The Persistent Undesirable

In a world where masculinity is assumed to represent strength and power, those who are butch are able to contemplate their identities within the relative safety of those connotations. In contrast, those of us who are femme are forced to define ourselves on our own terms and develop our own sense of self-worth. It takes guts, determination, and fearlessness for those of us who are femme to lift ourselves up out of the inferior meanings that are constantly being projected onto us. If you require any evidence that femininity can be more fierce and dangerous than masculinity, then all you need to do is simply ask the average man to hold your handbag or a bouquet of flowers for a minute, and watch how far away he holds it from his body. Or tell him you would like to put your lipstick on him and watch how fast he runs off in the other direction. In a world where masculinity is respected and femininity is regularly dismissed, it takes loads of strength and confidence for any person to embrace their femme-self.

Julia Serano, “Skirt Chasers: Why the Media Depicts the Trans Revolution in Skirts and Heels”

Heraclitus responded to Jill’s post thusly:

It’s true that male frivolous behavior isn’t considered as frivolous as female frivolous behavior; isn’t this in part because the male version is still bluff, straightforward, forthright, while the female version is largely about concealment and artifice (make-up, clothes, etc.)? Not to over-intellectualize Monday Night Football vs. bikini waxes, but doesn’t it reprise the reality vs. appearance distinction, with women inhabiting the realm of appearance, making them both less serious but also more threatening?

Nothing ritualized or artificial about a football game, no sir.

Coincidentally enough, Sly Civilian has a sort-of reply to this idea over at his blog:

So after reading these stories, the thing that struck me the most was when i caught myself casually applying a shiny yellow phallus to my body, not even thinking about it. A look in the mirror brought me back to the reality that everything I had done that morning had radically changed my gendered presentation, and i’d barely spent a moment since waking up not manufacturing my masculinity. And just hanging down the entire length of my chest is this metaphor, this dick.

The yellow tie that has to perfectly related to my waistline, the pants that sit just so and change how i connect to the ground, the collared Brooks Brother’s shirt that draws a new shape of my torso and brings the eye upwards, the padded shoulders in my jacket, the extra half inch in my dress shoes, the part of the hair i have, the absence of the hair i take off my face, the way my glasses frame my face…

Aggression is not the same as honesty, and artifice is frequently an offensive tactic. “Bluff” has two meanings. Its first is the one referenced by this post:

1. good-naturedly direct, blunt, or frank; heartily outspoken: a big, bluff, generous man.

But its second might be even more familiar:

1. to mislead by a display of strength, self-confidence, or the like: He bluffed me into believing that he was a doctor.

Or a man.

In a binary hierarchy, primary importance is given to maintaining distinctions. If we blurred together, God forbid, we wouldn’t be able to keep everything straight and narrow, black and white, and orderly. The most important thing about you is which side of the line you’re supposed to be on, and one of the things that determines your right to survive at all is your willingness to support that judgment and live within its constraints. While the punishments for transgression are usually worse for the group on the bottom, they exist for both sides.

Traditionally, the underclass bears the greater burden of maintaining that boundary; they become the exception that departs from the norm. This is true for women, and why we tend to read androgyny as male. Women wear makeup; men wear no makeup. Women wear heels; men wear shoes with no heels. Women grow their hair long and style it elaborately; men cut theirs short and style it simply. However, the top half has its own responsibilities, some of which sly lays out here. It is very important to make it absolutely clear that you are this and not the other. Sly did not walk out of the house in a dress, because that is simply not what men do. As he says, there are many more details that go into presenting a picture of this and not the other, from the length of your trouser cuffs to the way you brush your hair. Masculinity is a role, and men are taught to perform that role. One of the aspects of that role is keeping up a pretense of brash outspoken confidence.

Remember, though, that the goal is not merely separation but separation in the name of a hierarchy. This is why one set of behavioral cues gets coded as artificial and unnatural while the other is described as genuine and natural. (Of course, in other contexts, the former is base and animalistic when the other gets to be advanced; again, the only constant message is that one is better and the other worse.) This same veiled value judgment is also set on transsexuals: when Julia Serano wears a skirt, she is dressing up like a drag queen, aping real women; when I wear a suit and a tie, I am deceiving people. This has nothing to do with any inherently amenable aspect of any of these practices, nothing to do with ease or preference. In our case, it’s based on the premise that we do not have the right to certain signifiers, namely those that belong to real men and women; in the case of women, it is based on the idea that women do not have the right to be real people. Sly’s revelation upon reading Self-Organizing Men was that his masculinity and manhood are no more or less genuine, no more or less a matter of communication to others, than those of the ftm contributors. It’s worth pointing out that the rituals he observes are not unlike the ones Julia Serano describes as symbols of her simultaneous recognition as a trans woman and invalidation as a trans woman:

