Eye­lin­ers sharp, lipsticks blue

‘Fem­me­pho­bia’ is fake, and lacks nu­ance too

The McGill Daily - - Commentary - Shi­huan Zhou Com­men­tary Writer

Con­tent warn­ing: men­tions of misog­yny, sui­ci­dal ideation, sex­ual ha­rass­ment and as­sault, al­co­holism, child abuse

Not long ago, Gale* got into a fight with some­one from the queer stu­dent group at her school. She voiced her dis­com­fort when the group tried to host an event that was “femmes only.” She got promptly shut down. One of the or­ga­niz­ers re­ferred pub­licly to her con­cerns as “masc tears” and sub­se­quently joked about flirt­ing with a butch barista in a “self-callout.”

Gale re­cently got out of an abu­sive re­la­tion­ship with an­other wo­man. Trau­ma­tized and dys­pho­ric, she fi­nally found com­fort by cut­ting her hair, get­ting rid of her fem­i­nine clothes, and pre­sent­ing her­self as butch. “Ic­ing on the damn cake,” she said, re­fer­ring to the or­ga­nizer’s story about flirt­ing with a butch wo­man. “[They made] it clear they were re­fer­ring to butch les­bians as ba­si­cally men, and so it was hi­lar­i­ous that they were at­tracted to them. [It’s] straight up ob­jec­ti­fy­ing.”

Like Gale, I spent most of my un­der­grad mov­ing in and out of dif­fer­ent ac­tivist cir­cles. I am a fem­i­nine-pre­sent­ing per­son of colour who was des­ig­nated fe­male at birth, and I’ve been us­ing ‘they’ pro­nouns ex­clu­sively for the past cou­ple of years. I’ve met some of my clos­est friends while or­ga­niz­ing, and I have a great deal of at­tach­ment to ac­tivist cul­ture. How­ever, I’ve be­come dis­il­lu­sioned with the gen­der politics that run ram­pant within rad queer cir­cles. It’s a politics that is un­sub­stan­ti­ated, ahis­tor­i­cal, and not at all ‘rad­i­cal.’

At the cen­tre of this politics is the con­cept of ‘ fem­me­pho­bia.’ An ar­ti­cle from good ol’ Ev­ery­day Fem­i­nism de­fines it as “the fear or ha­tred of all peo­ple [who] are per­ceived as femme, fem­i­nine [...] re­gard­less of their gen­der.” The au­thor ar­gues that we should rec­og­nize fem­i­nin­ity as “beau­ti­ful, valu­able, or strong” and calls for us to “stop de­valu­ing [any­one] who doesn’t meet some so­ci­etal stereo­type of per­fect mas­culin­ity.”

To com­pen­sate for the cul­tural de­val­u­a­tion of fem­i­nin­ity, we have de­cided to glo­rify it as much as pos­si­ble. Decades fol­low­ing the emer­gence of queer the­ory, our ac­tivism has got­ten to a point where any­thing and ev­ery­thing can be em­pow­er­ing if we say it is. “Eye­liner so sharp it could kill a man,” we in­sist. “If you wear your lip­stick in the right shade of blue, you’re con­tribut­ing to the rev­o­lu­tion!”

Our un­crit­i­cal rev­er­ence of fem­i­nin­ity is a mis­guided at­tempt to tackle misog­yny. The cur­rent con­ver­sa­tion about how fem­i­nine-pre­sent­ing peo­ple bear the brunt of pa­tri­ar­chal vi­o­lence fails to ac­count for the ex­pe­ri­ences of butch and gen­der non-con­form­ing women, as well as peo­ple who may not be women but face spe­cific con­se­quences be­cause they were des­ig­nated fe­male at birth.

“A wo­man like me”

El* is a self de­scribed “neu­roatyp­i­cal Jewish les­bian” who loved Star Wars and base­ball as a child. “I was a girl,” they said, “but not a very good one.” It was as if they’d failed “some se­cret, in­vis­i­ble test.” As a teenager, they tried hard to fix things. “If I style my thick, un­ruly hair [...] I will be beau­ti­ful and worth some­thing,” they told them­selves. “If I pluck my de­fi­ant eye­brows. If I shave my arm and leg hair ev­ery morn­ing. If I start wear­ing makeup. If I wear the right clothes. If I stop rais­ing my hand so much.”

In high school El started en­gag­ing in LGBTQ ac­tivism and re­al­ized that they didn’t have to be a girl. “I still wanted to be pretty,” they said, “but I wanted to be pretty as a boy, or at least some­thing else.” Like El, I dis­cov­ered near the end of high school that I didn’t have to iden­tify with the sex I was as­signed to at birth. I wasn’t pretty, didn’t know a thing about makeup, and did hor­ri­bly in my tex­tiles class. I re­joiced in know­ing that it was all be­cause I wasn’t a girl – I was “some­thing else.”

Weirdly enough, my re­la­tion­ship to the men in my life didn’t change one bit. When I cut my hair short, my then-boyfriend told me that he pre­ferred me with long hair. I ended up grow­ing it out. When adult men in my fam­ily made com­ments about my body, I told my­self that my fear was un­war­ranted.

El now wears ex­clu­sively ‘men’s’ cloth­ing and swag­gers a bit when they walk. “I’m usu­ally too scared,” they said, “to even com­pli­ment girls out of fear that they’ll find any at­ten­tion from me un­wel­come.” Their more fem­i­nine les­bian friends could not re­late. El won­ders. “Do men [...] ag­o­nize like this over the de­ci­sion to tell a girl she’s cute?”

