Tag Archives: sexuality

GENDER/QUEER: “Butch/Femme Crip”

Crip Wheels, a blog composed by a black queer “wheelchair dancer,” features thoughtful observations on disability and dance, among other things. This brilliant essay, “Butch/Femme Crip,” addresses the tangle of queer sexuality and gender presentation (including but not exclusive to the way clothes interact) with corporeal bodies in general, and disabled bodies in particular. The importance here lies in the uneven distribution of gender and sexuality to certain forms of physical presence — to muscles, to movements — and in her challenge to those qualities problematically assigned as distinct to those embodiments. For all that the following excerpt is quite long, it is nonetheless just a taste of the intellectually provocative writing about moving the body here.

When we got into it, the last two women with whom I almost had sexual relationships told me that they read me as butch. Theoretically speaking, it is a little perverse to argue from the point of view of how someone reads me rather than saying I explicitly identify as butch (or not). But I choose to do so because this particular approach shows how disability complicates what we think we know about possible identities.

Behind that word for them was my fascination with my own body, with its muscles, and with its physical strengths. That’s something a lot of queer women notice about me, and it is the source of many jokes among my friends. I say queer women, because the straight ones in my life are usually too shy to comment on it. But also behind that word for the two women in question was my active enjoyment of my physicality. I love the power of my body; I flex my muscles, I pat them in public (sorry peeps, I really do; I love them). Yeah, it’s funny. Yeah, it’s sexy. But for the purposes of this conversation, I wonder about that understanding.

To say that it is “butch” to somehow forefront muscularity and physicality strikes me as an interesting insight into how we approach understanding conventional femininity. It is to say that somehow conventional femininity does not explicitly prioritize the tendons, sinews, muscles, and bones of its female bodies. But how can you have breasts, vaginas, tummies, and asses without the underlying structure of your body? Is it to say that somehow conventional femininity is only the visible surface of the body. Is it to say that femme is the performance of the hyper surface — the explicit recognition and enhancement of aspects of conventional femininity? And that butch is somehow the recognition and acceptance of the deeper muscular structures of the body?

If this is what it means to be butch, then, I suppose, that even in my 5 inch heels, even in my see-through mesh dresses, I am butch. But I also think that disability skews — I almost wrote queers; I so wanted to write queers — disability skews that particular assessment of these aspects of my butchness.

Scenes from my life.

You see me on the street. I’m wearing a low cut tank top. Your attention is caught by my ripped back muscles. I turn towards you, flex my arms, and push away. You think:

  1. Oh, what an athlete. Wow! Sexy.
  2. It’s a pity that she’s in that chair. Such a strong upper body must compensate for her legs.
  3. She should cover herself up a bit.
  4. Ugh, and you look in other direction.

You see me in the cafe. I’m wearing the same low cut tank top. I admire my arms. Sip my coffee. Look at my arms again, stroke them, and smile a long smile at you. You

  1. Smile back and ask if I need help or anything?
  2. Panic. Fuck. Did she just … flirt with me? Shit.
  3. Pretend you didn’t see, turn, and leave.
  4. Smile and come right over.

You see me in the audience at a dance performance. I’m wearing a mesh dress, pointy heeled boots, and something in between to make it decent. Every muscle in my arms and back is visible; the curve of my breasts rises out of the baggy over-dress; my body gleams through the sheen of the blue mesh. Wizard pushes me into the space. You

  1. Wonder if I feel sad watching all those beautiful dancers, given that I can’t move.
  2. Wonder if I am for real. Disabled people don’t dress or look like THAT.
  3. Wonder about what Wizard is doing with a woman like me.
  4. Wonder what it would be like to fuck me.

OK. So, I am imagining the viewer’s responses. But these are moments from my life of last week. No, you don’t get to ask what happened next. And in each vignette, I really think that the question of whether you see me as butch or femme doesn’t really happen unless you integrate or get past the disability question. And what about my choices and my perspectives?

My muscles are as they are because I use a chair and because I dance. Because they are a direct consequence of my disabled life, I would argue that you would have to think twice before you interpret them and my enjoyment of them as part of a butch identity.

