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Feb 06 2012

The Artifice Of Femininity

There’s a certain scene included in virtually every film, documentary or television series depicting MtF transgenderism. It’s worth at least one shot in the trans documentary drinking game, and is usually framed facing a mirror, looking over her shoulders into a trans woman’s reflection. She’s carefully applying her make-up. Putting on her face. The camera may lovingly detail the painstaking process of assembling her outfit, perhaps putting on a wig or plucking her eyebrows, painting her nails or fastening her bra, pulling her socks over her knees or squeezing her feet into her six-inch stiletto boots. Perhaps a quip gets thrown in about how beauty is pain, and she remarks on  how the work, effort and sacrifice is worth it to be a woman.  Bit by bit we follow along as she constructs her female self to present to the world. She puts on her disguise.

I hate this scene.

Womanhood is neither a construct nor a disguise. But everyone includes it, since it’s an assumption that runs through our entire cultural conceptions of gender: femininity is artifice. Trans-femininity doubly so.

Do you remember when Lady Gaga did her drag king thing on the Video Music Awards? Her king persona (Joe something?) was a stripped down folk-rocker. No frills music for a no frills rocker in a no frills gender. I think there’s something there worth deconstructing.

In our present system of gender, when drawing the lines between femininity and masculinity, we’ve positioned the latter as being the natural, stripped down, down-to-earth, nice and simple, no-frills, no-frivolity concept. We like to imagine that the masculine is just pragmatic and to the point, lacking in any unnecessary aesthetic considerations. We imagine it to be efficient and direct. Conversely, the feminine is believed to be artifice, an elaborate costume, all just poses and aesthetics and frivolous dalliance, wholly lacking in any pragmatic value. It’s an ornament, rather than a tool, and is anything but direct, instead regarded as endlessly complex, subtle, mysterious and intuitive. Full of uncanny, inscrutable excesses like feelings and beauty and style. The feminine is fey, precious, wild, unknowable. The masculine is rational, basic, objective, and ever so apparent.

But to what degree is any of this hinged on reality? To what degree is the feminine truly more artificial, posed, frivolous or aesthetic than the masculine? And what consequences does this dichotomy threaten?

These kinds of knapsacks are always a little tedious to unpack. It always boils down to going through the preconceptions one by one. Reach in, pull something out: stereotypically male hobbies like sports, poker and cars vs. stereotypically female hobbies like celebrity gossip, knitting and fashion. The latter three are consistently regarded as frivolous while the first three go unquestioned as simple, charmingly “universal”, easily understandable pastimes. But comparing each to their counterparts we can’t see any particularly noticeable differences in the degree to which one or the other is necessarily more natural or pragmatic than the other.

Sports and celebrity gossip are more or less both developing narratives set through arbitrarily defined structures and expectations, through which we can construct stories to share with others who follow the same icons. Both are in a basic way connected to something with a degree of direct cultural or entertainment value, but both end up primarily being about sharing (or debating) the agreed-upon story with your friends and co-workers the following day. But sports is the “universal” narrative while celebrity gossip is “shallow”, “pointless” and “banal”. Both poker and knitting are basically a relatively inconsequential activity which we use as an excuse for social interaction with a small set of close friends, the activity providing a sort of framework for allowing the social interaction to flow a bit more smoothly and easily. But again, poker is held up as the more natural and less frivolous of the two. And both cars and fashion have an underlying pragmatic value, but it ultimately becomes about aesthetic enjoyment, appreciation for craft, a shared cultural language and participatory narrative, symbolic of infinite deeper meanings, a means of feeling confident or powerful or sexy, and a means of self-expression. But interest in cars, no matter how much it deviates from the pragmatic goal of getting from Point A to Point B, no matter how much it becomes blatantly about the aesthetics and self-expression rather than the…well…CAR, is regarded as practical while interest in clothes or shoes is regarded as superficial, shallow and a waste of time and money, something that guys will never ever understand, and shouldn’t be expected to.

-sigh-

Reach in, take something out: men’s fashion compared to women’s fashion. Granted, there are some pretty significant differences here. Differences I happen to know A WHOLE LOT about, and would love to discuss in depth some day soon. But a lot of those differences are exaggerated well beyond reason to prop up the natural/artifice dichotomy. We do, for instance, say that certain male clothing styles are a sort of anti-fashion, devoid of any considerations beyond the immediate need of not-being-naked. The funny thing is, this anti-fashion itself becomes a fashion. It even changes over time: what was regarded as the basic, no fuss, totally-pragmatic men’s clothing choice of 1956 is not the same as the basic, no fuss, totally-pragmatic men’s clothing choice of 2012. The degree to which this “non-style” is capable of such dramatic permutations from decade to decade is strongly indicative of the fact that there’s a whole lot more going on than just putting on what’s required to not die from exposure.

Men even make choices to present different variations upon the theme of “natural” and “down to earth”… the down to earth in t-shirt and jeans, the down to earth in a simple business suit, the down to earth in a plaid flannel work-shirt with jeans and a sturdy pair of boots, the down to earth in a hockey jersey and baggy cargo pants, the down to earth in a pastel polo with a pair of white chinos, etc. None of these styles are any more or less a pose than any other. They’re all just different forms of posing a lack of pose. Different ways of affecting the absence of affectation.

