Sparkle and Embracing the Feminine

22 08 2008

I’ve been really bad at keeping up with my google reader, so I just now got around to reading Octo’s post on Feministe about “sparkle.” Sparkle (I love this term), as Octo uses it, is ‘a catch-all for burlesque, sex work, fashion, any kind of sexy display or fashion statement.”

There’s always lots of feminist debate about whether or not sparkle can be feminist, or anti-patriarchy, and you usually wind up with sex-positive feminists on one side and radfems on the other. This debate is kind of exhausting, and seems rather counterproductive, because it often ends with sex-positive feminists focusing on a woman’s right to make independent choices about her body, and radfems talking about false consciousness and having bought into the patriarchy. Which basically, as I hear it, boils down to: “you don’t know what’s best for you, or your feminism, so we will tell you and discredit what you’re saying at the same time.” That’s surely an oversimplification, and if it wasn’t already clear, I don’t identify as a radfem, but that’s at least what it sounds like from where I’m sitting.

I don’t necessarily identify as a femme. I embrace my femme side, but it’s not an everyday thing. These days, when it comes to a label for my gender presentation, I’ve been toying around with fetch (femme + butch + new pop slang = awesome!?), and in the past appropriated a friend’s phrase “quirky femme,” but I haven’t committed 100% to any of them. Since cutting my hair and coming out (which happened at similar times, but weren’t causally related), I’ve felt more comfortable embracing my butch side. Something about making active choices (coming out, not my queerness) that fly in the face of conventional beauty standards has made it easier to be comfortable with my less femme tendencies. But this also scares me, because I think it is SO important that queer communities not reject or abandon the feminine.

Perhaps it’s just MY queer community, and it’s not necessarily reflected in mainstream representations of queer women, but it often feels like there are extra hotness points that go along with being butch. My sweetie has been referred to on more than one occassion as “the hot butch” on campus (despite not identifying as butch, but that’s a different issue), and she was one of many “good looking” female-bodied folks on campus whose gender presentation fell somewhere on the spectrum of masculinity. I think the sorts of standards of beauty enforced and glorified in queer communities are subject to a lot of complicated intersectional issues, which I’m not really going to go into in this post, but I do recognize a tendency to embrace masculinity at the expense of femininity.

Clearly being butch or gender non-conforming and on the transmasculine spectrum isn’t just about being a hottie, and is often dangerous, complicated, and queered up the wazoo (this all should be a *duh* point, but I know it’s not, so I’m reiterating). This post is in no way intended to minimalize the identities, challenges, or lived experiences of masculine presenting queer folks, and I’m more so talking about communities’ objectification of and desire for masculinity, as opposed to individual’s with masculine or transmasculine gender presentations. This is about what WE as a collective, are elevating and prioritizing, not how any individual person feels comfortable presenting or identifying. This is also not to ignore the lack of visibility or representation of masculine-presenting and gender non-conforming female-bodied people, butch women, or FTM trans people in mainstream gay and lesbian organizations, publications, and in the media. There are very real issues that we as a community, and members of our community are facing. But those should not allow us to ignore self-reflection and thinking about how sexism is perpetuated even in feminist, queer, and radical communities.

What I’m interested in talking about is how things like radfem’s rejection of sparkle, and the glorification of queer butch women, might both be connected to a rejection of the feminine. In both cases, it seems to me like that which is “girly” and “feminine” is being rejected in favor of more traditionally masculine qualities.

Feminists have, for years, been railing against patriarchally enforced standards of beauty – and quite rightfully so! Beauty standards suck, and serve to police and control women by basing our self-worth on how attractive others deem us, and by prompting us to criticize and hate on other women and their bodies. That’s some seriously shitty stuff.

