playing the gender game

January 26, 2007

So I wrote that post about femme and femininity. It felt revealing and very personal, and I also had that sinking feeling that I was saying something that is really obvious. So a few weeks passed, and I didn’t get too much feedback (blogs allow people to be passive and disengaged, as much as I personally happen to be a pretty engaged blog reader). And I figured that for the most part, I didn’t ask any questions that hadn’t been asked before.

Apparently, I was wrong. There are many feminists who still hate femininity, and still attribute it entirely to patriarchy, and who don’t really want to think about it with any kind of nuance. That post is from I Blame the Patriarchy, which I just started reading, but I guess I was still surprised that the name of the blog is taken so literally in the posts, almost to a fault. The author is clear to define femininity as the term is used on that specific blog. However, the definition is itself so patriarchal (taking away all agency re: femininity from women themselves) that I wanted to scream. An excerpt:

Femininity is a set of practices and behaviors (boob jobs, FGM, ‘beauty’, the ‘veil’, the flirty head-tilt, pornaliciousness, BDSM, fashion, compulsory pregnancy, marriage, et al) that are dangerous, painful, pink, or otherwise destructive; that compel female subordination; that exist only to benefit Dude Nation; that are overwhelmingly represented by ‘girly’ feminists as a ‘choice’; and that are overwhelmingly represented by godbags and other irritating conservatives as ‘natural instincts’.

I should also point out that in my handy mozilla wordsearch, neither the word ‘femme’ nor ‘queer’ exists anywhere in the post itself or the ensuing discussion (58 long comments). Interesting how the queer femme position complicates both sides of this debate: that femininity is inherently a tool of the patriarchy, and that femininity can be reclaimed without questioning and struggling with the ways that femininity is patriarchal. Also interesting that the queer femme is nowhere to be found in this thread. And I realize that my questions are novel. Stuck between these two positions is a hard place to be. But it helps to read why some feminists hate femininity so much – it helps me clarify why I agree to some extent, and why agreeing that femininity has been a tool of the patriarchy pushes me to own femininity and struggle with it instead of reject it. It’s the murky place of figuring out exactly how to do that that seems to really fuck people up.

And so I ask again, what does it mean to be a feminist and claim femininity, and not in the girly “I can’t get out of my comfort zone so I have to shave my legs and wear makeup but call it feminism to justify it” kind of way. In the way that my femininity belongs to me. Not to patriarchy. Seriously. Because I get to pick and choose; because I can control the way others respond to the gender I perform; because I still sport body hair with a sexy tank top and mascara and declare it as hot and mine and others respond in kind; because I don’t perform femininity for any man or even for any woman. I like femininity because I choose it, and not because I’ve been co-opted as a tool of the patriarchy. And I do it all as a feminist.

I also wonder what gender the femininity-hating feminists perform and how they make sense of it. Gender is a part of our world (a part that I actually enjoy) so I am genuinely curious as to how they see themselves and how they think others perceive them.

So how does being a queer femme give me special privilege to talk about femininity? Granted, I exist in this world and was socialized into the same one as straight women. At the same time, I imagine and seek out a world outside of the mainstream. In my attempts to stray from the mainstream, I realize also that the best way to fuck with patriarchy is to subvert it and not to reject it outright. Rejecting something means that you acknowledge its authority, power, and importance. It is completely exhausting and when it comes to gender, and to femininity more specifically, it doesn’t work. Queer femme means subverting femininity – gender is never meant to be taken at face value. It’s a game. The trick is figuring out the rules.



  1. There are also a lot of feminist lesbians who hate masculinity. So, like, what’s left?

  2. The butch and femme queer bloggers, of course! It’s important that we keep these complicated discussions going. So thank you.

  3. I’m interested to learn about how BDSM is a practice of femininity. I’m not sure that my butch/genderqueer girlfriend would agree with that. weird.

  4. I’m as confused as you, Emily. I think what the author was talking about was the way that femininity can be coded submissive in a BDSM scene (though have they ever heard of femme tops? HELLO?). From what I can tell, I don’t believe that the author knows much about BDSM.

    I think this adds to the silliness of this whole argument. BDSM allows us to identify which positions in the world around us hold power and to act them out – not for the purpose of reifying their patriarchal roots, for the purpose of messing with them and demonstrating how very performative our whole world is.

  5. o, they’ve heard of femme tops, some of them–certainly the author of that website must’ve been told–and yet, somehow, they don’t really exist as such, or count, or something. at best they’re just playing a silly little amusement for the sake of the man, who’ll get dressed and go right back to oppressing her as usual as soon as she’s finished prancing about in front of him in tottery heels (in TF land women always “totter” on heels) and acting sort of vaguely bitchy. and, of course, she doesn’t really enjoy it for her -own- sake. in short, everything they ever knew they learned from watching mainstream media and/or bad mainstream hetporn.

    femme-top/butch bottom in lesbian couples, not to mention dyke daddy-boy/boi play or femme top/femme or genderqueer or some other gender dyads would seem to be beyond their ken.

    but, you’re the one upholding the Patriarchy, see. with your neat little categories. don’t you understand that there’s a Revolution to be fought, and you’re in its way? /sarcasm.

    seriously, hi, nice to find you.

  6. btw, i just now responded to this post in much more depth, at my own spot.

  7. got here via belledame – hi!