Even the precise pattern and colours of a plaid are devised with aesthetic considerations in mind. Every single man, whether he admits it or not, will be capable of finding one shirt ugly and another appealing. I have no idea how many would be willing to apply the adectives “beautiful” or “cute”, however. Too girly. Might get cooties.

Reach in, take something out: the idea that women are full of near-mystical intuitions while men are single-mindedly purposeful, rational and focused on immediate goals. Reach in, take something out: the idea that women’s feelings are complex and inscrutable, beyond the ken of mortal men, while men are simple, thick-skulled gits with no emotions and only one thing on their minds. Reach in, take something out: that women take this impossibly pointless amount of time in the bathroom obsessing over their appearance, while men are only doing what needs to be done as efficiently as they can (fun thing I’ve learned: my make-up and hair, even when I choose to straighten with my flat-iron, does not meaningfully take any longer than shaving my face did).

And you keep at it until the knapsack ends up (hopefully) empty.

What I’m really interested in here is not the whole knapsack, though, just how these ideas construct and maintain the subconscious conception of femininity as something artificial, that a femme woman (or man) is an aesthetic and conceptual elaboration upon a blank (masculine) slate. The idea that while a man simply is, a woman is fabricated from foundation, hair extensions, lace, blush, conditioner, lipstick, fancy soaps, brushes, nail polish, heels, silk, bobby pins, handkerchiefs, hand lotion, push-up bras, jewelry, silicone, sugar, spice and everything nice.

Repeatedly, throughout our culture and media, so often we’re almost incapable of noticing it when it happens, we’re presented with the concept that a feminine identity cannot possibly be a natural one. It must be superficial. It cannot possibly be a natural, honest expression of one’s underlying personality. It is done as a deliberate obfuscation of her natural state or as attempt to achieve certain results through a mindfully crafted persona and appearance. All masculine presentation, so the concept goes, is necessary and genuine while all feminine presentation is superfluous and dishonest. Even feminism ended up supporting this conception, imagining femininity as nothing but a construct of the patriarchy imposed upon women, a means of brainwashing them into passive subservience (even though there is nothing intrinsically subservient or dominated about being femme… it can be, and often is, in fact an expression of power, confidence and radical assertion of the self).

Queer identities and politcs have been roped into this game. Since the 19th century, gay male identity was associated with the aesthetic and the posed. “Affected” itself was even used as a synonym for gay in England in the first half of the 20th century. As the gay culture developed in reaction to its pathologization, its heroes were people like Wilde,Warhol and Crisp, champions of the legitimacy of style over substance (as though the two were ever in conflict, or even distinct),  while masculine gay men like Rock Hudson were used as fodder for constructing the concept of “acting straight”. As though gayness itself were in the degree to which one could be imagined as shallow, artificial or aesthetically inclined, rather than to “act gay” simply meaning to engage in a homosexual act, and “act straight” meaning to engage in heterosexual acts.

Trans women were of course, as soon as we’d emerged in public consciousness, used as a sort of ultimate weapon in the fight to cast femininity and womanhood as merely a construct rather than an honest expression of self. We were exactly what the struggle to maintain patriarchal concepts of male and masculine as the “neutral” or “default” state needed at that moment. A group of women who appeared at first glance to be entirely superficial, cosmetic, artificial and constructed. Our cultural icons, like Candy Darling or Roberta Close, were marked by beauty, whereas in the case of trans women who made significant contributions or accomplishments, like Lynn Conway, Sandy Stone or Wendy Carlos, their transsexuality was either heavily downplayed or used as a weapon against them,

For us, we do need to fight to be women. We need to work against the natural state of our bodies. But it is ONLY the bodies that we really seek to change (and even that isn’t a given), not our identities or selves, and the female traits that are expressed through the use of hormones already existed as natural potentials in our genetic structure. Media conceptualizations emphasise the surgical, prattle on as much as possible about breast implants and brow recontouring, discuss a dramatic process of changing into a new person, making it sound as medically difficult and scientifically miraculous as they can, finally summing up this process of fabricating an artificial woman in the inevitable “before”/”after” comparison, in which they present the most stereotypically masculine picture of us as a child they can find to drive home the degree to which modern science has managed to create this wholly new being.

What never receives focus is the degree to which this is for us a process that typically feels natural and like a relief, an unburdening of unnatural constraints… how the woman was not constructed, but already there. How transition is not about becoming a new person, but allowing yourself to stop hiding the person you already really were. What ends up on the cutting room floor are our discussions of how we fabricated and constructed an artificial male pose.

Yes. We constructed our masculinity. The masculinity was the disguise, the unnatural state, the artifice, the pose that we crafted. It, not the femme, was superficial and shallow. It was the aesthetic consideration we had to deliberate upon and mind the details. It was the face we put on in the morning. It was the mannerisms we choreographed. The clothes we carefully chose. The uncomfortable shoes.

An artifice of masculinity.

But in so far as trans women’s narratives are accepted, they are accepted in a manner in which they challenge cultural assumptions of gender as little as possible. Our existence is already a fundamental threat to basic assumptions of masculine prefeability. Adding in the degree to which we threaten the assumption that masculinity is a natural state, that it’s not something learned, trained or affected with a particular aesthetic dictated by the whims of style, would just make us far, far too dangerous.

So instead we get used and out narratives and experiences misrepresented to drive home the point that there’s nothing real or valuable about the feminine. We get filmed in front of mirrors, putting on our make-up, squeezing into uncomfortable shoes, and griping about all the incredible effort and pain that goes into being femme. As though there were no effort or pain at all involved in being masculine.

