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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How to Smash the Patriarchy with a Small Book

Perusing Yang Lin's new work

Perusing Yang Liu’s new work

Book Review: Man meets Woman by Yang Liu
You often hear of blogsters of the new world gaining financial – and product – benefits from their blogging pursuits. I’m thinking here mostly of the fashion and makeup bloggers that have risen to stardom, who are no doubt constantly being sent designer threads and cool new stuff to put on their faces. Well, here at binarythis.com, I’ve finally reaped the first free thing of my blogging days: a book about gender stereotypes (yes, I have obviously officially made it to the big time). Oh the spoils of blogging about gender! But enough of my bragging – let’s cut to the chase and get on with a review of the thing.

Taschen asked me if I might like to review Yang Liu’s new conceptual book, Man meets Woman. Yang Liu explains in the preface that her work seeks to document the differences in communication between men and women, that she has observed and experienced. The following pages are filled with complimentary sets of graphic images on particular topics such as shopping, sex and illness. Images appearing on the left, on a green background, represent a man’s view, with images on the right a woman’s view, on a pink background. For example, “mysterious objects” reveals that for men the unknown revolves around women’s makeup accoutrements, whereas for women tools and other hardware objects are mysterious.

Liu works with a range of stereotypes from the home to the workplace, providing imagery for many clichés – e.g. a man who sleeps with numerous women is a king, whereas a woman who sleeps with many men is considered easy. While the majority of pages focus on perceived differences between men and women with regard to heterosexual relationships, there is some commentary on same-sex partnerships. Liu’s images reflect a view that gay male couples in society are much more visible than lesbian partnerships.

While looking through Liu’s work, I couldn’t help bristle at many of the reflections on offer. It seems to me that there is a fine line between reflecting stereotypes, and reinforcing them through replication. Liu dances on that line, and I’m still not sure whether I really like the project. Part of the problem is that Liu’s motivations are somewhat difficult to deduce – she states that the images are reflections on a world that she perceives, yet it is not clear whether she is challenging these stereotypes, or merely describing them (and perhaps, reasserting them).

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Liu uses the classic iconography of “man” and “woman” symbols in her work

However, luckily we’re living in a postmodern age where the author is (figuratively) dead, so we can make of texts what we will. At the end of the day, I think that the greatest contribution Man meets Woman makes, is that it acts like a guidebook to stereotypes of men and women today. Do men really find beauty objects mysterious? Are women confused by hammers and screwdrivers? We don’t have to accept these as “truths” but Liu’s capture of these generalisations hints at the social expectations underlying the perceived differences between “men” and “women” in society.

But how are we to ensure that Liu’s book gets taken up in this way – as a challenge rather than a reinforcement of stereotypes (already there are a number of blogs reflecting on the “charming” and “witty” reflections of the book). Never fear – here’s a handy guide to using this small book to smash the patriarchy:

STEP 1: Visit parliamentary question time. Throw copies at the heads of known misogynist politicians.
STEP 2: Go on a guerrilla mission Valerie Solanas style – throw the book at all known misogynist pop artists.
STEP 3: Get someone to bail you out of jail.
STEP 4: Reflect on the stereotypes of the book, and realise that we live in an unjust world where men and women are socialised differently and driven apart.
STEP 5: Become a revolutionary gender warrior.
STEP 6: Use the book for kindling if you get cold while smashing the patriarchy.
STEP 7: The book also doubles as a nice coaster if you need to stop for a refreshing drink.
STEP 8: Show other people the book and talk about how it doesn’t need to be this way.
STEP 9: Work with others to fundamentally reassemble society into a world where gender is plural and fluid, not binary, and doesn’t separate us from each other.
STEP 10: Read the book again, as a bizarre historical artefact capturing an inequitable time.

Sisters, Doing it for Them-selfies

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A “typical” selfie pose

Recently an article, Dark Undercurrents of Teenage Girls’ Selfies, has been doing the social media rounds. Selfie literally refers to taking a photo of yourself, and as the papers would have it, this is a dangerous trend being taken up predominantly by girls. While the author – a grade eleven student – admits that “There isn’t anything inherently wrong with uploading self-portraits”, part of this piece also claims that the underlying motivation is popularity, ultimately judged by men: 

Who do we blame for this moral mess? As feminists, we correctly blame patriarchy because boys are securely at the top of the status game. Boys end up with the authority. They have their cake and eat it.

On the weekend The Observer also jumped on the bandwagon with an ominous appraisal over this “global phenomenon”. Journalist Elizabeth Day argues that even though the selfie allows for a modicum of control over images, “once they are online, you can never control how other people see you”. And as Anna Goldsworthy recently remarked in her piece for the Quarterly Essay:

And so the young woman photographs herself repeatedly, both in and out of her clothes, striking the known poses of desire: the lips slightly parted, the “come hither” eyes, the arched back or cupped breast.

tumblr_mfobi2itwF1rm5ngbo1_500By all accounts, young girls today are not just in big trouble, they are trouble. Unlike every generation before them, these girls are the lewdest, excessively raunchy, most aggressively hypersexual… What we have on our hands is a moral panic that combines two things we love to fret about: technology and women’s bodies.

