Feminist & artist. Writing & visuals.

#FreeTheFemme - survival or complicity?

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15.5.16
So I will start by clarifying this is no means an attack on Hari Nef but a critique of the ideas in which she proposes in her recent TED talk #FreeTheFemme: The aesthetics of survival .

Nef starts off by rightfully recognising Caitlyn Jenner's flaws as an LGBT advocate, and reflects on her Vanity Fair cover and the criticisms surrounding it. Firstly, I understand representation matters, however, the sentiment of transgenderism is that trans women are unquestioningly women, and have always been so - so why when a woman appears sexualised on a magazine cover is this particularly triumphant? By recognising this as such is to admit that the qualifier 'trans' in transwoman is not without significance here, that this is not your quotidian magazine feature. Ergo, it is unlikely those with even "outdated" views are not going to have something to say - just as the more liberal millennials sing her praises, those "with roots in the second wave movement" are going to respond in a way that is not typical to the everyday occurance of a woman being on the cover of a magazine. So when Nef goes on to quote these criticisms, stating "like any woman in the public eye, Caitlyn's appearance in particular came under scrutiny" gives a warped idea as  to who is policing women's bodies, which I can assure you is not radical feminists. Also, it is dishonest to how gender-critical radical feminists go about their analysis, implying they await, with their hairy and "outdated aesthetic preferences", the latest embodiment of femininity with ready scorn - a sort of  MacKinnon-fueled, Perez HiltonDaily Mail type journalism. This simply isn't the case: a quick google image search of these women, Elinor Burkett, Barbara Cohn Schlachet and Susan Ager, reveals them to be no less feminine than your average women - they do not revel in their criticisms of femininity. Nef centers her speech around this individualistic notion of personal aesthetics in which radical feminist analysis is simply a "clash" of "preferences" - the criticisms surrounding Jenner were not a I-wouldn't-have condemnation, but a semiotic look at the ways in which Jenner was presented, hands back, corseted and coyly caught by the camera. Not an aesthetic but a message.

Modern feminism seems to rely on this insistence on my femininity, so as to paint any radical feminist analysis - often rooted in collective aims - as a personal attack, rather than a more unfaltering grasp on social pressures and constraints. Nef's alternative to this cover is telling of gender theory, she immediately jumps to a Jenner presented without makeup in a "pant suit", as if gender-critical feminists want us all to become man-like, that any incarnation of femininity earns the 'bad-feminist' label (one I've only ever seen from liberals) and you're out of the movement. Had this been the case, Nef asks, "would we all have accepted her so readily as a woman?". It is a fair question to ask in our gender-entrenched, conservative society, but unfortunately one which reveals a great deal about the complicity of transgenderism, which ultimately reinforces this rigid structure. No, we as a society wouldn't have accepted her as a woman - just like we can't accept that a man can be feminine unless he claims to be a member of the opposite sex. This binary is reliant on the idea that there are certain behaviours and interests belonging to either sex - something that feminists have challenged from the start.

Radical feminist gender criticism looks to debunk the idea that sex and personality are somehow intrinsically linked, instead, that gender is something you come to know culturally in relation to yourself as living as biological male/female/intersex - something that isn't assigned, but a scientific reality. It is not a resentment toward sharing, or a xenophobia toward gender deviance - it is simply the recognition being born a certain sex results in differing lived experiences. Trans people would struggle to disagree with this, it is, after all, the reason why they have to wait eighteen years to be able to feel completely themselves. Where the two would disagree is that it is not femininity that is oppressed - little girls aren't hated because they wear dresses - but the associated sex class. At the end of Nef's speech, she states tragic cases of transwomen who were murdered, and recognises they were victims of male violence, but states the cause of this as men who were "dissatisfied with  their embodiment of femininity[...]men who judge us to be not femme enough". It is bizarre to conclude violence towards transwomen is the result of not them not being feminine enough. I can accept that 'passing' is an important aspect of navigating the world comfortably as trans, but when a group of men become violent when they find out someone they found attractive was not biologically female, that is the act of blatant homophobia and threatened masculinity. When boys do not live up to masculine expectations they are not bullied, beaten and belittled because others can't stand the aesthetics of femininity, but because they have aligned themselves with those perceived to be lesser. It is also not radical feminist little girls in the corner of the playground who perpetuate this hatred of gender nuance.

#Freethefemme is a call to action which encourages us all to do which we are already doing. The language itself is even problematic: throughout, Nef repeats "femme", but not once in a lesbian context. Her talk on "survivors" is  undermined by the failed  recognition of the origins of the femme-butch dynamic, and by conflating feminine with femme the talk rings more like an appropriation of struggles rather than a insightful look into how femininity can make life a hell of a lot easier for transwomen and women. Granted hair, makeup and nails allow women to get jobs, make friends, and ride the subway home safe at night (the last seeming far-fetched, but I'll let sexual harassment statistics address that) but what is survival on a day-to-day basis is complicity in broader feminist analysis. To translate this into movement, complete with it's own SJW hashtag, is to misdirect blame for trans people's struggles unto radical feminists, who are by no means the perpetrator of violence towards gender nonconforming people. Radical feminists do not look down in disdain upon those who live out the latter part of "one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman".

