Monday, August 17, 2015

What Is Femininity, Anyway?

Back in July, Laura Jane Grace was the guest on Marc Maron's WTF podcast, and one of the things she talked about was her "experiences as a trans woman in a punk rock world." I'd never heard of Laura Jane Grace and I don't know much of anything about her music -- but as usual it was an interesting discussion.

At one point Laura Jane and Marc got talking about gender dysphoria. Laura Jane described being a little boy and seeing -- I think it was Madonna? -- on TV and hoping to grow up into that kind of person, and slowly becoming aware that that wasn't the way things were heading.

Later she described how much more recently she began hiding her gender dysphoria experiences. She talked about how she was trying to keep it a secret, and so she would hide that part of herself away from people, and act on it only when she was alone, on tour or something. 

Marc asked about what that was like -- like what texture did that experience have, what did it involve? And she talked about wanting to wear women's clothing, and how sad it could be to have to settle -- to settle for the first thing you could grab at Target or whatever, instead of being able to have things you really like, in your own style.

And at one point she was elaborating on the clothing point, and -- I'm just recounting this from memory of course -- she said something about how she would want to wear feminine clothing, like either specifically feminine items like a dress or clothes styled in a certain way. For example, if she was going to wear a tank top, she'd want it to be a tank top cut in a particularly feminine way.

When she said that, I felt like I knew just the kind desire she was referring to. I love to wear feminine clothing, and sometimes I feel a strong desire to do so. And I've had just that feeling. Sure, a tank top. But can it be cut in a certain style, please?

There's something about this kind of desire I've never really felt I understood though, and that is: What's femininity got to do with it? What is femininity anyway?

I mean, if someone has a strong desire to wear one kind of tank top rather than another, what is that about?

Is it just that we live in a world that socially constructs gender strongly through clothes, so that a desire to feel like a woman manifests itself as a desire to wear certain kinds of tank tops?

That could be it. But that answer's never felt sufficient to my own experience. I'm a cisgender woman with a pretty curvy bod. Even when I wear jeans and a hoody, I feel like a woman and I look like a woman and people -- usually -- respond to me as a woman. But I don't feel feminine. And sometimes I want to feel feminine, and I want to wear the clothes associated with that feeling. So for me it seems to go beyond gender identification.

Another answer that insufficient to my personal experience is the "sexiness" answer. When I want to wear feminine clothes, it's not the same as wanting to wear a sexy outfit. On me, a low-cut shirt and snug pants often conveys way more sex appeal than a dress. But that outfit is not feminine. And it's the dress I often find myself wanting to wear.

About a year and a half ago I was on a plane coming home from Paris and I watched this movie "Les Adieux à la reine" -- "a fictional account of the last days of Marie Antoinette in power seen through the eyes of Sidonie Laborde, a young servant who reads aloud to the queen." This movie, incidentally, passes a double-secret reverse Bechdel test: as far as I can recall, there are no scenes where two men talk to one another at all. It is all women all the time.

From Les Adieux à la reine
The clothes in this movie -- the clothes! I haven't felt so stirred by a something on a small screen in a long, long, time. Yet even as I was filled with strange emotion and longing, I was unclear what exactly the emotion and longing were about. Why did these lace gowns, elaborate hairstyles and cinched waists speak to me in this way? What were they trying to say?

I don't know the answer. I think it's something about femininity, but what, exactly, I have no idea.

None of this, of course, is meant to speak to Laura Jane Grace's experience -- it's just my story. But if the bridal gown industrial complex is any indication -- I am not alone.

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