Performing gender – and getting it wrong?

I’ve been thinking a LOT about how I perform gender at work of late. This is in part because of the aforementioned interaction with this term’s sexist student. But it’s also because as a “femme” straight woman in Women’s and Gender Studies, I sense, occasionally, that I don’t look like a feminist “should.” And this results in my being spoken to dismissively.

To be clear, my colleagues don’t speak to me this way. Sometimes I get this kind of treatment at academic conferences. And sometimes it happens in meetings outside of my home department.
More recently, a visiting scholar who is a well-known queer theorist spoke to me – or rather, over me – in that familiar dismissive tone. She didn’t like my response to one of her questions – and, frankly, I might word it differently if I had a do-over. But it wasn’t a stupid or naively liberalist point. And it wasn’t a response that should have resulted in her dismissing me as a “particular kind of North American liberal feminist.” As she spoke this phrase, she looked me up and down in a way that suggested that I LOOKED like THAT kind of (politically irrelant) person to her.
As noted above, this isn’t the first time I’ve been misinterpreted in this way. I’m left with the sense that if I continue to dress and look the way I do, I’ll have to fight harder to be taken seriously. So, do I change, or do I fight?
To date, I’ve chosen to fight harder. Because this feminist LOVES colouring her hair, playing with fashion, and accessorizing. Because when I’ve tried other costumes and self-representations, they’ve felt less authentic somehow. And I know we’re all performing gender in one way or another. However, this performance, the one I do now, is the one that – despite all the styling – is less work for me.
But maybe I should work harder. I’m not so naive as to believe that my relatively normative gender performance is natural. So maybe it’s appropriate to work against type, to consent less – and in less visible ways – to my own subordination (through high heels, for example) and/or objectification (through make-up & hair dye, for example) in culture. And maybe I should be modelling alternative gender performance/s for my students.
Or maybe, just maybe, my current performance does this already. I’m already here in the university, after all. And the authority of the institution as well as the quality of my work should reinforce my politics, shouldn’t it? Regardless of whether or not I’m objectified in the
classroom, the power of the institution I represent there demands that students listen when the object speaks. Furthermore, do my long hair, make-up, and high heels really undercut the positive endorsement by my peers of the research I’ve done and continue to pursue?
I’d love to hear what you think, internet. Because I’m not sure where I stand anymore.
Finally, here are two femme-y outfits I’ve worn this week. It’s finally spring, and it’s end-of-term, so I’ve been trying to use colour to keep students interested.
For the record: there’s no big white spot on this purple top. That’s a (creepy) trick of the light. The brown plaid pants are a favourite, but this may have been their last outing as they’re threadbare in too many areas now. But can you see the pinkish-red stripe among the black and tan? I love it.
black cardigan: Kenzie (remixed)
top: Ralph Lauren

necklace: Hudson’s Bay Co. (the purple circles are wooden – I had a close-up, but it was a horrible picture, so I’m not sharing it)
cami: Smart Set
pants: Della Spiga (via Winner’s)
shoes: Moda
This next ensemble is almost exclusively about the skirt because I LOVE it. I don’t know that the white blouse is the most exciting pairing, but it was worth a try. In the past, I’ve worn this skirt with a salmon ruffle-neck blouse, a denim blazer, bare legs, and 4-inch nude open-toe slingbacks. It’s too cold for bare legs right now, and the extra colour seemed like way too much work (plus, the white blouse was already ironed – & that detail counts for a LOT at 7am).
p.s. ‘Any suggestions for other combinations with this skirt? I’m having problems coming up with ideas and could use some help!
blouse: Esprit

necklace: gifted
skirt: Anthropologie
hose: silks
(brown) shoes: Clarks (I know they require a close-up – but I didn’t take one, yet. And I’m too lazy to get out of bed to do it. I’ll try to do it tomorrow.)

7 thoughts on “Performing gender – and getting it wrong?

