Sitting Like a Girl
Laura Stempel [#1]
Only in disabling the epistemological groundwork of identity can we begin to think in more quixotic and fluid terms, terms that are beyond a normative and transcendental project of collective identity. . . a being . . . capable of rearticulating itself.
Elspeth Probyn, Outside Belongings
. . . when we dress we wear inscribed upon our bodies the often obscure relationship of art, personal psychology and the social order.
Elizabeth Wilson, Adorned in Dreams
This essay is supposed to be about skirts: What and how I think they signify for women my age. How our apparently discrete sartorial choices are always already positioned within evolving (re)definitions of femininity, of feminism. Why I cannot ever seem to separate skirts from the imposed forms of feminine self-presentation from which the cultural transformations of the 1960s supposedly liberated us."Why I Don't Wear Skirts" is, in fact, the subtitle of the essay I have promised to produce for a book about feminist generations, the theorized and expanded version of a 2000-word piece of ephemera I wrote a few years ago for the local weekly paper. I have imagined it as a simple exercise, a straightforward matter of recasting my clever insights in academic vocabulary, foregrounding the feminist implications that the editorial needs of my original venue pushed into second place behind glib remarks about high school Pants Day and the trials of trying to sit modestly in a miniskirt. I have envisioned an easy essay, a neat balance of the personal and the theoretical, with jokes and reminiscences salting the paragraphs about the performance of gender and the social construction of femininity.
Somehow, though, my project has gotten completely derailed. I've searched my memory for appropriate anecdotes from childhood, I've been to the library and retrieved pants-in-the-workplace stories from the news magazines of my adolescence, I've assembled quotations from fashion historians and style theorists, and I've written six dull pages filled with leaden sentences like this: "Yet that revolution did not totally destroy the gender codes with which we grew up, so that we continue to evaluate our options in the context of familiar traditions of femininity and appropriateness." I cringe to read what I have written.
Here is what I am really trying to figure out: What is my relationship to the notion of "femininity"? "My vexed relationship," I always call it, but what exactly is that vexation, and where does it come from? Why, even while doing certain very explicitly, not to say stereotypically "feminine" thing;-shopping, putting on makeup, reading Vogue, fixing my hair;-have I always resisted the idea that I'm being "feminine"? And it really has been a matter of resistance;"anti-feminine" versus, say, "unfeminine" in the sense of being inadequately-like a woman. It's more that I've never liked the idea of being feminine, haven't wanted to identify myself that way, have always thought (happily!) that my behavior, my self presentation, my very way of being in the world constituted an obvious refusal of that standard.
I'm having trouble concentrating on the whole skirt thing, and I know exactly why. It's only quite recently;and I mean perhaps in the last few months, really! [#2] ;that I've begun to recognize how much I do conform to some modes of conventional femininity, and to understand that I no longer find this conformity entirely distasteful. Instead, I find my nearly 45 years of naiveté almost laughable;-how could I not have known this for so long?;-and now I'm fixated on the meta-level, the shift in my attention, where I seem to have no trouble at all generating examples.
Here's one: It's the middle of the year and I write an e-mail message to someone who has never seen me, a message in which I remark that no one would ever describe me as femme. I am absolutely convinced of this;-it comes out quite automatically;;and I have specific features in mind: that my voice is loud, that I stride purposefully, that I'm pushy, not just assertive but often aggressive, that I don't wear skirts, ever. I've habitually used those damned skirts as an emblem, just as I've used this term, "femme," for years, as shorthand for what I am not, for what I will not do: "That's way too femme for me," I'll say about an item of clothing with anything ruffly or frilly about it. I know what I'm not doing, and I think of it reflexively as "not-femme." It's clear to me that my usage has never been theorized, or contextualized, or historicized, that in some ways it's just a nickname for "feminine," an easy way of saying "I see myself as a woman who declines to follow the prescribed patterns of feminine self-presentation." I haven't thought very deeply, and never in affirmative terms, about how my performance actually operates. I'm comfortable defining it in the negative, what I don't do, and I haven't even noticed until now that I'm saying merely that I see myself this way. Now, though, I am being pushed to think in a more systematic way about what distinguishes my own from other possible styles, other options for self-presentation. I am writing about style, after all, organizing a conference around it, planning a book; surely I should be able to describe my own!
Here I am, standing in the hallway at an academic meeting, when a woman I know asks me how I conceptualize my style. I have no answer, so I enumerate instead: I identify all the clothes and jewelry I'm wearing, describe the individual items, name each one by store or catalogue or brand. I point out that I have on "femme shoes" with menswear-for-women socks, and I indicate that this is an intentional combination, an attempt to counter the shoes with the socks. But that pairing carries no more weight in my list than when I say that my bracelet comes from Paris, that I always like to wear something from France for the pleasure of saying I bought it there.