But I think that perhaps we got derailed somewhere. What’s shitty is the patriarchy, and how it goes about controlling women, not femininity. My boss who forces me to wear lipstick is an asshole, but it’s not my lipstick’s fault. So my anger should be directed at my boss, not my tube of lipstick And when I wear a short skirt and heels because my muscular calves and the wind brushing past my thighs give me confidence and make me feel sexy? It’s the asshole cat-callers who are manifesting the patriarchy, not my calves and thighs (shaved or not). Hating on the patriarchy should be just that – hating on the patriarchy, not hating on that which is deemed “feminine.” That’s what the patriarchy does all the time, why do we need to help it out? Why are feminists rejecting things that are deemed feminine as though they are dirty and bad and anti-feminist? Why capitulate to the standards set by misogynists and sexist losers?

It seems to me that, though I understand where the rationale is coming from, criticizing women for choosing to do sex work, or wear lipstick and heels, is placing the blame for patriarchy back onto the shoulders of those of us suffering under it already. Why would feminists argue that “sparkle” ie “girly stuff” is bad? We spend a lot of time and energy explaining why women are not lesser than men, but on some level, seem to play into this same equation by hating on “traditional” expressions of femininity. This is, I think, an example of how insidious patriarchal power is. Even our feminism can be co-opted by the feminine = bad, masculine = good binary, even as we work to prove that women aren’t bad or less than.

Also often overlooked or lost in these conversations about radical, and potentially queer, femininity, are trans women. This isn’t just about makeup and heels, this internalized sexism and misogyny is also reflected in the way people are treated and the way in which oppressive dynamics of power are perpetuated in our community. Trans women are excluded and marginalized in queer women’s communities, some FTM-dominated trans communities, and feminist communities – often in very particular ways, this is not just a matter of transphobia, but specifically transmisogyny. Trans women, like Angie Zapata, Sanesha Stewart, and Ebony Whitaker (just to name 3 from this year) are murdered because they aren’t woman enough. Because the boundaries of femininity are patrolled with violence, weapons, and brutality. And these are the women – women who are beaten and murdered, women who are victims of violence because of their gender (we call that violence against women, and are supposed to care about it, as feminists, right?) – that we are excluding and marginalizing in feminist communities and women’s spaces.

Julia Serano defines Transmisogyny thus: Sexism that specifically targets those on the trans female/trans feminine spectrums. It arises out of the a synergetic interaction between oppositional and traditional sexism. It accounts for why MTF spectrum trans people tend to be more regularly demonized and ridiculed than their FTM spectrum counterparts, and why trans women face certain forms of sexualization and misogyny that are rarely (if ever) applied to non-trans women.

Violence against women is an unbelievably awful manifestation of sexism and misogyny, and feminists and allies have responded by creating shelters and safe spaces, by educating our communities (like I do for work), by marching, by passing legislation, by protecting our communities, and by refusing to be quiet while our sisters are victimized. And yet we exclude some women, women who are already penalized for not being “woman enough” or the “right kind of woman” are locked out and further marginalized by those of us who should be allies. And isn’t that the rhetoric perpetrators use to try to justify their violence? They claim that they were trying to make ‘their’ woman act like a ‘proper woman’? Trying to ‘put her in her place’? We simultaneously seem to be both patrolling the borders of a “feminist” gender presentation, creating a hierarchy of subversion, radicalness, and ‘real feminism’ while women die in the streets and in their homes by other people with their own brand of vigilante gender border enforcement.

As she recently wrote on Alternet, in an article titled “Rethinking Sexism: How Transwomen Challenge Feminism”:

It is also common for trans feminine spectrum individuals to be called out for “reinforcing the gender binary” more so than their counterparts on the trans masculine spectrum. This is due, in part, to the fact that female and feminine appearances are more readily and routinely judged in our society than male and masculine ones. And because concepts like “transgression” and “rebellion” tend to be coded as “masculine” in our culture, whereas “conformity” and “conventionality” are typically coded as “feminine,” there is an unspoken bias that leads masculine transgender expression to be seen as more inherently transgressive than feminine transgender expression. Indeed, such unconscious presumptions about masculinity and femininity have surely contributed to the tendency exhibited by many feminists to praise women who engage in traditionally “masculine” endeavors, while expressing anywhere from apathy to antagonism toward men who engage in traditionally “feminine” endeavors. In fact, one could make the case that historically feminism has been predisposed toward “trans-masculinism” — that is, favoring gender transgression in the masculine direction.

