Bimbo Feminism: Why I’m Excited About the Barbie Movie

If you (somehow??) haven’t heard, there’s a live action Barbie film coming out in July this year, and it looks incredible.

The film has Greta Gerwig at the helm, who brought us previous meditations on femininity including Frances Ha, Lady Bird, and Little Women (seriously someone come do a PhD with me on her oeuvre). Plus it’s co-written with her partner Noah Baumbach who brought us exceedingly depressing reflections on the precarity of the nuclear family with The Squid and the Whale and Marriage Story. With this indie pair in charge you know Barbie is going to be magic.

But the reason I’m most excited isn’t just because it involves two of my favourite filmmakers, and an all-star cast. It’s because I genuinely hope that this film ushers in a new era of critical feminist analysis that takes femininity seriously as a point of theorisation, not so easily written off as “postfeminism”. Maybe we’ll call it “bimbo feminism”. I’ll explain.

Barbie is one of those fraught icons of hyperfemininity. I’m sure I’m not the only one whose caregivers were reluctant about Barbies. I get it. I’ve written recently about how kids clothes are gendered in absurd ways and “for girls” often becomes code for “impractical”. As an icon of girl culture Barbie can get caught up in this. My grandmother gave me a Barbie card for my seventh birthday, and inside there was a message along the lines of “I didn’t get you one because Barbies are sexist” (I’m not joking).

Eventually someone got me a Barbie (“Lights and Lace” Barbie), and I also procured some from an op-shop. I cut Lights and Lace Barbie’s hair short and she lived with her girlfriend in a suitcase apartment with their Barbie cat, and a Ken doll (who was also gay). Do straight Barbies even exist?

On the one hand, Barbie has been abundantly critiqued as an emblem of unrealistic and patriarchal beauty standards. On the other, people have pointed out that she’s done every occupation, and is the ultimate girlboss (eww). On the third, and much more interesting hand, the way people have actually played with Barbies, remixing their hair, outfits, personas and sexualities, reveals Barbie as the GOAT bimbo icon: a blank slate, a fantasy of femininity. She is spectacular plastic with nothing, and thereby everything, to say.

Since the 1990s, feminist critique in the academy has become dominated by dubbing things “postfeminist”. It’s a debated term, but essentially refers to media depictions (or what Ros Gill calls a “sensibility”) that depict feminism as done-and-dusted, within a broader cultural context of backlash against feminism. A LOT of early discussions of postfeminism focused on sex-interested or hyper-feminine female characters as evidencing post-feminism (e.g. via films like Bridget Jones’ Diary or Legally Blonde). Because of the rise of popular feminism in the 2010s, postfeminism is now used a little more expansively to describe an ideology that circulates in popular culture that undermines feminist gains, or is regressive in some way. Problem is, what is dubbed postfeminist/regressive can’t shake the hang up on sexiness and femininity.

Since the 2010s there has also been a parallel development in academia called Critical Femininities (CF). The idea of this field is to give serious attention to studying femininities (in much the same way that masculinity studies has become a proper field), critically but not dismissing femininity as merely, easily, or only patriarchal. CF has been championed largely by queer femme scholars, by people who know what it feels like to be perceived as straight-conforming or not “queer enough” simply because of their feminine gender expression. I have been so excited to see recent CF analyses revisiting “postfeminist” texts like Legally Blonde and the Spice Girls, and arguing for the radical elements of the spectacular femininity therein. For example (and I could quote the whole paper here), Maya Padan’s (2023) close reading of the Spice Girls as pseudo drag queens argues:

The band underscores the performativity of femme embodiments, while using the spices to enable a self-aware inquiry of femininity as a choice, rather than patriarchal coercion. In doing so, the Spice Girls stress how meaningful playfulness is to the construction of gender and how gender can be an arena of exploration (2023, p.13).

Similarly, as Sarah Kornfield and Chloe Long (2023) suggest in their analysis of The Bold Type TV show, “patriarchal and capitalist pressures work to devalue and regulate femininity and to commodify and objectify fem(me)inine people”. In response, they offer “femme analysis [that] resists patriarchy and its interlocking oppressions without positioning women, femmes, or spectacular femininity as patriarchy’s dupes” (2023, p.13).

