Friday, June 05, 2015

Thoughts on femininity from news cycles past

Going away for two, but what ended up being more like three, weeks set me behind in the various controversies. Catching up, kind of, but also trying to write-and-move, so it's not the very first priority. In case anyone was wondering where I stand on the issue of the day: Yes, it's brave of Caitlyn Jenner to come out. Yes, she looks great. Yes, it's unfortunate that this is demanded of her. True, few trans women (or, indeed, cis women) have access to her resources in the beautification department. No, she should't be blamed for using said resources. Yes, she's a both a trailblazer and a self-promoting celebrity. No, there are no new angles on this.

Except... all of this does kind of connect to something I'd wanted to write about earlier, regarding Sarah Maslin Nir's two-part series on the horrible conditions behind the scenes at NY nail salons. Atrocious, illegal wages, combined with dangerous working conditions, with some racism in the mix. Amazing reporting (and the translations - brilliant!), but plenty upsetting to read. The series is, happily, making an impact beyond simply causing the well-manicured to experience a twinge of guilt for a week or so, until their polish chips and they've by that point moved on to some other issue.

When a similar (if less persuasive) piece about nail salons appeared in the British press, I'd responded here, wondering, among other things, why these stories must always lead people to conclude that the problem is beautification, or conventional femininity, and not specific health concerns or labor violations.

This came up again in Leonard Lopate's interview with Monona Rossol, who came on to explain that all personal-care products are toxic. Nail polish especially. If you're buying the ones free of specific toxic chemicals, you're actually exposing yourself to even more dangerous untested chemicals. How dangerous, if you're using it at home, near an open window, every week or so? More dangerous than it would be to not use it, which is a non-zero amount, and is nail polish really necessary? Dan Savage has this line about how, when it comes to sex, people often view zero risk as the only acceptable amount, whereas these same people are just fine with skiing, driving, etc. Well, so too with beauty. Conventional femininity is simply unacceptable, and is therefore an inconceivable reason to go to any kind of risk - any kind of trouble, even. Even if salon workers in no way enter into it.

Anyway, where this relates to Caitlyn Jenner is that I'd long thought that progressives kind of got it when transwomen (or gender-non-conforming boys/men) embraced conventional femininity, but were squicked out when cis* girls/women did so, because what possible reason could there be for this apart from submission to the patriarchy/the beauty industry. Not so! It's apparently a problem (see: the entire internet) that Jenner's preferred version of womanhood for a magazine cover is different from how an avant-garde poet might look while grocery shopping at Zabars. What amount of conventional femininity would have been acceptable? Eyeliner? But a woman not in eyeliner is still a woman, so why expose yourself to toxic eyeliner chemicals and fund the rapacious eyeliner companies, when you could have just left your eyes unlined and still be every bit as female? Would it have been better if Jenner had presented looking just as she had prior to her transition, but come out with a bold statement about how what matters is that she identifies as a woman, and there's no set requirement for what a woman must look like?

But back to Lopate. Rossol included this digression about her own nails, which (the radio listener will have to trust) go unpainted. She then remarked, "You've got time to write books if you don't fix your nails!" And... if you do paint your nails, you don't?

Which, in turn, brings me to Lauren Maas's excellent Into The Gloss post about female artists and makeup. It's very much in keeping with the Susan Sontag shopped at Sephora news from a while back. It seems that it's possible to produce Great Work and not to present as masculine. Who knew?

Now, I'll provide the necessary caveat about how, if women didn't have to primp, we'd have more time for other things. That's not so far off. But this seems more relevant when it comes to things like dieting (which requires an every-waking-moment weight-think) than things like painting your nails.

*Necessary update!


Alyx said...

hmm I haven't seen that many pieces critical of Jenner, but then again I haven't really sought stuff out. I think maybe with her specific case though people might find the swing to such a hyperfeminine presentation relative to her presentation as Bruce a bit off-putting? like personally I am kind of weirded out by her, and by other cases of middle-aged hyperfemme trans women who previously presented as masculine straight men... whether this is justified or not, or what causes it, I guess is up for debate. but it definitely squicks me out and I wonder if others aren't feeling the same discomfort but rationalizing it with feminist arguments...

Phoebe said...


The piece that best captures the line of argument I'm talking about actually appeared after this post.

My own thinking is, yes, it's a little much if abortion can't be referred to as a women's issue, given the tremendous odds of it being one (that is, given the tiny % of the population that's non-female-identified but facing an unwanted pregnancy) and the not insignificant odds of it confusing people who need these services if "women" is studiously avoided. But I also can't see how it negatively impacts low-maintenance/androgynous women if some transwomen - at least soon after coming out - go for corsets and heels. As was pointed out... somewhere, in some thread, trans people who are trying to avoid being misgendered may well go in for more exaggerated versions of male or female, as relevant. Whereas someone born female, with the body and mannerisms of a woman, can (I can attest!) go around in jeans and a not especially flattering t-shirt and not get called "sir." (It helps, for this, to be short.) And, in this particular case... why would Jenner present differently than the other women in her family/milieu? Why would that be expected?