Hah!

The pain of wearing heels or plucking my eyebrows is fuck all compared to the pain of denying, suppressing and hating who I was while hiding behind a male mask for twelve years.

Part of me wonders if this plays into the way that butch or tomboy trans women are not acknowledged in media at all. I’m sure there are many, many layers to this erasure, but the fact that such women suggest that a female identity is not the same thing as a feminine identity, that gender expression, gender identity, sexual orientation and physical sex do not determine one another and can occur in any combination, and that it is possible to transition to being female with very little artifice or make-up involved, that transition can consist almost entirely of simply stripping away a masculine and male disguise, that is just something that could too easily bring the patriarchal/binary house of cards crashing to the ground.

Of course, this is all just an act and persona. I don’t mean any of this. I’m just trying to seem like one of those smart quirky hipster chicks, like Zooey Deschanel. I like her style, and guys are into smart chicks. Do you think I’d seem more activist and feminist with patterned black stockings, or with red leggings?

“Being natural is simply a pose, and the most irritating pose I know.”

-Oscar Wilde

49 comments

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  1. 1
    Second Thought

    Great post. Having grown up a Tomboy and still having a lot of traits that are considered masculine (yet being very comfortable as a woman) the construction of gender roles is very interesting to me. I appreciate your thoughts and your perspective. Thanks.

  2. 2
    Christianne

    I don’t remember the last time I wore make-up. Probably the event where my avatar was photographed, almost a year ago. The thing that infuriates me about the narrative of constructed femininity based on the use of make-up (or fashion) is that it ignores certain practical necessities. If a trans woman hasn’t had sufficient hair removal, of course she’s going to wear make up. It’s not about constructing femininity so much as it’s about deconstructing masculinity. For myself, once I was to a point where I didn’t need to wear make-up on a daily basis–I had a very dark and very thick beard–I pretty much stopped.

    “Part of me wonders if this plays into the way that butch or tomboy trans women are not acknowledged in media at all. I’m sure there are many, many layers to this erasure, but the fact that such women suggest that a female identity is not the same thing as a feminine identity, that gender expression, gender identity, sexual orientation and physical sex do not determine one another and can occur in any combination, and that it is possible to transition to being female with very little artifice or make-up involved, that transition can consist almost entirely of simply stripping away a masculine and male disguise, that is just something that could too easily bring the patriarchal/binary house of cards crashing to the ground.”

    ^^^This. Fucking THIS!

    1. 2.1
      Anders

      No. I’m afraid not this. I think you have far too much belief in simple facts and the brittleness of houses of cards. I’m not old, and during my time ‘capitalism’ has already been declared dead three times – Occupy Wall Street being the latest occasion. Hell, people pronounced the end of capitalism in 1870. But it has certainly changed. And so I expect the patriarchy to do as well. But in the end, the demon barber has it correctly as always:

      The history of the world, my love
      Is those below serving those up above!

      Yes, I’m feeling low today.

  3. 3
    Anon

    Hi, I’m a cis-male, but this:

    “Yes. We constructed our masculinity. The masculinity was the disguise, the unnatural state, the artifice, the pose that we crafted. It, not the femme, was superficial and shallow. It was the aesthetic consideration we had to deliberate upon and mind the details. It was the face we put on in the morning. It was the mannerisms we choreographed. The clothes we carefully chose. The uncomfortable shoes.”

    rings so true to me too, I often feel that I have to put on a ‘front’ of masculinity to ‘pass’ as a regular guy at work or out with friends at the pub, or choosing clothes that I feel I could ‘get away’ with wearing. I know it’s sad, but I don’t quite know how to express myself and what response I would get. Truthfully, I would often be more comfortable being more ‘feminine’ I suppose, but where would I even start?

    Thank you for giving me a lot to think about. Your writing is really rather wonderful.

    1. 3.1
      Praedico

      “…choosing clothes that I feel I could ‘get away’ with wearing”

      It’s not even specifically ‘feminine’ clothes, either. Even traditionally ‘masculine’ or unisex clothes that have the same look/feel as feminine attire are seen as bad for men to wear, unless you’re from a culture that specifically condones that item. Even then, you’ll probably be mocked.

      I once travelled up to Scotland by coach for a couple of days in Edinburgh. I wore jeans on the trip up, and only had jeans to wear while I was there. The whole time I was in Edinburgh, I was wondering if I could ‘get away’ with wearing a kilt (which, let’s be honest here guys, IS a skirt) on the trip back down to Yorkshire, because it would be SO much more comfortable. I wore jeans on the trip back down. I’m not Scottish, and I didn’t feel like being mocked just so I could feel less restricted on the coach.

      I used to play EverQuest 2, where mage’s robes (for both male and female characters) consisted of a long robe, worn over pants. People still complained about their male mages being forced to wear a ‘dress’.

      David Beckham was soundly mocked in all corners of the media for wearing a sarong once. Sarongs are unisex, and worn by men in a variety of places around the globe, but David Beckham is white, and therefore must never wear anything resembling a skirt. While I support the mocking of David Beckham for many reasons, his choice to wear comfortable clothing is not one of them.

      1. Rasmus

        I don’t know about the kilt, but what if you would take the same jeans that you wore on your bus trip and sew on a few decorations? Maybe something pink, purple, or even baby blue. Add a colorful belt with a cute belt buckle…

        No?

