Welcome to my dinner table. We are just finishing a delicious meal of burgers and salad and vegan side dishes prepared by a noisy, delightful group: my two sons and two of their friends. Near the end of dinner, I ask them to share their opinions on femininity. The discussion is lively and free; they are generous with their thoughts, and the depth and insight of their answers surprise me. I listen and try to stay present in this conversation because it is rich and thoughtful and coming from a much younger and, perhaps, more progressive generation than my own.
When I was their age, my kitchen would not have been the setting for a conversation like this one, mainly because my friends weren’t nearly as diverse as those of my children. John, David, Karla and Ashleigh express a wide range of identities, including gay, pansexual, straight, drag performer, Indigenous, queer, Latinx, writers, artists, university students, and aspiring filmmakers. Their take on the constructs of femininity and masculinity reflect these differing identities.
Although all four of these young people are cisgender, three of them play with their gender expression in conscious and fluid ways. Like Karla, an up-and-coming DJ in the local pop-up party scene. Hers is a male-dominated career and she talks about how she doesn’t want the male DJs to see her as a “Girl DJ” or mistake her for a hostess. She is conscious of the clothes she chooses and her overall attitude, wanting to come across as serious and “no different from the guys.” And while this is a deliberate choice when working the turntable, she also enjoys expressing her femininity by playing with and challenging heteronormative expectations in other settings:
“I love confusing people by dressing however I feel and mixing it up, with crop tops and unshaven armpits, baggy pants and gorgeous makeup. The other night, this guy came up and complimented me on being so cool and individual,” she tells us.
John has noticed the same theme where he works. Quiet and reserved, John is a history major who is working on construction sites over a summer break before returning to academia. Although cisgender and straight, he is a loving and supportive ally in the queer community and says that finding himself working in what might be described as a hyper-masculine setting has been eye-opening.
He says, “I notice that the women on the site who wear the pink hardhats and present as more typically feminine get comments and sometimes hassled by the guys. The women who wear the regular hardhats and who are older or tougher looking are respected more by the guys and don’t get hassled much, if ever.”
Since he was able to play dress-up, my younger son, David, has immersed himself in the feminine. He was always “the girl” in his imaginary games and went out on Halloween as his favorite female heroes and characters. After years of dance lessons, singing, musical theater, stage acting, and film/tv auditions, his desire to express himself through character work has manifested itself in his becoming a drag performer. His persona, Amy Grindhouse, is bearded, hairy, and has “roots” colored into her wig. These are deliberate choices for David and they push back against the established practices of the “pageant queen” tradition, where the closer one is to the female “ideal,” the better.
“There’s a hierarchy even in the gay community, for sure,” David says. “Even in the drag scene. It’s changing I think, but there are still a lot of people who have this idea about drag and femininity and where do bearded queens fit in, or “bio-queens” or trans performers? Like I said, it’s changing but those biases are still alive and well.”
For Ashleigh, a queer Indigenous woman from the Kahkewistahaw band, femininity and masculinity are connected to her people’s tradition of the medicine wheel. She speaks of feminine and masculine energy, as all humans having attributes and parts of themselves that reflect femininity and masculinity. She describes the feminine as the things in our lives that are connected to emotion, to the heart, to feeling. Masculine energy is found in the doing, in actions.
“When I’m attracted to a girl who’s sending out a more feminine vibe, I find that I almost unconsciously slip into a more masculine role: putting my arm around her, less makeup, that sort of thing. And when I’m attracted to a girl who’s presenting as more boyish or masculine, I am more flirty, wear more makeup, dress in skirts and such. It’s like I’m trying to balance out the energy, fill in the opposite of her.”
This line of thinking sparks a whole new tangent around the table as I serve up fresh strawberries and the others jump in. Talk soon turns to the concept of binary gender models versus a more fluid identity expression. If everyone has both feminine and masculine attributes and expression, as Ashleigh asserts, then how does that impact the roles we take on in our lives? And what happens when someone who identifies as male expresses a high degree of femininity or feminine traits, and vice-versa? And how do we, as a society, define, in practice, what is or is not feminine? And who decides?
In her landmark 1995 study, R.W. Connell defined femininity as “subordinate masculinity.” Mimi Schippers expanded this concept by asserting that, “Regardless of one’s sex category…erotic desire for the feminine object is constructed as masculine and being the object of masculine desire is feminine.” Schippers goes even further by defining femininity as compliance to patriarchy and masculinity as cultural dominance.
This might help explain why strong, authoritative women are often seen as threatening, and compliant, gentle men are seen as weak. It might also be the reason why women who desire other women are stereotyped as being manly, “butch,” or dominant. Conversely, gay men are often called effeminate, “limp-wristed,” and “girly.” If these are the binary positions, then what about those who live fluidly between these extremes?
Binaries are comfortable. They are neat, they are tidy: “this or that,” “either, or.” But as our understanding grows around identity and its human expression, it’s becoming clearer that gender and sexuality, and the personal expression of these constructs, are more clearly understood by using a spectrum model, with the binary extremes at each end of the spectrum.
Karla agrees, “I identify as a nonbinary femme Latinx and alternate she/her and they/them pronouns.” And David navigates a fluid gender expression, presenting as a gay male, “David” most of the time, but in performance as “Amy,” a drag queen persona that plays with the tug and pull of what is overtly feminine or masculine.
As an aspiring filmmaker, David is eager to tell stories that portray the full spectrum of the queer experience, rather than the simplistic, familiar models that dominate the cinematic landscape today. He believes that “the more we recognize ourselves in art and story, the more free we can feel to express those parts of ourselves that we usually hide because maybe they feel confusing or scary to share with other people.”
All four of these young people agreed that it is much more acceptable to be less rigid in gender expression in their current communities, especially compared to high school. But, the heteronormative trope of boy meets girl, girl is compliant and pretty, boy takes girl and they live happily ever after, still exists. The fact that they can unpack this truth, discuss it, and actively challenge it astounds me.
The strawberries are finished, the table is cleared and these insightful young humans have moved on to another room, grabbing guitars and sitting at the piano, taking their laughter and energy with them. I think about Karla’s beautiful eyeliner and baggy pants. David’s wigs and high heeled shoes float across my memory as I look at his unkempt beard and flannel shirt. John’s penchant for Star Wars rubs up against his ease with tears and conversation, and Ashleigh’s beautiful, quintessentially feminine singing voice belies the underlying strength of a powerful eco-warrior. Femininity and masculinity both vying for a place in each of them. Perhaps, in each one of us.