In virtually all depictions of trans women, whether real or fictional, “deceptive” or “pathetic”, the underlying assumption is that the trans woman wants to achieve a stereotypically feminine appearance and gender role. The possibility that trans women are even capable of making a distinction between identifying as female and wanting to cultivate a hyperfeminine image is never raised. In fact, the media often dwells on the specifics of the feminization process, showing trans women in the act of “putting on” their feminine exteriors. It’s telling that TV, film, and news producers tend not to be satisfied with merely showing trans women wearing feminine clothes and makeup. Rather, it is their intent to capture trans women in the act of putting on lipstick, dresses, and high heels, thereby making it clear to the audience that the trans woman’s femaleness is an artificial mask or costume.

And certainly not unlike some of the accessories Jill categorizes as feminine:

And yet I’m still a fan of hair straightening and pubic hair waxing and high heel wearing.

The point about “more threatening” is another manifestation of this hierarchy: the underclass bears the burden of suspicion; they are the scapegoats for anxiety about the failure of all of us to perfectly perform our roles. This is part of the conflict with, “Yes, these are survival mechanisms,” one which goes beyond the willingness to admit that one is a collaborator. Rejecting femininity can mean agreeing not merely with feminists but with the dominant culture that femininity in all its details is a frivolous, artificial, superficial thing and that feminine women are frivolous, artificial, and shallow.


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28 Responses to The Persistent Undesirable

  1. Bitter Scribe says:

    Presentable, adj.

    Hideously appareled after the manner of the time and place.

    In Boorioboola-Gha a man is presentable on occasions of ceremony if he have his abdomen painted a bright blue and wear a cow’s tail. In New York he may, if it please him, omit the paint, but after sunset he must wear two tails, made of the wool of a sheep and dyed black.

    —Ambrose Bierce, the Devil’s Dictionary

  2. Ellie says:

    That first part really resonated with me. When I go anywhere with my brother and, for any reason, need him to hold my purse, he holds it at arm’s length between two fingers like it’s made out of smelly cheese. He’s 25, in case you were thinking he was 11 or so.

    He would rather risk getting my money, driver’s license, credit cards, etc. stolen than have someone think that he might be holding a purse. Pretty amazing.

  3. Nick Kiddle says:

    OT: Speaking of SOM, how come is your piece not in? I was really disappointed when I didn’t find it.

  4. piny says:

    I opted out.

  5. Erin M says:

    Thanks for putting this up, piny. Ever since the barnburner started over the Twisty comment I’ve been mulling in my head how all this “presentation” and “trappings of femininity” stuff plays out for transwomen, but I didn’t really know how to begin a conversation (or even if that was the appropriate place for it, since it would have been interrupting the other conversations over there). Obviously femininity and a feeling of “femaleness” aren’t the same thing, or we wouldn’t have a distinction between transwomen and drag queens. Fortunately, a woman in transistion is no longer obligated to get all frills and pink ribbons before she is “allowed” to be trans by her doctors. On a personal level, it’s something I have a great deal of trouble navagating, since I’m only so-so about skirts and I’ll stop enjoying sport when I’m dead. But if we throw away all of the external concepts of masculinity and femininity and reduce it to a sort of essentialism (I’m female because I was born with ovaries and can bear a child, or something like that), then the whole possibility of being trans comes down to a successful CT scan or some other biological indicator.

    I fear making this too long. Essentially, I agree that the divisions serve a primary function of maintaining heirarchy, and perhaps it’s important to understand all the whys of transition before trading the born gender presentation for a stereotype (and god knows I had to pull myself out of that trap). At the same time, does blurring the lines make transition easier, or more difficult, and if more difficult, is that still worth it in the long run?

    Sorry if this is incomplete. Two days and I still can’t articulate my thinking. Maybe I just need practice.

  6. Jeff Fecke says:

    Interesting. You know, back in college, a few men and I got to talking about why it was that nobody’s ever tried to introduce the kilt to America. Most of us were neutral/positive on the idea, and all of us thought it would be fine if someone wanted to wear one.

    Yet I can tell you with certainty that none of us was going to be the first one to try to make it hip.

    Why not? Well, a kilt is a bit too close to a skirt, isn’t it? And while you can maybe get away with wearing one in Scotland, you’re not going to chance it here.

    Let’s not even get into makeup.