I've made these lists before, in print and in person, as if the day's or the season's or the last five years' assembled garments signify unambiguously, and my rationalizations offer the same seductive aura of transparency. "Why don't you wear skirts?" people ask, when I inevitably mention this refusal, and I answer, as if the statement explained everything, as if it were true: "Because you have to sit like a girl."
Occasionally someone points out that I could wear long skirts, that if I had on opaque tights I could sit in any position I want to;-and that, in any case, I do sit like a girl: legs crossed at the knee, thighs together, feet in parallel alignment. [#3]
I have a running argument with a woman I know who hates living in our university town, who longs to return to some urban center with better restaurants, a bigger music scene, people who have some style. She looks at the label in my winter coat and insists that it's a waste to wear it here, where there's no one worth dressing for. I tell her over and over again: "I am the first audience for my self-presentation." First, but not only. Who else is watching? [#4]
These encounters are beginning to make me unhappy with my habitual formulation. I'm starting to wonder what it is that I, Laura, specifically, individually, personally, am doing, how I am performing my particular version of femininity, why I am so anxious not to see myself in those terms. Pen has just lectured her class on '50s butch/femme roles, and I ask her whether she thinks I can use the femme paradigm to describe myself. She provides me with an elaborate, detailed, highly eroticized reading of me as femme, and it half-persuades me. To my surprise, in fact, I find her view freeing. I am seduced by the notion of a mode of femininity that is a deliberate performance rather than some presumably "natural" effect, and the thought that I might see it as a woman-identified gesture is profoundly tempting. When I remember Erica Rand's description, it seems a perfect counter to the familiar objections that a performance that draws on the conventional inevitably replicates convention: choosing from the array of available female models some things to accept and others to reject. . . . a fem's use of and pleasure in certain styles and attributes traditionally labeled feminine [is not] a sign that she has uncritically bought the whole package [but] . . . a sign that she has picked those particular elements and not others. I love this idea of an identity deliberately constructed out of the details of traditional femininity;-or would that be femme/ininity?;-that I am doing whatever it is I am doing on purpose after all. Isn't this part of what Teresa de Lauretis means when she talks about the "possibility of agency and self-determination at the subjective and even individual level of micropolitical and everyday practices"? Isn't this what we're all looking for?
I want to explain something quite precise: the apparent contradiction of me standing in the middle of a conference book exhibit in a clingy sweater and long hair and lipstick, arguing with a middle-aged man about the politics of the academy. I'm searching for a way of understanding my own performance of gender as a feminist performance of femininity, if that makes the slightest sense at all. Can there even be such a thing? Can any single term express it? What I'm frustrated over;;well, one of the things, anyway!;;is the difficulty of theorizing this carefully enough so that I don't end up saying, like someone who's just discovered consciousness-raising, that as long as I remain aware of the processes by which I'm being constructed by/as/into conventional femininity, compulsory heterosexuality, capitalist patriarchy, etc., etc., etc., everything's fine. As if awareness;-"consciousness of complicity," de Lauretis calls it ("TG," p. 11);-is a magical protection or an act of defiance all on its own. As if "femininity" is automatically subversive as long as I'm not using it for its traditional purposes: to catch or hold a man, to secure a safe position for myself within the heterosexual paradigm. As if, in any case, I can control the way my self-presentation and performance are received;-as if I can stand in the book display room and guarantee that my argument, my loud voice, my feminist certainty and self-assertion will be bigger and more powerful than the performance of femininity enscribed by the sweater, the hair, the lipstick.
