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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Review: Jamila Rizvi’s Not Just Lucky

9780143783534Jamila Rizvi’s recently released book Not Just Lucky is basically a very long riff on the old saying, “carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man”. This is a very useful adage, which works as a reminder of the ways that women are socially conditioned. I find myself repeating this saying to women in my life frequently, and it’s useful to have a  book that spends time unpacking ways that women are brought up with negative self-beliefs.

Rizvi is intent to present “solutions” not just “problems”, and so the book also provides a lot of extended advice on how to speak, dress, think, and act in ways that might get you ahead as a working woman (even though the book claims it’s not a self-help book, but a “career book”). It’s funny and well-written. I also appreciated the very organised bullet-point lists of recommendations – I daresay Rizvi and I are a similar collection of letters on the esoteric Myer-Briggs test.

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Obligatory selfie of me reading Not Just Lucky

But while I found myself nodding along to many of the passages exploring the sexism that women experience in the workplace and beyond, Rizvi’s solutions fall short. What is offered is at best a band-aid to the problems described, and at worst, a cruel promise that working hard and undertaking individual self-betterment can lead to certain success.

To be fair, Rizvi acknowledges from the outset that her book doesn’t have the solutions for fixing structural problems like childcare and the wage gap, but simply offers ways women can change their thinking that has resulted from structural enculturation.

I’m on board with women undergoing some gender-CBT, heck my job is literally to talk about gender and double standards and how things we think are innate are in fact social.

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I am more than ready for the “lady boss” obsession to end. Please end.

But presenting the antidote to women’s ills as endeavoring to be “brilliant” and offering a blueprint for how to succeed as a “lady boss”, is not what we need right now. In this day and age, when humans are staring extinction in the face, capitalism is in a late and hideous form, and there are right-wing forces mobilising around the world, these kind of liberal feminist solutions feel a little like over-prescribing antibiotics. Sure, it might help you feel in control of getting better, but it will make all of us more unwell in the long run.

I don’t want to sound like a broken record here, but the biggest blind spot is: you guessed it, class. While Rizvi acknowledges her own privileged upbringing as a limit to her ability to empathise, what is needed here is not an alternative individual view but rather a different analysis of how to fix a broken system. Of course proposing a workable solution requires identifying the underlying problem. If you ignore class, then you’re destined to merely tinker around with the symptoms.

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Rizvi’s book is similar to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean-In

The thing is, all our problems don’t just boil down to how we are socialised. Rizvi claims that “the challenge for each of us is to rise above our own conditioning”. But thinking about the pitch of my voice at work, or asking for a salary increase, isn’t really going to make a huge difference – except of course, for me as an individual. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t question gender norms, but it does mean that we might have to go beyond ways of individually speaking, dressing, thinking, and acting, if we want to make substantive change.

I was a little surprised that Rizvi stayed so closely to discussing things individuals can do, given that she claims in the beginning of her book the work is “unashamedly feminist”, and also notes at the end that “it is only together that we can change the world”. These words remain, for the most part, vague gestures. I can well imagine my grandma reading this book and saying to me “we were talking about these issues in the 70s”. That’s the point isn’t it: gender inequality is a persistent problem. If you want to acknowledge the changes in our lives for the better that have occurred, you have to talk about the struggles and the tactics that have gone before.

ednext_20124_guthrie_openerWhat’s interesting here is that Rizvi and I are the same age, and we went to the same university, at the same time (and did student politics together – I was in the Labor students club that she was the leader of). Unlike Rizvi though, I came from a very poor single-parent family. Yet, we both were able to get stellar educations. Despite my low SES background, there were quite a few structural supports in place such as public housing and welfare support, as well as decent free primary and secondary schooling, that meant I could get a leg up. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that some of these structural supports were targeted by the very Gillard government Rizvi fondly remembers working for.

Rizvi does suggest that there are policies that need to change in order to best address gender inequality. Rizvi also makes one note about unions, and a worker’s strike in Brisbane in 1912. These pages provide a short breath of fresh air in the discussion about how to make change. But strangely Rizvi moves seamlessly from discussing the importance of joining your union, to how to treat the symptoms of an unfair system which includes how to be a great boss.

I think is somewhat of an indicator of what’s wrong with contemporary Labor politics. It’s not really about representing the working class, because the interests of bosses are seen as equally important. Rather than seeing how being in the position of boss under capitalism necessitates exploiting those below you, not attending to class at all means you can’t acknowledge nor resolve that power dynamic. Here’s the rub: CEOs and working class people do not share the same interests, even if they share the same gender identity.