In trying to challenge patriarchal standards of femininity, have we perhaps gone a step too far, and begun to internalize that demonization of the feminine? How do we step back, and embrace the femme, the feminine, and femininity in our communities – without reasserting that it is the one right way to be a woman, or to be female? Feminists, particularly ciswomen, need to prioritize the celebration of the feminine, embrace the femmes in our communities and make sure that queer spaces and women’s spaces are safe space for trans women. We need to stop patrolling those borders of ‘proper’ gender expression, because while some of us are ‘just’ closing doors on people, or clucking our tongues at another woman’s lipstick and stilettos, some people are using their power to dictate proper gender expression with fists, guns, fire-hydrants, and knives, with fear and violence. Those aren’t people we want to align ourselves with, even unintentionally, I promise.

And while we’re at it and thinking about trans-inclusion, about being trans allies and building a trans-positive feminism, let’s also remember that not all trans women have a hyper-feminine gender presentation, and embrace and support other women, as feminists – no matter their gender identity or presentation.

I also want to be clear, I’m not arguing that maintaining patriarchal standards of beauty = feminism. Because standards of self-worth based on unrealistic expectations for women’s bodies are all sorts of crappy, and plague girls from an ever younger age. What I am saying, though, is that it’s possible (and necessary) to distinguish between patriarchally maintained and enforced standards of beauty, and symbols of femininity. I think it is incredibly important to emphasize the value of women’s minds, and to teach girls (and each other) that we are valuable for all of our unique and wonderful parts. But by that, I really do mean all, and I don’t think it’s a zero sum game. We can be feminists, and be strong, kick-ass, smart, empowered women in heels and lipstick. We can have agency and nailpolish, they are not mutually exclusive.

Audre Lorde’s reminder about the master’s tools is an oft-repeated feminist mantra. There is, I believe, quite a bit of value to it. But I have some carpentry experience, too, and I know that while a few bad support beams can make a house uninhabitable and unsafe, it doesn’t mean that the siding is entirely shot to shit by association.

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4 responses

3 09 2008
laurynx

Hi,
This really needs to be said more and louder. Transmisogyny for folks like radfems is a phenomenon that doesn’t even exist, but get perpetrated by them and much of society all of the time. I ID as femme; since when have radfems glorified butches? Isn’t the general line that they HATE butch-femme. Seeing it as an “aping of heterosexual roles” and “butches denying that they are women”….on and on.
Many queer women definitely feel freer to express their own unique gender expression once they come out. For me being in the presence of and realizing I liked butches made me feel sooo much more comfortable about being very feminine. Around men I felt the need to be less feminine, suppressing it since it’s seen as weak (despite being “prized”). Downing of trans feminine folks is really just taking up dominant culture attitudes about women and femininity.

14 09 2008
sublimefemme

Hi, I just came across your blog and I love this post. I’m going to bookmark it so it’s up on my blog. Stop by and visit me sometime. I’d love to have your thoughts on my latest post on butch/femme and feminism!

4 10 2008
silverfem

Are the words are getting in the way of the essence? Embracing the beauty within takes many forms, and the definition of what is beautiful is for us to decide for ourselves. We may choose to agree with some and not with others, but we cherish the right to choose our own definition of beauty.
When an employer requests a “dress” standard for safety of effective work performance it is legal. Any other request is not.
When we choose a “look” for work that impedes our ability to get our job done, we are hurting ourselves and our cause by making our “look” a focus and metric of value, instead of our talents, competence, or intellect. In that way, our choice feeds the same twisted societal disfunction against which we have railed for decades.
I’m not sure how to heal our warped social attitudes but creating a wider gulf doesn’t necessarily bridge the differences, though it may be necessary for gathering and strengthening ourselves. Words can clarify our message. But both the gulf and the words can exacerbate the problems too.

2 03 2009
On Foucault and Sex Work « Avowed Virago

[…] debates. I definitely feel more aligned with the sex-positivity end of the feminist spectrum, and I am profoundly uncomfortable with the way that a lot of “radfem” feminists berate and criticize sex with men, sex […]

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