I'm not entirely happy with my choices;-feminine, femme, femme/inine;-and I wonder why. Is it simply because femme retains for me its status as a relational term, meaningful (primarily?) in terms of the butch/femme pairing, signifying (most clearly?) within a lesbian community? I reread Joan Nestle's classic celebration of femme identity, noting her insistence on this self-presentation as part of "a language of liberated desire . . . . [a]n erotic conversation between . . . women." Even if that's part of what I'm doing, I think, even if it's what I'm doing now, it's not where my particular femme performance, my individual enactment of femme/ininity comes from, and it's certainly not the context in which it's been acted out for most of my life. And yet, I'm tempted by this configuration, by the deliberateness it evokes, the way it seems to allow me a route around "femininity." I can never seem to hear or read or speak or write that word without silently noting "normative" as its modifier, and what I'm looking for is not so much a paradigm to fit into as a way to move beyond the term's diminishing connotations, a way of removing that unspoken but always implicit normativity. I'm looking for a language that will let me foreground intentionality, construction, choice. Do the specific origins;-of the category, of my own performance;-really matter so much? I toy with inventing a new term, thinking of the distinction Pen has drawn between "femme" and "het;fem," femininity as it's identified and positioned within the heterosexual dominant. We play with puns on the familiar descriptors: She offers "femme/mal," to invoke both the femme construct and a Bad Girl refusal of convention, and I wonder if there's any way of expressing a premeditated construction of a feminine;feminist identity (het-femme?) that takes place within the dominant but wouldn't necessarily have to be seen in relational terms. The moment I reread that sentence I see that even while I'm thinking "constructed," I've unintentionally naturalized the dominant as somehow not "relational";-as if, by positioning myself through origins, I can somehow escape a definition of my own performance of femme/ininity primarily in terms of its and my own relationship to real or imagined Others, within a specific community, in terms of some opposition between my femme/ininity and someone else's performance of;-what?
Joanna offers her own term, "aggressive femininity," which seems to express some of the same femme/ininities that I'm trying to capture. She's a performance artist, an art historian who purposely unnerves her academic audiences by revealing the bodybuilder muscles under the sexy outfits she wears on stage. We've been thinking together via e-mail about how to theorize our self-presentations, our gendered embodiments, but I believe that the two of us are doing different things, performing different operations on femininity, and I'm not comfortable applying that "aggressive" modifier to myself. I give her "compacted responses" to complex questions: I guess this is what I'm trying to articulate: the conditions under which [femininity] might be chosen;;or the form it takes when it is chosen and not primarily foisted [on women]. The main question here for me, I think, has to do with what people usually designate as false consciousness (but I hate that term; consciousness is all "true," I think): how do I know and talk about myself as acting out of choice? how do I know that I'm not simply so fully colonized that I believe myself to be choosing?
We've been talking about a kind of "hybrid" of femininity and masculinity, which she sees in us both, although I am perhaps not quite as certain about it as she is. I tell her that I need in any case to distinguish between this hybridity and what I think of as the neutrality of androgyny, which must operate differently, I imagine;;and doesn't appeal to me as much!
There's something theoretical going on here, along with the question of what appeals to me, for I can't help seeing androgyny as a way of desexualizing, de-eroticizing, canceling out both terms, feminine and masculine, where hybridity might not. Maybe it's the historical construction of androgyny as a solution to gender, the way it was used in the early days of Second Wave feminism and countercultural utopianism as a shorthand for a post-gendered world. I think, too, of Marjorie Garber's insistence on a "third term," neither masculine nor feminine, but one that she believes disrupts that very binary, yet this doesn't satisfy me either. There's something more to my objection, I know, but I can't quite touch it. At the very least, I want to theorize my position within another frame, as a way of identifying and, indeed, redefining the limits of femininity, pushing rather than necessarily destroying those categories. I want to argue that there may be ways of refusing femininity-as-we-know-it without embracing either masculinity or Garber's "third term [that] is not a term." Or am I just talking in circles? And anyway, do I actually mean "refusing"?
It occurs to me, epiphany-like, that the relation between field and ground has reversed itself, that where before;-for a lifetime!;-I've been concentrating on the ways in which I refuse particular markers of conventional femininity, now, suddenly, I find myself much more interested, even more invested in the parts I've chosen. I see myself selecting deliberately: growing my hair long but never tweezing my eyebrows,[#5] wearing clingy sweaters but never skirts, putting on lipstick but also showing off my tattoo. Yet how deliberate;-how choosy; -is it possible to be? If I am choosing some of the signifiers of conventional femininity, am I not in some ways choosing conventional femininity itself? Can the markers ever be separated from their role as social signs? Forget cigars; is a lipstick ever just a lipstick?
I try to think about this whole thing as a matter of attitude, of intention. The myth of writerly control has been shattered by the recognition of readerly power, but still, I must be exerting some influence over how people see me do whatever it is I am doing. Can it really be impossible to promote a particular interpretation, a preferred reading;-to make the consumers of my embodied self-presentation, my femme/initities, understand that I am doing something deliberate? I wonder about excess, about just how extreme you have to be before your audience is forced to accept your intentions. I wonder if I am, like the Althusserian subject who is so fully constructed in ideology as to know no outside, fooled into believing that I am free of ideology's constraints. Fooling my self, even.