  1. That skirt… drool.I'm thinking a striped shirt tucked in, a brown belt and some brown sandals. If not, I will send you my address and good wishes in exchange for that skirt.

  2. Ha! I had a pair of red shoes on initially, then switched them out for the brown. And I'm loving the grey idea, in part because it's a great plan, and in part because it means I get to go shopping. Sweet.Thanks for your responses about the other stuff. I like to see others think through this issue as it helps me to do the same in a new way.

  3. Oh yes, and I really like the yellow with the crisp white shirt. I think the detail of the skirt needs something simple on top so that it doesn't have competition. Maybe a pop of deeper colour in the shoe? Like red? Or chartreuse?I like Rad's suggestion of grey. I was thinking a pale blue but then I would worry that you might resemble a French Provincial kitchen. Go with grey.

  4. I agree with Rad. There is also hegemony at work in NOT dressing femme and since when do women have to dress "masculine" to be taken seriously? Since the 70's maybe, but haven't we moved beyond that? I suspect that Queer Theorist was threatened by your informed counter-position to hers and found, mistakenly, a defense in dismissing your own gender performance, which is just as valid (if not more current) as her own. I think, in fact, that there is value in your attention to a feminine aesthetic for a number of reasons. First, attention to your presentation, whether it be masculine or feminine, suggests something (rightly or wrongly) about your attention to your scholarship, your students, your profession, etc. We all put an effort into our presentation I think, even if that effort reads as a non-effort, and I think a certain polish suggests a seriousness about your respect for and investment in the profession. Second, I have found in my classroom that increasingly women take an "anti-feminist" tack in their thinking; that is, they associate feminism with first- and second-wave feminism and a kind of "mannish" stridency that is not accurate. Women in my classrooms seem afraid to be mistaken as a feminist because it has developed an old-fashioned (I think) negative connotation for them. If your undergraduates are anything like mine, they are also invested in gender performance, often of the kind that you and I practice (i.e. attention to our hair, make-up and "femme" dress) and it is, I think, important for them to see a feminism that is performed in a way that they are already a part of. It is our job to make them aware, I think, of the ways in which their gender identities are managed beyond their control, but also within their control. They need to know that, to borrow a phrase from a t-shirt, "This is what a feminist looks like" so they can re-consider their own knee-jerk reaction to what has become, it seems, the new "f-word." I'll bet if you asked any of my female students who claim not to be feminists they still would be enraged by pervasive violence against women and believe in resources for under-privileged women around the world and yet they feel compelled to identify as anti-feminist. They are making the same error that Queer Theorist did, I think, and it is our job as educators to complicate the issue of gender performance and identity and what feminism–in all its forms–looks like.

  5. Love the yellow skirt. I am a fan of yellow and grey for professional purposes.Hmm… part of me is really annoyed. How is it productive for feminists to police each other's appearance? I fail to see how a self-identified feminist's dismissal of a person based on a pencil skirt and nice hair does anything to say, challenge the pervasiveness of violence against women or the lack of resources for working mothers in Canada. However, some folks may see fashion and self representation as a form of political expression, but then to me this is weird form of misogyny. It's ironic because to me, dismissing the feminine is very reminiscent of old school second wave liberal North American feminist.So this is a long way of saying that performining a femme gender identity is transgressive in it's own way. If we're supposed to be wearing boxy blazers, shapeless polyester pants and masculine power pieces to be accepted into the old boy's club (by imitating their styles), then we are simply reproducing the existing sartorial norms. If historically the "femme" in the academy were wives and secretaries, than bringing the femme into the professoriate is important. Plus, I still believe that having young, smart and feminine professors in the classroom does a service to young men and women (even if the effects take some time).Anyway, Nancy Fraser and Wendy Brown are inarguably tour-de-forces and inarguably femme. If anyone thinks femme is not feminist, they can kiss Nancy Fraser's beautiful scarves and perfectly coiffed blond hair.

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