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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Hope and Glimpsing the Future in the Marriage Equality Debate

This short paper was presented at the Feminist Utopias Conference held at the Australian National University on 8 September 2017. 

UntitledAs Gayle Rubin wrote in 1984, “…it is precisely at times such as these, when we live with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, that people are likely to become dangerously crazy about sexuality” (143). In the midst of the contemporary nuclear crisis, the never ending debate about marriage equality seems a fitting topic to apply the theoretical questions I’d like to explore today, about whether we can and should – and indeed how we should – hope for a better world.

UntitledSo the story goes: “it gets better”. This is a common refrain of LGBTIQ youth services in Australia. “It gets better” refers to the promise that when you leave school, you won’t have to deal with bullies any longer – you’ll be free to live your life as a happy LGBTIQ person. Now, for many of us, this isn’t totally wrong. Leaving the social intensity of the schoolyard and becoming independent from family units, can mean that we are able to find new communities of acceptance.

UntitledBut how cruel might this hopeful promise be, when bigotry can be canvassed as state-sanctioned “legitimate debate”, as we are seeing now? When homophobic and transphobic ideas are not originating from the schoolyard itself – as we know, people aged 15-24 are the most avid supporters of marriage equality – but are being shown on television during the nightly news? Perhaps the promise to our children of “it gets better” is a cruel one.

UntitledAs Lauren Berlant writes, “When we talk about an object of desire, we are really talking about a cluster of promises we want someone or something to make to us and make possible for us” (2007, 33). For the “yes” campaign, marriage equality has become the object of desire that contains within it a cluster of promises: a hope about what will get better and for whom.

UntitledBut cruel is the optimism of the segments of the “yes” campaign that refuse to confront the homophobia and transphobia emerging in the debate, and instead seek to win hearts and minds on the basis of respectability, normality, and the idea that “love” is indeed “love”. As Berlant argues, it is a cruel optimism that operates where we live with the toxic conditions of the present labouring under the view that the future will “somehow” deliver something better.

UntitledAnd indeed it is cruelly optimistic to imagine what that future will entail if we do not question the social constitution of futurity in the first instance. As Lee Edelman (1998) argues, it is the child that acts as the pervasive cultural “emblem” of the future, the ultimate signifier of the hope of tomorrow. Edelman explains that while the left operates under a liberalism that sees the elasticity of this signifier extend – children can still signify the future despite queer family arrangements – conservatives cling to a more intense vision of social rupture, that must preserve such signifiers at all costs. The child is not only a symbol of a future horizon, but also a concretely heterosexual future, where heterosexuality is to reproduction is to the child is to the future operate in a circular and spectacular logic.

UntitledThis is precisely what we have seen playing out for over a decade, albeit more sharply in recent times, in the marriage equality debate. While the right have repeated the refrain, “think of the children”, the left too have taken up this mantle, constantly leaning on statistics about the welfare of queer youth or children from queer families in order to make a point of the utter sameness of the child under queer circumstances. In this envisioning, the queer child doesn’t queer the future, rather, the queerness of the child is contained in order to suggest that there is very little threat – only a slight extension – to the more conservative vision.

UntitledAs the recent GetUp ad for marriage equality suggests, in the words of the mother in the heterosexual nuclear family unit, “kids learn their values at home, from their parents, that’s why we’ll vote yes in the upcoming marriage equality vote. And if she asks, we’ll tell her it’s about fairness and kindness”. In this ad there is the removal of the threat of queering of the child, who is represented as safe from having to learn about sexuality or gender diversity because she learns her values from “the family” rather than through programs like Safe Schools. We learn in this ad that marriage equality is no challenge to the social logic of heterosexual normativity: this is the vision of transformation under marriage equality – total preservation of the existing social order.

But Edelman suggests a different approach to this logic is possible. As Edelman writes: “fuck the social order and the figural children paraded before us as its terroristic emblem; fuck Annie; fuck the waif from Les Miz; fuck the poor innocent kid on the ‘Net; fuck Laws both with capital ‘L’s and with small; fuck the whole network of symbolic relations and the future that serves as its prop” (1998, 29). Edelman utterly refuses the “sweetness” of hope and investment in a future, and instead endorses a queer negativity soaks in the bitterness of the present.

UntitledWe might wonder about the astringency of Edelman’s anti-social thesis, in light of the fact that attachment to “same-sex marriage” is currently being enacted by many as a mode of survival. Many have thrown themselves into fighting for a yes campaign precisely in order to assist a striving toward a “getting better”. We might also question the limits of Edelman’s radical presentism and anti-futurity, and if a different kind of future envisioning might be possible without a cruel investment in inevitable progress.

As some have pointed out, Edelman reduces ‘a’ version of the future to ‘the’ version of the future – more radical imaginings of opening up spaces of possibility for queer lives are rendered as as problematic as hegemonic dominant visions of how the future “ought” to be conserved (White 2013, 33). Could there then be a glimmer of a different set of possibilities, a transformed social order, and another logic, to be found? Rather than a cruel and unrupturing hope, can a queer hope be possible?