My decision to wear impractical shoes is as much a consequence of me not having to walk in them as it is a decision to participate in a particular understanding of femininity. But what do you see? A sad attempt to look normal? A pair of high heels on a woman? Or something so over the top that it slides into the devotee/fetish view of disabled female sexuality? Note that this is a risk that is only present for disabled women. It’s a long way for nondisableds to go through femme to fetish. Merely presenting certain aspects of traditional femme for a queer disabled woman puts her at risk of becoming a usually straight object of the devotee community.

Would you recognize it if I made a pass at you? To see it, you would have to acknowledge an awful lot. You would have to understand that disabled people have sexuality, that it can be a queer sexuality, and that I am looking at YOU.

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RuPaul as Style Guru to Baby Drag Queens and Everyone Else

Tonight’s the Season 2 premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race (9pm on Logo TV or Logo Online)! Among reality contest shows about fashion, style, and beauty, this is my favorite. Hands down. Drag Race has the most diverse group of contestants – in race, gender, sexuality, and likely, class. Last season, three of my favorite contestants were from outside of the U.S.: Bebe Zahara Benet (Camaroon), Ongina (Philippines), and Nina Flowers (Puerto Rico). Also, one of the guest judges last season was Jenny Shimizu (who I adore even if she looked like she was on an Asian American literature panel at MLA)! The photo of Shimizu below (circa her Calvin Klein days) has little to do with this post but it’s there because: I. love. Jenny. Shimizu.

I’m looking forward to this season but I’m also a little nervous. The guest judges that have been announced for this season are Kathy Griffin, Cloris Leachman, and Debbie Reynolds. I can’t honestly say any of them excite me much. Another reason to be apprehensive about Season 2 is precisely because it’s Season 2. Reality shows are always best the first time around. In proceeding seasons, contestants seem too versed and too ready to manufacture drama in order to stand out as a “personality.” Ru seems to be hinting at this when she says:

The biggest change in this season is the contestants are actually a bit more – how can I put this? They’re more tenacious. In the first season, they were a bit more diplomatic because they were representing drag for the first time in a decade. This time around, though, the kids have seen the first show, they know what the prize is, and they know what’s at stake, so they have taken the gloves off.

Still, can’t wait to watch! If you missed Season 1, you can catch up online.

________________________
In related news, RuPaul hates fashion people. She tells W Magazine why she has nothing to do with New York’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week: “I think the fashion people are so nasty and so pretentious.”

Also, she’s got a new book out called, Workin’ It! RuPaul’s Guide to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Style (Harper Collins 2010). Both the TV show and the book firmly position Ru within the increasingly familiar trope of the lifestyle specialist/style guru. In Drag Race, she plays (wonderfully!) the matriarch/mentor to baby drag queens (Nina Flowers even calls Ru, “mother,” during their private lunch together).

With Workin’ It! (totally judging said book by its cover here), Ru expands her domain of influence, to “provide helpful and provocative tips on fashion, beauty, style, and confidence for girls and boys, straight and gay – and everyone in between!” The neoliberal makeover logic at work in the book is, by now a pretty trite one. As Brenda Weber explains the logic in her essay, “Makeover as Takeover” – see also her new book, Makeover TV: Selfhood, Citizenship, and Celebrity (Duke UP 2009):

A new and improved appearance will not only make the woman more congruent with larger codes of beauty, but will increase her confidence and thus her personal power. In order to gain access to this form of power, however, makeover subjects (often called “victims,” “targets,” “marks”) must submit fully to style authorities . . .

RuPaul’s embracing of her role as neoliberal style guru is evident in the title and description of the book. In articulating style in the language of democracy (here. the Declaration of Independence), RuPaul’s book connects the consumption of resources like fashion, beauty, and style commodities to political acts. Workin’ It! suggests that “girls and boys, straight and gay – and everyone in between” who wants to be free (and who doesn’t want to be free?) needs her style expertise. This is a central tenet of neoliberalism’s lifestyle politics: consumer power is political power.

What is different about RuPaul as style guru is the difference of race, gender, and sexuality. And while this is a significant difference, it isn’t a radical one. Instead, the book (maybe more than the TV show) is a function of what Lisa Duggan has called “the new homonormativity” of neoliberal sexual politics:

[I]t is a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions but upholds and sustains them . . . [through] a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption.

I love RuPaul. I think she looks amazing and will never be outclassed by any of the contestants on her show. And basically, I can get behind her general message. But her book nonetheless illustrates the power and pervasiveness of neoliberalism as this era’s cultural logic.