    Interestingly, though, I wonder if there isn’t some breakdown of the hard-and-fast rules on male dress and behavoir as well? “Metrosexual” is losing some of its punch as an insult, and men are starting to actually embrace some–though only some–of the “feminine” ideas about shaving off unwanted body hair, just as women are starting to abandon them.

    I wonder–and I mean this as a question, not a conclusion–if possibly the slow-but-inexorable empowerment of women is having a slow-but-inexorable effect, not just on women’s dress, but men’s as well? Perhaps as women are allowed to relax their level of heightened alert, men are able to drop the machismo.

  7. Grog says:

    Sayeth Erin:
    then the whole possibility of being trans comes down to a successful CT scan or some other biological indicator.

    The unfortunate thing is that the wingnutosphere pretty much wants to create a ‘biology is destiny’ world with respect to gender and social roles.

    Anyone who has seriously explored (or studied) gender issues has likely come to the conclusion that there is “gender” (physiological) and “gender role” (social). {for brevity, I’ll leave out the sexual aspects of this} Gender identity seems to be related to an individual’s affinity and identification with a combination of the two. {Which is why some TSes choose not to pursue genital surgery}

    The realization that seems to be more and more clear in mental health circles is that the two axis are interlinked, but necessarily distinct. The irrational (mostly religious conservative) view is that gender is physical, and defines your destiny, without recognizing the diversity of expression among people.

    As you point out, not all women like skirts {one very dear friend of mine runs a printing company – seeing her in a dress is indeed rare!} the reality is that the same is true for transsexuals. I think early in transition, many MTF TSes take on an “emphatically feminine” presentation – in part it’s the same exploration that teenage girls do – but a little later in life, and in part it’s a way of “deflecting” the perceptions of others.

    I also suspect that in part many TSes, for all that they are clearly transgressive in their behaviour, are in fact “gender role traditional” – just not in the way that others expect before transition.

  8. Tapetum says:

    On kilts: My dad does Scottish dancing, and other such stuff at his local Caledonian club. He loves his kilt, and will wear it at the drop of a hat if he’s at, or anywhere near a Scottish event. He would no sooner wear it at any other time than he would attend Grand Rounds naked. When he went up to Nova Scotia, he wore his kilt practically any time he left the hotel – he even got photographed by some tourists as local color – but when he was in the hotel attending the conference he was there for it was suits all the way.

  9. Frumious B. says:

    Why not? Well, a kilt is a bit too close to a skirt, isn’t it? And while you can maybe get away with wearing one in Scotland, you’re not going to chance it here.

    Ever hear of the utilikilt? I’ve seen a few men wearing them, but not usually just out to the grocery store or whatever. Usually they are at events where men in skirts (masculine men in masculine skirts) are welcome.

    ____

    those who are butch are able to contemplate their identities within the relative safety of those connotations.

    those who are male presenting and butch, I assume, b/c female butches are not exaactly “relatively safe.”

  10. Erin M says:

    Says Grog:
    I also suspect that in part many TSes, for all that they are clearly transgressive in their behaviour, are in fact “gender role traditional” – just not in the way that others expect before transition.

    Precisely so, and I think that’s the dilemma I was sussing out here. I admit my feminism is nascent, but I’m learning.

    Anyway, I’m not really sure how to reconcile this issue yet. I know it’s been suggested to avoid unnecessary guilt, but it’s also a fairly common criticism, or was at one time, that transwomen are almost the anti-feminist, since many do adopt a traditional sort of feminine role. But I fear that a certain amount of necessity requires it at this point. If I could have simply declared myself a woman and had that be so, it would have been great, but as things stand no one would really believe it. It’s sort of the reverse of the checklist problem piny mentions in another thread. Marlene Dietrich could wear a tux because she had enough other “feminine” signifiers to not be crossing the line. If I go about in jeans and a t-shirt, all anyone thinks when they see me is “man”, regardless of the rest. Maybe that just makes it a survival mechanism after all, which was pretty much the point of this round of discussions, ne?

    It would be pretty great to get away from biological determinism, though. Thanks for your insights.

  11. piny says:

    those who are male presenting and butch, I assume, b/c female butches are not exaactly “relatively safe.”

    While I don’t dispute the dangers faced by women who present as masculine or butch, I think Serano was making a different point: masculinity is privileged over femininity as an affinity, a preference, even in some subcultures where misogyny is supposedly gauche. Femme queers are suspect and dismissed in queer environments as regressive and/or conventional, and they don’t have the respect granted to the masculine identities that are seen as transgressive. YMMV, certainly, but femme people in my neck of the woods are treated both to misogyny and dismissal heavily informed by misogyny.

