Brooke Candy and the Question of Queer Femininity

I think we ought to treat pop stars as philosophers (as constructed as they are), citing them in our papers for their insights on the nature of existence and revealing to us the pulse and contradictions of dominant culture. But we must proceed with caution: like all philosophers, pop stars are often deeply problematic. On this note, I think LA rapper/singer Brooke Candy is worth exploring. She shows how all art is appropriation, but is a reminder that cashing in on subordinate cultures is vastly different from trying to rip open a norm from the inside out. She’s also an interesting case for what she does (and doesn’t) show us about the queer potential of femininity.

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Brooke Candy (left) in Grimes’ (right) video for “Genesis

Candy provides the kind of sexual, aggressive, high-femme, esoteric visuals that follow firmly in the tradition of the mega-pop-queens before her, like Lady Gaga and Madonna. However when she first came onto the scene in 2012 with her clip for “Das Me” she was called out for cultural appropriation, along with others like Miley Cyrus who appeared to be cashing in on black culture.

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Candy in “Das Me”

Candy’s stylisation referencing black culture was focused on at the time, but we might also note Candy’s fetishisation of disability as shown in the frame below, which is also clearly referencing Lady Gaga’s Paparazzi. As in many cases where cultural appropriation is pointed out, Candy’s would-be fans challenged her to try and speak from her own position instead.

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The woman pushing Candy along here seems to be saying to the director “Really? You don’t see how many levels of wrong this is?”

However, the problem with the demand to “speak only for yourself” is that it’s difficult figuring out what that should (or can) look like. How can we avoid appropriation in art when culture circulates in endlessly reverberating ways in a globalised world? After all, the postmodern turn taught us that truth is multiple, and that meaning ought not be essentialised in bodies or objects or things…right? The solution here might be: why not turn to the “norm” as a focus for your experimentation instead?

We can see this method playing out *some* of Candy’s subsequent work, where she engages with embodiments of “ideal” (white, blonde, pretty, and so on) femininity and amps it up.

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From “Happy Days“: Candy plays on ideas of cuteness and sexual performance

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From “Paper or Plastic“: Candy organises for her sister-wives to shoot their oppressor

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From “Nasty“: Candy blurs the distinction between stripper and Victoria’s Secret Model, with camp sensibilities

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From “A Study in Duality”: Candy thinks through the relationship between sex and death (among other things). Here she is shown wearing her feminine armour, which appears throughout many of her clips

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From “Opulence“: Candy explores issues of greed, death and power. Here Candy appears to be taking the trope “diamonds are a girls best friend” to a new level (though, it could also be argued she is tapping into imagery of Shiva)

Many of her videos contain Candy playing with being grotesque, violent, scary, overwhelming, sad, and hysterical at the same time as “showing” us her objectified body. What we gain from Candy as philosopher is an engagement with the idea of the queer potential of femininity. That is, where femininity can be made “strange”, where the expectations of sexuality and gender cannot be neatly contained. Often this borders into “cultural appropriation”, and Candy fails to cast off the overt symbols and accessories of marginalised cultures (which, really should tell us something about the “norm”).

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Candy has questionable Chola curls going on in her latest clip for “Living Out Loud” but also seems to be channelling Miley Cyrus circa 2013

Candy grew up in a remarkable context—her parents were divorced, and while her mother worked as a nurse, her father worked as the chief financial officer of Hustler magazine. Despite (or perhaps because of) this “duality” of life experiences, it appears that she has been signed to a major label and for all intents and purposes is as corporately-driven as other stars.

Herein lies one of the major problems of Candy: though she’s just like every other pop star trying to make a buck, she’s pretending she’s something “alternative”. As she stated in one interview: “We can watch the news and see what’s happening in the world or we can have our attention caught by some famous asshole in a red dress…Who cares who wore what at the Met Ball, it’s all fake bullshit. It’s a big fucking show”. The comment reveals (another) limit of Candy’s queer femininity: she thinks that somehow “putting it on” makes her more queer than those women at the Met Ball. In reality, the drag and camp culture that Candy revels in has always referenced the divas and the “assholes” in red dresses—in ways that is often about reverence and worship rather than cynicism.

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What really differentiates Candy from her contemporaries on the red carpet?

If anything, Candy’s attempts to amp up aspects of her style to border on the “obscene” is that you don’t have to do amp it up to see the queer possibilities of femininity. Appropriation of the norm shows us how very contingent and unstable the norm already is in the first place. And if we rely on strategies of “turning up the volume”, we might accidentally fix that (Met Ball) femininity as “natural” and “normal” by comparison. Where does gender stop being drag stop being gender stop being drag? Of course this is Judith Butler‘s old point, but also as RuPaul reminds us, “we’re all born naked and the rest is drag”. This isn’t to undermine the experience that gender is an essential part of identity. In fact, it is rather to make a case for seeing gender as at once constructed and as something that we can’t fully choose. So the theory goes, questioning gender makes space for the gender yet to come.