I love these analyses because they don’t dismiss the rubric of postfeminism as useful, but also offer other ways to engage with spectacular femininity, namely from queer perspectives. One limitation of these account is that they sometimes fly a little too close to “choice feminism” for me, through emphasising “femininity as choice”. The problem with choice feminism is that in responding to the “dupes” argument, it can bend the stick too far in the other direction (I am often guilty of this).

This is where I think bimbo feminism could come in.

Since 2020, interest in bimbo-ism has gained traction via TikTok. There are endless explainers you can look up, but essentially the bimbo movement has been about: embracing styles otherwise derided as hyperfeminine, hypersexual, and/or girly, and emphasising vapidity, that is, feeling over thinking. In other words, celebrating oneself as “hot and dumb”, and encouraging pleasure and leisure over uneven heterosexual relationships and the girlboss grind. Despite their professed anti-thinking attitude, the bimbos of TikTok offer explicit critiques of capitalism, right-wing politics, heteronormativity, white feminism and trans-exclusionary feminism. This is bimbo feminism.

Of course until recently “bimbo” has almost always been used as a pejorative, that’s really the whole point of the reclamation. Some aren’t convinced by the politics of the new bimbo-ism. This morning Jessica DeFino – ex-beauty influencer turned anti-beauty blogger – wrote in her newsletter “From what I’ve seen, the reclamation of ‘bimbo’ by cisgender women essentially means using your words to promote the values of the political left while using your aesthetics to promote the excess of capitalism”. I can (and will) write a whole book about the limits of DeFino’s straight-gaze anti-beauty critique, but her take down of bimbos really misses the (radical) forest for the (pink) trees. For DeFino, hyperfeminine aesthetics “taint” the possibility of real politics. Since when is “using your words to promote the values of the political left” a bad thing just because you’ve got a full face of makeup? And why is spectacular femininity the ultimate signifier of “the excess of capitalism”?

CFS scholar Rhea Ashley Hoskin has written extensively about how intensely femininity is policed, so that it is not “too much”. Femininity is systematically devalued, it is seen as synonymous with “subordination”. Femininity is always seen as being done “for men”. This is, Hoksin argues, “femmephobia”.

As she suggests: “femininity is not taken seriously, it is trivialized, it is considered not very credible, false, untrustworthy, with ulterior motives, anti-feminist and not very intelligent”.

The negative use of the term “bimbo” is after all wielded in such a way to take down people who are perceived as too feminine, too sexual, too vapid, too excessive in their gender presentation.

I’m sure that scholars in the 2000s would look at bimbo feminism and call it “postfeminism” but for me the term has reached saturation. I’m post-postfeminism, I want what’s next.

I feel like the Barbie movie is going to deliver the goods. It’s going to take femininity seriously. Based on the trailers I’m fully expecting a queer critique of capitalism and heteronormativity while dressed in pink glitter.

That’s bimbo feminism.

For the love of dresses

When I was small I distinctly remember having fights with my mother about wearing dresses. While some other queer friends have recounted similar fights, my desire was not to reject dresses that were foisted on me, but rather, I deeply desired dresses while my mother wanted me to wear the more practical and much warmer option of track pants. After lots of fighting (screaming? Tantrums? It’s a kindergarten memory blur) we compromised: dresses over pants. Sartorially questionable, but enough for me to feel like I was wearing the “right” clothing. I think the obsession might have dovetailed with a girl from school asking if I was a boy, and me running home chanting to myself “I’m a girl I’m a girl I’m a girl”.

Despite my awareness, now, of the clear cultural pressures informing my desire, I still love dresses.

I once even created a blog detailing all of the 47 dresses in my closet, the stories behind all of them, and a record of wearing them all in a single month to raise money for charity (which culminated in me wearing a giant gold 1980s prom dress on a teaching day).

Recently, I bought a dress online because it reminded me of one that I wore to my uncle’s wedding when I was around seven or eight. Of course what I loved then – blaring floral design in primary colours and a 1990s design – doesn’t really translate into my style now. I refer to it as my “Pavlova Mum” dress, the kind of dress you wear when you’ve just baked a pav for the BBQ. Dresses have become symbolically central to my psychic grappling with identity and femininity and I suppose that the “Pavlova Mum” dress-naming hints at my anxieties about becoming a parent who lives in the suburbs. Though, my partner pointed out that it is also reminiscent of the final gown in Midsommar, which makes me like it a little more.