        The funny thing is that women can buy women’s jeans from the women’s section that are made to look like they were borrowed from a guy.

        It’s not extremely uncommon for skinny guys to wear girl jeans, but then we’re talking about plain jeans that don’t look particularly feminine or different from guy jeans.

        1. F [is for failure to emerge]

          But skirts are way more comfortable in a variety of circumstances. OK – not necessarily all skirts. And maybe skirts is what you like, not jeans that are more “feminine”.

          I like skirts, but have no intent to express any particular femininity by wearing one. Even in a rather safe, understanding, and accepting space, wearing a skirt/kilt raises identity questions. In most spaces, it gets one judged against normative values and identities. Which is crap. People need to be free.

          1. AnonyMaNonny

            This reminds me (female, but tomboy) of when, as a child, I asked my parents in all seriousness why I had to wear a dress if my brother didn’t have to. This was during an argument when I was ~8 yo and trying to get out of wearing a skirt, which I always found to be a very uncomfortable and impractical piece of clothing. I got “you know better than to ask something like that!” in response (meaning, you are just being a brat by asking that question – just do what I tell you and stop being contrarian). I only realized much later that I was right to question it, and my parents (who of course should know everything) were just ignoring a big fat cultural bias (despite being “liberals”); I had more skeptic skillz than them at 8. Why the heck can’t anyone wear whatever they feel like wearing?

  4. 4
    cadrpear

    You know it’s a well-written and thought-provoking article when every other paragraph is worthy of being its pull quote.

  5. 5
    Emily

    I am pretty sure those documentary film makers would find me incredibly boring. No makeup unless it’s a special occasion, jeans. Well, my tops are kind of cute, but I’ve got plenty of t-shirts mixed in. ( Well, it is winter and I am building a wardrobe from scratch. Most of my clothes are from Goodwill ). And lookie, I haven’t had any surgery at all, yet I pass in public just fine! The what do I do during the day? Classes, work, and usually additional stuff (like programming) on the computer. See? I’m boring and don’t fit the narrative at all.

    1. 5.1
      beardofpants

      I’m the same. I honestly can’t remember the last time I wore make-up. My uniform these days (as an unemployed IT person) generally trends to hoodies, t-shirts and jeans, but when I job interviewed the other day, I wore a pretty dress and cardigan (no make-up). I’ve never been comfortable using the make-up, so I guess I’ve never really properly learned how to, and honestly? I’m privileged enough that I don’t need it. I look a lot younger than people think, and IMO, I look a lot more attractive when I’m rocking the sans make-up look than not.

  6. 6
    The Lorax

    In 1905, Einstein introduced the theory of (special) relativity, which forced us to re-think our idea of “time”. All of a sudden, this beautiful constant in our Newtonian lives was just as flexible as a rubber band. Time is not constant, time depends on relative velocity and nearby mass. The atoms in your blood cells are younger than the atoms in your arteries and veins (by an infinitesimally small amount, but still). It’s difficult for our human minds to accept that the ticking of the clock may slow down or even go backwards, simply because of how the clock is moving relative to you.

    We had to lose these preconceptions of time because we learned more about what “time” was. So, what is “gender”? Scientifically, we can count genotypes and phenotypes, and find a distinction… but these distinctions are not meaningful in society. When was the last time you heard about one person insulting another specifically for having a “Y” chromosome? It just doesn’t happen; society doesn’t care about your genotype, it’s simply too complex a matter to bother with. Phenotype, on the other hand, is easier to see and categorize. It’s easier for the human mind to grasp and comprehend. So, whilst science has left immutable, constant time in the dust, society has not.

    Simple humans make simple decisions based on simplifications of complex data. And while we all do this, to varying degrees, I think we can all agree that some people do it a lot more than others.

    I for one like the idea that time isn’t constant. I also like the idea that gender isn’t either.

  7. 7
    Movius

    This article has a bunch of things that irk me. Mostly though it’s a bunch of tenuously linked assumptions, that may or may not be true, tied together as if decrypting a byzantine masterplan of patriarchal contempt for femininity.

    I’ve know doubt many of the claims and analogies are at least partially valid. But some don’t seem all that related to the main claim of the article, that femininity is portrayed as a frivolous aesthetic quality, built around a more natural, practical state. Which doesn’t even seem universally true anyway, think of portrayals of motherhood being natural to a woman or a man putting on an elaborate suit and tie to impress a lady.

    Even the generic scene of the MTF putting on her “elaborate female costume” can be completely explained without the femininity = artifice claim:
    The Director may think that all Transgenderism is fake, and would have a similar scene of the streetwise FTM putting on his skater gear were the genders involved switched, or Perhaps the ritual of dressing up is important to the individual in question or the director doesn’t differentiate transsexuals from crossdressers.

    No doubt there is an actual problem here, I just don’t think claiming a general perception of femininity as artifice is sufficient to explain the things you cite, nor is it always accurate.

    1. 7.1
      Natalie Reed

      You’re missing the important distinction that it’s about the artifice of FEMININITY, the form of gender expression, not femaleness.

      The man putting on his nicest tie could indeed be described as a “feminine” activity, and men who invest themselves in their appearance, even for the purposes of impressing women, are often ridiculed for being exactly that.

      Film portrayals of trans men very very rarely emphasise (or even include) the ritual or process of getting dressed. In the case of trans men, the stereotypical scenes are things like playing sports, swigging a beer on their back porch, injecting their testosterone, and working out. And the “before picture” is in a ballerina suit or something.