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Maybe this doesn’t recover Brooke Candy from her problems (she’s practically the Heidegger of the pop world). But it is a helpful case in thinking through the limits and possibilities of attempting to enact queer femininity. As it turns out, gender was never not-queer all along.

This Jumpsuit Won’t Save Your Life

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The logo of RDS

Sometime last year I stumbled across the “Rational Dress Society“—a Chicago-based fashion/art duo, whose claim to fame is the production of a jumpsuit that promises to help “reject the signs of class, race and gender that are inscribed onto our daily interactions”. Their successful 2014 Kickstarter sported a Wes-Anderson-ish explainer video of a jumpsuit clad model who asks the audience, “What stands between you and revolution?” and answers, “Nothing.” The video implores viewers to reject other fashion in favour of the jumpsuit (“available in 48 sizes”), as an exercise in counter-fashion designed to unite everyone under the same style.

 

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An image from the Rational Dress Kickstarter page

As an academic in gender studies, naturally I wanted in on this so-called “ungendered monogarment“. I bit the bullet with the American exchange rate and shipping(!), ordered one, and promised myself I’d wear it for a full month to see how liberating wearing a practical, daily uniform could be. I’d record the process, do a study of my experiences. I imagined how I’d explain it at work, to my students. Maybe I really would feel liberated. My girlfriend kept asking me how and when I’d wash it, but I’d just smile. I imagined the Rational Dress Society would say You don’t need to wash clothes when you’re free from all that social malarky.

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Me in the moments prior to trying on the jumpsuit (I was trying to capture the supposed tyranny of “non-rational” dressing)

Twelve weeks later—and after sending in some measurements—my hipster singlesuit arrived in the mail. I feverishly stripped off to jump into it. Despite my extreme skepticism that a single garment could free me from oppression, I was genuinely excited to try something on that was made specifically for my body, that would finally fit, unlike all those sad things I’d previously ordered off the Internet (you know how it is: the too-small shoes, the dress that you have to squeeze into like a sausage, the pants that fall down around your bum).

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Moments later in the sad sad jumpsuit

But alas. I had never been in a more ill-fitting piece of clothing in my life. It was precisely all of the measurements that I didn’t have to record that were the problem—the width of my calves, for example. I was intensely confronted with the fact that my body was “ill-proportioned”, that is, that even with 48 sizes on offer finding something that fit long but thick legs and wide hips but a tiny waist and chest, was impossible.

Ironically it was the one piece of clothing that promised freedom from gender that made me feel the non-conformity of my body on a visceral level. I’d had a sneaking suspicion for some time that clothing wasn’t the key to gender liberation, and this seemed to be some proof in the pudding.

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Effie Trinket from The Hunger Games: femme-ing it up in the revolutionary compound

Cards on the table: my whole PhD was basically an extremely long-winded answer to the question “will feminine styles exist after the revolution?”, and my vehement answer was yes.

Of course we could debate what “feminine styles” means. But my main point was that people have attachments to gendered ways of presenting themselves, and that even though feminine beauty regimes and ways of dressing aren’t biologically-inherent (girls don’t naturally like pink and indeed, norms of gender are social), that doesn’t mean makeup and dresses and glitter and all those things would just wither away if we finally managed to smash capitalism. In the liberated world of gender that I hope for, your biology wouldn’t determine your gender or how you had to present yourself, but, there’d be a hell of a lot of room for experimentation, switching between many genders, and playing with presentation and costumes (much like when you’re a child, and you get to play dress ups).

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Me before I got “schooled”

Part of my attitude on this question, is that I’m just so damn obsessed with and attached to femininity. For me it certainly wasn’t a “natural” inclination—until I went to school, I was pretty androgynous, with a home-made haircut, adorned in skivvies and flannelette. As the child of a radical single mother, I was discouraged against buying into traditional femininity. But once I got to school, it was on. I wanted to fit in as a “girl”.