I’ve spent over a decade of my academic career unpacking and untangling my relationship to femininity, thinking through how femininity can be queer, and the confusing and messy space between cultural expectations of femininity and the desire for feminine embodiment. I thought I had come to some kind of resting place with this tension, which might be summed up something like: yes to the capacitating joys of feminine expression, no to the incapacitating expectations of femininity. But I’ve been plagued by these questions (ESPECIALLY thoughts about dresses) since I spent the last year raising a now one-year-old.

I am watching the world “girl” her in real time. Babies are, unsurprisingly, quite genderqueer little creatures. Often balding post-birth, they are little potatoes that are becoming human. They are learning to use their bodies (to know that they even have bodies), which are growing at an astonishing rate. Babies are all about transformation, becoming, and capacity. The gender designations of “boy” and “girl” seem wildly arbitrary in these early times. Yet. Walk into most children’s clothing stores and you will see the segregation of clothes by the gender binary. Shop attendants will ask you the gender of your child. Parents are sold headbands to cover their bare baby girls’ heads. Since watching the latest season of The White Lotus I have been HAUNTED by the line that Jennifer Coolidge’s character Tanya utters as a kind of self-explanation for her passivity and unhappiness:

You know, when I was a little girl, my mother used to dress me up like a little doll. And I was always a little doll, waiting for someone to play with me

In an attempt to align with my theoretical values around femininity, when it comes to clothes – questions of gender presentation and how the world “reads” you – my intent as a parental dresser has not been gender “neutrality” but rather gender experimentation and options. But try as I might to go shopping for baby clothes with the mindset that “anything goes” I have struggled, deeply struggled, to shop from the “girls” sections of shops. Unless you’re second hand shopping or looking at a designer children’s boutique (often online, very high price points), this is what those sections look like in real terms at chain stores in Australia:

“FOR BOYS”“FOR GIRLS”
FitLoose, longTight, short
PocketsFrequentlyRarely
ColoursDark or neutral – e.g. black, green, blue, greyPastel or bright – e.g. pink, white, yellow, purple
VolumeStraight cutPuffy/billowy/flowy
SunsmartFrequentlyRarely (e.g. short sleeves)
FrillsNoFrequently
ButtonsRarelyFrequently
FabricsHardyOften delicate (e.g. loose weave knit)
PrintsDogs, elephants, giraffes, dinosaurs, lions, crocodiles, trucksUnicorns, cats, flowers, rainbows, ladybirds, rabbits, fruit

The above table is based on my own observations but I’m not imagining it: a study recently conducted in Germany studied 20,000 items of children’s clothing and found that shorts “for girls” are shorter and slogans “for boys” were about being active while “for girls” were about emotions and dreaming. Sometimes these differences are benign and are simply signifying colours, but at other times they are extremely ideological (as the jumpers from the “boys” and “girls” sections of a popular chain below demonstrate).

The thing that I tend to get stuck on the most however is how impractical clothing “for girls” is. Watching my child learning to walk, it is obvious that dresses in particular can be quite incapacitating. “Girls” shorts are shorter, pants tighter, sleeves more clumsy or not covering enough in the sun (as another example below illustrates).

Many a shopping trip has ended with me in a rage, and only purchasing dull clothes from the “boys” section. Of course you can just shop for whatever clothes you like but the point is the very madness of the division in the first place.

That there are these gendered differences in children’s clothing is not new news. It’s a point so obvious to anyone that cares about gender that it feels banal to be bringing it up (again). Yet, I am compelled to bang the proverbial drum of my keyboard to shout look! Are you seeing this! Why is it still like this!

When I’ve shared these thoughts online however, many people are also fixated on the colours and patterns. The pink! The prints! They say. I’ve also found myself internally screaming at frills.

I have to step back and remind myself of my own writing, and theorising on femininity. Because it’s rarely the pink or decoration that is the problem. It is the question of what these clothes capacitate. In an ideal world the segregation of clothes by gender would be abolished, and everyone would have access to pink and frills (though not baby headbands they are simply choking hazards please throw them in the bin) and no one would have to trip over baggy laced sacks while burning their shoulders in the sun.

Then I have to step back, again, and remind myself of my love of dresses.