      The conflation of transsexuality with cross-dressing is ITSELF consistent with the theory that we subconsciously associate femininity with artifice and crafted persona.

      Of course this singular cultural perception doesn’t explain the ENTIRETY of sexism or our conceptions of gender. As I said, I wasn’t looking at the whole knapsack, just a certain theme. And of course those conceptions aren’t universal and always applicable. So?

      1. Anders

        Expression of femininity is often called ‘gay’, blurring the distinction between gender expression and sexual orientation further.

        I still think the people who decided on the terminology made a mistake when they had a number of similar concepts being referred to by similar names. Femininity, femaleness, femme… hurry up with that glossary already! I’ll bookmark it.

        And why did you change your picture? I liked that picture.

      2. Movius

        See this is what happens when I reply to things in the early AM. I completely blank-out through parts of the source article.

        I still think the general perception is more towards a general suspicion of those who don’t look or act like they are “supposed to”, particularly those who put some effort or choice into looking that way. (Thus the disproportionate amount of time spent arguing over whether sexuality/gender identity/whatever is a choice, even though for mine it should be irrelevant to the morality of the matter.) The perception of femininity as an unnecessary aesthetic addition in certain cases would just be a special case of this.

        Also, assuming dressing up in a suit to impress a lady may be feminine. It still doesn’t account for the many other social situations ‘requiring’ formalwear that are simultaneously portrayed as masculine but not the natural state of the men in question.

    2. 7.2
      Rawnaeris, Lulu Cthulhu

      I disagree. I am a cis female who doesn’t usually dress “feminine”. Left to my own devices, I tend toward gender neutral. As I’ve grown more comfortable with myself, I have chosen to start wearing more “feminine” clothing, skirts, makeup etc. The telling side effect of this is that my husband has gotten credit for “feminizing” me from our families. I reiterate: my comfort with self was ignored and the credit for my perceived adherence to cultural norms was given to my male relative.

      Femaleness is only considered “good” when a cis male gets credit for his partners appearance. This does bring “female appearance” to the realm of costume. Essentially, I cosplay “good xtian girl” for my families. My own femininity is treated either as artificial or the achievement of someone else.

      I can only imagine how much more frustrating and insulting it would be as a transgender to have ones gender intentionally, or even unintentionally, portrayed as simply being a costume.

      Please forgive any spelling errors as I don’t have access to spellcheck on this device.

      1. Rawnaeris, Lulu Cthulhu

        Ack, my “I disagree” was aimed at Movius. That’s what I get for replying without refreshing.

      2. Movius

        Obviously you can speak for your own experiences with some authority. Similar situations could also be portrayed as the woman’s wild and fanciful whims of gender-neutrality being tamed or discarded by a good husband so she can settle down into a more proper appearance for a good wife.

        The contempt for the woman’s own feelings is the same, but the metaphor is opposite.

  8. 8
    moth

    Natalie, you never fail to collate and exegete so splendidly about things I’ve only been able to mull in disordered snippets. Reading your posts is always a pleasure (so I am especially pleased that you have a new home for writing after the previous one didn’t work out).

    On this topic especially I feel really strongly. When I was really early in transition, I went to great lengths to dress and compensate. But I reached a point where I realized, I would rather die (pretty literally) than have to maintain that much effort every day for the rest of my life.

    So I stopped bothering, and focused instead on just going with basically however I rolled out of bed with basically no more artifice than keeping myself clean and clothed and feel vastly healthier and more confident for it.

    Again, though, marvelous deconstruction of a very complicated deeply and troubling trope.

  9. 9
    neptis

    The “Sports and celebrity gossip”-paragraph helped me sort in an observation I made about TV news. Even the most sober news show on a public TV channel dedicated to providing unbiased and factual information spends a whole lot of time covering sports events. Whereas reporting on gossip or fashion is shunned as the domain of the lowly tabloid press.

    It’s really interesting how you start noticing this kind of stuff everywhere, once you’ve become aware of it. (Which basically means, thanks Natalie for being an eye-opener with your blogging)

    1. 9.1
      Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

      Even the most sober news show on a public TV channel dedicated to providing unbiased and factual information spends a whole lot of time covering sports events. Whereas reporting on gossip or fashion is shunned as the domain of the lowly tabloid press.

      What I find even more ridiculous is that a lot of sports talk is gossip. But it’s camouflaged into talks about games and transfers, so it’s connected to something that is considered a male interest and therefore important.

      1. Stephanie Zvan

        This. Exactly the same way that knowing tons of sports trivia isn’t being an obsessive geek. Gossip away, boys, as long as it has to do with a sufficiently male and competitive topic.

        1. Dalillama

          @Stephanie Zvan, FEb d 1:58, incase this doesn’t thread.
          Speaking as a cis male who has never been interested in sports in the slightest, and has taken all kinds of crap about being a nerd for the things I am interested in, THIS. Also, I’ve been annoyed for as long as I can remember about the fact that so much of the “news” is sports related crap, rather than things that are actually significant. If it were up to me, there’d be sports coverage in check-stand magazines same as any other celebrity gossip rag, or on special TV shows for hobbyists, something like Top GEar or Monster Garage, which aren’t considered news. I see no difference between someone who obsesses over the Patriots, someone who obsesses over the latest doings of Brangelina (or whoever’s popular in the gossip these days is), and people who are obsessed with the doings of Harry Potter. There’s nothing wrong with liking any of these things, but none of them have much significance in terms of events in people’s actual life, they’re just hobbies. I’m pretty obsessed with some of my hobbies, but I don’t consider them news except to fellow hobbyists.