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I missed the memo that said how big bows were meant to be

So my relationship to femininity started from a difficult place. But as I became obsessed with plastic jewels and wearing tutus over my track pants, god, it was fun. I started dressing by theme—my favourite of which was my “licorice allsorts” outfit, which was just me in all the neon clothes I had from the op shop, punctuated by black socks and a black hair tie. I would also cut the waist ties off my dresses and get my mum to sew them into headbands for me so I could match from head to toe. And, I held not one but three makeup parties, where the aim was to use the eyeshadows and pencils to draw as many cool things on each other’s faces as possible. Sure, I missed the mark on conventional femininity, but it was those elements of feminine style—the campy, glittery, over-the-top aspects of femininity—that won my heart. So, when I think of a liberated future, I tend not to think of monochrome jumpsuits that eliminate difference.

But I’ve had to debate my perspective with a lot of people.

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At the Miss America Protest

Indeed, the history of feminism has been haunted by the conundrum of fashion and self-presentation. Infamously, women in the USA in 1968 protested the Miss America pageant, which included (among other things) throwing items of women’s clothing, makeup and magazines into a “freedom trash can”. Some say that this is where the myth of the “bra-burning” feminist began, though it must be noted that despite the desire of protesters to burn the contents of the bin, the fire department refused a permit. While the stunt was great for getting attention on the burgeoning women’s movement, one of the downsides of the event was that the protestors targeted the Miss America contestants themselves, not just the pageant organising body. They held signs which called the women sheep, and, actually paraded sheep—again, pretty cool, but a bad message.

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Sheep at the Miss America Protest

This focus on the bodily and stylistic pursuits of women themselves reached fever pitch in the 1980s, with radical feminists such as Sheila Jeffreys claiming that wearing makeup was akin to self-harm as per the United Nations guidelines on torture. The story had morphed from the kind of points earlier feminists made about the negative expectations placed on women around social roles and bodily maintenance, to one where women themselves were really the problem, for being such dummies about their oppression. As Ariel Levy’s best-selling book of 2005 argued, in a surprise twist it turned out that women were really the worst sexists of them all, the “female chauvinist pigs”.

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Who could forget the Spice Girls in this story of femininity 

However, in response to these particular strands of feminism, so too was there a concerted effort (mostly in the 1990s, but let’s be real, we’re still living with the aftermath) to argue for the empowering and liberatory effects of “girl power“. The problem with this version of feminism wasn’t just that it was instantly recuperated into a market that sold it back to us, but that it claimed that femininity was empowering. This form of feminism has insidiously morphed into the celebrity feminism that we are pummelled with today, that suggests feminism means basically anything to anyone, as if it’s just another beautiful choice under neoliberal capitalism.

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From the Rational Dress Society Instagram page

I don’t think we have to get into this binary way of thinking about feminine styles, to make such big claims about it being The Worst Thing Since Torture, or flipping right over and saying it is The Best Thing Ever. At the very least, it’s interesting. Gender expectations are painful, but gender, in more general terms, doesn’t have to be.

So I returned the jumpsuit, and felt all the better for having that tyrannical object of sameness out of my life.

Impossible futures and the torture of refugee women 

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Protestors outside the High Court in 2016

It is fair to say that Australia’s refugee policy is cruel and punitive. We have a migration act created specifically to contravene our international human rights obligations. Men, women and children seeking asylum are locked up in offshore islands – a neo-colonial imposition on these neighbouring countries – under the thin excuse that this will stop refugees arriving by boat to Australia and thus will “save lives at sea”. Never mind that the Navy boats out at sea monitoring refugee arrivals have been complicit in ignoring distress signals, towing boats back to other countries, and paying for people to take refugees elsewhere (rather than simply rescuing these boats!). Like we are seeing with the rise of Trumpism in the USA, refugees are made into a scapegoat by the Australian government. Making refugees a “problem”, with xenophobic ideas about Islam trumpeted particularly loudly, distracts from the harsh austerity measures being imposed across the West. This isn’t a humanitarian issue so much as a class issue, when we consider who anti-refugee arguments are aimed at and why.

A militarised response, not rescues

From this perspective we can begin to understand the government’s cruelty. From here we can start to understand how we need to undo the rhetoric we are pummelled with.

What is hard to understand however, is how and why the government manages to get away with openly torturing women and children, who are so often seen as the most vulnerable in society. However problematic that idea might be in itself, there is no denying that these groups are generally seen as more/most in need of care.

Protestors for baby Asha

Indeed in refugee activism, at protests for example, we often see a focus on children. Signs like “Do we really have to protest torturing children?!” are prevalent. And when it comes to specific issues like Abyan (the woman seeking an abortion last year after being raped on Nauru) and baby Asha (who the government is still trying to deport) we do see a greater mass outburst of protest.