I think that whether or not selfies are ultimately empowering vs. disempowering is actually a moot point. After all, this line of questioning can only really disseminate along two opposing lines:

  1. Empowering – Girls are in control, and the elements of choice and agency involved in self-constructing images is key. This perspective necessitates extrapolating individual claims out to the whole.
  2. Disempowering – Girls may think they have control when they produce a selfie but really as outsiders we know better: they are the victims of a patriarchal culture that compels them to auto-objectivise. This perspective necessitates making generalisable structural claims to the detriment of considering individual experience.

Both of these lines of argument involve making wide-spread claims to provide a definitive evaluation that the practice of taking selfies is either good or bad. From this black and white approach, the possibility that something might be at once empowering and disempowering, is obscured. But – let’s take an imaginative leap here – what if we decided that actually, the answer to the empowerment question is actually kind of fuzzy…

It's not just young people that get in on selfie action...

It’s not just young people that get in on selfie action…

It is almost certain that, as Olympia Nelson claims, many young people are playing popularity games through selfie posts. But what if we considered the ways in which online environments are opening up new avenues for exploration of identity and selfhood? Capacitating the formation of new communities? Creating space for young people to experiment with different modes of self-expression? Selfies are just one more form of image being produced and reproduced in this world. But why flatten girlhood through this story of the scourge of selfie, and miss the other aspects at play in this question of growing up in an era where online expression is the norm?

Frida Kahlo: doing selfies before it was cool

Frida Kahlo: doing selfies before it was cool

Nelson herself admits that “The real problem relates to conformity” – but unfortunately her morality-tale (clearly sensationalised by the paper, e.g. the byline “a cut-throat sexual rat race”) doesn’t leave room for a more in-depth look at how she herself engages online aside from her general, mostly generalised, examples. It seems to me that there are more interesting questions to ask about being a young person on social media if we can put aside our immediate reactions, dry our sweaty brows for a minute and calm our anxiety over the “youth of today”.

The point is, why not suspend judgement and condemnation of these girls and their online practices? Let’s think of some new ways to engage with questions of technology, sexuality and gendered bodies…without all the panic.

Darth Penis vs. The Training of Men

Ok, so it may seem like a silly task to dissect a flippant popular culture article (although, that is mostly what is done on this blog). However, I got some referrals to this cracked.com article today titled, ‘5 Ways Modern Men Are Trained to Hate Women‘, and by popular demand, thought I would give a considered response. Incase you can’t be bothered looking at the article, here’s the five basic tenets of its argument:

– Boys are indoctrinated with the idea that one day they will be “rewarded” for their efforts in life, with a hot chick. When this doesn’t work out in life, this makes men inevitably turn into the Hulk (that is to say, angry, not giant and green)

– Boys learn that women must always be pretty and decorative eye-candy. They can have a brain/be people too, but they also (mostly) have to be hot. Again, when this is not the case, HULK SMASH

– Men have penises that they can’t help touching (e.g. in public places), they are super horny creatures that just want to get laid 24/7. So when a girl “shows too much skin” this is a major tease, which brings out the big, green, angry man

– Men think that since childhood, women have gradually emasculated their “core male urges” (e.g. stopped them from showing their penis to strangers as a child). This makes men embarrassed and spiteful

– Men are OBSESSED with sex. That is why men have created civilization. To get the hot chicks. The hot chicks which they actually, will probably not get. The hot chicks who they will not get, who show too much skin, and have emasculated them. This all causes resentment and a BUCKET LOAD OF ANGER. HUUUULK

All in all this article reads as a kind of feminist take on why men subordinate women. To be fair, I think that this article is well-intentioned, and has mostly come about in response to the truly misogynous comments made by Rush Limbaugh in the USA recently. However, there are some very, very concerning assumptions made in it, that should be pointed out. The main problem with this article is that it reinforces some pretty serious stereotypes about men and women, even though it is actually trying to challenge some of them. How’s that? Well…

In some respects, this article presents a blurred line between the “constructed” and the “real”. While the article is keen to preach the things that men are “taught”, is also relies on a bunch of statements about men’s “nature”. So while men’s thoughts about being owed sexy women is something that they have learnt, they have an anger-response and ridiculous sex drive that is intrinsic to being a man. The proof in this “base-urge” pudding is given as neuroscience findings, possibly higher testosterone levels in men, evolutionary factors, and/or “maybe society has trained us to be like this”. Despite this little construction-disclaimer (we learned to have these crazy base urges), the article still paints this as a kind of man-truth.

The article actually gets close to questioning the naturalness of the “man” category in point #2, recognising the kind of enforcements of male masculinity often seen in popular culture, but then goes back to talking about how when men are boys “Darth Penis” rules their primal urges to wave their wang in the face of women. So, in all of these senses, this article actually reifies what men are like, in the way in which it talks about the “nature of men”.

Most problematically, when we get to point #1 of the article, that men have constructed civilization to get some lady lovin’, but will forever remain bitter and twisted about it, I can’t help thinking of this:

"I have turned the world upside down"

In the end, I think it’s great to have discussion about what we absorb from the gender norms perpetuated in society- it’s just a shame that often in our questioning, we end up reinforcing the idea that “men” and “women” are discrete and stable categorical realities, and we end up driving that gender binary wedge just a little deeper.