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PUBLICATION: Monica Miller on Slaves To Fashion

Duke University Press’s new release, Monica Miller’s Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity, promises to appear on all my future syllabi, no matter the course. Read Miller’s illuminating essay about the book’s core concepts and their development at Rorotoko, an online venue for engaging authors and ideas in intellectual nonfiction. Below is a long excerpt to whet your appetite:

Slaves to Fashion began with a footnote I encountered in graduate school. While auditing a class on W.E.B Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, I came across a troubling reference to the fact that the revered Du Bois had been caricatured as a black dandy. In the class, we spent even weeks in detailed analysis of Du Bois’s skill as a rhetorician and lyricist. In order to appreciate the truly interdisciplinary nature of his talents, we took very seriously his training as a philosopher, historian and sociologist. The image of Du Bois that emerged was that of an erudite, punctilious, quintessential “race man.” None of this prepared me for the footnote and accompanying illustration from a political cartoon of Du Bois as a degraded buffoon, overly dressed and poorly comported, whose erudition had been turned into what the cartoon called “ebucation.”

Only when I began to research the history of dandyism and, in particular, the racialization of the dandy figure, did I realize the complex strategy and history behind that caricature. Dandyism has been used by Africans and blacks to project images of themselves as dignified and distinguished, it has also been used by the majority culture (and blacks) to denigrate and ridicule black aspirations. Slaves to Fashion examines the interrelatedness of these impulses and what the deployment of one strategy or the other says about the state of black people and culture at different moments in history.

Although dandyism is often considered a mode of extremely frivolous behavior attentive only to surfaces or facades and a practice of the white, European elite and effete, I argue that it is a creative and subtle mode of critique, regardless of who is deploying it. Though often considered fools, hopelessly caught up in the world of fashion, dandies actually appear in periods of social, political and cultural transition, telling us much about cultural politics through their attitude and appearance. Particularly during times when social mores shift, style and charisma allow these primarily male figures to distinguish themselves when previously established privileges of birth and wealth, or ways of measuring social standing might be absent or uncertain. Style—both sartorial and behavioral— affords dandies the ability and power to set new fashions, to create or imagine worlds more suited to their often avant-garde tastes. Dandyism is thus not just a practice of dress, but also a visible form of investigating and questioning cultural realities.

Anyone can be in vogue without apparent strategy, but dandies commit to a study of the fashions that define them and an examination of the trends around—which they can continually re-define themselves. Therefore, when racialized, the dandy’s affectations (fancy dress, arch attitude, fey and fierce gesture) signify well beyond obsessive self-fashioning—rather, the figure embodies the importance of the struggle to control representation and self- and cultural-expression.

Manipulations of dress and dandyism have been particularly important modes of self-expression and social commentary for Africans before contact with Europeans and especially afterwards. In fact, in order to endure the attempted erasure or reordering of black identity in the slave trade and its aftermath, those Africans arriving in England, America, or the West Indies had to fashion new identities, to make the most out of the little that they were given. Whether luxury slaves or field hands, their new lives nearly always began with the issuance of new clothes.

Enslaved people, however, frequently modified these garments in order to indicate their own ideas about the relationship between slavery, servitude, and subjectivity. For example, there are documented cases of slaves saving single buttons and ribbons to add to their standard issue coarse clothing, examples of slaves stealing or “borrowing” clothing, especially garments made from fine fabrics, from their masters for special occasions. Slaves created underground second-hand clothing markets in major cities to augment their wardrobes and to exchange clothing that identified them when they wanted to escape. In fact, many slaves “dressed up” or “cross-dressed” literally when they absconded, wearing clothing beyond their station or of the other gender in efforts to appear free and be mobile. The black dandy’s style thus communicates simultaneously self-worth, cultural regard, a knowingness about how blackness is represented and seen. Black dandyism has been an important part of and visualization of the negotiation between slavery and freedom.

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Handbagging (from lipstickeater)

The daily routines that are inhabited easily by some bodies (choosing clothes, shoes, lip color) are for others acts of political and ideological significance, an archive of complicated feelings. Pulling on a pair of jeans or seamed stockings meant for another body, or that once belonged to someone else, might generate an emotional dissonance, or a sense of something out-of-joint or finally put-in-place, or an awareness of danger, or the thrill of forbidden pleasure, or the controlling embrace of that which offers comfort but at an unpredictable price, or new knowledge about the self, about one’s own flesh.

