Saturday, November 20, 2010

Performing Femininity

This is a little disjointed, and mostly a bit rambling.  I haven't really read a lot about the idea of performing femininity, and maybe I should because I'm sure there's someone out there who has said what I want to say, except more clearly and concisely, but this is my blog, and that means I get to ramble when i want to.

I just started reading Gender Trouble.  The introduction, combined with some blogs I've seen and other things filtering through my mind has gotten me thinking about how much of my appearance and actions are performances of gender, and how much are totally natural.  For example, the other day I wore a denim mini skirt, patterned tights, and a cute yellow-green sweater, along with some spf providing tinted moisturizer and mascara.  If I hadn't left the apartment, I'd probably have just worn sweatpants and a tank top. So my appearance definitely changes based on who I think is going to see me, and though I enjoy the clothing I wear in public, I tend to choose mainly for comfort at home.

So-- why do I like what I like in what I wear, and how much of what I wear is explicitly feminine vs. more gender neutral?  How much of my appearance is actually a conscious effort of performing femininity, and how much is innate desire?  What is the balance in MOST women?  When I look around the area I live in, I see a lot of people dressed in very gendered ways, from college students wearing leggings as pants, to stay at home mom's in long skirts and long sleeves.  Plenty of women in the area wear jeans, but very few wear jeans that are not cut or tapered in ways that are specifically feminine-- and while part of that is because it's more comfortable to wear properly tailored jeans, part of it is also that it makes it easy to send a quick message that you are fashionable and female.  But jeans, even trendy ones, paired with a plain sweater and natural or no make up comes pretty close to not performing femininity, because its so similar to what men wear on a daily basis.

Performing femininity seems to be more about doing things that are feminine rather than neutral, of playing up female characteristics, of emphasizing gender.  It seems like a much less extreme version of drag performances-- drag performers don't dress up in a sensible sweater and jeans and ballet flats-- they instead tend to wear long hair, high heels, and flashy dresses-- in fact, they dress a lot like burlesque dancers, another art form that is also very much about performing femininity-- except that burlesque goes beyond mere appearance and also performs a sort of sexy sexual coquettish stereotype of a shy but available woman.  Those are both obvious examples of performing femininity, and even a woman doing burlesque is being feminine in a way that she isn't likely to be in real life-- because that portrayal is fake, and simply based on a societal ideal.

So-- what I'm wondering, then, is how much those of us who are not on stage who are not being paid to exaggerate the feminine and slip into idealized views actually perform femininity-- that is, exaggerate feminine characteristics-- beyond what is most natural and comfortable to us?  And further-- why?  Most women do not find high heels and pantyhose professional, yet many women working in professional settings wear them daily, and many women wear heels in their free time.  Heels are often framed as sexual, but when you're wearing them to work, or going over to a friend's where there will be no one you are sexually interested in, it's clear that we wear them for more than purely sexual reasons.  Many people-- myself included-- will say that we wear them because we like them, we think they're pretty, we enjoy certain styles or aesthetics.  Some of it is also generally to fit in-- society has dress codes, and it sets the standards for what is feminine appearance more than any internal sense, or images of femininity wouldn't have changed over time-- yet some things, like finding different ways to emphasize or hid parts of the female body-- are timeless trends.  The fact that a lot of femininity is based on cultural trends ought to be undeniable though, especially given the influence Mad Men has had on the cut, colors, and styles of clothing-- making images of femininity a little more whimsical, and a little less modern/urban.

Still, when I pull on jeans and a black sweater, I don't really feel like I'm performing femininity in the way that I do when I wear a black dress with patterned stockings.  Even though both are cut for a female body, and both do read as feminine, the jeans and sweater combo feels neutral to me.  But when I wear a dress or a skirt that i really like, I am conscious of being female, and of my appearance, and of the image I create in a way I am not when I wear jeans, and I even have to be conscious of acting differently-- no sitting with my legs in a pretzel on the couch.  I also get a different response from strangers, more doors getting held open and more compliments.  Whether it's my intent or not, the way I dress sends signals-- and while I'd like the main signal i send to be "Hi, I'm a human worthy of basic respect", some outfits send a main message of "I am a woman!  i like pretty things!".  We all know that clothing sends messages-- it's how we identify hipsters, and people will treat the same man differently if he's wearing a suit than if he's wearing jeans and a stained t-shirt.

I want to be taken seriously-- I think most people do-- but I wonder if some forms of femininity make people tune out what the performers have to say.  There's a difference between a casual dress, a skirt suit, or a dance-party dress-- each dress sends a different message.  I actually, um, own exceedingly similar items to the three linked outfits, and I know that where one of them would be appropriate, the other two probably would not.  But the first dress is a stand in for jeans, and the second is a stand in for a pants suit.  it takes some amount of thought to decide between them and their less obviously feminine alternatives... yet I often choose the ones that emphasize femininity more.  I'm unsure how much of it is that I like the aesthetics of myself in skirts and dresses more (though I do) and how much of it is the fact that law school bashed into my head that women should wear skirt suits to interviews and how much of it is a reaction to my utter hatred of skirts as a youth.  (the switch came some time in college, when I briefly transferred to All Skirts All The Time.  Now I'm just Skirts When I Think About It (unless cold or rainy or lazy).)