  10. 10
    HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

    I am so bookmarking this for future use.

  11. 11
    Anders

    Ok, now I’m waking up from a long sleep. Thank you for this article, it’s the first time in 6 weeks I’ve been able to function at anything near normal capacity.

    As I understand it, the central thesis is that men’s expression of gender is portrayed as natural, relaxed, flowing from within. Whereas women’s expression of gender is portrayed as constructed. artificial and imposed form the outside. But in reality, gender expression is natural only if it is congruent with gender identity. Correct?

    And you give a few examples, very persuasive to my mind. But a scientist learns first and foremost to kill his babies, and if we think as scientists for a moment, how could we test this? How could we falsify this? I can think of at least three ways, but I want to hear your opinion first.

    1. 11.1
      Natalie Reed

      Get 100 male models, of varying race, age, and level of conventional beauty. Get 100 female models, similarly distributed.

      Have a set of clothing / costume designers do up all the models in a broad representative range of various clothing styles and fashions, predominantly gender-appropriate. Avoid dressing the models in the kinds of clothing they themselves choose to wear whenever possible.

      Take photographs.

      Get a sample of several hundred randomly selected participants. Show them the photographs of the models, and ask them to rank the degree to which they considered the clothing style presented “natural” or “affected, fake, posed”.

      Given that ALL of the styles are equally affected (they’re dressed by the designers), if there is a statistically significant difference in the degree to which subjects rank the female models as “affected” and the male models as “natural”, we would have some decent evidence for supposing there is indeed an underlying cultural assumption.

      1. Anders

        Excellent, although would this study be able to distinguish between whether female clothes are more complex on one hand, and whether they are merely described as more complex on the other?

        Here’s what I would do with your idea. Take your models and pair them, male-female pairs. Then design unisex clothes and photograph them – the two models in each pair model the same set of clothes. Then have people rate them on a ten-point scale with Artificial at one end and Natural at the other. This allows us to see whether the mere fact that person A is male and person B is female causes people to describe person B’s clothes as more artificial. Am I making sense?

        So, my three methods.

        1) Do an implicit association test (like the one I linked to in another thread). If the theory is correct then people should have difficulties associating female clothing articles (e.g. bra) with natural words (e.g. relaxed), and make the appropriate changes for male clothing and unnatural words.

        2) Testing documentaries of trans-people. Now, you’ve probably seen them all but we need a somewhat larger sample size… :) Specifically we want to test if trans-men are described as tearing down a gender expression and if trans-women are described as building up a gender expression. Doing a test with a ten-point scale would allow us to see if audiences perceived it that way. Are the documentaries typically about both trans-men and trans-women? Because that would allow us some more sophisticated statistical techniques. I think.

        3) Test makers of documentaries of trans-people. We simply put them through a semi-structured interview designed to determinate if they see documentaries about trans-women primarily as building a new gender expression etc. as above. Again, ‘mixed’ documentaries would allow us fancier statistics.

        Something like that. I welcome your criticism, and thank you for the opportunity to do this. I haven’t had this fun in weeks.

        Oh, and the reason I asked you for your tests first was so that I wouldn’t taint your thinking. It wasn’t (solely) so I could have a big reveal… :D

        1. JesseW, the Juggling Janitor

          All of these suggested studies (Natalie and Anders)’s seem ******REALLY****** AWESOME, and I’d love to see them done. Yay science!

          That is all.

          1. Anders

            Natalie’s is too expensive for any reasonably sized research grant. A designer constructing 100 pairs of clothing? This is not to say that the design is bad, it’s not. But we need to look at our wallets as well. For reference, you have maybe 30 000 Canadian dollars for a large study (and for that money you’ll want two or three papers from it).

            First of all, we don’t know we need 200 people. In fact, we probably don’t. What we do is call in a statistician who will look at our assumptions – crucially a) how large a difference do we expect, b)how sure do we want to be to detect it? The statistician looks at this, furrows her brow, performs some magic and tells us how many people we need. My guess is closer to 60, with my design (differences in paired ordinal data). But don’t tell my statistics professor I said that or she’ll kill me. The statistician will also handle the number crunching and presentation of the data.

            Second, a designer designing new clothes that are then made? We can maybe afford a designer composing outfits from already existing clothes. I don’t know what salaries you’ll expect in Canada but for 60 people I would expect 1½-2 months full time. Although those numbers are ex recto so don’t take them as carved in stone.

            Then you need a photographer for two or three days. And of course, Natalie has to eat during all of this so she has to have her wages as well.

            As I said, it’s not a bad design and I realize as I write this that her study and her study with my changes actually answer to different questions, both of which may be relevant. Impractical, but most study designs start with big dreams that are the pared to the bone.

          2. Anders

            Have I told you recently that I’m an idiot? My variant on Natalie’s design wouldn’t work as I imagined it, for reasons of statistics. It might still work but at this moment I’m getting too sleepy to see if it can be salvaged.

          3. Natalie Reed

            Yeah, too expensive to actually do, I think. And I’m not a scientist. Just a hypothetical means of pointing out the fact that my observation about there seeming to be a heavy cultural bias viewing feminine presentation as more artificial/dishonest than male presentation actually is a testable hypothesis.

