Apologies for lateness again. I made a super last minute decision to ditch the half-finished post I was working on and write on this topic instead. Also apologies for any typos or sloppiness. This was written in one-sitting one-draft. I’ll come back in and clean it up later, but right now I just want to put it up. Enjoy!
Cultural representations of trans women are painfully rare. Cultural representations of butch, or simply less-than-femme trans women, are functionally non-existent.
While cis people like Chloe Sevigny and Germaine Greer do continue to openly denigrate the “exaggerated femininity” or “gross caricature” presentation that “so many” trans women possess, and use that to mock us as nothing more than men playing dress up, a presentation that falls short of expected feminine norms will be used to outright strip a trans woman of even the claim to a “false” womanhood. You’re not even trying, dude.
Gatekeeping structures continue to break down piece by piece in certain locales and medical communities, but in others it continues to be demanded that you meet expectations of presenting as female as the practitioner understands it, rather than as the patient herself understands it. The consequences can be an obligation to play along with imposed standards of proper feminine womanhood until such a time as all needed or desired treatments have been accessed and put behind you. Then, and only then, do they get to wear jeans and sneakers.
While in some queer or feminist trans communities, spaces and dialogues, femininity has ceased to be considered a requisite aspect of a trans woman’s expression and presentation, and the dotey housewife image of what a proper trans woman is to be lingers mostly in older generations or transsexual separatist / HBS communities, for many more individuals, often living in isolation, one of the only ways to assert one’s womanhood and have it be perceived by others is through claiming totemic representations of it through that which is most aggressively culturally coded as feminine, girly, for her.
And, of course, trans women’s gender presentations are consistently scrutinized under a microscope by a cissexist gaze that constantly seeks to place us where they want us, somewhere as non-threatening as possible, and held to hopelessly strict standards of what is proper or “correct” for a woman to wear or do that would never, ever be applied to a cis woman. Not without being met with ridicule.
Tell me the last time you ever saw the validity of a cis woman’s gender called into question on the basis of dressing too casually or imperfectly feminine.
Where I’m going with this is that feminist and trans-feminist movements aside, and even leaving general cultural progress out of it, femininity and femme presentations continue to be aggressively mandated to trans women. We have an intensely narrow range of behaviours and presentations that are available to us that even have a chance of being read within the wider culture as valid. Granted, under many circumstances, that range narrows into non-existence through the catch-22 of overlapping “too feminine”/”improperly feminine” and “not feminine enough” criticisms, but as a general rule? The trans woman that is to be acceptable, palatable, comprehensible, and representable to cis perceptions and standards must be femme. Full stop.
The persistent fact of femininity being imposed on women as their proper or expected role and presentation is NOT, of course, restricted to trans women, only more aggressively forced on us. And it isn’t even remotely an issue that has been neglected by feminist discourse. In fact, the expected gender roles of women is perhaps the singular topic on which feminism has devoted the most time and attention. But I think the manner in which the issue is discussed frequently leaves out a whole lot of important things, approaches it from a disturbingly hetero/cisnormative angle (and nearly exclusively within hetero/cisnormative terms), and perhaps most destructively ignores or steamrolls right over a whole lot of people who are indeed affected by the issue, even if we’re rendered invisible by the most common theoretical frameworks for addressing it.
Like those of us who choose being femme. Who feel empowered by it.
The most immediately recognizable of these erasing, inadequate frameworks, and probably the one through which I can most easily communicate their failures, is the one that drove almost the entirety of second wave feminism and a considerable number of third wave branches, too, being the concept of femininity existing exclusively as an oppressive institution imposed on women by patriarchy. Within this concept, the only reason any woman ever dresses or behaves in a feminine way is because she’s been taught to, and that the purpose of this socialization is to help keep women in their secondary place within heirarchies of gender. This often went hand-in-hand with the Butlerian “gender is only a social construct” theory. I shouldn’t really have to spell out how insulting and invalidating this is for women who actually enjoy femininity and choose it as their gender expression, through which they feel genuine and empowered, or how it paints us as basically nothing more than silly, gullible dupes of the patriarchy. But more so the theory conceals an amazing degree of not only femmephobia (the idea that femininity is inherently weaker, less valid, less worthwhile, frivolous, pointless, artificial, etc. in contrast to masculinity, which is strong, natural, pragmatic, useful, “real”) but even misogyny, enacted through a normativity. Masculinormativity?
Within the framework that femininity only ever existed as an imposed role for the purposes of subjugation places femininity as a marked category, subject to critique, but as in all normativities (like treating cis, straight, white, American, whatever as “default”, “normal”) it left masculinity completely invisible, unmarked, unquestioned, unexamined, unchallenged. Instead, masculinity was left as the assumed “natural” state that existed in the absence of an artificial femininity. Given how much of femininity is in absolutely no way reasonably value-loaded, simply existing along lines of preference (like, for instance, being aesthetically inclined, drawn towards beauty), is sometimes coded as such for what seem to be completely arbitrary reasons, and most of all, that femininity is by definition that which is culturally associated with women, the privileging of masculinity as a “natural” state onto which femininity must be unnaturally inscribed, as a reduction and subjugation, to produce a feminine individual is a heavily misogynistic line of thinking.