It is to these possibilities that the Lipstick Eater is addressed, also known as Joony Schecter (after the gloriously troublesome Jenny Schecter on The L Word), also known as Joon Oluchi Lee, an assistant professor of gender studies and English at the Rhode Island School of Design, self-described as “a Korea-born, Midwest-bred, Virginia-groomed, Bay Area-harvested faggotron who is above all a black feminist.”

On Lipstick Eater, Lee chronicles with care the magpie process of creating for himself a femme faggotry, often drawing from iconic figurations of femininity to spin out another, inevitably more complicated story about how to be, and feel, a girl. Lee ultimately describes the norms but also alternate forms of human intelligibility made possible through the instrumentalization of “boyfriend jeans,” a pair of Bettie Page heels, or ripped tights.

The following excerpt from a longer post on handbagging is particularly brilliant, theorizing the complications of seeming submission to the handbag’s alterations to the body’s movement.

Quite recently, I came to the really obvious realization that I’ve been handbagging it.I was standing in a Muni train, just moderately crowded enough to cozily find a leanspace that allowed me to pull out my book (Mary Gaitskill’s beautiful new anthology, Don’t Cry) and read during my ride. But getting out of the train, I was so rushed at by pre-commuters that I didn’t have a chance to put the book back. Instead, I had to awkwardly maneuver the just-closed book from my hands to one hand, then clasp one edge while pulling the pink block of papered stories to my left breast. As I stepped off the train, a sense memory: a flush of babyfaggot femininity.

There were a couple of reasons why I had this flush of faggoty feminine youth, the central one being that in those few clumsy seconds, I was carrying a handbag. Ah, the catcall of the teenage homophobe: “Nice handbag, faggot!” And please, let’s be clear about this: I was not carrying a man-purse or whatever. This was a straight-up lady handbag, and a roomy one that made me feel like a luxe grunger: a red plaid flannel tote from 3.1 Phillip Lim’s second fall collection. Here’s what defines a true handbag, which also produces its awkward bodily syntax: the handles look broad enough to sling over the shoulder, but is actually just narrow enough to prevent it, therefore forcing the gal to wear it on hanging from her fist or the crook of her arm. The over-the-shoulder model of the handbag is actually an innovation in androgyny, borrowing from the technology of army knapsacks. A true handbag, like most traditional accoutrements of world femininity, hobbles the woman wearer. Holding a bag’s straps in her hand, or immobilizing her arm in a right angle to provide branch for the bag, robs the handbagger of the use of one arm.

Of course, we have been taught that such a robbing is a handicap, when I prefer to think of it as a disability. That is: not being able to use one arm is a profound loss if you understand “ability” as defined by a sparkly healthy body. But the tenets of physical health are often tied to masculine notions of physical boorishness. The logic of which is something like, suppose a bully came after you: how are you supposed to properly defend yourself if one arm is locked in the deadly (but delicious) embrace of a designer handbag?

My answer: well, the handbag doesn’t rob you of the use of your legs, does it? Of course, running away is so un-manly, I guess. Which goes along pretty well with how the mechanics of transporting goods has been gendered: if it allows you free use of your arms, you are pretty able-bodied and more aligned with men. But running away is not the only recourse available to a poor defenseless handbagger. There is a great moment in Jennie Livingston’s film Paris is Burning in which an attitudinous emcee at a drag ball comments on the evening ensemble of a ball walker: “Everybody knows that an evening bag is a must. No lady is safe at night.” In this pretty natural conclusion, the handbag becomes a weapon—that old adage about carrying a brick in your handbag is no joke. The item that hobbles you into femininity is that which can re-arm you. In this way, I think of the handbag as a pretty rad piece of low-fi technology: it physically handicaps you, but simultaneously gives you the prosthetic by which you can transform that handicap into an empowering identity of “the disabled.” The handbag is the ultimate feminine prosthetic.