I brought up this conundrum with a friend and she told me not to overthink it, that my child would assert her own desires with clothes at some point. I’m just acutely aware that none of this is in a vacuum, and I am woefully brought back to the same position my mother was in when I fought with her so hard, a concern for practicality.

I’ll make sure there are dresses on offer. They might just require pants underneath.

Woman Culture and the Gendering of Pregnancy

Got to be honest not 100% sure what’s going on in those wrappers

Lecturing in gender studies I have spent a lot of time talking about how children are exposed to processes of gendering, how these operations are intensely social, and that learning about gender does not happen in a parent-centred vacuum. This happens immediately from birth (with the declaration “it’s a boy!” etc), and as Judith Butler (1990) usefully points out, the distinction often made between sex (the biological: including genitalia, chromosomes and other sex markers) and gender (assumed as the cultural interpretation of those markers) is blurry:

“…perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all”

This gendering can even start pre-birth, at the ultrasound, or with blood tests to determine chromosomes. Once sex is designated, an intense process is kicked into gear that involves expectations of how a child will act, what they will wear, and what their future holds (primary assumptions being, for example, that a baby designated female will be feminine, grow up to be a woman, and will one day partner with a man). As I have also discovered being pregnant, there are a whole set of gendered assumptions made between the physical experience of childbearing and the child itself – for example the idea that craving sweets means you are having a girl [*eye roll forever*]!

While I have often thought about gendering in childhood, I have attended less to how pregnancy itself is enrolled in a process of gendering adulthood. What I have experienced as a pregnant person this year has given me some insight into how intensely pregnancy is tied to the category “woman”, and in turn bound up with extremely fixed notions about biology, gender and destiny.

From vitamins to pregnancy tests, the pink and blue coding is inescapable

While I am a bisexual/queer person I am also for all intents and purposes cisgender: I am feminine presenting, use she/her pronouns, and that matches up with the expectation of being assigned female at birth (or, as I am told the pronouncement at my birth was “it’s a feminist!”…something to unpack another time). And yet, I have found the “woman culture” – or what might be more accurately termed “female culture”, emphasising biology – of pregnancy profoundly disorienting.

My first real confrontation with this (aside from the pink and blue aesthetics and white smiling women and babies of pregnancy tests and pregnancy vitamins) was at an early ultrasound. The clinic, like basically everything around pregnancy, emphasised that it was for “women” not only in its name but in every clinical detail. This included the fact I could only find a women’s bathroom there and was made to put on a smock pre-exam that was less neutral gown than actual v-neck lined puffy-sleeved purple dress. The main reception room featured a photograph of a huge pair of high heels with a caption (I’m paraphrasing here): “When the shoes didn’t fit her daughter, the mother simply reminded her she wouldn’t need toes when she was a princess”.

There is a huge emphasis on nature and the natural in pregnancy (never mind how many people used to die in pregnancy and childbirth pre-modern medicine…)

My partner, a man (*constantly* referred to in my pregnancy books and apps as my “husband” despite the fact we are unmarried…), was not allowed to come to the clinic with me and has not been allowed to any of my appointments so far, even with me crying and pleading on the phone about it after some complications, or when I had to go in for an emergency scan. While this has ostensibly been due to COVID-19 restrictions, it has not only intensely reinforced the sense that the responsibility of childbearing is mine alone, but that I am doing this as a (cis) WOMAN whose “body was made to do this” (a saying repeated over and over again to me). It has been distressing for both me and my partner to be separated in this process, and I can only imagine the homophobic layer that partners of the same gender would feel with one parent being constantly cast out.

I am not so disoriented by the physical transition of pregnancy when it comes to gender, despite the discomfort and pain – for me personally it is fun and interesting to have a growing belly, larger breasts, a body full of more blood, and I often think about how not everyone that wants to have this experience gets to. I feel very privileged. I just cannot stand the grate of being told this experience is about divine femininity that connects all (cis) women, that a (cis) woman’s identity is forged through the fires of childbirth, and that pregnancy and labour is some kind of secret business that only (cis) women can discuss with one another.