The group Mad Fucking Witches says it like it is

But despite the limited public backlash on these specific cases of refugee women and children, the government continues to publicly demand their deportation and incarceration. Why? Why not just let the women and children out, and leave the men locked up as a way to continue to “deterrence” project? How can they keep getting away with it, and why is it seemingly SO important to them that they torture babies, for example? On the surface this appears quite incomprehensible. Doesn’t everyone want to protect women and babies? Doesn’t this trump the class argument?

An Australian Immigration poster saying clearly: “no future!”

Indeed the prime minister Malcolm Turnbull apparently publicly champions women, stating: “I call on everyone to work together to lead the cultural change ensuring women are respected, secure & safe from violence”. How on earth can he get away with such hypocrisy?!

In her article “From horrorism to compassion” feminist theorist Griselda Pollock argues that:

“Killing women with children or women who might bear children is, of course, the horrific core of genocide. War kills the men and uses the rape of women against other men. Genocide locates a future in the feminine. Hence genocide must destroy all women and children; they carry a future” (p.178).

Protestors at Lady Cilento

Now, obviously the torture imposed here is operating within a slightly different framework (though we may note that the detention centres are often referred to as “camps”, which they quite literally are in some cases). But I am suggesting is that in the case of refugees women and children symbolically represent the future. If these people were allowed to remain/come to Australia this would mean an Australia opened up to the Other. They would represent a porous and shifting Australia where “anyone” could be a part. They represent a future that isn’t white. They represent the outside coming in, the border collapsing, the fence coming down. To those who have little, and are at risk of having more taken away by austerity, they represent a future of “taking” – of having to share what is already not much, with an even greater number. In other words: they represent a threat.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has made a specific example of refugee women and children

That’s why the government – to maintain its own policy – must not only continue to torture women and children, but to make a specific example of them. Those futures must be both perceptible (a threatening horizon) and utterly rejected (“you have no future here”) for the government to continue its cruel measures. Of course there is push and pull around this. When you’re making a “necessary” example of women and babies you have to pay some lip service to their welfare as well so you don’t look too bad.

Women are often made symbolic of culture as a whole

In contrast we should not expect that the government will make an example of gay asylum seekers locked up on Manus Island, because symbolically they represent “no future”. As queer theorist Lee Edelman suggests, homosexuality is seen to signify a dead-end insofar as it (symbolically) means an inability to reproduce. In these terms we can see why the government doesn’t bother making an example of gay refugees: they don’t present the same future vision and thus cannot be used as representative of a general threat to Australia in the same way as refugee women and children. Yet to let them come and resettle in Australia would be to acknowledge the fact that not only are these refugees genuine (i.e. fleeing real persecution) but would be to affirm homosexuality more generally, which presents a different kind of threat to the dominant ideology (and the government has much easier targets for this, such as safe schools). Thus they must remain rejected, but cannot be used in the same way to spread fear of refugees specifically.

This image is interesting because it interrupts the traditional future narrative and as such says “everyone is welcome here”

It is important to realise that refugee activists cannot win against the government’s rhetoric by focusing only on women and children because it is not about the women and children themselves, but what they represent. Indeed those championing women and children often forget to tackle the underlying symbolic issue of what “future” is at stake. They often erroneously reduce the argument to a purely “rational” humanitarian one, when the government’s logic: a) isn’t actually irrational; and b) is clearly about class not purely humanitarian concerns. This creates the illusion that the ordinary people arguing against refugees are monsters, yet (in contradiction) that we can simply win by yelling our humanitarian arguments louder and louder. I have heard in many an activist meeting for example that “the biggest supporters of refugees are those who have PhDs [laughs]”. This is a horribly elitist perspective that needs to be challenged at every opportunity because it will never help us win.

No, the arguments that must be made to undo the cruelty must address the future the government wants so many to fear. When we advocate for refugee women we must argue for a future for all refugees. We need to keep behind all of our arguments the idea of a future that is open, porous, more than white, borderless. But most importantly we need to argue that the only people who “take” from us are the same ones torturing refugees. We need to argue that austerity is imposed from above, not by those who come across the seas. We must argue for boundless plains to share, and we must remember who it really is that threatens our collective future.

Queering and Queening Femininity

Snog, Marry, Avoid?

SMA host Jenny Frost (centre) with two contestants pre-make-under

Recently I published an article in the journal Australian Feminist Studies titled “Queer Femininity Versus ‘Natural Beauty’ in Snog, Marry, Avoid“. In the article I discuss the way that femininity is represented on the BBC’s Snog, Marry, Avoid – the show where they take “extreme” women and give them a make-under to help them fit in.

I won’t go over all of the details of my analysis of the show, but in a nutshell the point I make is that the “natural beauty” promoted by the show is far from liberating. In fact, the contestants are merely presented with a form of appropriate gender that they must conform to, which restricts rather than frees them.

