear”

11. UndergroundBen Folds Five
BFF were arguably one of my favourite bands as a small child, and this song in particular. I remember sitting in our old Toyota Corolla, listening to it on Triple J as a kid. Still relevant.
“I was never cool in school / I’m sure you don’t remember me / And now it’s been 10 years / I’m still wondering who to be”

12. Hair Lady Gaga
I saw Lady Gaga when she was on tour in Australia last year. Dressed as a unicorn in the monster pit, I feel in love with her. Before that I really liked her as an icon, but after the concert I couldn’t listen to any other music for about three solid months – she has some pretty serious pop voodoo going on. I like this song as it reminds me of a key part of my research. Hair is such an important aspect of identity for people, which is really interesting.
“And in the morning / I’m short of my identity / I scream Mom and Dad / Why can’t I be who I wanna be?”

13. PerfumeBritney Spears
I was tempted to post an oldie from our good lady Britney, but I really like this new song of hers. I also take a queer reading – obvs she wants her lover’s girlfriend to smell her perfume because that’s really who she desires. Remember Sedgwick’s discussion of the Ménage à trois? Yeah, it’s like that.
“I’ll never tell / Tell on myself / But I hope she smells my perfume”

14. You are the Music in MeHigh School Musical 2
If this isn’t the best cheesiest heartwarming song ever, then I don’t know what is.
Also, Zac Efron.
“When I hear my favorite song / I know that we belong / Oh, you are the music in me”

15. Secret LoveDoris Day
I used to skip school sometimes as a kid just to watch Doris Day movies that were on during daytime television (this was before the internet you guys). Well, my love’s not so secret – Doris Day 4EVA xox
“Now I shout it from the highest hills / Even told the golden daffodils / At last my heart’s an open door / And my secret love’s no secret anymore”

I hope you enjoyed this mix tape. What songs get you through the hard times?

Judith Butler Explained with Cats

Following hot on the heels of Foucault Explained with Hipsters, here’s JB’s Gender Trouble  explained in Socratic dialogue style. With cats.

B1

B2

 

All page references from Butler, J. (1990 [2008: 1999]). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York; London: Routledge.

Got any more ideas for philosophy/sociology/gender theory you’d like to see explained in comic form? Let me know in the comments below.

Foucault Explained with Hipsters

A comic I made for a second year gender studies course I tutored for in 2012, to help students understand some of the themes from Foucault’s The History of Sexuality Vol.1:f1

f2All page references from Foucault, M. (1976 [2008; trans 1978]), The History of Sexuality: Volume 1., R. Hurley, [trans], Victoria: Penguin Group

Stay tuned for Judith Butler explained with cats!