The problem, I think, is to figure out a way to articulate choice and construction, performance and body, performativity and social positioning all at once, to try to find a way of speaking and of speaking to the ways in which they all always already inflect each other. Not much to ask for, is it? Ellen suggests that I think of myself as "stylistically a kind of pomo text," emphasizing my practice of "quoting certain conventional practices of the feminine and playing them off in a deliberately disjunctive way against other facets." She reminds me about Judith Butler's notion of citation, in which "femininity is . . . not the product of a choice, but the forcible citation of a norm." Citation, after all, not creation: constrained by the heteronormative context in which it's meant to operate, so that no matter how avidly I imagine myself undermining the dominant by intentionally mixing lipstick and intellectual aggression, or by self-consciously directing my erotic self-presentation at women rather than men, I'm struggling against a pretty powerful tide. "These same norms, taken not as commands to be obeyed, but as imperatives to be `cited,' twisted, queered, brought into relief as heterosexual imperatives, are not, for that reason, necessarily subverted in the process" (Bodies, p. 237). This is depressing.
Maybe the problem is the state of theory, the way that (as Pen and Ellen both remind me) the idea that "the personal is political" has been transformed into the conviction that "the personal is theoretical." Hey, does that mean that the personal is no longer political? That the theoretical is mainly personal? Sometimes it seems as if rhetorical tricks are the only way to go: oxymorons, impossible figurations that speak some otherwise inexpressible truth, like the Metaphysical poets' illogical conceits. One of the central conundra, I e-say to Joanna, is how to reconcile an "aggressive" or "masculine" or "feminist" performance of conventional "feminine" signs and markers with the fact that conventional femininity by definition excludes and is excluded from "aggressiveness" and "masculinity" and "feminism." ("Words fail me!" I tell her, "and those damned quotation marks don't solve the problem!!") Butler insists that "there is no one femininity with which to identify, which is to say that femininity might itself offer an array of identificatory sites," and she even uses "the proliferation of lesbian femme possibilities" as evidence (Bodies, p. 239). But seriously, how can we effectively distinguish a consciously feminist take or turn on femininity from, say, the little feminine signifiers businesswomen might use to leaven an otherwise male;identified ("again," I say, "what awful words!") self;presentation or management style? And perhaps equally important, how do we distinguish a "masculine" "femininity" performed by a feminist woman from male drag;;which would also be a kind of "masculine" "femininity";;and perhaps there's a "feminine" "masculinity" too? And who performs that?
Language seems to be conspiring against me. If I can't describe my performance in words, how can I theorize it? And yet, how can I use or invent or identify an appropriate vocabulary when every single term is so freighted and overdetermined;-when "feminine" already means too much and too little, when "femininity" seems automatically to carry that "normative" tag everywhere it goes? Maybe I just need more adjectives: "edgily" feminine, "superficially" feminine, "subjectively" feminine, "defiantly" feminine. Pen writes that she perceives conventional femininity as an "intended `naturalization' of all that is superficial, artificial, and applied (eg, makeup, pushup bras, heels, girdles, etc) AS IF it were `real femaleness,'" and suggests that my challenge may lie in a refusal to naturalize these features "as part of the body/self." Perhaps, I think, I'm performing "unnaturalized femininity." "Unnatural femininity"?
I thought I was writing about clothes, about skirts, but I suddenly find myself somewhere else entirely, underneath the clothes, I guess. I am thinking about the body. I am thinking about my body, about my embodied self, about my material self. Well, this is no surprise, I tell myself: Everyone seems to be theorizing embodiment these days. "Bodies have all the explanatory power of minds," after all, so why can't I just find a congenial theory and apply it to my own self-presentation, my own bodily performance of gender? Why not, for instance, simply set up a tidy binary of some sort;-the material self, say, versus the one constituted in and through discourse;-and talk about the contradictions inherent in it? Or why not follow the ideological trail through normative femininity as I have through soap opera, pointing out the ways in which I both resist and participate in its conventions, how I am at once seduced and repelled by its overdetermined appeals?