I know I like a lot of stereotypical things, and I know that when I do stereotypical things that I am, in a way, performing femininity, if only because I am often conscious of them being feminine at the moment.  But I still like them, even if I'm a little suspicious of why I like them, and I still choose to do them.  I don't think choosing to behave the way I do is some betrayal of feminism (as I've discussed before), and I still want to work, and I still have a number of interests that aren't in the same old-school realm of femininity.  But at the same time, a part of me does get weirded out when i think about the performance aspects of it, and when i think about the fact that people may get a different impression of who I am on the days I blow dry my hair and wear mascara.

(Incidentally, I also think that guys can perform masculinity-- and that certain styles of suits or gym wear or Jersey Shore inspired outfits are doing so-- but at the same time, I think that because so much of things defaults to male, its easier to be neutral and unthinking in dress. I guess I probably should have referenced Naomi Wolf's There Is No Unmarked Woman at some point, but...lazy.  But i did read it, back in college, and it did talk about how people interpret different clothing differently on women with the underlying idea that there is no neutral outfit for a woman and there is one for a man, but i kind of disagree, in that I think men are also marked by whether they wear a suit or jeans, but I get that in the workplace they have a go to suit uniform and are neutral, where for a woman there are more options and no option is truly neutral, so we're always sending a message.  But it doesn't talk about performance and exaggerated femininity beyond natural inclinations, to me memory, although it might!)


Kelly E. said...

I'm very uncomfortable in overly feminine clothing. I don't think I'm treated as an equal when I wear low cut shirts, high heels, etc. My entire wardrobe is basically gender neutral. I wear clothing that is nicely cut/ semi-professional on a daily basis (like blouses, blazers, sweaters and corduroys,) but I wouldn't consider any item particularly feminine. I often feel like this behavior is wrong, and that I should WANT to wear more feminine clothing, but in all honesty, I just don't. I guess it also really bothers me that revealing/tight clothing styles are what society equates with femininity.

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about this a lot, recently. I usually dress in clothes that are cut for female bodies, but are less gendered, more neutral. But I enjoy dressing in very feminine clothes (dresses with stockings and, on occasion, heels) on some days and more masculine clothes on others (I don't think I pass for a boy, but often wear men's dress shirts, jackets and ties). I've noticed that on days when I wear dresses or men's clothes I feel like I'm in drag; even in dresses, and I'm a biological female. I'm not sure what to make of this, except that I'm becoming more aware of the pervasiveness of gender performity... but I definitely connected with this post.
It was exceedingly interesting and rather comforting to read. Thanks so much for sharing!!

Anonymous said...

Don't you think there's also a tendency among women - missing among men - to use clothes to diminish femininity? For example, many large chested women I know are preoccupied with dressing to conceal their bust because they worry that so-called neutral clothes would actually appear overly feminine (or even "slutty") because of how these busty women naturally fill them out. Equally, extremely slight and petite women may deliberately dress in more conservative clothes with heels in order to look taller, older, and more domineering in order to be taken seriously at work. Ironically, these women might wear heels and suits in order to increase their size, and thus, in a way, their masculinity. My point is that yes, women use clothes to play up their femininity, but they also use them to play down their femininity in order to appear more modest, mature, professional, respectable (read: more "masculine").

Now, as a flat-chested, straight-bodied, thin-haired woman, I purposefully dress in feminine clothes to make sure that I can be identified as a woman and to feel like a woman. But if my body were overly feminine, as the examples given above, I might be inclined to downplay instead of play up my femininity through clothing.

Kian said...

I think that if you're doing it because you like it, then it's not performing, it's just you. When I perform masculinity, as a fey gay trans man, it's mostly to not stand out so I don't get beat up, but it's not my authentic self. Also my "performance" is more about mannerisms than clothing, since I don't wear women's clothes. So I'm thinking, do you consider innate mannerisms that are considered feminine (ie. giggling, eyelash batting, coyness, submissiveness, and softness) to be performance? And if so, do you change those depending on how you want to be seen?

Anonymous said...

I wonder whether women are more conscious of performing femininity because femininity is somehow 'other', set up in opposition to a masculine mainstream? What I mean by this is that although you mentioned at the end of your blog the possibility of men performing masculinity, in the main they do not, because whether they put on casual, professional, party or sporting clothes, they always wear some variation on pants, which have gone from being overtly masculine (in the days when society did not permit women to wear pants) to mainstream (now women can wear them too).

If this is the case then I wonder whether we may in some sense have diminished our own gender by campaigning for and then using the right to wear pants?