UntitledAs José Esteban Muñoz offers, “Queerness is a longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of the negative and toiling in the present” (2009, 1). Here Muñoz suggests that we might adopt a concrete utopian imagining where, “the hopes of the collective” are connected to real, lived struggle in the historical present. In other words, we might have “educated hope” (3). In contrast to Edelman, Muñoz insists on the importance of hope as a critical tool, where “hope is spawned of a critical investment in utopia…profoundly resistant to the stultifying temporal logic of a broken-down present” (12).

However as Teresa de Lauretis (2011) also contends, we must read Edelman’s point about negativity not as a call to negativity as the political act, but rather the reflection of a condition of society, the death drive at the heart of it all, where there is always the attempt to overcome and resolve this with positivity and hope. Edelman’s imagining is heterotopic as he reflects this death drive back at us, but argues against its resolution.

UntitledSimilarly Anne Cvetkovich’s (2007) work extends this heterotopic view of society, to get to the “depression” at the heart of things, that is, not the negativity and negation of life, but more specifically the feelings that are part and parcel of occupying this world. As feminists have long argued, “the personal is political”, and we might also extend this to say that we feel politics at the level of the body. Cvetkovich argues that affective states like depression can be political – because while they can be antisocial (in quite a literal way – through withdrawal), there is also the possibility that a new sociality may form through making-public these affective states.

UntitledBut in making the negativity at the heart of things public rather than private, we can also become targeted as the problem rather than merely pointing out the problem. As Sara Ahmed illustrates, the figure of the feminist kill joy who offers critique and anger can be seen as the source of unhappiness: “Does the feminist kill other people’s joy by pointing out moments of sexism? Or does she expose the bad feelings that get hidden, displaced, or negated under public signs of joy?” (2010, 582). In other words, unveiling already circulating – but hidden – negativity is risky business.

UntitledWhile we focus solely on concepts like fairness and kindness, positivity, good stories, the “good homosexual”, or the “unqueer queer child”, the bad feelings at the heart of the marriage equality debate remain occluded and politically impotent. To fail to recognise and name the homophobia and transphobia that are proliferating under conservative discussions in the marriage equality debate is to inadvertently reiterate a narrative of a heteronormative future where “it gets better”. To engage in a queer hopefulness then, is not to shy away from negativity, but rather, to embrace the possible world that it reveals to us.

Screen Shot 2017-09-10 at 5.56.32 PMIt is only in confronting those elements of the present that we would rather deny, from which a truly utopian vision might emerge. In this case, my educated hope is that we will have a marriage equality debate that confronts homophobia and transphobia, that embraces gender and sexual diversity, and that makes space for the LGBTIQ community well beyond the question of marriage.

Worst Lesbian Date Movie Ever

Fact: If you see this film, you're going to have a bad time

Fact: If you see this film, you’re going to have a bad time

Not long ago my girlfriend and I went out to the movies together for a first date. We’d been seeing each other for a little while, but hadn’t had an “official” outing together, and a movie seemed liked a sweet pick. Now my girlfriend’s taste in film can be summed up thus: storyline about food/cooking, attractive older women (e.g. Helen Mirren), slightly progressive tone, feel good transformation of some kind, romantic. But with a dearth of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel on offer, we had to settle for the romance factor promised by Adam Sandler’s new flick, Blended. Having not read even a single blurb about the film, our exact decision making process was Drew Barrymore? Yes. 

We were quite prepared for the heterosexual focus of the film – after all it is very unusual to find a mainstream romantic comedy that even includes LGBT side characters let alone central ones. We were not however, prepared for the barrage of homophobic insults included in the dialogue, the central messages of which were: it’s not okay to be a lesbian and it’s certainly not okay to be gendered differently. I guess that whole Adam Sandler continually making gender offensive films should have been a dead giveaway, but alas.

A distinct lack of chemistry

A distinct lack of chemistry

If you look up rundown of the film, you’ll get descriptions like this:
After a bad blind date, a man and woman find themselves stuck together at a resort for families, where their attraction grows as their respective kids benefit from the burgeoning relationship.

Jim positively ruins his girls by dressing them in comfortable gym gear, etc

Jim positively ruins his girls by dressing them in comfortable gym gear, etc

 

But an honest description would go like this:
A divorced woman with two boys and a widower with three girls are not very attracted to each other. They decide to shack up when they learn that they can actually teach each other’s children how to be appropriately gendered in society. The divorcee who cannot manage to control the freudian sexual impulses of her own boys, finds solace in applying makeup and hair extensions to the girl children. The widower who has managed to raise girls that are very successful at basketball and that dress in comfortable clothes, learns that he is also good at teaching boys how to “be a man” through sport and activity. They come together at a special camp for people struggling to learn how to build a normal family. 

Sounds bad? It was. And that’s not to even mention the overtly racist tones in the “Africa” (country not specified) scenes, where dark skin = dim-witted servant status at the resort they find themselves at. As per usual the darker skinned men in the film were also overtly sexualised (that old trope where  racist assumptions represent certain groups as closer to “nature”, “the body” and therefore sex).