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A typical contestant pre-make-under

Indeed, if we consider the women prior to make-under we can see that their “inappropriate” and excessive femininity is actually queer in many ways. That is, “queer” in the theoretical sense of making the familiar strange and subverting ordinary understandings of gender and sexuality.

It may seem anti-intuitive to say that women who are covered in make-up, wearing extremely short dresses and who have outrageous hair extensions are queer in any way. The usual sentiment that would circulate about such women is that they are a product of a problematic “raunch” culture where women are compelled to be sexy and one dimensional.

However what we see in Snog, Marry, Avoid is that these women are not treated as “normal” at all. Rather, they are marked out as deeply problematic and in need of transformation.

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A contestant hears that a man would prefer to “avoid” her

Men are interviewed on the show and are asked whether they would like to “snog, marry or avoid” the contestants. Their responses (almost always negative) are used to justify why a make-under is essential for the woman in question. The women who don’t want to change are ridiculed as ridiculous and disinterested in being attractive.

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For Halberstam “kinging” involves some understatement, “performing non-performativity”

This is where the idea of “queening” is helpful. The term is an inversion of queer theorist J. Jack Halberstam’s “kinging” referred to in the book Female Masculinity. In this text Halberstam looks in part at female drag kings and the kind of masculinity they present. Kinging describes portraying masculinity via “understatement, hyperbole, and layering” that makes obvious the performative aspects of gender.

In the same way, the contestants on Snog, Marry, Avoid are involved in exaggerating femininity and showing it up. The contestants often talk about wanting to look “fake”, and the show frequently points out how the women indulge in/are obsessed with “fakery”. In this way the women are queening rather than kinging – making obvious their adopted feminine presentation. In contrast, when the women are made-under their gender is portrayed as “natural” despite the fact that they are still wearing make-up, have had their hair styled, and so on – sometimes they are even wearing wigs! Here another kind of queening is going on, where they are compelled to perform naturalness.

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A typical before (left) and after (right) shot on SMA

We see that while a more extreme portrayal of femininity (pre-make-under) can serve to show us how constructed gender is, the portrayal of “natural beauty” insidiously covers this up. The make-under process presents gender as something that is natural, as something that can be found underneath and within.

Rather, we ought to understand gender as something that is determined by social expectations and norms, where some people are considered “normal”, and where others fall outside of these constructed boundaries and are often compelled by society to conform. Ironically Snog, Marry, Avoid does help us to see this, if we analyse the show for what it is contained within it rather than the narrative of normalcy it attempts to enforce.

The Effort of Not Wearing Makeup

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Makeup brushes are the worst. So. Much. Work.

Earlier this year I was diagnosed with a skin condition called melasma and an eye disorder called ocular rosacea. What this amounts to is having brown patches of skin, and red bloodshot eyes. It’s fair to say that 2015 has not been a great year for my face.

The melasma has meant I’ve had to coat myself in serums and sunscreen everyday, leading to vampirically pale skin. The rosacea has also meant I’ve had to stop wearing makeup altogether. Of course I can still wear lipstick, but not if I want to kiss my girlfriend often, which I do (this is another femme dilemma for another time). I’ve gone from someone who used to wear smokey eyes at breakfast, to a blankly pale-faced person.

The whole thing has been quite unsettling. But it’s also taught me a few lessons about my relationship to beauty practices.

I pretty much took my eye makeup cues from this guy

I pretty much took my eye makeup cues from this guy

On an ordinary day, I used to love wearing lashings of mascara, glittery eye shadow and My-Chemical-Romance-levels of eyeliner. Yet I remember that I used to feel so uncomfortable not wearing makeup, that even if I was at home sick I’d get up and put foundation on. I’d also start every morning so mad at the ridiculously long time it would take to put on every beauty product. I would sit at parties and look at the people who weren’t wearing makeup and think “I wish I could do that!” as if showing my un-makeup-ed face was not even an option.

When I was confronted with the new necessarily-pale-faced situation, it was quite a shock. But far from being a relief, I felt more beholden than ever – this time to creams, eyedrops and tablets used to treat my conditions – and worse, without the pleasures that makeup used to bring.

I legitimately own one of these

I legitimately own one of these

With my newly neutral face, I barely recognised myself in the mirror. It seemed like different eyes were staring back at me. Not wanting to brave the world, I was reminded of this quote from Germaine Greer: “The women who dare not go outside without their fake eyelashes are in serious psychic trouble”. I braced myself, and for the next four months went with my new look.