Fighting stigma and shame around periods does not have to be achieved through emphasising “womanhood”

It reminds me of when I first got my period at 14 and I was happy to have reached the puberty milestone, but also did not think much of it. My mum got really angry at me for not taking it more seriously as the transition to “womanhood” that it represented. She wanted me to celebrate. Her approach was informed by a feminism aiming to reclaim bodily processes which had been shamed and repudiated by patriarchy for centuries. But I did not feel shame, I just wanted to get on with it, and did not want to hold a party for my “entry into womanhood”. There’s a lot of feminist emphasis these days on things like periods and pregnancy because of the stigma that has otherwise surrounded them. That is totally understandable. What is harder to compute is why this has to be enrolled into a “female culture” that emphasises one’s status as woman at every turn.

It would be so easy to use gender neutral language around pregnancy, like referring to “pregnant people” rather than “pregnant women”. It would not harm anyone, it would not “erase women”, it would simply make these spaces more inclusive, and unravel the hard knot of essentialism that pervades reproductive culture. I suspect that many cisgender women enjoy having womanhood emphasised in these spaces though precisely because the misogyny of patriarchal culture means women are rarely celebrated, and pregnancy is one of the few times where one becomes a kind of special icon (where people congratulate you, make room for you on the bus, etc). However the way to resolve this issue is not to double-down on the mother-woman-biology matrix, especially given that ever more queer, trans and non-binary people are bearing children. Given the “female culture” of pregnancy it really is no surprise that it is mother-forum sites like “mumsnet” in the UK that have become the epicentre of anti-trans discourse.

Last night my partner and I re-watched Jeanie Finlay’s (2019) documentary “Seahorse” about one trans man’s experience of pregnancy. I wanted to watch it as I been reading about labour and could not think of any other cultural representations of active labour (aka how it actually happens, not the Hollywood kind where a person gives birth lying on their back). Watching Freddie’s journey through pregnancy as a now pregnant person was so soothing to me, untethered as it was from the “female culture” that has soaked every other pregnancy text I have encountered so far. Importantly in the film Freddie emphasises that his experience is *not* the same as cisgender women, precisely because of the gender dysphoria and difficult social expectations he has to navigate as a pregnant man. There is a scene where Freddie goes through all of the documents from his midwife that emphasise “mother” and “woman” and “female”, and replaces them with words that match up to his experience. Today Freddie is still fighting in court to be recognised on his child’s birth certificate as “father” or “parent”, rather than “mother”. “Seahorse” is a reminder of the small things that we could change culturally that would make a huge difference to the myriad of people experiencing pregnancy, and to thinking about gender broadly.

For now I will keep trying to find a way to navigate this fraught terrain and trying to connect with my body while holding the intense gendering at bay. I suspect this will only become more difficult, in becoming “mother”, and all of the expectations carried with that. Thinking about how we can better support people going through the gamut of reproduction without insisting on rigid gender boxes is a must on the way to loosening the grip of gender expectations in adulthood.

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.

Give Drag a Chance

Priscilla-Queen-of-the-Desert-DI

Priscilla, queen of my heart

When I was a little girl, I loved drag queens more than anything. It was back in the days when video stores were still around, and my babysitter asked me which film I wanted to rent. Of course I said Priscilla Queen of the Desert, which was my absolute favourite as an eight year old, and I couldn’t believe she hadn’t seen it already. By the end of the film she was rather shocked, but I remember thinking thank god I am a girl. My thought was that if I had been a boy I would have had to be a drag queen, and things would have been really tough. To me being a feminine as a girl was like being a drag queen too, you just didn’t get hate for it.

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Paris is Burning

Priscilla, and films like Paris is Burning before it, helped to make drag intelligible to a mainstream audience. Today RuPaul’s Drag Race continues to work that magic, bringing a greater awareness of drag culture as well as a diversity of queens into the spotlight with each season.

But even though everyone is watching Drag Race, word on the street for those in the know is that you’ve got to be a bit careful because drag queens are, well, a bit of a drag. So the story goes, drag queens—at least those “normy” hyper-feminine ones—are just reinforcing every stereotype of womanhood that feminism has ever fought against.

Strangely this critique of drag comes from two, usually wildly oppositional, directions within discussions of gender.