Before: sporty, active, unhappy

Before: sporty, short hair, unhappy

After: quiet, inert, happy

After: shacked up, long hair, happy

The hardest thing for me was listening to the audience laugh at the openly anti-queer jokes, such as when Lauren (Barrymore) and her coworker are caught hugging and then make a series of funnies about how they’re not lesbians (not to mention they work at a wardrobe-sorting business called “Closet Queens” – hilarious). And then there was this beautiful scene, where Lauren approaches Jim’s (Sandler) eldest daughter who is staring wistfully at a boy that won’t acknowledge her existence:

Lauren: Maybe you should just go talk to him.
Hilary: Oh, no, no, I can’t.
Lauren: Have you ever considered changing your hairstyle?

Without blinking, the film gives Hilary a makeover from her “bad lesbian haircut” (as it is referred to) and she instantly gets the guy. Meanwhile Lauren teaches the six year old in the film how to apply makeup properly (unlike her father’s attempt, which makes her “look like the walking dead”) and Jim shows the boys how they can channel their sexual frustration into competitive sports such as boxing and throwing cricket balls at people’s crotches.

It was so unbearable that we were both quite hysterical with disbelief that such a film could still legitimately exist.

But what actually really worked for this film, was that it was so overt in its sexual and gender stereotyping, you could use it in any GEND1001 course as an exemplar par excellence of how heteronormativity functions in society. For example, here’s a few things I picked up from my viewing of Blended:

TBH you literally have to learn how to even touch each other

TBH you literally have to learn how to even touch each other

1. You have to work really hard at being heterosexual and monogamous. Most of the time people fail and become single, on the brink of slipping into gayness. In fact, most heterosexual couples have to go on training camps to really get their act together and make it work. If you don’t try hard enough as a woman, you might find yourself rejecting men altogether and spending too much time with your supportive best friend.

Everyone is a *lot* happier when they look like normal girls

Everyone is a *lot* happier when they look like a normal girl

2. Being appropriately gendered is something you have to learn. One is certainly not born a woman and there are many skills about self-presentation you will need to acquire. Having short hair is not going to cut it for getting a man. Ditto being good at sport or wearing comfortable shoes. Similarly, makeup is not something to play around with, it is serious. If you use too much everyone will see your gender efforts, so hold back. Once you’ve got the skills down, they can be handed from generation to generation via same-sex familial relations.

Stick it out for the good of humanity

Stick it out for the good of humanity

3. To avoid everyone being queer, different or interesting in any way, every family needs a mother and father. The only way to keep a lid on everyone’s non-normative gender and sexual expressions is to keep the family unit together. Sure there might not be much attraction between the mother and the father, but at the end of the day they’re going to have to close their eyes and go in for the kiss for the good of the family, and for the good of the straight world as a whole. It’s a small price to pay to make sure that we don’t get queerly gendered and sexed kids running all over the shop.

So as horrendous as it was, the takeaway from the film is that it is a parody of itself. For all you queer kids out there, let this be something to hold on to: this film reveals the truly laborious and unnatural task that it is to be “normal”.

Why being “born this way” shouldn’t matter

“If you don’t have any shadows, you’re not in the light” – LG

In 2011 Lady Gaga wrote a song that has become a bit on an anthem for the LGBT movement. Though Madonna would like to point out that she helped with the tune, Born This Way is a pretty amazing song for using and normalising terms like bisexual and transgender within a popular realm (plus just generally encouraging the listener to feel empowered). It seems that in this song Gaga is promoting the political line that people should be respected because their attributes are predetermined.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that this is a valuable sentiment and has certainly been a central argument for LGBT activists for some time now. There are already a number of people out there writing about how we aren’t “born” but rather “made” (i.e. socialised into being) and I’m not here to make that contention. My problem isn’t so much with the idea itself, but why we need to make it in the first place.

I just don’t think we should have to argue that someone was genetically pre-determined to be XYZ, in order to accept them as the human being that they are. It just seems silly. Plus this line of reasoning inevitably leads to lynch-mobbing as soon as one LGBT activist says, “well, actually I personally don’t feel I was born this way” (see the Cynthia Nixon debacle). Admittedly the biggest factor beind the born-this-way line of reasoning is probably that it is a reaction to the crazy bucketloads of homophobia and hatred based on the notion that being gay is “immoral” or “unnatural”. And who wouldn’t react to such violent exclusion with an argument that says, I can’t help it, it’s science.

But if we keep trying to win all of our arguments on the basis that it’s science, what happens if one day (some how) they “prove” that sexuality isn’t pre-determined? What then? Do we just chuck out all of our politics? If this ever happened, one way to turn it around would be to say… “so I guess being born ‘straight’ isn’t a thing either…?” And the whole question of the natural versus the unnatural would be turned on its head.

At the end of the day, people should be respected as the human beings that they are. Full stop.