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?



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.


Revisiting International Woman’s Day

IWD: what's it really about?

IWD: what’s it really about?

Every year on March 8 International Women’s Day rocks around and each time I find myself deeply troubled by events being held in its name. I’ve written about IWD before (which, upon re-reading led me to the awkward realisation that keeping an academic blog means that any early or continuing naivety is laid bare before the world). To save you from reading it: I had attended a luncheon being held in my city that I found irksome for its ethnocentric focus on the foreign woman as “Other” – the (apparent) victim of sisterhood’s failure to go global. I also had a problem with the speakers’ general reinforcement of the binary man/woman given that there was no critical discussion of the concept of gender. Then (and this is the bit I feel retrospectively weird about) I went on to lament how bad it is to exclude men because we’re so busy shoring up women’s rights.

Successful old white guys: usually the best feminists?

So a few of those qualms hold true: I still find the championing of “look how far we’ve come, let’s go save those women over there!” problematic, and I wish that there were more focus on debates about gender on this day. But I feel strange about my “what about men too” plea because I think that really missed the point of what I was trying to say – and it took an IWD event planned for 2014 to make me realise this. I won’t name the event, or who’s organising it, but basically they’re holding a IWD talk with two notable and powerful men and one less notable but still “successful” woman as the key speakers (does this not remind anyone of that episode of Parks and Recreation where Lesley Knope creates a committee for women and all of the people elected to it end up being men?).

Not wanting to prematurely judge this lineup, I called the event organiser to see what the reasoning was for these keynotes. The organiser told me that originally they had planned to have just one woman and one man, and then another prominent man had contacted them and they couldn’t say no. They told me that ultimately it was a great thing, because they are big names and are attracting lots of people for the event. I was also reminded by the organiser that men should be champions of gender too, and that the burden of change for women should be on everyone’s shoulders.

Women originally had to be champions of change because no one else cared

Women originally had to be champions of change because no one else cared

Now of course I agree that far too often in history the question of gender has been imagined as solely the domain of women. But let’s not forget that the women’s movement (at least in its second incarnation) emerged in part from men in the 1960’s New Left dismissing “women’s business”. For example, when Shulamith Firestone and Jo Freeman proposed that women be equally represented on the committee of the National Conference for a New Politics in Chicago in 1967, they were told to “cool down”. In other words, women became the spokespersons for gender issues because nobody else would take them seriously. So of course it’s great that men are taking it on board now, but does it not seem absurd that as part of this men would actually be allocated a greater amount of time to speak on a day when we should be challenging norms of representation?

The "successful" woman: is this what IWD is about?

The “successful” woman: is this what IWD is about?

And I’m not suggesting that this conundrum would be fixed by a 50-50 split: the problem is much deeper than that and at a fundamental level involves (from what I can see) a dominant picture of IWD as a day to celebrate “successful” women and consider how we can make other women “successful” too. The problem with this narrow raison d’être is that it then seems reasonable that men are the notable speakers – hell why not an entire panel of men championing women? If all we care about is promoting women to be successful, it doesn’t matter that we’re not hearing from women. It doesn’t matter that we’re not hearing about the lived experiences of gender from people in community. It doesn’t matter that the panel is all white, all straight, all “successful”. Who cares – all we want to talk about on IWD is getting women up that ladder.

What could we do instead of this same-old neoliberal IWD claptrap? Well, we could hold a range of talks or events that would actually apply some ideas from gender studies to IWD. Basically my ideal IWD would include discussion of these kinds of topics:

– The colour of feminism: intersectionality and feminism’s blindspots (e.g. different women of colour talking about their experiences)
– Queering feminism: where does LGBTQI fit in to the feminist movement? (e.g. LGBTIQ people talking about feminism)
– Why feminism is a radical idea (e.g. some second wavers and some young feminists talking about their perspectives)
– Genderism vs. feminism: how should we talk about gender? (e.g. some academic and/or community perspectives)
– Gender in the everyday (e.g. single mums speak out)
– Embodiment: how do bodies matter to gender? (e.g. trans women talking about their experiences)
– Gender roles vs. expression: what are masculinity and femininity? (e.g. trans people, femmes, academics, etc talking about different ideas)

IWD could involve discussions with and by a whole range of people from the community

IWD could involve discussions with and by a whole range of people from the community

This could include people of all different backgrounds and notoriety. You could have people with fiercely different ideas about what gender means, what being a woman means and what feminism should hope to achieve. The day would probably be full of severe debate as we realise our radically different perspectives on these issues and listen to people’s lived experiences. It may sound arrogant to propose involving people from across the community in some discussions which would be quite academic – but don’t forget, feminist writing has always straddled the popular/academic divide. And why not invite people from the community to speak instead of just women who have “made it”? Usually we only consider women who are earning lots of money and are well-known names to draw a crowd. And while men would be involved for sure, these might be trans men, gay men, young men in a new age of masculinity…men with diverse experiences of gender too. One thing’s for certain, the event would not be 2/3 old white guys.