By: Lorelei Erisis*/TRT Columnist—
This month I decided to write about the idea of femininity, specifically as it relates to me, but also in the broader sense as it applies to all of us. The idea was solid. I’m a femme identified trans woman who does queer activism but also gets around quite a bit in the “straight world,” and I have things to say about my experience with femininity. That was all well and good until I got to that research part of things. That’s where the world exploded, figuratively speaking.
I know “femininity” is a deceptively big topic. It’s something we all interact with one way or another, and there are volumes of books devoted to it, but holy heck is it contentious! Forget Google, just a Tumblr search brought an amazingly broad range of thought on “femininity,” and YouTube, sweet gods YouTube! There were New Age self-help gurus, feminists, Fashion vloggers, TED Talk-type seminars, academics, activist interviews, roundtable discussions, dude-bro advice videos, and Christians, Christians and more Christians.
Suddenly, my confidence was shaken. It’s a rare moment when I feel somehow less well informed after I’ve done research than before. Very few of the ideas I came across were actually new or surprising, but it’s my policy as a writer and habit as a person to try and listen, really listen, to all the voices in an argument, and think for myself before I decide what’s worth holding on to. [pullquote]However, without delving too deeply into history or feminist theory, let me acknowledge that there are certainly negatives to how this construct of “femininity” has been developed and operates in our still all too patriarchal society. Just owning our femininity isn’t necessarily “feminist” in and of itself, but it can be revolutionary.[/pullquote]
The most important conclusion I came to is that there’s no reasonable way for me to tell you definitively what the right take on femininity is. I can’t tell you what you should think. By even attempting to tackle this topic in an all too brief newspaper column, I acknowledge that I’m being hugely reductive out of necessity. I hope you will think for yourself and come to your own conclusions, which is in fact always my hope.
As I have said, I am a femme identified trans woman. I choose to embrace femininity. I prefer to wear skirts and dresses and actively dislike wearing pants. I like frilly things, pink things, as well as fitted, tight clothes that show off my curves. I love stockings and cute shoes. I have this thing for Hello Kitty that I have a lot of trouble intellectually defending. Heck, I’m even a damn pageant queen! I’ve got two crowns, a tiara and three sashes!
I’m super flirty and have a tendency to blush. I like to be complimented and enjoy feeling pretty. I am also sensitive, caring and empathic. I embrace my emotions. I cry. In every way I choose to be in the world, I practically embody a dictionary definition of femininity. I am femme, hear me purr!
I am also one of the strongest people I know. I’ve lived a life of adventure and sometimes danger. I march, speak out, enrage bigots, engage students, go where I please, and love who I please. I was raised by strong, independent and often very feminine women, women who were unafraid to speak their minds, who taught me to think before judging, that love is better than hate, and to stand up for what I believe in and avoid violence whenever it was possible. My mother was unashamedly sexy and proudly feminine. She also built the house I grew up in with her own two hands.
I could fill this column with nothing but descriptions of the strong, feminine women I have known and grown up with, yet I am barraged with messages from a society that judges femininity as weak, associates more masculine traits with strength, and looks down its nose at those of us who choose femininity, even in the queer community. I cannot tell you how many times I have been asked by people I consider to be allies, friends even, why would I choose to wear skirts? Why don’t I wear pants? Don’t I hate wearing tights? As a queer woman, I find my validity questioned because I am femme, my identity erased by my high heels and short skirt.
Being trans just adds a whole extra layer. I am judged doubly. I was not socialized as ‘feminine,’ never made to wear a dress to formal gatherings, never told I could not wear pants. I chose to embrace femininity, which, it is implied, is highly suspect to say the least. [pullquote]I could fill this column with nothing but descriptions of the strong, feminine women I have known and grown up with, yet I am barraged with messages from a society that judges femininity as weak, associates more masculine traits with strength, and looks down its nose at those of us who choose femininity, even in the queer community.[/pullquote]
Outside of Tumblr and academia, does anyone stop to consider how incredibly biased this is while they are judging away? How is it okay for women to wear pants but not for men to wear skirts? What does that say about how we judge femininity? By extension, since we live in a society that associates ‘femininity’ with women, what does that say about our attitudes towards women themselves?
I’m not saying I identify as a man who wants to wear skirts. I’m definitely a woman. I’ll even cop to the fact that it sometimes weirds me out to see a male identified person dressed in a feminine manner, a feeling I have nonetheless learned to take as a prompting to examine my own attitudes.
I understand that these things are deeply ingrained, so I’m not trying to accuse anyone. I struggle myself. When I was younger and still closeted (well, sort of…), still pretending to be a man, one of the ways I would keep myself from “dressing up” was to grow a beard. I simply could not stand the incongruity of this very ‘masculine’ thing in relation to my feminine preferences. It was internalized transphobia, certainly, but it was more than that. It was femmephobia. Why shouldn’t someone with a beard feel pretty in a frilly dress?
It is an incongruity I have had to learn to live with. I am, for instance, tall. Very tall. At least in this society, we automatically associate height with masculinity. By choosing to be femme, I am actively inhabiting a femininity that is in conflict with a perceived masculinity, and it makes my femininity much more noticeable.
Still, if I choose to reject or even just downplay my femininity—on the rare occasion, for instance, I opt simply for jeans and a t-shirt—I am misgendered horrendously. I often find I need to play up my femininity, even more than I normally would, in order for people to correctly identify me as the woman I am. Then, by this display of my femininity, I find myself judged by my own community. It’s a vicious cycle.
I’m definitely not saying a woman needs to dress or present in any particular way other than how she feels most comfortable. There is no way that “a woman dresses” other than how she, as a woman, decides to dress herself or not. The same could be said for how a man dresses.
However, without delving too deeply into history or feminist theory, let me acknowledge that there are certainly negatives to how this construct of “femininity” has been developed and operates in our still all too patriarchal society. Just owning our femininity isn’t necessarily “feminist” in and of itself, but it can be revolutionary. Femininity can be and is powerful if we choose to make it so. Yes, perhaps we are “using the tools of the masters,” but my mother taught me I can use a hammer any damn way I please. I can drive nails with it or I can turn it around and smash those patriarchal bastards right in the hegemony!
So, I say celebrate femininity, whether you choose to inhabit it or not. Whether you are female identified, male identified or entirely other, if you are femme, own it! Be proud! If you are not femme and if femininity is not for you personally, just remember how much strength it takes to be feminine in a world that judges femininity as weakness.
And if you see me on the street and wonder why I’m wearing a skirt, just tell me I look pretty and what a perfect outfit it is for going into battle!
*Lorelei Erisis is an actor, activist, adventurer and pageant queen. Send your questions about trans issues, gender and sexuality to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.