        2. Natalie Reed

          I was thinking one way of minimizing the degree to which one could end up arguing that women’s clothing simply is more constructed and artificial and thereby discounting the results as valid observations rather than implicit associations would be to arrange it so that the designers have to spend the EXACT same amount of time (and relative effort, though there’s no way to precisely control that) on man and woman in a given pair. You could vary the overall effort put into things… such as having a guy in jeans and a t-shirt and a woman in jeans and a t-shirt, and later a guy in an impeccably fitted suit with perfectly folded pocket square and a woman in a gorgeous evening gown with exquisite make-up, but cumulatively there would not be a significant difference in the overall effort that goes into dressing/grooming the women vs. dressing/grooming the men.

          1. Anders

            Re: Varying the effort
            Probably not worth the effort in a study like this, though. You’d need to increase group size and that increases costs.

            Nice study. Would be fun to see it carried through.

            Re: Documentaries on trans people
            Excellent. With the method I’m thinking about using we’ll not only answer the main question (construction/deconstruction of gender expression), but also whether one group is more polarizing w.r.t. construction/deconstruction of gender expression. So we can find out if people mark, say, trans women with 2 or 9 whereas they put 4 or 6 on trans men. I love statistics. I know that I can’t handle the calculations but seeing a skilled statistician work with good data – it’s magic.

            Re: Natalie’s scientific status
            You may not be a scientist, but I think you’ve shown very clearly that you could be one.

        3. Natalie Reed

          By the way, yes, there are lots of documentaries featuring both trans women and trans men. This is actually becoming a lot more common these days, as trans men are becoming more culturally visible and the old assumption that trans men simply don’t exist (or aren’t worth talking about / listening to) is finally breaking down.

          1. Xanthë, Amy of my threads

            The established preference for documentaries to primarily concentrate on femme trans women, especially showing them in very clichéd ways such as the inevitable applying make-up in front of the mirror shot, really needs to die in the arse. It’s generally good that the visibility of trans men is increasing and that this is becoming prominent enough to feature in the media more, but then it will become totally dichotomous of the same media attitude to concentrate on butch trans men to the exclusion of all other presentations, all the while ignoring the non-binary folk and other gender non-conformists.

            Presumably, this happens because these people think it would be too confusing to the general public to depict a trans person in ways that don’t play to a stereotype or tired old tropes? I would hope documentaries try to credit their audience with a little more intelligence, for goodness’ sake. Really, the representation of trans people merely as another stereotype (or two), and that accordingly we’re all in some way basically alike (even though we’re not, and all have different stories as diverse as cis-gendered people do), is really harmful.

          2. Anders

            How common is it for these documentaries to become freak shows? To have the Lorax come up and say “That’s a woman?” (put down the knife, Natalie)? To gaze in horror at the thing that should not be, the man who tries to walk like a woman? I think you understand what I mean.

            Is there ever an outcry from trans communities against such documentaries? I’ve never heard one, but perhaps the communities are too small to be heard? Or are they too dejected to do so? How are the spirits among the trans people? And among those who are politically organized?

  12. 12
    jessebeach

    For transwomen, performing femininity is especially fraught with opportunity to lean too far into artifice. We have the challenge of at once establishing our personal definition of feminine that also at once satisfies the expectations of our social environment – that is if one seeks a sense of acceptance. This is all done while trying to conceal to some degree our male traits that have for each of us varying levels of prominence – unless one simply declares feminine gender completely divorced from physical appearance – a valid self-representation. The degree to which we pander to acceptance gives us more freedom to deviate from the female ideal of our peers.

  13. 13
    miller

    I’m a cis man who prefers a more natural, don’t-overthink-it style, and I feel like this post is causing some dissonance for reasons I can’t pinpoint. Which is odd, because I agree: many components of masculinity are just as frivolous as the alleged frivolity of femininity. Suits and ties, for instance… I don’t understand them. Most of political news, too, is basically a gossip engine.

    I think I have a harder time with the concept of “legitimacy of style over substance”, the idea that style can be an enjoyable thing to some people. It’s probably even enjoyable to me on occasions when I’m not thinking about it as such. After all, I did put some effort into selecting the clothes I wear.

  14. 14
    Landon

    Great post! I am curious, though, whether this sort of stock (and insulting!) scene could be used to critique the ways that the feminine is constructed in the social sphere more generally, at the behest of the patriarchy. After all, lots of women feel pressured to put on make-up, wear heels, “do” the hair, etc. etc., or else be accused of being “mannish” or “unladylike.” I would love to see something like the kind of scene you are describing juxtaposed with a scene of a cisgendered woman doing the exact same thing, both women having to go through the same ritual in order to be accepted as female, regardless of the circumstances of their births.

    1. 14.1
      Natalie

      Yes, interesting point. That would be interesting. The main difference I note, though, is that women are typically “obliged” to engage in this ritual for the purposes of appearing desirable and like a good woman. If they fail, it’s their worth that is called into question and challenged. Whereas for trans women, it is our identity itself that is hinged upon this. We won’t simply be called unattractive or worthless, we will actually have our gender and identity invalidated or taken away.

      A really, really, really important point I was trying to make with this article, though, is that for a great many “femme” people, whether cis women, trans women or cis men, the feminine presentation is NOT a construct or something that is forced or dishonest. For many of us, our being femme is a very genuine and empowering self-expression that comes more naturally to us than does masculinity.