People started to comment on how good my skin looked, how bright, how clear. I looked more sophisticated without makeup, they said. Little did they know I was still wearing multiple layers of various serums, and that any skin brightness had been achieved through months of fierce chemical creams. I was still caught up in the desire to “look good”, just now without any of the fun.

This is what you get when you search for

This is what you get when you search for “natural beauty”

After all, my “natural” make-up free look wasn’t without a great deal of effort. Search for “natural beauty” and I’ll bet you won’t find pictures of someone with brown patches of skin and red bloodshot eyes.

I didn’t feel better without my makeup routine, I felt sad. I had lost a part of my day when I got to “get ready” and activated my persona for the world. I looked at past photos of me and longed for my old face. When I next went to see my eye doctor, the nurse commented on my file, “No mascara? Who does that doctor think he is?! Men, they just don’t understand!”

Recently, I decided to try full makeup again, just for a day. But looking in the mirror I was once again confused by the face that I saw. It made me realise that faces are subject to habit. If you wear the same makeup everyday, it just becomes the baseline.

Pretty sure I couldn't do this to my face anymore, for example

Pretty sure I couldn’t do this to my face anymore, for example

Because my face was always an eye makeup-ed one, the day that changed meant I had to adjust to a new face. But more importantly, a face I could never change or play around with.

The whole series of events has made me think that makeup for me is neither a prison nor a completely empowering practice. There are definitely social expectations that keep me tied to the beauty machine, but there are also pleasures that beauty affords that I never new I’d miss until they were gone.

My doctor now says I can wear some makeup, sometimes. But I think I’m going to try a new face…maybe one that doesn’t fall into habits quite so easily.

The Trouble with “Natural Beauty”

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An image from the Tree Change Dolls’ tumblr site

Today a friend sent me a link to a new trend that basically caused me to have a rage blackout: dolls that have been “made-under”. Labelled “Tree Change Dolls“, these are generally hyper-feminine styled dolls (such as Bratz) that have been found at op-shops and transformed through changing their hair, shoes, makeup styles and clothing, to look more normal and natural. In the words of their creator, Tree Change Dolls involve “swapping high-maintenance glitz ‘n’ glamour for down-to-earth style”.

But before you all rush off to procure a Tree Change Doll of your own, it’s worth unpacking what it means to “make-under” a doll. Is it more ethical (as the subtext of the Tree Change Dolls website would suggest) to have a doll adorned with the natural beauty look, rather than the hyper-feminine aesthetic more commonly seen? And why is a make-under really any different to a make-over?

Firstly, let’s look at one before and after image from the site and what a make-under involves:
tumblr_nianihXYdz1u8oyeuo1_12801. Reducing prominent and cartoonish features such as the eyes and lips
2. Removing signs of obvious makeup
3. Conditioning and relaxing the hair which is worn out rather than having it styled up
4. Starting with a naked doll and finishing with a clothed one
5. Maintaining a clear complexion one the face of the doll free of any abnormal markings

Here we can see that the effect of “stripping back” actually mimics a “putting on” of layers. Quite literally the features of the dolls are transformed to conform to a different standard, that of “down to earth style”. In effect, the dolls are not made-under, they are made-over, with the same dramatisation of before and after we would expect from any other visual representation of stylistic aesthetic change.

Another Tree Change Doll, so liberated

Another Tree Change Doll, so liberated

Rather than radically challenging or interrupting expectations of femininity, the Tree Change Dolls set up a new system of signifiers in hyper-femininity’s place: the end result being a set of dolls that all look remarkably similar. The dolls featured on the site all have similar “natural” faces, wear knitted jumpers and 50s-style feminine skirts or alternative-style dungarees, creating an overall effect that looks like the dolls have stepped right off the pages of an alternative women’s magazine (such as Australia’s Frankie), which fetishises the domestic, the home-styled and the “real”. This styling supports a fantasy that one can retreat into a more authentic world of natural beauty, eschewing the limits of oppressive gender norms and escaping the fakery epitomized by the glamour of the pre-made-under dolls.

The pre-made-under dolls have a striking resemblance to drag queens

The pre-made-under dolls have a striking resemblance to drag queens

But, I hear you ask, isn’t a “stripped-back” simple style a less problematic norm than the make-up caked faces of the pre-tree-hugged Bratz dolls and Barbies? Perhaps not. The idea that we might adopt styles of self-presentation as if in a cultural vacuum, supports the circulation of more insidious gender norms. It presents us with the idea that there is a way to look like a “real” girl: and it certainly doesn’t involve wearing visible makeup.