Many shades of the “cut your dick off” line of thinking in terms of the relationship between what is male and what is female. A woman, so this kind of reasoning not-so-subtly proposes, is produced by reducing or subjugating a man.
“Make you my bitch”
In retrospect, it seems very, very strange that a conceptualization of the relationship between femininity / masculinity that was so heavily misogynistic could be such a strong part of feminism for so long (even when it came at the cost of many would-be feminist women’s support, by way of their feeling devalued by feminism, or feeling that in order to be respected within feminist circles they’d have to sacrifice their femininity; which was, and still is, for many women a completely genuine, valued and even essential part of our identities). But the reason for this is likely connected to who the initial fighters for second-wave feminism were. As is pretty much always the case (and is something I’ll be writing about very soon in relation to the history of radical activism amongst trans people), those who are most hurt by status quo and present social dynamics are going to be the first to fight against it- those who have the most to gain from a revolution and the least to lose. The front-lines of feminism were as such those women who felt most abused, subjugated, oppressed, limited and caged by their enforced gender roles. In other words, those women for whom femininity did not feel natural and empowering. Those women for whom it felt like an unnatural, disempowering, oppressive set of expectations forced on them by society. For whom, in contrast, masculinity or androgyny felt liberating, genuine, natural and real. For them, the theoretical framework they established not only made sense, it was true. For them. But their mistake, one which is entirely too common to absolutely every social justice movement, was assuming that their experience of gender, gender roles and femininity was universal to all women.
This can lead us into another theoretical framework for understanding the imposition of femininity, which is in terms of gender binarism and oppositional sexism. If we expand our understanding from simply marking femininity as the imposed gender role to be critiqued and subject to scrutiny, and hold masculinity up to that same light, it becomes a relatively easy progression to conceptualizing the issue as being about society imposing certain given constraints on an individual based on their gender assignment. Here we’d advance our understanding to saying it’s not that femininity alone is an artificial subjugation that’s rejection is taboo, but rather that we’re all to remain in our boxes and it’s not acting in accordance with the expectations of your assigned gender that is taboo, evil, wrong, uppity, sinful, gross, ridiculous, invalid, etc.
This way of looking at things is common still today, and even occurs very frequently within queer-feminist and trans-feminist dialogues. After all, like the earlier feminist women who felt their feminine gender role was a prison and applied that experience as a universal on which to base their theory of gender dynamics as a whole, almost all trans people feel that our gender assignments were our prisons, and we feel the same temptation to advance those experiences as the universal truth of what gender and gender roles are. But we’re at exactly as much risk of making mistakes and overlooking not only crucial considerations, but overlooking human beings (who are, of course, always crucial).
So we might say that the reason trans women are expected to be femme in order to be comprehensible to cis standards is because femininity is culturally coded as the only valid means of being a woman. But we’re missing a piece of the puzzle again, which is the near omnipresence (to the point of invisibility) of femmephobia. Being femme is simply not regarded as valid (especially for AMAB people, for whom being feminine is perceived as not only a betrayal and threat, but the most pathetic, ridiculous, disgusting thing you can do, and is met with far more hatred and violence than AFAB people expressing 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 woman”. The narrative here is “femininity is weak, passive and invalid, and that’s what women are supposed to be”.
Through this we can almost come back around full circle to understanding femininity as a means of subjugating women, and an imposed set of standards and expectations that are meant to keep us weak and subservient, secondary to and dependent on those natural, real, pragmatic, useful men. But it’s not the imposition of femininity on women itself that plays this function. It’s a two-pronged attack. It’s the imposition of femininity coupled with the devaluation of femininity.
“All your stupid girly stuff is so stupid and girly and pointless! Oh, by the way, you’re only allowed your stupid, pointless, girly stuff.”
In this sense, I can’t help but wonder if the increased rigor with which femininity is enforced on trans women is due to an increased desire to keep us ghettoized within a set of roles that are so thoroughly devalued that even feminism doesn’t usually address it. That we’re more of a threat to gender’s status quo, and thus it’s more necessary to keep us somewhere “harmless”.
I’d like to present the idea that the appropriate response here might not just be to tell girls they don’t have to play along with expectations and be girly girls. I’d like to go further and suggest that the appropriate response might not even be to simply attack gender binaries and say that we shouldn’t be boxing people into particular roles. So long as femmephobia, the devaluation of femininity, remains in play (and let’s be honest, how these strategies play out in real life often reinforces that devaluation) then neither of these approaches will ever be adequate for addressing the problem and building a more universally empowering gender dynamic.
I’d like to present the idea that the appropriate response is a radical revision of how we perceive and conceptualize femininity. What it is, and what it can be. What worth it has, and who is permitted to access it. How it can be expressed, how it can be empowering, how it can be valid, how it can be radical, how it can be strong, and how it can be a weapon. I’d like us to revalue femininity as one of many possible gender expressions that, so long as they are sincere, can always be an expression of radical self-determination.
And I’d even say that not only is this a possible response, but it may even be the necessary one.
I am femme. Hear me rawr?
As a final note, I’d like to say that enforced femininity kind of sucks for those of us who choose it. It makes it pretty hard to assert it as a self-determination rather than simply an act of buckling under expectations.
But seriously, I’m not wearing make-up and a skirt for their sake.