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Another Look at Hillary Clinton’s Cleavage

During last night’s Visible Vote ’08 Presidential Forum hosted by Logo Network and sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign, there was no mention of clothes, cleavage, or coral jackets—for nearly an hour and a half. This may be a record given the recent maelstrom of attention to political sartorial choices and female bodies sparked by Robin Givhan’s article in the Washington PostHillary Clinton’s Tentative Dip Into New Neckline Territory” that commented on the Senator for New York’s modest display of décolletage on C-SPAN2 and reinvigorated by Senator John Edwards’ remark during the CNN/YouTube Democratic Presidential Debate a few days later: “I admire what Senator Clinton has done for America, what her husband did for America [but] I’m not sure about that coat.” Perhaps making a slight dig at Edwards, Visible Vote ’08 moderator Margaret Carlson greeted Clinton last night with this praise, “I like the coral jacket.”

All of this attention on Clinton’s clothes and cleavage has many political pundits crying sexism. Ann Lewis, Senior Advisor for the Hillary for President campaign, has publicly taken Givhan to task: “Frankly, focusing on women’s bodies instead of their ideas is insulting. It’s insulting to every woman who has ever tried to be taken seriously in a business meeting.” Of course Lewis is right. In a patriarchal and sexist culture like ours, women’s bodies are often viewed sexually while her accomplishments are hardly viewed at all. In the 1970s, feminist film critic Laura Mulvey described this gendered practice of looking as “scopophilia” (pleasure in looking) and argues that images of the female body “are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact.” She goes on to say that “[a]ccording to the principles of the ruling ideology and the psychical structures that back it up, the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification.” This would explain why Clinton’s cleavage and coral jacket have become part of our political discourse while Barack Obama’s bare-chested photo in People magazine provided nothing more than a brief diversion from his politics and Dennis Kucinich’s yellow tie (a fabulous alternative to the tedious palette of presidential red and blue ties) has garnered nary a word (except by me). But what Lewis and Mulvey’s accusations of sexist looking don’t explain is how Givhan’s observations about Clinton’s cleavage differ from Edwards’ consideration of her coral jacket or Obama’s defense of said jacket. In other words, they don’t take into account the different ways of looking at women.

Givhan’s observations don’t make the only woman running for President a visual punchline (à la Edwards) nor do they patronizingly turn one of the most powerful women in the world into a damsel in distress by a needless act of chivalry (as Obama does). Instead, her point that Clinton’s cleavage is a “small acknowledgment of sexuality and femininity peeking out of the conservative—aesthetically speaking—environment of Congress” actually had little to do with cleavage as such and more to do with institutionalized sexism. “After all,” Givhan notes, “it wasn’t until the early ‘90s that women were even allowed to wear pants on the Senate floor.” Following up these comments, Givhan compliments Clinton by saying, “To display cleavage in a setting that does not involve cocktails and hors d’oeuvres is a provocation. It requires that a woman be utterly at ease in her skin, coolly confident about her appearance, unflinching about her sense of style.”

While our culture gives us many opportunities to look at women sexually, not all acts of looking are sexual and/or sexist. Givhan’s historicization of political cleavage and her quiet admiration for Clinton’s self-assured sartorial choices offer insight into the multiplicity and complexity of looks exchanged between women (of all sexualities and races). Women do look at each other sexually but they also look at each other with appreciation, contempt, and indifference. When I’m at the gym or on the streets, my eyes are drawn to women’s bodies—specifically, their toned biceps and triceps—which either triggers envy or hopelessness depending on my mood. (After a year of concerted work-outs, I still don’t have the covetable pilates arms that some women seem to achieve so easily.) The inclination women have to compare themselves with other women has to do with the attention our culture gives to the physicality of women’s bodies in general. The surplus of images we see of other women in magazines, TV, films, and online teaches us how women “should” look and we’ve learned these lessons well—too well. But women don’t just look at other women they also look to other women. This seems, to me, to be a vital distinction.

This shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement of Clinton (Kucinich’s progressive politics, his emotional honesty and, yes, his bold yellow tie are hard to beat) but I do like that she’s running—if only because having a strong woman like her in the public eye may have the collateral effect of refocusing discussions about women and their bodies. The goal shouldn’t be to stop looking at women but, rather, to change the terms and conditions with which we look at them.

Now, if only Clinton would stop using the slogan, “I’m your girl!”

Postscript: The attached photo is of a sculpture called “The Presidential Bust of Hillary Rodham Clinton: The First Woman President of the United States,” which was unveiled in New York City’s Museum of Sex last year. The artist Daniel Edwards said he wanted to depict Clinton “with her head held high, a youthful spirit and a face matured by wisdom . . . Her cleavage is on display, prominently portraying sexual power which some people still consider too threatening.”

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