  8. Belledame – your BDSM thoughts and your refreshing sarcasm are much appreciated. Everyone seems to have their patriarchal panties all up in a twist these days. And I am off to your blog to read your post.

    Welcome, antiprincess!

  9. here by way of Belledame, and this post of yours? I love long long time. Linkage will be in order.

    And the whole BSDM thing? Yes, voices from a far off distant world where domme females never came into being and its always, everything, forever, all about the men. Even for lesbians. Which boggles my mind…I’m not a lesbian, but for some reason, I was always under the impression lesbians cared not a wit for the sexual desires of men…funny that.

  10. interesting stuff. I look forward to reading more. I got here via RenEv. (so you’ll know- I’m a patriarchy-loving Christian housewife and mother, but I enjoy seeing new perspectives)

  11. Feminism is a tool of NATURE, those dimwits!

    Shit, what’s next – are estrogen, tits and ass also “tools of the Patriarchy?”

    Talk about paranoid conspiracy nuts…

    Krist, even Hitler didn’t scapegoats the Jews that bad!

    The fatal flaw of feminism is that it seeks to deny and countradict Nature at every turn. It is like a bird who believes it’s a fish…and any attempts to convince it otherwise…are all parts of a “mass conspiracy by fish.”

  12. In what universe is BDSM part and parcel of femininity? I would just like to know.

    Great post, btw.

  13. Everything TF and her friends learned about femininity they got from Cosmo and the toy aisle at Wal-Mart.


    And, I’d say just ignore Byrd, but if you poke him with a stick often enough, he starts talking about how we’re all under alien control. So… at least, that’s sort of amusing.

  14. byrdeye, I think you’ve misunderstood the discussion we’re having. Your comment didn’t seem anti-feminist, it mostly seemed to not make sense. The feminists I’m criticizing are not touting a conspiracy, feminism is not a tool of nature (did you mean femininity? they are two different words and mean two different things), and Hitler has no place in this conversation. And I pretty much dismiss any sentence that starts with “the fatal flaw of feminism is…”

    Also, as per the second comment you tried to post: the use of the word “twat” when referring to any woman is not welcome on my blog. It will not be posted. I wouldn’t dismiss your comments if they actually made any sense.

  15. I glimpsed this when belledame blogged about it, but my index finger proved lazy. Luckily, petitpoussin included the post in the carnival of feminists and I have a little more energy now.

    Because this is excellently written, especially the part about subversion vs. rejection.

  16. You note “Queer femme means subverting femininity – gender is never meant to be taken at face value. It’s a game. The trick is figuring out the rules.”

    In this culture, we like to conflate symbol and meaning, assuming that symbols mean what we think they mean, rather than meaning what the symbol user thinks they mean.

    Telling people that we see meaning in their gendered choices, meanings that may be unintended, subtle, nuanced, or contradictory to their assertions is often to make them angry.

    Gender may well never be meant to be taken at face value, because it’s not the symbols that count but the meaning behind them, but to me, the big difference between queers and normies is that queers are concious of deeper meaning, in themselves & others, while normies strive to keep that meaning hidden behind the fundamental & simple association of symbol & normative meaning.

  17. I probably should have specified that *to me* queer femme means subverting femininity. I agree that we should not be putting words into other people’s mouths. I totally agree that queers are looking for deeper meaning behind gender expression. I think that’s part of the reason why I intentionally engage with pop culture – besides having fun and being a part of mainstream culture, I also learn *tons* about gender expression AND subversion from it.

    Does Christina Aguilera know that I consider her an honorary femme, that I think she fucks with gender? Nope. But it’s kind of a moot point considering how much I learn from watching her. I guess I think that the lines between queers and everyone else is kind of blurry – it’s just a matter of who wants to name themselves what. If the power is in the naming, then the line is definitely easy to draw. But I seem to learn a lot about being femme from many who do not even know that the word exists.

  18. If Christina Agulera doesn’t consider herself queer after the video to “Beautiful,” I’d be stunned.

    Many pop stars construct themselves and then reconstruct themselves, at least on the surface, and with resources we can’t touch.

    That is very informative, at least to me.

  19. As a transgender poster I agree that patriachy can come from either gender. Of course there are femme tops, and what ever role a femme takes it always pulses with the electricity of the dynamic she chooses to involve herself in. Great to see diverse thought.

  20. TransPsychGuy, thanks for the comment, I love the imagery of a femme pulsing with electricity! Really rockin’. Welcome to the blogosphere.

  21. […] saying that as a queer feminist, I’ve gone through phases and thought long and hard about what femininity means in the world and the ways that it’s been oppressive and powerful and som…. I’ve also obsessed over what it means to have a queer perspective on the world, looking out […]

  22. What a terrific post! I just started a blog earlier this month on similar issues and ideas, and I’m delighted to find you, saltyfemme.

    I, too, intend my performance of femininity — in my case, as a queer high femme — to be subversive, to challenges stereotypes and assumptions, and to encourage dialogue.

    Everything from changing tires in evening gowns to coming to seminar in magenta miniskirts to talking back to harassers on the street is an act of feminist defiance. I refuse to be denied power and recognition solely on the basis of the way I dress or the intonation of my voice or the fact that my eyelids are painted purple. None of this should interfere with whether a person is taken seriously, is heard, can contribute.

    But it does. And that’s what I try to challenge every single day with my performance of queer femininity.

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