      And masculinity can ALSO be something artificially constructed in order to meet social expectations of gender. I’m sure there are probably just about as many men constructing adopting a degree of false personae in order to meet social expectations of gender as there are women doing the same.

      1. Chirico

        Feeling unattractive and worthless is something I’m very familiar with, and I can attest that it does do a great deal of harm to one’s sense of identity. Thoughts like “I’m ugly and a worthless human being” cut very deep into your sense of self until they are how you define yourself. Not to disagree with your point, of course, but if I feel this way then I’m sure there are women out there whose sense of identity is predicated on how attractive they are.
        Also, on the subject of “putting on an identity” and men’s fashion, I’ve always just tried to wear clothes that would let me blend in and not stand out. I still choose based on personal preference and what I think looks good, but balanced against what I think would be too flashy(I also have terrible sense for matching clothes so it helps to just pick neutral colors and styles). I guess what it comes down to is that I’ve never been comfortable presenting myself, so I’ve tried to be as comfortable as I can when I have to.

      2. HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

        Your description of cis femininity’s reward being seen as desirable Vs. being seen as a woman at all is best summation of what I’d been quietly grumbling about any time someone well-intentioned but not so well informed brings the matter up.

        I’m femme and genderqueer. (Currently the best label for me I can think of is “chaotic pretty”.) And as you said, it’s not a false or unnatural (or ore unnatural than say, pants in general) kind of thing.

        Your whole thesis of masculinity (as opposed to maleness in this specific case) being a false front really is shown well in the movie Breakfast With Scot, which I saw this weekend and maybe got all mushy over.

  15. 15
    Sometimes Different

    I hope no one minds, this is just a quick test post. But Natalie, if you don’t like *those* scenes, you’re definitely not going to like “Just like a woman”

  16. 16
    katie

    Knitting isn’t frivolous, it’s my post-apocalyptic skill-set!

    Seriously though, knitting is one of those things that bends around gender norms a bit. Most guys are completely unaware that knitting used to be a male-only occupation, that soldiers in WWII knit while on watch, or that more guys than you’d think still knit.

    As far as poker, well, I loved cigar-smoking, poker-playing, tough, but straight Starbuck from BSG.

  17. 17
    Ace of Sevens

    I don’t mean any of this. I’m just trying to seem like one of those smart quirky hipster chicks, like Zooey Deschanel. I like her style, and guys are into smart chicks.

    If it’s any consolation, it’s working.

    If I remember my training from being a personal shopper at Nordstrom correctly, women tend to spend a lot more more than men on their appearance. Of course, this is a chicken and egg thing to some degree. Everyone in the fashion industry will talk about how it’s about following personal style. This actually seems to be true, despite it also being about getting people to spend as much as possible.

    I used to think of myself as not very fashion conscious. While working there, I started wearing make-up and dressing as flamboyantly as possible. (When you work in women’s fashion, coming across as gay is not a liability.) I especially remember one incident where a designer was showing off their new line, and one of the items was a $300 suit jacket that was green paisley with a bright purple lining. I remember wondering whether I had $300 because that jacket would be great for demonstrating that I wasn’t unfashionable because I was poor, but because I just didn’t give a fuck. That’s when I realized I they had me.

  18. 18
    AnonyMaNonny

    Hmmm … I wonder then what you think of media like Hedwig and the Angry Inch. In this musical (for those not familiar), the main character is forced into trans due to extenuating circumstances (so, it is arguable if the character truly feels female, so I don’t want to label “he” or “she” onto the character – the entire premise is figuring out that identity for oneself), including a big scene with picking out wigs to create the female “identity.” But, in the end, all of that (costume, presumably) is discarded for an identity that feels “whole” but is not gender/sex-specified (but, maybe that means “male” according to this blog post?). I always thought of it as a beautiful story because it shows a process of finding identity, but I am curious and willing to see the biases and flaws in it if you or readers see how that sort of portrayal is harmful. Thoughts?

  19. 19
    Dylan

    I fully agree with this. The painstaking process of a feminine construct, as described in the first paragraph or so seems much more like what /I/ do every day, as a closeted FtM, than any sort of real expression. I understand that by doing this, they’re trying to get the image of transpeople out there, and I do see that they are /trying/ to deliver a positive message about overcoming the struggle… but you’re right. They are doing it all wrong, and in the long-run it’s hurtful for our community because of the precedent that it sets.

  20. 20
    Anders

    I wonder to what extent these scenes are just an excuse to show some skin?

  1. 21
    Mandated Femininity | Sincerely, Natalie Reed

    [...] as masculine or butch). Femininity is seen as weak, passive, disempowered, helpless, frivolous, artificial and useless. Thus the narrative here is not “femininity is the valid means of being a [...]

  2. 22
    Transition As Transaction: “Passing” And The Commodification Of Womanhood | Sincerely, Natalie Reed

    [...] This is, of course, related to the more general misogynistic and femmephobic mentality that femininity is inherently more artificial and constructed than masculinity, but that mentality reaches its zenith in the perception of trans women as [...]

  3. 23
    On Men and Fashion — The Good Men Project

    [...] Also: Natalie Reed’s The Artifice of Femininity, from which I stole the gender theory in this [...]

  4. 24
    The I Behind The Mask

    [...] all of this ruthless re-searching i come across a blogger who denies that womanhood is a construct or a disguise, taking their argument & tying it in [...]

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