A constant refrain over my journey to accepting, living, and celebrating my femmeness has been, “Why do you feel the need to” do whatever femme thing happens to be striking the person’s irritation at the time. The subtext is that it’s not possible I should just want to do these things, that they should just make me happy or agree with me. Since I’m a boy, I have to have some reason, I have to be able to account for them.
And the question itself is so odd, anyway; “need” suggests compulsion, that I must not have a choice in the matter, but the very question “why” suggests that I have some sort of ulterior motive, that I’m doing it just to be perverse and annoying.
This isn’t restricted to me, of course. There is a constant theme in our culture and kyriarchy that things considered to be feminine gender traits are regarded as fake, artificial, performed, or histrionic, and things coded as masculine are normal, natural, rational, artless, sincere, or direct. And those viewed as men are regarded as especially artificial when they behave femininely because they are disrupting gender assumptions.
Of course many of the things I do because I’m femme are “performances,” to a greater or lesser extent, if only because I’m choosing to do them and not to do other things. But I’m no more or less “performing” them than a butch man is when he does butch things. It takes no more effort to listen to a Mika CD than it does to listen to a Bruce Springsteen one, no more effort to wear a cerise shirt and white satin tie than a white shirt and navy-blue tie. I don’t see how it’s some sort of stagey drama to do what happens to suit my tastes.
And yes, in some cases I am choosing to do things specifically because I identify as femme, because it makes me feel good to do femme things, because I want to express myself and live out my gender identity. Partly it’s because I know that, like everyone, I’m assumed to be gender-normative until proven otherwise, and that makes me itch, just as it makes me itch to be assumed to be heterosexual.
But if squeeing with my girlfriends over their new décor and wearing the pretty brocade scarf I bought last week because I like feeling femme is some sort of artificial, histrionic performance I’m putting on just to be a pain in the ass, it’s no more of one than Joe Dudester’s male-bonding with his buddies over the Habs game because he enjoys living out his masculinity in that way. And yet only one of them is seen as a big performance and is confronted with demands for an explanation.
I am not one to make arguments based on innateness when it’s not necessary, and certainly not with regard to gender presentation. For example, although I believe I was born gay, I would want my rights and liberties respected even if homosexuality were a choice. And nothing makes me roll my eyes harder than the latest pseudoscientific exploration of how men like toolbelts because the cavemen needed something to keep their adzes in while hunting wildebeests. (ETA: or this revolting sample from just a few days after this entry was published).
But I could argue (if I wanted to) that femme presentation in men seems far less likely to be some sort of a put-on or contrary to one’s inclinations than butch presentation, precisely because butch presentation is so much more valued and vigorously (and violently) encouraged. On the face of it, it would seem to be much more plausible for a man to be butch when he’s not so inclined than to be femme ditto ditto, just because that gender presentation is so strongly valued and indeed enforced.
Indeed, it scarcely needs to be said that when I feel compelled to act butch for whatever reason, it’s far more of an act than when I am being, well, myself. That’s the time when I’m self-consciously watching myself and making an overt effort to do one thing and not others in order to stagily convey a particular gender presentation. (Picture Nathan Lane in The Birdcage trying to learn to walk “like a man.” If it was so natural, he wouldn’t have to go through all that.)
And if you are invested in the idea that effeminacy in those gendered as men is somehow especially artificial, it is mighty suspicious that femininity is also regarded in many ways as artificial even in women. Femininity in women is also mystified and regarded as a put-on, as trappings, in a patriarchal worldview. As Julia Serano says in Whipping Girl (yes, I’m quoting her again), consider how
certain pursuits and interests that are considered feminine, such as gossiping or decorating, are often characterized as ‘frivolous,’ while masculine preoccupations – even those that serve solely recreational functions, such as sports – generally escape such trivializing. … negative connotations like “artificial,” “contrived,” and “frivolous” become built into our understanding of femininity – indeed, this is precisely what allows masculinity to always come off as “natural,” “practical,” and “uncomplicated.”
…[To] single out women’s dress shoes, clothing, and hairstyles to artificialize necessarily leave[s] unchallenged the notion that their masculine counterparts are “natural” and “practical.” This is the same male-centered approach that allows the appearances and behaviors of men who wish to charm and impress others to seem “authentic” while the reciprocal traits expressed by women are dismissed as “feminine wiles.” Femininity is portrayed as a trick or ruse so that masculinity inevitably seems sincere by comparison. For this reason, there are few intellectual tasks easier than artificializing feminine gender expression, because male-centrism purposefully sets up femininity as masculinity’s “straw man” or its scapegoat.
Likewise, just as I was discussing earlier about the assumptions that I’m femme because I’ve somehow been brainwashed into thinking gay men should be femme, femme women are also subjected to the idea that they’ve been duped into dressing and acting like pawns of the patriarchy. Those gendered as women are indeed coerced into behaving femininely and many of them would be happier doing something different, just as those gendered as men are coerced into acting masculine (although here again, it seems like there’s a better prima facie case for regarding masculinity as artificial than femininity, considering how brutal and maniacal the coercion on men to act masculine is). However, Serano points out,
to say that [femininity] is entirely “artificial” or merely a “performance” is patronizing toward those for whom femininity simply feels right. Indeed, one would have to have a rather grim view of the female population [or, I might add, the femme gay male population — f.g.] to believe that a majority of us could so easily be “brainwashed” or “coerced” into enthusiastically adopting an entirely contrived or wholly artificial set of gender expressions.
In other areas, she dissects the equally male-centric idea that feminine gender presentation is a performance aiming to attract men. Not only does this ignore queer women and straight men who are femme, it also ignores the fact that a lot of straight men are oblivious at best and disdainful at worst of feminine women’s choices of adornment. This echoes the fact that queer men’s canon of attractiveness runs much more to the Jeff Stryker end of the spectrum than the Adam Lambert end, so as much as I would like to date (and have enjoyed dating) guys who like their boys femme, if I were just doing it to get laid you can bet I would be reevaluating my strategy. Can it not possibly be that feminine people dress or behave femininely or indeed do anything just to suit ourselves?
And in the end, who cares if it’s a performance, if it’s artificial? What difference does it make? Performance is okay. Artificiality is okay. Performance and artifice are part of being human. Getting dressed at all is artificial; what difference does it make what colours I choose? Living in a house is artificial; if we accept that, who cares how I’ve decorated?
The real question for me, then, is not why I “feel the need” to express my femmeness. It’s why other people feel the need to account for my femmeness. Why does my gender presentation so disrupt their lives as to make them demand an explanation?