Me playing drag queen at home in my 20s

Me playing drag queen at home in my 20s

When I was a child one of my favourite party themes was “make-up”, and on three separate occasions I held parties where my friends were expected to do-over their own and other’s faces – the only thing being that it was about being crazy, drag-queenish and fun. On my eighth birthday I ended up with green sparkly leaves coming out of my nose, purple fangs and giant blue eyes. The point of this story is that make-up can be about repeating expected styles of beauty, but it can also be very fun. While Bratz dolls might present a beauty style that is over-the-top and homogenous across dolls, the Tree Change Dolls also opt for conformity over experimentation.

As I have written previously, Bratz dolls encapsulate a sheer excess of femininity that is an indulgence rather than a necessity to attract a male gaze. Indeed, with the cult of natural beauty comes a sense that you can’t play around with beauty products or clothing if you want to – you’d just be reinforcing an always-already-oppressive style.

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Monster High Dolls: similar yes, but experimenting with the limits of acceptable presentation

The reason to be deeply concerned about these Tree Change Dolls is that they represent a broader trend toward securing a fixed sense of what a real girl looks like – rather than disrupting the normal when it comes to gender. In fact it seems that Bratz dolls have evolved in recent years – into the now popular “Monster High Dolls”, which, though shiny and long-haired and “pretty”, adopt quirky, strange, monstrous stylings, transforming previous limits around normal looks. While there could be a lot more diversity of styles of gender presentation in these kinds of toys, the worst thing we could do is try and offer a “stripped-back” look that returns us to some kind of original “natural” point. Sometimes the natural might actually be the most fake of all.

No Gender December: Back to Basics

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Radical idea: ANYONE can play with pink or blue toys – out of control!

This week was a dismal one for the Australian Government. One of their many low points was Prime Minister Tony Abbott (apparently also the “Minister for Women“) dismissing the newly launched No Gender December Campaign, saying “Let boys be boys, let girls be girls“. Cue gigantic face-palm.

Abbott’s remarks came in stark contrast to the point made by Greens Senator Larissa Waters who introduced the campaign in Parliament, who stated the point was to “Stop with this nonsense of marketing for boys and for girls. Toys are toys and lets let kids be kids.”

The point of No Gender December? "Stereotypes Limit Thinking"

The outrageous point being made by No Gender December? “Stereotypes Limit Thinking”

The backlash in some of the conservative press, has unsurprisingly banged this story under the headline “WAR ON BARBIE“. If you’ve read some of my previous posts on children’s toys, you’ll know that I am a fan of Barbie. Or more specifically, I have difficulty accepting campaigns against stereotypically “feminine” toys, like the time everyone got really pissed off about the femmed-up Merida doll. But aside from my critique that a lot of the children’s toy debate becomes laced with femmephobia, we still need to make sure we don’t miss the fundamental point – that children’s toys are often gendered along the binary male/female, and this is not a good thing

Let’s step it through so you can rhetorically battle bigots if you need to:

The binary is often reinforced in ways we might not notice

The binary is often reinforced in ways we might not notice

1. What even is the “gender binary”?
The gender binary refers to the idea that gender can be neatly divided into a binary male/female. This binary is a pervasive norm, particularly in Western society (some other areas of the world treat gender differently). The idea that everyone can fit into this binary has real consequences for people whose bodies do not conform how “male” and “female” bodies “should” be.

A common question: "Is it a boy or a girl?"

A common question: “Is it a boy or a girl?”

For example, babies that are born with “indeterminate” genitalia may undergo surgery to make them “normal” to fit into one of the two categories. Estimates of this indeterminacy are as high as 1 in 100 births. This is often referred to as being intersex. Another example is in sport – you have to conform to the categories of either man or woman in order to compete, and determining this is a big issue. Many athletes are subject to “gender testing”. Here, “gender” is sometimes based on chromosomes (whether you are XX or XY), other times, levels of testosterone.

But we’re not just forced to physically conform to this binary, there are social expectations tied up with the binary that affect our ways of being and acting in the world too.

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De Beauvoir

2. But wait, what is the difference between “sex” and “gender”?
Many people now make a distinction between sex and gender, with sex being described as biological features, versus gender expression, as social phenomena. As Simone de Beauvoir famously said in The Second Sex, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. In other words, women are socialised into a second-class gender status. This fundamental distinction between sex and gender is integral to many analyses of gender – indeed it has been used by many feminist writers to show that biology is not destiny.