578579The first is from trans-exclusionary radical feminist types, who conflate gay male culture with drag queens with transgender identity. Such perspectives see gay men, drag queens, and trans women as responsible for propping up fantasies of femininity that only serve to oppress women. Germaine Greer famously stated in The Female Eunuch 1970: “I’m sick of being a transvestite. I refuse to be a female impersonator. I am a woman, not a castrate”. Greer’s suggestion here is that there is some form of “natural” womanhood that can be liberated from the dictates of culture. Similarly, and more recently, Sheila Jeffreys has even argued that drag kings distort lesbian culture and the celebration of “natural” womanhood. She writes: “If the suffering and destruction of lesbians is to be halted then we must challenge the cult of masculinity that is evident in such activities as drag king shows”. These views are rife with homophobia and transphobia, as well as massive conflations and wild leaps that see men, masculinity, and femininity, as the true oppressors of women.

license-shutterstock_178095647z-56cddde63df78cfb37a34dedI don’t have much time for these views, which encourage us to believe that the biggest threats to women are trans women, drag queens, and gay men. This view distorts Marxist theory to argues that men in particular are *the* class that oppresses women, and sees the liberation that is to be won as a liberation from “gender”. Luckily the currency of radical feminism in academic spaces seems to be waning. But when overall activist struggle in society is low, it is easy for people to slip into arguing that we are each other’s problem, that if only we could free ourselves from gender we’d be truly liberated. It’s a much easier argument to make than organising to transform the fundamental economic arrangement of society, and it makes space for all kinds of class collaboration between powerful women and poor women alike (even if it means at the end of the day that power doesn’t actually shift).

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I heart Judy B 4eva

Understandably in many queer critical circles, no one has much time for radical feminism. For example Judith Butler—our queer theory queen writ large—has openly critiqued Jeffreys, describing her views on trans women as a “feminist tyranny”. At the end of Gender Trouble (1990) Butler famously held drag queens up as exemplars of gender subversion. There was of course a lot of responses to this, but much of these debates focused on whether drag really was the best example of the theory of gender performativity that Butler was proposing.

herofille2So that’s why it’s kind of surprising to hear people within queer communities suggesting now that drag, in its mainstream formations, is a problem. From this perspective drag, if performed by ostensibly cis males, reproduces misogynistic ideas of femininity and is really just another expression of the “gay-triarchy“. Drag that is seen as more alternative in these scenes is drag performed by faux-queens (women performing as drag queens), or drag that queers gender in some way, like the intense influx of bearded-queens we’ve seen in recent years.

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I love Sasha but I don’t doubt we occupy the same ivory tower

Within the land of RuPaul, this desire for more alternative drag to address the “problems” of drag culture is summed up by Sasha Velour. Now, there is no way that I am not #TeamSasha, obviously I love Sasha. But she also represents an extremely mobile, well-educated subset of drag culture, who can quote Butler and play with the expectations of drag (like, having a bald head) because let’s face it, they’re still going to get by even if they don’t win $100,000.

What the queer critique of drag shares with the radical feminist perspective is the view that we are one another’s oppressors, and that if we manage to transform our individual gendered selves in a particular way, this can contribute to liberation. For the rad fems this might mean rejecting expectations of femininity and trying to embody “natural” womanhood. From the queer perspective this might mean rejecting anything perceived as mainstream and normative. The conclusions are the same: do your politics through your body, and reject those individuals who don’t.

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The cast of Season 9

Let’s pause here to imagine why someone might get into drag (noting that the great thing about Drag Race is that we get to hear some of these reasons). For some, drag offers a space to play around with femininity, after growing up as a “weird” kid who didn’t meet the expectations of masculinity. For others, drag is a way of working through questions of sexual and/or gender identity. For many that have been kicked out of home or found themselves rejected by society at large, drag offers a space for new forms of family to emerge.

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Drag queens can be comrades too

For many, drag is a mode of survival, socially and economically. Drag queens struggle with expectations around femininity too. Drag queens don’t oppress women: the struggle against sexism is a shared one. There is a lot to be learned from RuPaul’s constant reminder that “we’re all born naked and the rest is drag”.

So, let’s celebrate those drag queens that can push boundaries and show us new ways to think about gender, but let’s embrace those “normy” queens too. This doesn’t mean everything in drag culture should be immune from critique, but it does mean we should give drag a chance. After all, the struggle is best won together, not alone, and drag queens are not the enemy.

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.

Queering and Queening Femininity

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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 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.