Yes, some of us need femininity, and yes, some of us like it - it would be difficult not to enjoy the benefits that come with reaching the full potential of your gender role - but to label this as a sort of rebellion is absolutely an exercise in complicity, in keeping with the popular neoliberalist idea that personal choice, no matter what, is empowering. Imagine if Nicola Thorp, the receptionist who started a successful petition to introduce measures that would mean employers would be unable to discriminate against a woman who does not wish to wear high heels to work, had been exposed to #FreetheFemme. Had she been prior, she would have embraced femininity and have never have encountered any problems in the first place; had she gone home and come across the idea, she would have changed her shoes and returned without a problem - not before hashtagging her survivalist triumph.

Nef goes on to say that, like a Lana Del Rey song, "the aesthetics of money and country are impossible to get out from". The idea that things are the way they are and we cannot change them is not a sentiment with a place in any movement, feminism included. Similarly to Nef, I love Lana Del Rey, though I wouldn't conceive of politicising anything her music speaks on. Romanticising peadophilia (Lolita is not a love story) and domestic abuse (when he hits you hit should feel illegal, not like a kiss) are just two examples of her problematic ethos. Del Rey has successfully created a femme-fatale, Cindy Sherman style character parody - I say parody judging by how miserable she is in every album. Though living in a capitalist patriarchy, the world of Del Rey's music is not the world we live in (certainly not the America Bernie Sanders envisions) and to say is is so seems to admit a certain nostalgia for the gender roles of the 1950s. As Nef argues, classism does play a part in criticisms of Del Rey's image: the women beaten by her husband is, in popular thought, poor, and much of Del Rey's aesthetic is appropriative to Latino culture (commonly at an economic disadvantage) but it is debatable as to whether or not Del Rey's aesthetics are no longer mainstream. Nonetheless, Nef's laughing and "yikes" towards the prospect of women turning away from patriarchal beauty ideals to an acceptance of their natural state (even if they are upper class) is worrying. 

I truly believe that trans people and gender-abolitionist radical feminists can have a constructive discussion about the issues gender nonconforming people face. I understand that trans people do not wish to live out their lives as gender activists, literally going against the grain in order to break boundaries.Nef describes her transition in heartfelt detail:

"I wore a full face of makeup everyday, I shaved my whole body every week, which covered me in these angry red spots. I stopped cutting my hair, I wore dresses to morning classes. I started hormones: pills twice a day and a needle in my leg every week. I started going in for monthly laser hair removal appointments, proceedures that were so painful that I had to chug a flask of vodka before every session just so I would feel it less. I starved myself and abused laxatives just so I would fit the clothes I wanted to wear. I did all this because I wanted a body which would allow me to do all the things I wanted to do in the way I wanted to do them, things men in this country aren't really allowed to do. I tried to do them in the body I was born with, but people told me, no you cant, you gotta soften up your face, get rid of all your body hair, get breasts, shrink your waist, get a vagina...of course, I looked them right in the eye said "fuck you" and turned around and did pretty much all of what they told me to do. It hurt. And it worked. And if my story sounds difficult or tough, I can guarantee you it is more difficult to the vast majority of transwomen."

Asking "do we have to answer with our bodies?" implies that bodies need to be kept out of the discussion, that they ought not be politicised - something in which the likes of Susie Orbach would disagree. Nonetheless, it is clear when describing the lengths taken in order to feel comfortable in her own body that it was a source of conflict, something that could determine her worth in the world. "Dominant man-made beauty ideals exclude the bodies most of us were born with" resonates with anyone who has experienced both gender dysphoria and body dysphoria, but I would argue it is the society that has to change, rather than the individual. I have now heard that gender hurts from both Hari Nef, a transwomen, and gender-critical radical feminists. When considering the suffering detailed above, it is strange as to why Nef finds the concept of transgenderism being something "morally mandated out of  existence" abhorrent. It's not that radical feminists want to wipe trans people out, instead, they hope to abolish the societal constraint of a sex-gender paradigm that results in individuals having to have extensive surgery in order to express themselves without ridicule.

It is simply not true that women are punished for practicing femininity, what #FreeTheFemme implies. This is comfort, reassurance and the familiar being rebranded as rebellion. This is sadly the complicity and non-analysis modern feminism is proposing, progressives without the progress. Thorp's stand may mean that real, legislative change could ensue, something that may gradually phase out something women, transwomen, men - anyone who has ever worn heels - will admit is impractical and limiting, even if you like the aesthetics of it. "Hair, makeup and nails don't make transwomen like me, or any women, bad feminists" of course it doesn't, but it doesn't mean it's a feminist act, and it the actions of those operating within an oppressive system are not exempt from criticism. There is nothing the patriarchy wants more than for us to #FreeTheFemme, to reject radical analysis, to stop resisting in the name of 'survival'.