  12. piny says:

    I would feel much more comfortable with the concept of the transwoman as the anti-feminist if those arguments allowed the inevitable trans-friendly conclusion: more self-determination and less pressure for us. Instead, they seem to dovetail in the minds of the speakers with even more shizoid double binds. It’s like the (inaccurate) idea that transsexuality is a business full of profiteers. That’s never a prelude to making transition cheaper and more accessible, let alone a right; precisely the opposite, even though the tendency of greater restrictions to enable profiteers is far from hypothetical. That leads me to believe that it’s about transphobia rather than any tendency of transpeople to behave in any given way; if it were about what we do, the proposed solution wouldn’t involve so many disincentives to the stated goal.

    Anyway, I’m not really sure how to reconcile this issue yet. I know it’s been suggested to avoid unnecessary guilt, but it’s also a fairly common criticism, or was at one time, that transwomen are almost the anti-feminist, since many do adopt a traditional sort of feminine role. But I fear that a certain amount of necessity requires it at this point. If I could have simply declared myself a woman and had that be so, it would have been great, but as things stand no one would really believe it. It’s sort of the reverse of the checklist problem piny mentions in another thread. Marlene Dietrich could wear a tux because she had enough other “feminine” signifiers to not be crossing the line. If I go about in jeans and a t-shirt, all anyone thinks when they see me is “man”, regardless of the rest. Maybe that just makes it a survival mechanism after all, which was pretty much the point of this round of discussions, ne?

    I think that it’s totally fair to look at the ways in which people who are conventionally gendered play into a system that mandates gender roles. I think it’s obnoxious and unfair to pretend that our incentives are the same as those of cisgendered people. I am not invested in seeming like a conventional man. I am, however, invested in being seen as male. There’s some intersection there, like you say.

  13. RachelPhilPa says:

    I’ve noticed in these comments, that femme presentation is being defended as an issue of safety and / or providing more female signifiers.

    How about because it’s enjoyable? Some days I do present as rather androgynous – jeans and t-shirt, but there are days that I like to put on a skirt and heels. What is wrong with that, and why do we have to twist this around into all kinds of political meaning? And why are trans women, such as myself, who are femme judged more harshly than cisgendered women who are femme?

    I’m really getting tired of being told that I’m destroying feminism and reinforcing the oppression of women because I’m wearing a skirt. All we are doing here is trading one code of behavior / appearance – femme – for another equally rigid code of behavior / appearance – androgyny.

    Jill said in her post:

    it’s silly to try and sell feminine trappings to women in the name of “empowerment”.

    True. But that gets back to my point. Selling the trappings as empowerment is just another way of politicizing what I wear. I’m sick of it.

    Are the anti-femme feminists creating a hierarchy among women? Because so-called androgynous dress is essentially male – think about it, androgyny = loose t-shirt and loose jeans, which is what men wear, and what produces the straight from shoulders-to-knees male look. So we are creating a hierarchy within ourselves that privileges women with masculine presentation over women with femme presentation. That’s just the gender binary all over again.

    I think that a sign that we have truly liberated ourselves from the binary will be that how one dresses is no longer a political statement or controversy.

  14. Grog says:

    Sayeth RachelPhilPa:

    And why are trans women, such as myself, who are femme judged more harshly than cisgendered women who are femme?

    I don’t think that’s the case entirely. However, up until recently, a TS in transition was obliged to present very strong gender cues, going as far in some cases as actually having to take on a new “more appropriate” job. I suspect, as Erin points out some feminists perceived that transwomen are almost the anti-feminist.

    Are transpeople “more harshly judged” in their chosen gender role? Only when they slip and someone detects their past. In truth, that’s when a TS is truly in danger, as there are those who will quite happily use such an occasion for a little bloodsport. This tends to reinforce the notion for MTFs that being very “femme” is important – for their own safety.

    Piny can speak better than I could to the FTM side of that topic, for I must confess my utter ignorance of that side of the transition experience.

  15. Rhiannon says:

    Why not? Well, a kilt is a bit too close to a skirt, isn’t it? And while you can maybe get away with wearing one in Scotland, you’re not going to chance it here.

    Apparently it’s only appropriate in America if you’re a bag-pipe band in a parade… that’s the only time I ever see a kilt.

  16. Penny says:

    Kilts have become quite big up here (Ontario) esp among hipster males in traditionally ‘outsider’ male occupations (stage crew, biker…)this guy makes custom leather ones that couldn’t look more butch: http://www.rkilts.com/

  17. piny says:

    Apparently it’s only appropriate in America if you’re a bag-pipe band in a parade… that’s the only time I ever see a kilt.