Feeling Femme: Observations from Femme Hive 2014

The main Femme Hive venue at Villa Neukölln, Berlin

The main Femme Hive venue at Villa Neukölln, Berlin

This October I was lucky enough to be supported by the YWCA Canberra and the ANU, to attend the Femme Hive conference in Berlin. With my PhD work focusing in large part on femme identity, the conference provided a rare opportunity for me to meet femmes outside of an Australian context.

If you’re currently wondering “what even is femme and why is there a conference on it?”, check out this great explanation of femme identity from Queer Fat Femme Bevin Branlandingham. Many people have not come across the term femme before, and even some people I spoke to at the conference were unsure of what the term meant. While the conference was organised around feeling empowered about being queer and feminine identifying, some people were there because other people had labeled them as femme (e.g. lesbian couples are often confronted with the question “so who’s the woman and who’s the man in the relationship?” as if every time there must be a butch/femme pairing). A lot of people at the conference just wanted to find a space where they could feel comfortable being accepted as queer, where their feminine appearance was not simply dismissed as heteronormative.

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Contemplating femme at Femme Hive 2014

Unfortunately when I first received the grant from the YWCA, a local gossip magazine here in Canberra ran an article on me titled Queer Femme Is? which challenged the legitimacy of femme identity and biphobically mocked me as “a gal who likes hanging around with lesbians but prefers the closer company of a boyfriend”. This hostility was the first reminder of exactly why femme is an important topic for discussion – because so many people can end up feeling marginalised both within LGBT scenes and in the broader community, just because they are more “feminine” and therefore don’t fit within a neat set of assumptions about “deviating” from the norm.

Blush performing at the Femme Party, Schwuz

B.L.U.S.H. performing at the Femme Party, Schwuz

While the conference program was full of wonderful workshops, the best part for me was just listening to people’s own experiences of being femme within a queer community. Apparently in Berlin femme identity doesn’t carry much cache in the queer scene, and it was interesting that the conference organisers talked about “cultivating a culture of desiring femme” as one of their main goals. Significantly, the opening night of the conference involved a burlesque/drag/musical show, with a very diverse range of acts from across Europe exploring the theme of femme. The venue, Schwuz (a club that had a long queue, entry requirements of an airport and sold grapefruit beer), was packed, with more people sporting undercuts than I had ever seen gathered in one room. The acts revealed the complexity of femme, with each one so different from the last that it was impossible to settle on a concrete idea of femme identity’s common denominator.

The flyer for the Femme Party

The flyer for the Femme Party

One particularly interesting piece focused on fat femme identity. Presented by the burlesque group B.L.U.S.H., one of the performers came out wearing a dressing gown, reading a women’s magazine. After showing disappointment that her larger body did not match the bodies shown in the magazine, she tore it up and stripped down entirely. Her body was round and tattooed. She slowly put on knee-high stockings, high heels and lingerie. To a huge cheer from the audience she took out a chocolate brownie from a box and smooshed it into her face, broke off several pieces and threw them into the audience. Openly didactic, this performance was interesting in terms of exploring the body politics of femininity (what is an acceptable “size” for feminine bodies). Indeed the question of “normal” bodies and the marginalisation of fat queer feminine bodies was a key topic of discussion in the conference overall. The performance was also interesting because it alluded to the “putting on” involved in femininity, without marking this as a negative thing (as femininity is so often accused of being a “masquerade” in feminist and other writing).

Getting my ideas together prior to presenting at Femme Hive

Getting my ideas together prior to presenting at Femme Hive

Of course it wasn’t all burlesque and glitter. A weekend of workshops followed and I was lucky enough to present my research work on the last day. My presentation was called “Feeling Queer Femme: Assemblages and the Body” and in it I explored the troubles of representing (trying to “pin down”) femme, as well as the corporeal and sensory aspects of embodying femme (a theme that emerged in my interviews with queer femmes in Australia). Though it was a bit strange presenting my version of femme to a room full of femme people, it was amazing to hear that attendees found the session so helpful for clarifying their own experiences and ideas on the topic, even though this was something they were living out day to day in their own lives.

Overall the experience was amazing and my ideas on the topic of femme have both been affirmed and expanded through attending Femme Hive. Now to finish writing that thesis of mine…