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Rizvi brings up Elsa quite a bit so this feels relevant

This book is explicitly inspired by the Sheryl Sandberg Lean In idea: the cruelly optimistic notion that you too can succeed, if you employ the correct tactics. But in a world that is becoming more and more unequal in terms of the distribution of wealth, where a handful of corporations own pretty much everything, and where capital and profit is valued over human and environmental well-being, success cannot be measured by how well you individually survive the fire.

Rizvi proposes that it’s not really luck but hard work that gets you ahead as a woman. We would do well to question whether the ceiling is really a class one that needs to be broken, in order to make lasting change for the lives of women at large.

Photoshopocalypse: there’s more to be worried about than airbrushed legs

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The Vogue in question

This week popular feminist site Jezebel embarrassed itself by offering $10,000 to anyone who could provide the before-photoshop shots of Lena Dunham’s US Vogue cover. Now, I love reading Jezebel on a daily basis. It’s a bit hit and miss, but generally I appreciate its mixture of popular culture and feminist analysis. Though this latest stunt has got me wondering: when it comes to cultural analysis, what is worth spending our time worrying about?

This has really been on my mind since I read this article from The Guardian, that asks “should popular culture be a site for political debate?”. Aside from the bit about the “deluge” of Miley Cyrus analysis (which gave me pangs of PhD fraud-guilt), I generally agree with the gist of the article. We should be careful not to get too caught up in deconstructing particularities of entertainment, lest we forget the bigger issues – of binary gender, economic disparity, racial prejudice, and so forth. 

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When we focus on the small stuff we can get lost (or stuck in the refrigerator)

In other words, we want to be careful that we can still see the political forest despite the pop culture trees.

Given that popular culture is a huge part of daily life and a source of enjoyment for many people (whether we agree it should be or not) it certainly warrants attention. But I do agree we should make sure our critique doesn’t become so narrow and specific that we miss the point. From what I can see going on in the Dunham-cover debate, there is a pretty narrow focus not on a tree, but on a tiny bug sitting on a leaf.

And it’s not like the issue of photoshopping doesn’t deserve attention, it’s just that we have the same conversation time and time again. It goes something like:

Photoshop: making celebrities look slightly alien since 1988

Photoshop: making celebrities look slightly alien since 1988

Prosecutor:
“BEFORE this woman looked NORMAL and BEAUTIFUL…
But then society deemed that she was NOT BEAUTIFUL ENOUGH.
Oh the TRAVESTY that we can’t just be our bumpy NORMAL selves”

Defendant:
“What do you EXPECT, the public want to see BEAUTIFUL people.
I mean, if you want to see FAT and UGLY just go out on the street.
This is FANTASY, this is fashion, it is MAKE BELIEVE”

Vogue-Nippon-No-Crime-to-be-RichAnd so the banal conversation continues, until we have it again next time someone’s leg or muffin top is lopped off by photoshop. And we’re so busy having this debate over whether it is permissible for fashion magazines to have shiny airbrushed people in them, that feminism goes over to the corner and dies from boredom.

I mean, if we’re going to spend our time and money ($10,000, really Jez?) critiquing Vogue, why not look at it’s full-on reinforcement of class disparity? Why not look at it holistically, as a cultural artefact: what does it keep us aspiring to? That it proposes a vision of beauty that isn’t just a particular form of femininity, but is perhaps more grossly white, upper-class and heterosexual?

Is it just me, or are "real women" all veeeeery similar looking...

Is it just me, or are “real women” all veeeeery similar looking…

And part of the problem with focusing on photoshopping as *the* political issue, is that we then so readily accept “normality” as a selling point. Take the various Dove campaigns around “natural beauty”. We dance in jubilation – finally a company willing to show normal women! Never mind what might be left out, or the fact that this is all done in the name of profit.

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No photoshop here? No worries!

When we’re doing these analyses, why don’t we ask: who is the *real* enemy?
The women posing, willingly participating in their objectification?
The individual photoshoppers, for being so brutal with their brush?
The editor of Vogue, for dictating what is socially normal and acceptable in fashion and beauty?

…Or, something bigger?…

I’m not saying that individuals are devoid of ethical responsibility. I’m not even saying we should stop reading Vogue or Jezebel, and strip off all our clothes and makeup and run into the bush and live like a hermit (that’s a different conversation). But I am saying that when we invest our time in critical analysis and commentary, we also need to make sure we focus on the wider picture.