“Maybe it would be eas­ier for me to be a man,” El ad­mits, “I tried to cope with the crush­ing re­al­i­ties of misog­yny [...] by iden­ti­fy­ing away from wom­an­hood [...] But I don’t want to be a man. I want to be a wo­man who looks and acts like me.”

How­ever El and I may iden­tify in­ter­nally, we move through the world as women. I am al­most al­ways read as a wo­man, and El some­times gets ad­dressed as a guy. We were raised as girls, or, in El’s words, “girl­hood had been as­signed to me be­fore I even had a chance to scream at the world for the first time.” Ex­pec­ta­tions of con­ven­tion- al wom­an­hood shape our em­bod­i­ment, whether we like it or not. ‘Fem­me­pho­bia’ doesn’t ad­dress the fact that fem­i­nin­ity is, for us at the very least, not a choice.

By the time she was eight, my mom had been fully tasked with clean­ing the house and cook­ing for the en­tire fam­ily. One time when I was lit­tle, my dad drunk­enly in­sulted me in all sorts of creative ways from across the din­ner ta­ble. My mom said noth­ing. Maybe she was try­ing to teach me some­thing. I had yet to learn that her neck­laces and heels, that I used to play dress up with, were sym­bols of sub­mis­sion. Per­form­ing fem­i­nin­ity, in other words, comes with a de­mand.

Say wo­man, not femme

El told me, “the treat­ment that I’ve come to ex­pect from the world as a butch les­bian made me wish I could die.” When their then-best friend sent them an ar­ti­cle about ‘butch priv­i­lege,’ they felt sick. “Was I deny­ing my priv­i­lege when I car­ried my pock­etknife with me on the sub­way just in case? When I avoided pub­lic bath­rooms as much as pos­si­ble, ex­pect­ing to be gawked at in the best-case sce­nario?”

‘Fem­me­pho­bia’ is a deeply flawed at­tempt to name the cause of gen­dered vi­o­lence. As a form of anal­y­sis, it makes the gross mis­take of sep­a­rat­ing fem­i­nin­ity from wom­an­hood. Although the de­mands of fem­i­nin­ity are tran­sient and in no way nat­u­ral, they are tied up con­cep­tu­ally with wom­an­hood through so­cial­iza­tion, which be­gins as soon as the doc­tor de­clares, “it’s a girl!”

From that mo­ment, built-in mech­a­nisms ex­ist on ev­ery so­cial level that make sure women are to be ex­ploited for their re­pro­duc­tive and domestic labour at all times. We are obliged to spend large sums of money on cos­met­ics and an ex­tra­or­di­nary level of ef­fort in keep­ing up with beauty rit­u­als that are time-con­sum­ing and painful. We can’t sim­ply opt out of these ex­pec­ta­tions be­cause we’ve been trained to ac­cept them as good and de­sir- able, and there are ma­te­rial con­se­quences if we do refuse them, which in­cludes ev­ery­thing from ha­rass­ment and as­sault to lack of job op­por­tu­ni­ties.

I want to make it clear that I have no is­sue with peo­ple who present as fem­i­nine be­cause they can’t af­ford oth­er­wise. If you’re racial­ized, fat, trans, dis­abled, and you need to con­form to con­ven­tions of fem­i­nin­ity for safety, I feel for you – I re­ally do. I’m sorry that we live in a world where de­vi­a­tion from ‘cor­rect’ per­for­mances of gen­der re­sults in var­i­ous lev­els of cor­po­real vi­o­lence. The fear of pun­ish­ment for non­con­for­mity is real and dev­as­tat­ing.

Nor am I chastis­ing those who find it mean­ing­ful or fun to re­claim fem­i­nin­ity for them­selves. For those of us who are de­nied ac­cess to tra­di­tional no­tions of fem­i­nin­ity, it can feel val­i­dat­ing to be in dresses and heels, all pow­der and glit­ter.

At the end of the day, we need to all agree that a struc­tural, his­tor­i­cal anal­y­sis of gen­der as a sys­tem of dom­i­na­tion is more ac­cu­rate than any the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work that deals en­tirely with lan­guage and rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Dis­man­tling es­sen­tial­ist ideas about sex and gen­der does not end with chang­ing our lan­guage, not in a world where women’s bod­ies re­main a pri­mary site of pa­tri­ar­chal con­trol. This is not to say that us­ing the right words is unim­por­tant, but ad­dress­ing the ma­te­rial real­ity of op­pres­sion should al­ways be our top priority.

“I am hated,” El said, “not be­cause I am fem­i­nine. I am hated be­cause I am a wo­man and be­cause I am not fem­i­nine.” Next time you get the urge to sub­sti­tute ‘women’ for ‘femmes,’ note the as­sump­tions you’re mak­ing about peo­ple whose ex­pe­ri­ences you don’t un­der­stand. The scars we carry for not be­ing and lov­ing men – not un­til the end of pa­tri­archy would we need an­other name for this. The word is misog­yny. *Names have been changed. To con­tact the au­thor, email com­men­tary@mcgill­daily.com

I’ve be­come dis­il­lu­sioned with the gen­der politics that run ram­pant within rad queer cir­cles. It’s a politics that is un­sub­stan­ti­ated, ahis­tor­i­cal, and not at all ‘rad­i­cal.’

Ma­rina Djur­d­je­vic | The Mcgill Daily

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