September 22, 2014

Other | November 19, 2009
Femininity is fucking fierce
The feminine shouldn’t have to bow before the masculine
Written by

T he Montreal queer community is often heralded as a hotbed of gender fucking, fluidity, and acceptance. It’s imagined as a place where oppressive gender norms go to die painful (and fabulous) deaths. And if the women’s movement of the sixties and seventies is invoked on the queer scene, it’s to position it as retrograde politics, made reference to only to congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come. When this bolsters a claim to a feminist identity that only seems to require tits and a desire for women as pre-reqs, you know something’s gone awry.

I have an affinity for challenging queers’ (mis)conceptions of femininity. I’m over being called androgynous as a compliment, being told that people don’t see masculinity or femininity, and having my gender presentation read and treated as normative and apolitical. Meanwhile, my lips are smeared with bright pink lipstick, my ass is hanging out of my black satin skirt, and I talk queer and gender politics a mile a minute. The worst, though, is when folks arbitrarily femme it up to celebrate the boundlessness that is the gender galaxy, only to deride femininity as backward and vacant in the next breath.

Let me offer a few caveats to start. Ensuring the “natural formation” of proper femininity in girls is an ongoing societal project. It is annoying at best, and violent at worst. When something like femininity is considered to be developmentally natural in women, it follows that biological aberrations will always be possible. And they must be avoided at all costs. This expectation and enforcement of femininity can feel suffocating, unchosen, and incredibly disempowering. I’m not interested in denying the harsh ways that this can go down and play out in someone’s life. What I am interested in is thinking about the variability of folks’ experiences with femininity.

The century prior to the second-wave women’s movement saw generations of sexologists, psychoanalysts, and biomedical scientists “discovering” and “proving” the naturalness of femininity in women. Combined with the resurgence of the repressive domestic ideal of the fifties, white middle-class women began reacting to these institutionally supported and culturally expected roles with a vengeance. And they did so in droves. One of the most fundamental signs of a feminist consciousness became the enlightened recognition of femininity as inherently oppressive. Tool of the patriarchy? More like a program instituted to establish the complete colonization of women by men. The deployment of femininity as the primary and overriding target of the feminist movement hinged on a strict distinction between sex and gender. While claiming sex (femaleness) as a natural, discrete, and immutable category, they claimed gender (feminine expression, behaviour, and values) as a socially constructed and imposed phenomenon.

This claim had destructive implications and disastrous effects. And let me tell you, the reverberations are palpable. Two broad lines of thought came from the assertion of femininity as an enforced, top-down program used to keep women subordinate. On the one hand, some feminists advocated for a return to the pure, natural, and androgynous femaleness that the patriarchy had butchered and silenced. Sounds a lot like today’s cult of andro queers that snub my unapologetic femme styles. Others sought the explicit rejection of femininity in place of masculine values and behaviours that were imagined as superior and more humane. Reminds me of the bois, butches, and (trans)masculine heroes greeted by oodles of lusting respect in queer spaces. All in all, femininity was conceived of as an oppressive and elaborate mask that could, and should, be taken off – without hesitation. Blush, heels, and miniskirts? Say goodbye to your liberation.

In fighting for a liberalist bastardization of equality – where freedom for women meant being like hyperprivileged men – feminists failed to engage in the strenuous work required to empty the vat of negativity that femininity was soaked in. They reinforced it as inherently weak and inferior, its expression as artificial and confining, and lambasted it as definitively infantilizing, incapacitating, and debilitating. This failure to interrogate the cultural connotation and denigration of femininity proves to be especially problematic when “in its broadest sense, femininity refers to the behaviours, mannerisms, interests, and ways of presenting oneself that are typically associated with those who are female,” as Julia Serano defines it in her book Whipping Girl.

Insofar as a large amount of women are feminine, most women come to stand as anti-feminist victims who are affected by a false consciousness imposed by patriarchal society. Ironically, despite the women’s movement’s keen interest in empowering women, they reproduced the notion that most women are, in fact, uncritical, masochistic, and unresisting dupes. If anything, these sentiments seem quite sexist and misogynistic for a movement that claimed to fight the oppression of women.

In feminist evaluations of femininity, the invisible norm that has and continues to plague the analyses of these arbiters of oppression is the middle-class, cis-gendered, thin, and white abled body. This body cannot serve as a model upon which all experiences of, and relationships to, femininity can be productively judged. Patriarchy is not a uniform and discrete system of power. To isolate patriarchy from other systems of privilege and oppression is to efface and misunderstand the complex ways people interface with society. If misogyny is differentiated and complicated by its interaction with other systems of domination, then how can we even continue to hold onto a critique of femininity that treats it as inherently patriarchal, regressive, and apolitical?
Femininity is an incoherent and non-cohesive set of connected characteristics, behaviours, values, mannerisms, and embodiments. Many of them can be dominated by patriarchal meanings. Many of them are deeply imbued with constellations of inferiority and powerlessness. Many of them are categorically denied to those who are people of colour, working class, fat, disabled, trans, male-assigned, and/or male-identified. If this is a transgressive feminist community chock full of queers, we need to start living up to that title with something substantive.

The most salient point is this: femininity is not a stable or singular entity. If we’re going to call ourselves feminists, we need to recognize that there is always room for resistance and that everyone can engage in it. Taking on femininity when you’re not supposed to is an act of power. Embodying femininity in a culture that disparages it is an act of power. Loving femininity when you’re taught to hate it is an act of power. Doing femininity with a confrontational, take-no-shit attitude is an act of power. These actions arm femininity: they make it political, they make it critical, and they make it fucking fierce.

Lisa Miatello writes in this space every other week. She’ll be returning after winter break. If you miss her, tell her: radicallyreread@mcgilldaily.com.

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