I am facing a terrible dilemma, one I haven't anticipated: The location of any sort or source of identity or social positioning anywhere in the body has for me always meant essentialism, to which I have an automatic, by now almost totally reflexive reaction. And yet I've just begun;;"really," I type in an e-mail message, "just a month ago, I think!";;to reconsider that reaction. I find myself reading Elizabeth Grosz to Pen on the phone, my favorite point in Volatile Bodies;-maybe the only thing I agree with unequivocally;-even though it's relegated to a footnote: The opposition between essentialism and constructionism seems to me a false one: constructionism is inherently reliant on essentialism, for it needs to make explicit what are the raw materials of its processes of construction and these cannot themselves be constructed without the assumption of an infinite regress. The building blocks or raw materials must in some sense be essentialist. In short, constructionism ultimately implies and relies on essentialism. (p. 213) This has made me think suddenly, dramatically, about the illogic of my own vociferous anti;essentialism, examining for the first time a position I've taken with complete comfort and conviction since before I even knew these terms. I've never really believed myself to be constructed entirely through discourse; I've said, on more than one occasion, that yes, we do exist outside of discourse, but (no joke!) we just can't talk about it. And yet, paradoxically, I've always been a devout anti-essentialist. I practically wrote my dissertation around this stance, for crying out loud, skewering suffrage-era feminists for their inability to imagine an existence for women that didn't begin with the body. Until now, the farthest I've been able to move off of my ironclad opposition to anchoring theory or politics in the body has been "strategic essentialism," but I realize that I am newly uncertain about which part of that;-the "strategy" or the "essentialism"--matters more to me.
As I reread Gayatri Spivak, watching her vacillate over her position on essence;-"that idea of essences as what remains [ce qui reste], the minimalizable, something with which we negotiate";I wonder what it is that has always bothered me so profoundly about essentialism. Do I even want to think about this, reexamine my entire position? Let's just not go there, I tell myself, and I'm relieved when Anne Balsamo gives me an out: "feminist discussions of the constitution of the female body have been often sidelined by debates about the effectivity of essentialist versus anti-essentialist perspectives" (TGB, p. 23). Maybe I can skip this whole thread, avoid getting "sidelined" trying to dismantle one of the fundamental arguments, not simply of feminism, but of Western philosophy itself.
Besides, I wonder if, in fact, it isn't difference I've been objecting to all along: not just theories of difference, but difference itself. I've never gotten over my fundamental suspicion that difference automatically implies hierarchy, never been comfortable with any notion of gender that claimed a significant distinction between women and men that goes beyond the anatomical. And yet, as I find myself, in early middle age, with a surer sense of myself as an embodied being, I am beginning to wonder how I can ever have imagined non;/in;/un;difference, how I could have believed that it makes no difference whether we live in one body or another. Has my resistance, not so much to specific markers of conventional femininity, but to understanding them as markers, been a simple refusal to acquiesce to difference? And am I acquiescing now?
I keep thinking of this in primarily personal terms;-how my own experience, my understanding of embodiment or femininity or subjectivity has shifted;-because that's what I want to explain, and what I want theory to illuminate. But of course theory's been moving, too, so that it's possible now to toss all of these things together;-the body, identity, gender, performance;-without having to choose, as sometimes seemed necessary 20 years ago, between femme and feminism, between resistance and skirts.
Something keeps pulling me back to those skirts. Bodies may have "all the explanatory power of minds," but I can't get my mind off of what those bodies are wearing. If it's true, as Grosz insists, that any adequate model of embodied subjectivity "must include a psychical representation of the subject's lived body as well as the relations between body gestures, posture, and movement in the constitution of the processes of psychical representations" (VB, p. 23), then surely we need to understand how far those gestures, that posture and movement are constructed and constrained by the body's outer wrappings? Or maybe that's just my style fixation talking.
I'm still looking for a language, a theory that will explain my discomfort with skirts. I thought it was about the inevitable association, for women my age, between skirts and patriarchal constraint, the power of pants as an emblem of '60s feminism, but now this hardly seems sufficient to justify the intensity of my feelings. I've read enough fashion history to recognize that this linkage was always as much about business as politics, as much about selling a new look as about expressing a new ideology, as much about the ups and downs of the style industries as about consciousness-raising, yet I wanted it to be about belonging to a particular generation, coming to feminism at a particular historical moment, understanding the multiplying inflections of culture and style and politics in the way that my particular fraction of baby boomers do. But it's just not sufficient to say, well, I was born in 1952, of course I think skirts are repressive; how, then, to explain all the women exactly my age who love them? [#6]
I turn again to the historians who have traced the shifts in women's fashions. "Since their beginnings in the sixteenth century," Anne Hollander contends in Sex and Suits, skirts "have never been borrowed for normal male dress.. . . . In the West since the Middle Ages, draped and enveloping clothing is emphatically non-masculine." The gradual innovation of pants on women represented "the revelation by fashion that the lower half of the female body had a constant and necessary relation to the upper half" (p. 146), shocking because "dividing the legs of fashionable women with a layer of fabric seemed like sexual sacrilege" (p. 53). Well, sure, I think, but those shock waves are long gone. And anyway, why should I care so much? I'm mentally sorting through all the theories I've learned for understanding ideology, analyzing gender, thinking about power. I'm trying to figure out what's behind my resistance, and I keep imagining that if I can only find the right theoretical frame, everything will make sense. I review them all in my head, all those ways of explaining the operations of femininity, how it's defined and reinforced, why it's embraced and resisted, where I'm positioned within and without it. I think of a paper I've heard about an online struggle over gender and rock music, remembering how the woman who wrote it has identified rock as a technology of gender, and I think, that's just what I've been thinking of, that's what I've been trying to articulate, what I've been resisting all along: Skirts, a technology of gender. How obvious! Here's de Lauretis in the germinal essay, rewriting Foucault in order to get gender out there on the theoretical table:
A starting point may be to think of gender along the lines of Michel Foucault's theory of sexuality as a "technology of sex" and to propose that gender, too, both as representation and as self-representation, is the product of various social technologies, such as cinema, and of institutionalized discourses, epistemologies, and critical practices, as well as practices of daily life. ("TG," p. 2)
Yes! I think. This is it exactly! Gender "as self-representation";-self-re-presentation;-and skirts as one of the "practices of daily life" that enables it! Even better, "theory [as] a social technology" ("TG," p. 29n), which means that theory can work to counter skirts. This is precisely what I've been looking for, and now I only (only!) have to figure out what it means.
