by Jonah Mix, Deep Green Resistance
Some days, queer theory feels like an elaborate practical joke.
I’m writing this after a good four hours spent in a marathon Twitter exchange, so forgive me if I’m a little short. The man in question was your average trans dude, berating women for their refusal to accept his identification as female; he did not take well to the news that, black choker and bad haircut aside, he wasn’t actually a woman. Over dozens of obnoxious Tweets, he accused so-called “TERFs” of “gatekeeping femininity,” “denying him womanhood,” and deciding that he wasn’t “worthy of the feminine.” Yes, he was actually claiming that his inability to wear fuck-me pumps was 1) due to the heartless machinations of radical feminists, and 2) evidence of oppression. Amazingly, all of this was said with a straight – and heavily painted – face.
This idea that men suffer greatly from being “denied” femininity is becoming more and more common. You can’t go far in queer circles without seeing males lament their inability to freely wear high heels, corsets, lipstick, and other feminine gender markers. The implication is always that women are comparatively privileged because femininity is socially acceptable for them, whereas these poor men are endlessly mocked, shamed, and even brutalized for dressing as they do – unlike women, of course, who never experience violence in public places from masculine men.
This whole idea is really, really stupid. Femininity is ritualized submission, a set of culturally enforced behaviors created by men to make obvious the division of power in society. The alternate belief – that femininity and masculinity just exist, and that some people are magically born with an innate connection to one or the other – is fundamentally conservative, even if the category of “naturally submissive people” is defined by an intangible identity instead of the physical body. It isn’t something anyone, but especially men, should be reifying into a valuable or fulfilling practice.
Some men sidestep this by saying that femininity isn’t inherently submissive; it’s only seen that way because society denigrates anything associated with women. But while it’s definitely true that anything women do in our culture is automatically devalued, it’s just historically inaccurate to argue that our culture’s feminine markers somehow preexist their association with inferiority. Things like face paint and tunics may be found all cultures, but their specific social construction inside patriarchy was defined by the need men had to delineate oppressor from oppressed.
Just like European domination constructed race, male domination constructed gender. And just like white people have always alternatively denigrated and fetishized non-white culture, many men find vacationing in femininity to be a delightfully naughty transgression. Somehow, this narcissism is passed off as some kind of radical strike against gender norms – as if men doing exactly what they want to do, regardless of how it impacts women, is a particularly novel thing. There is nothing edgy or dangerous about playing around with the tools you invented to maintain your privilege. People with dicks “empowering” femininity is no more effective than people with white skin “reclaiming” racial slurs.
The male embrace of feminine gender markers is to sex what gentrification is to class: The ultimate insult of the powerful. We build a cage, toss in our victims, and then demand they leave the best seat open when we want to drop by and visit. Amazon executives do it when they spend their nights “experiencing the culture” of Seattle neighborhoods their tech industry is destroying. Dreadlocked trust fund kids do it when they play at poverty for a summer on the fortune their daddies made repossessing homes. And men do it when we decide that women’s chains also happen to really bring out our cheek bones.
The narrative of “exclusion from femininity” hinges on the idea that a man being told no and a woman’s right to say no being removed are equally oppressive. But oppression doesn’t work that way. When men are prevented from wearing high heels and lipstick to work, it’s a bummer – when women are prevented from not wearing high heels and lipstick to work, it’s a human rights violation. Discomfort with power is never worse than any level of comfort with powerlessness. Sorry, but a master who wants to be a slave is still a master.
There’s nothing particularly tragic about the oppressor being unable to take on the markers the oppressed. There is, however, something almost audaciously shitty about mourning your exclusion from the category of Who Gets to Be Hurt while we consign billions of women to die inside its boundaries. As men, we are born with the privilege to live free of constriction, modification, and mutilation. The vast majority of women on Earth are not as lucky. Throughout history, but especially in the last century, women across the world have engaged in struggle to dismantle the system of compulsory femininity. Yet somehow, quite a few First World men have decided the real injustice is being unable to adopt what women are literally dying to reject.
Originally published at Gender Detective August 31, 2015.