Saturday, 15 December 2012

excessively feminine

exaggeratedly female

An interesting article on Huffington Post focuses on the implications of a line from a telly show, Husbands:  "I'm a man with an exotic femininity in a society that regards the feminine as a sign of weakness."

I found it particularly interesting because of my own, trans experience of that attitude. From an early e-mail from an old friend telling me that I wouldn't solve my problems by flouncing about like a pantomime dame (she hadn't seen me, she just naturally assumed that this is what trans women do, I guess) to a criticism of my behaviour by the Chief Engineer of the Pride of Bilbao, cited at an Employment Tribunal; "she acted in an exaggeratedly female manner", he said, though he didn't explain how I managed that.

He wasn't there in person; his 'statement' was read out by Sandra Ray, a personnel officer with P&O. "Has anyone ever accused you of acting in an exaggeratedly female manner?" I asked.

She seemed a little surprised by the question.

The surprise was, of course, due to the perception of my femininity as being purely performative; as they evidently saw me as a man, any feminine behaviour on my part was exaggerated (though I'm still not sure that I did anything that I would have described as characteristically gendered either way). But in a wider sense, femininity is seen as performative, whoever is performing it. Indeed, some people see all gender behaviour as a performance (in the sense of it being artificial), rather than simply performative (in the sense of being what we do); and some see femininity as a divergence from best practice, which is, by default, masculinity.

There's an element of this attitude in the uber-trans woman who insists that she never wears skirts, but lives in jeans, when others lower down the pecking order are enthusing about their new-found freedom to explore female clothes options. It's one-up-person-ship, of course, but still buys into the narrative.

Julia Serano is a useful read on this stuff, by the way, if you haven't encountered her "Whipping Girl:  A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity".

(a quick and imperfect post, shall review it later...)


  1. Have read some discussions in recent years suggesting that it is now ok for men to cry but not for women, as women are just displaying [performing?] the feminine.
    When I wrote my dissertation at art college [I refuse to call it uni] in 98/99 I was looking at the feminine along with hierarchies, art, craft, textiles. One of the things I noticed was that the feminine was sort of only acceptable within certain conditions.
    behaviour is performative - learnt within the culture, sometimes it is performed. A lot of people seem to miss how culture works on the youngest of children. My god daughter picked up so much stuff despite being at a steiner school and not watching TV - she was a sponge. Ok I use lipstick and do wear some "feminine" clothing [mainly vintage aprons..]But she caught the tiniest snippets from magazines and whatever she picked up while not at home. Then she had a reaction against the feminine, she liked the outdoors. She wanted to wear boys’ clothes, boys colours [her mother and I both carefully pointed out that colours are colours, not boy colours/girl colours]. I noticed that she still kept up some of the "feminine" mannerisms.

    I argued with my 6th form art teacher about michael angelo's sculptures of women, I saw these muscly women as beautiful and feminine...he saw them as men with breasts added. But my Ma was hugely physical - rock climbing, gardening - she still runs when she could walk at 75. but she only ever wore trousers or rather breeches when in the mountains or rock climbing.That was my role model... I was critised in primary school for untidyness of hair and dress - when you've been racing about and on pogo sticks or stilts it's hard to keep it together. why can't you be more like jennifer? I think someone must have said - I started to look around - neat white socks up to knees [I was tall, gangly] clean frocks, tidy hair, soft hands. It had an effect on me. I couldn't quite work it out. how could you climb trees and still look like that?

    did you see this article?

    Feminine behaviour is a mine field....

  2. That's a nice shot of you, Dru, and I see how the pint makes its point.

    I'm at the stage now where exploring the social aspects of womanhood is much more interesting than whether it'll be a skirt or jeggings today, or both. In other words, less introspection and more taking notice of what's going on around me. Trying to become part of the ordinary, everyday world. It takes effort, and effort of the right sort. Exaggerated feminine behaviour isn't going to get me anywhere, nor will aping men. But I do think that being a graceful, nicely-dressed, well-spoken and intelligent-looking woman will help. So that's the goal for me.


  3. Ive just remembered something that happened to me in the early 80s in Leigh/southend on sea. I was staying with a friend and working for him for a weekend to pay for a weekend sailing trip. The people going all had a get together. I went up with friend to get the drinks. He gave over the order. He was asked if a glass were required for the grolsh, friend turned to me and I said yes. The man behind the bar looked like something had hit him. He asked if it was for me. I wondered if we was actually going to serve me. One of the pinkts was for the only other woman in the group [sort of woman who sails the north sea alone]. So I paused and looked around the bar. All the women were drinking from small glasses. Later that evening 2 women friends of my friend came over an commented on how nice it was to see a woman who had natural hair i.e not styled. I realised that the perception of what was woman, what was feminine varied around the country and within different social circles.
    What is feminine? what is woman? and can you ever "learn" it all - even if you start out as female from day one....?
    Obviously you got me thinking this morning

  4. Thanks for the link, FF! Obv I'm entirely unsurprised by the reacion he got for doing it... it was good to get his perspective on gender policing, though.

    That drinks thing reminded me of an evening in Portsmouth (when I was living down there). I was walking to my local one night, and bumped into a Geordie engineer off my ship, who had come south to rejoin the ship the next day. So I took him to my local, which had quite a boho bunch of regulars. We were sitting talking, and then I realised he was otherwise engaged- he was staring at a couple at a nearby table. "Howway," he said; "Ah've never seen anything like that before!" The man was drinking a half pint, and the woman a pint....

    Hi Lucy! -hopefully we're all evolving... about the 'exaggerated feminine behaviour' thing, though; it was an accusation without any foundation, as were so many of the things that P&O said. The intention was to exonerate the guilty parties, and to make me look bad. And of course it worked. At least in the reporting of the case.

  5. I used to drink pints - I've only stopped because I needed to lose weight! I also very rarely wear a skirt - I have only started wearing one occasionally because my ex-boyfriend wears one, and therefore that takes it out of the realm of gendered clothing for me, and into the realm of gender-neutral. I identify as genderqueer, and I am also bisexual.

    Both masculinity and femininity are performances, but some of the aspects of gender are quite deeply ingrained because we have socialised to do them from an early age.

    It's sad if being 'feminine' is denigrated though - everyone should be able to choose to perform whatever gender characteristics they want. I know there is some stigma in some sections of the gay community towards being feminine.

  6. ^ have been socialised to do them

  7. The whole skirts thing is potentially charged when it comes to Teh Tanz, isn't it? -it's one thing to wear something, and another to use the wearing of it as evidence of something; 'real women wear trousers', and so on.

    I'm not sure that gendered behaviour is entirely learned- I think there's something intrinsic too. But then there's probably no way of proving it either way. And it's certainly less intrinsic than a lot of people seem to believe. Have you read Cordelia Fine's book on this?