Balsamo comes to my rescue once again, placing de Lauretis' theory in a new cyborgian context, reminding me that "technology" is not merely a discursive category, but has a material side as well: In a sense, an apparatus or "technology" articulates power relations, systems of communications, and productive activities or practices; . . . the notion of "technology" describes the workings of a collection of practices whereby discursive practices work interdependently with other cultural forces to produce effects at the level of the body. These effects, in turn, become part of an apparatus of control. (TGB, p. 21).
I think about how skirts "articulate power relations," how they position their wearers through exactly the kind of little additive chain I detest: female body + conventionally coded self-presentation = normative femininity.
Back in 1973, I had an office job with a dress code, and I used to break that chain by wearing green nail polish. It was a small gesture, but it felt powerful in the conservative office of Dun & Bradstreet, where my boss took me aside one day to ask why I wore corduroy Levi's to work instead of dressing "like the other girls," and where, when I wore a miniskirt instead, one of the salesmen whose accounting I did asked if he could follow me around so he could look at my legs. I didn't have a theory then, or not one I could articulate, just an urge to annoy people and an idea that the fastest way to decline the normative was to make a little visual joke about it. Theory and practice don't always work in one convenient direction--impulsive behavior first, followed by a nice complicated high-theory rationalization. But I didn't need to know about postmodern pastiche or gender as performance to realize that my green nails would upset my boss's fantasies of what the rest of my body was saying about femininity. I did, though, need to spend a couple of years thinking through theory before I could explain it as a political gesture.
It's early morning in the middle of February, and I'm taking my daily three-mile walk, listening to the radio, pondering who-knows-what, when I suddenly think "conditional femme/ininity!" The chaos of my personal life has taken me away from this essay for a couple of weeks, but my unconscious has apparently been fretting productively about intentionality, audience, and context, and is ready to offer me a new set of adjectives for my performance: "Conditional," it announces, "contingent, relational." I've been obsessed with my own volition, my conscious selection of particular bits of femininity, my deliberateness in constructing a self to present to others, my efforts to situate their readings of me within a framework of my own choosing. I've known all along that I can't control those readings, but I've forgotten how far the meanings of my performance are contingent not simply on its audiences in a general, ideologically significant way, but on something far more precise: on their individual knowledges and desires, their (literal and figurative) view(s) of me. Take femme, for instance: You can't read me as femme unless you know the codes of the '90s butch/femme paradigm, and mere knowledge isn't enough; desire is also at work: You need to want to understand my performance within that paradigm rather than, say, one in which long hair or lipstick or sexy clothing are inevitably signs of heterosexual availability. And the reverse is true as well: To read me as enacting conventional femininity, you have to know how to understand me in those terms, you have to have a framework that lets you reconcile the tattoo and the lipstick, the clingy sweater and the loud voice.