    I see them here in SF, which isn’t actually a part of America, but mostly among bears and pansexual pagan guys.

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  19. Maureen says:

    I’ve seen Utilikilts on the University of Chicago campus in summer (which tells you just how in touch I am with middle America’s beliefs on gender roles).

    I have a dream–that one day perfumes won’t be gendered and clothing will only be gendered inasmuch as those lace pants have narrow hips and more room in the front inseam, these lace pants have wider hips and a relatively flat front, and that other pair have even wider hips, and a fourth pair have not-that-narrow hips but more room in the front inseam. That it will finally be possible for me to buy a well-fitting wool suit without spending more than $200, and a French-cuffed shirt that fits me both in the shoulders and hips (I have a hard time with women’ fitted shirts). And that time spent on grooming will have zero correlation to gender or gender presentation.

  20. Jill says:

    The point about “more threatening” is another manifestation of this hierarchy: the underclass bears the burden of suspicion; they are the scapegoats for anxiety about the failure of all of us to perfectly perform our roles. This is part of the conflict with, “Yes, these are survival mechanisms,” one which goes beyond the willingness to admit that one is a collaborator. Rejecting femininity can mean agreeing not merely with feminists but with the dominant culture that femininity in all its details is a frivolous, artificial, superficial thing and that feminine women are frivolous, artificial, and shallow.

    I *heart* Piny.

    Will you write a book? Seriously? Because I think you are brilliant.

  21. sly civilian says:

    i think what got me the most was the starkness of the transition. while i had a pretty clear idea of constructed masculinity in my head previously, it just really caught me on that gut level that makes you go “hunh.” Hunhs, properly translated, become blog entries, and the cycle of life continues.

    back to the point, if an observer was to look at the average dude when he wakes up, especially if said dude does not sleep in male-coded clothing (or anything), and then compare to dude’s out-the-door state, they’re nothing alike. The contours, the focal points, the damn near everything of masculine presentation changes. Try the experiment with a consenting partner sometime. Especially if you like, or are a dude.

  22. Erin M says:

    I’ve noticed in these comments, that femme presentation is being defended as an issue of safety and / or providing more female signifiers. How about because it’s enjoyable?

    Well, I admit there’s an element of enjoyment, too, and in light of piny’s comment I have to agree that we don’t have the same incentives or disincentives to deal with. The reason I focus on the passing element is due in large part to some of my own insecurity. What I see in the mirror means as much to me as how the people around me react on a lot of days. And while I’ve no real doubt that I am trans, I do worry about being taken seriously.

    I think that a sign that we have truly liberated ourselves from the binary will be that how one dresses is no longer a political statement or controversy.

    Like I started out saying, I would love to be able to just proclaim my identity and have that be that. I’m not entirely sure if I’m ready to toss the binary, but that’s also because I have trouble seeing what things would look like beyond binary. Another comfort zone to overcome.

  23. Sabrina Star says:

    I’ve started referring to this as “cisgender gaze.” I can’t even watch movies or documentaries about transsexuals anymore because they ALL have these transgender money shot scenes depicting transsexuality as a disguise, sending the message that “underneath it all” transwomen are “really” men and transmen are “really” women.

    “Wow, you had us all fooled, i would have never guessed! How shocking. How… titillating.” Because, really, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? How much of an exotic turn-on we are to cisgendered people.

  24. Grog says:

    The reason I focus on the passing element is due in large part to some of my own insecurity. What I see in the mirror means as much to me as how the people around me react on a lot of days.

    Passing seems to come as much from within as from external validation. {e.g. not getting “hairy eyeball” inspections from others}

    I also suspect that it creates a “tangible” that you can focus on and to some extent distract yourself from trying to guess how random people are perceiving you.

  25. shannon says:

    In Atlanta GA I went into an independant bookstore(Eagle Eye I believe) and I saw a man wearing what looked like a knee length pleated leather skirt. I have to admit that I think my ankle length canvas skirt is more masculine somehow. Maybe it’s the length and lack of pleats.

  26. Erin M says:

    Shannon, sounds like a kilt to me. (See link in comment #9 above)

  27. shannon says:

    It probably was, but I thought skirt and thought it to this day

  28. somabergeron says:

    ahh the Utilikilt. My SO just got one and is crazy about it… He enjoys the subtle crossing the gendered and ‘normal’ clothing boundary (since he has job-prospective pressures that don’t allow him to get tattoo’d or have visible piercings) and the attention he gets as much as the unconstrictedness of the Utilikilt.

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