Judith Butler <3 <3 <3

Butler ❤

But this distinction is not without criticism. For example, Judith Butler argues that sex is “always already gender”, given that proclamation of sex at birth (“it’s a girl”!) assumes a gender trajectory for the child – that is, we expect that a baby without an apparent penis, who is then assigned as a girl, will grow up to be a woman. This gendering entails a set of social assumptions about what girls should enjoy, how they should dress, and how they should act. Really Butler is arguing that sex/biology are perhaps more social and constructed than we think – given that we look at a certain formation of flesh and imbue it with a whole heap of social meanings.

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Eating the right kind of food is about becoming the right kind of man


3. But aren’t men and women are just physically different and that is just a scientific FACT?
I’m not saying that hormones and other chemical and genetic factors mean nothing to shaping humans, but socially shaping the body to fit into expectations of the gender binary happens throughout the lifespan. Have you ever walked into a gym and seen the gender imbalance between the weights and the cardio rooms? Women are expected to be lithe and skinny, and men big and bulky, so women and men are taught to shape their bodies differently.

Women are often sold chocolate on the basis that it is pleasurable

Women are often sold chocolate on the basis that it is pleasurable

 

 

Men are expected to eat lots of protein (hamburgers, steaks), while women are meant to be constantly dieting (salads) which also inevitably leads to bingeing (hello chocolate). This is reflected and reproduced in advertising of food and fitness products.

And don’t get me started on brain differences. There are literally oodles of books and journal articles that go into how the brain is wired through experience (i.e. the social), and how our expectations of gender affect child development (or at the very least, how we perceive differences).

Girls are often expected to be nurturing, playing with soft toys and imagining themselves such as "nurse" or "mother"

Girls are often expected to be nurturing, playing with soft toys and imagine themselves such as “nurse” or “mother”

4. Okay but what do toys have to do with it?
Expectations of gender are heavily reinforced in childhood – a critical time when children are starting to develop a sense of self and how they fit into the world. While Abbott is happy to argue that “above all else, let parents do what they think is in the best interests of their children”, as sociologist James Henslin notes, our parents and wider society are highly complicit in reinforcing particular norms.

The type of clothes we are dressed in changes how we are able to move about in the world

The type of clothes we are dressed in changes how we are able to move about in the world

For example, this manifests in:

  • The types of clothes we are dressed in, noting that sometimes clothes change the way we move about in the world (it is difficult to climb a tree in a dress or kick a ball in sandals)
  • The type of play we are encouraged to engage in – not just the kinds of toys we have, but also how rough versus nurturing we are expected to be
  • The types of emotions we are encouraged to express – anger, stoicism, bravado, sadness, compassion or nurturing
Screenshot from the current Toys 'R Us Catalogue

Screenshot from the current Toys ‘R Us Catalogue

 

Here’s where the colour-coding of toys comes in. As you may have noticed, toy manufacturers often make toys marketed at boys blue (or primary colours yellow and red), and toys sold to girls pink (or purple, teal or pastels) and stores often separate toys according to this schema of girls vs boys toys. Thus you get aisles that are predominately blue, and ones dominated by pink. The problem isn’t the colours in themselves. The problem is the different kinds of toys that are marketed according to the gender binary, as signified by the colours chosen for the toys designated “boys” versus “girls”.

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A double page spread from the depths of the catalogue

Analysing the current Toys ‘R Us catalogue, it is clear they’re making an effort to pay lip service to the gender issue – they have a boy on the front playing with a kitchen set (with the caption “just like home!”). But as you wade deeper into the catalogue, you’re met with more and more of the stereotypical stuff. Some examples of “boy” toys: space stuff, robot stuff, dinosaurs, action equipment, trains and transport, excavation and trucks, scientific equipment, pirate stuff, architecture and building, dragons, science fiction and fantasy, racing cars. And “girl” toys: dolls, princesses, woodland creatures, phones, drawing stuff, makeup, jewellery kits, accessories, fashion stuff, baby stuff, horses. It’s actually pretty crazy when you start to consider how this gendered marketing of toys might lead to the cultivation of particular interests along gendered lines, starting at a very young age.

Tony Abbott: A bit of a dick

Tony Abbott: A bit of a dick actually

From what I can see of the No Gender December campaign, the point isn’t to “Ban Barbie”. The point is to challenge the way in which toys are divided along the gender binary, thus reinforcing  differences between how “boys” and “girls” are socialised.

In conclusion, Abbott is a bit of a jerk. But we already knew that. Did I mention that time Tony Abbott allegedly punched a wall near a rival student politician Barbara Ramjan’s head for intimidation? Or that he constantly alludes to his “hot daughters“? Or that when in opposition he continually called for Australians to “ditch the witch“, Prime Minister Julia Gillard?

Well, he might be the Minister for Women but I guess boys will be boys.