And that knowledge, those desires apply to me, too: I couldn't have conceptualized my own performance of femininity in these terms a few years ago, before de Lauretis, before Butler, before the post-sex-wars retheorization of butch/femme, before feminist theory began thinking about the body in what seems like entirely new ways. It's not just that I didn't have a vocabulary for it: I wonder if the vocabulary existed, at least in this particular configuration. I'm trying to be careful not to fall into what Biddy Martin calls "an increasingly popular kind of vanguardism that rewrites the lesbianism and feminisms of the seventies as one naive, repressive, and ultimately boring lump." Still, I remember when the most superficial part of the performance;-surprising people's stereotypes of feminist self-presentation by wearing bright red nail polish (oh, those nails again!) to teach women's studies--felt like a semi-big deal, a way of struggling not only against the dominant, but against feminism's own fantasy of escaping gender. Today, as the '90s wind down, my desk is piled with books arguing that femme is "a sustained gender identity" that retrieves selected bits of the conventional in order to deploy them "as a critical approach to femininity." Conditional. Contingent. Relational. Maybe the problem is theory itself, the way it's got to be so sure of itself, so absolute in its pronouncements. Maybe I need a new kind of theory, one whose seams show like one of those Japanese couture garments that doesn't bother to conceal its construction; a theory that speaks a critique of its own origins as the performance of femme critiques the very snippets of femininity that make it up. This is what I'm doing, after all: picking and choosing from theories that don't really match, trying to assemble an explanation of my own experience, of the world around me, of the place of my experience in that world, because no single theoretical construct seems sufficient. The only solution seems to be to track my progress through the pile of discarded explanatory outfits, the scraps and fragments of fashion history and cultural studies and feminist theory, choosing the pieces I want as I try to create a personal style, one of those quirky, eclectic theoretical wardrobes a girl can wear for any occasion.
I think again of the scene in the conference book exhibit: I imagine that the man I'm haranguing sees me as a somewhat intimidating woman, but perceives an intriguing tension between my manner and my sexy clothes. Shiva is talking with us, too, and she has told me that when she moved to the U.S. from India and gave up her saris, skirts felt too revealing and so she always wears pants. Surely she must see me through the lens of her own experience, the different cultural meanings of our style options. Pen is there as well, and later I discover that this particular interaction figures prominently in the mental notes she's taking, that she sees it as in some ways exemplary of my femme performance.
Trinh Minh-ha's words leap off the page of an essay I'm reading for another purpose altogether: "The boundaries of identity and difference are continually repositioned in relation to varying points of reference." I have to accept this truth. I have to relinquish control over the reception(s) of my performance, and recognize that however carefully I select and edit and reassemble the elements of conventional femininity, it is not simply premeditated: deliberate, intentional, something I do on purpose. It is premediated as well: shaped and constructed by the dominant and its ideological trappings, but also by the desires and abilities of those who see me to understand the nuances;-conditioned by the context in which we interact, by our histories, whether together or apart, as performer and audience. Would that make it "premedia(t)ed femme/ininity"?
It occurs to me that a quotation in my failed skirt draft is perhaps even more apt than I originally understood. By no coincidence, it's a passage about women wearing pants, yet Hollander's words no longer seem to speak to me so narrowly about clothing: The real changes in the inner world of collective feeling are slow, and only slow changes occur in the deep appeal of visual form in dress. . . . Unconscious fantasy has to shift permanently before certain satisfactory propositions that underlie fashion can start failing to move the depths of the collective soul. (SS, p. 195)
Maybe it is my "unconscious fantasy" that has shifted, and, like some out-of-date style paradigm, certain theory now fails to move the depths of my soul. Maybe it's time for uncertain theory to take over. [#7]
It's a cliché to say that a particular piece of writing couldn't have been completed without so-and-so's help, but in this case it is literally true: Among the friends whose thoughtful readings helped in my completion of this essay are Ellen Berry, Penelope J. Engelbrecht, and Joanna Frueh, all of whom also generously contributed actual words.
. In many places, including Detroit, where I grew up, APants Day@ was the one day on which girls were allowed to wear pants to school, and although it was just as elaborately encoded with other kinds of implicit and explicit rules as the mandate that we wear skirts, that school event also seemed to offer a glimpse of what daily life might be like without the rules of conventional femininity
. Erica Rand, Barbie's Queer Accessories (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), p. 110. Rand prefers "the spelling fem because the location of foreignness on one side of the butch/fem configuration discomforts me" (p. 204n.).
. The complete quotation: "To assert that the social representation of gender affects its subjective construction and that, vice versa, the subjective representation of gender;-or self-representation;-affects its social construction, leaves open a possibility of agency and self-determination at the subjective and even individual level of micropolitical and everyday practices which Althusser himself would clearly disclaim," Teresa de Lauretis, "The Technology of Gender," in Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), p. 9; subsequent references cited in text as "TG."
. And yet, as de Lauretis points out only a few pages later, "the analytical and critical method of feminism [is] the practice of self-consciousness" p. (20).
. Joan Nestle, "The Femme Question," in The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1992), p. 142.
. This notion of a deliberate and therefore liberatory reconstruction of femininity is not, of course, the only way to understand femme. Kath Weston, for example, critiques various feminist, postmodern, and performance theorists' characterization of butch/femme "as the ultimate in self-reflectiveness . . . . a subversive practice not so much because of its innovative content but because it exposes gender as a social construct," "Do Clothes Make the Woman?: Gender, Performance Theory, and Lesbian Eroticism," Genders 17 (Fall 1993), p. 2. For a sense of the debates around femme, see the essays in The Persistent Desire, and in Lesléa Newman, ed., The Femme Mystique (Los Angeles: Alyson Publications, 1995), and Laura Harris and Elizabeth Crocker, eds., Fem/me: Feminists, Lesbians, and Bad Girls (NewYork: Routledge, 1997).
. Anna Svahn uses this same modifier in delineating femme performance: "I refer to myself as an Aggressive Femme, an identity distinct from femme while still encompassing the form or style that is femme. Because for me, femme is about style and Aggressive Femme is about power," "Iron Fist in a Velvet Glove: Toward an Aggressive Femme Philosophy," in The Femme Mystique, p. 86.
. The concept of hybridity appears in a wide variety of recent texts, particularly in postcolonial theory, and its initial use there is usually attributed to Homi Bhabha. However, Anne Balsamo's Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1996) seems more directly relevant here. Balsamo reminds us, for example, that The female that is an effect of the construction of identity/authority of [among other forces] obstetricians in nineteenth-century medical discourse is a hybrid creature formed through the articulations among social practices, the development of new knowledge, and changing patterns of power and authority. (pp. 27-28)
Building on Donna Haraway's "A Manifesto for Cyborgs," Balsamo also points out that the figure of the cyborg is itself a signifier of our hybrid identities, although here hybridity operates at a different level of both discourse and practice:
By reasserting a material body, the cyborg rebukes the disappearance of the body within postmodernism. . . . . Ultimately, the cyborg challenges feminism to search for ways to study the body as it is at once both a cultural construction and a material fact of human life. (pp. 33-34)
Subsequent references cited in text as TGB.
. See, for instance, Carolyn Heilbrun, Toward a Recognition of Androgyny (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973). Because, as Fred Davis points out, it is in reality weighted toward masculinity rather than balanced between masculine and feminine modes, androgyny of style is a much more complex and ambiguous notion than vulgar usage acknowledges, Fashion, Culture, and Identity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 35-37.
. Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (1992; New York: HarperCollins, 1993), p. 11.
. Weston implies this very thing in her discussion of the limitations to understanding butch/femme as an enactment whose "practitioners . . . are apparently `free' to present gendered representations or self that they assemble, according to personal taste, from repertoires of artifacts" (p. 12).
. Judith Butler, "Critically Queer," in Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 232; subsequent references cited in the text as Bodies.
. Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994), p. vii; subsequent references cited in text as VB.
. Gayatri Spivak with Ellen Rooney, "In a Word, Interview," differences 1 #2 (Summer 1989), p. 151.
. For one influential analysis of these debates, see Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference (New York: Routledge, 1989).
. Anne Hollander, Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), pp. 58, 112; subsequent references cited in text as SS.
. Norma J. Coates, "Can't We Just Talk About Music: Rock and Gender on the Internet," in Thom Swiss, Andrew Hermann, and John Sloop, eds., Mapping the Beat: The Space of Noise and the Place of Music (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, forthcoming, 1997).
. Cf. Jennifer Craik's use in The Face of Fashion: Cultural Studies in Fashion (London: Routledge, 1994) of the term "technologies of self" (p. 15), the idea that "fashion can be considered as an elaborated body technique through which a range of personal and social statements can be articulated" (p. 16).
. Elspeth Probyn demonstrates precisely the contextualized quality of such readings in the "Dyke Dives" section of her chapter "Love in a Cold Climate," where she tours "the shifting sites of lesbian belonging in Montréal," Outside Belongings (New York: Routledge, 1996), pp. 69-72.
. Biddy Martin, "Sexual Practices and Changing Lesbian Identities," in Femininity Played Straight: The Significance of Being Lesbian (New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 103.
. Laura Harris and Elizabeth Crocker, "An Introduction to Sustaining Femme Gender," in Fem/me, pp. 1, 3.
 Sivagami Subbaraman, Catalog-ing Ethnicity: Clothing as Cultural Citizenship, interventions 1 #4 (1999): 572-589.
. Trinh T. Minh-ha, "Other than myself/my other self," in Travellers' Tales: Narratives of Home and Displacement, ed. George Robertson, Melinda Mash, Lisa Tickner, Jon Bird, Barry Curtis, and Tim Putnam (New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 20.