Here's another installment of Gender in Genre! Feel free to read parts one
One of the thing that’s really interesting to me about being femme is the investment of time (and money) it requires. Speaking as a femme, let me tell you that the amount of effort that women are expected to put into their appearance is frankly ludicrous. But then, in SF/F, that effort seems to largely disappear. Now; it’s a fair to say that much of genre happens in places where appearance and gender presentation are simply not an issue. However, I’m interested in looking at the works that do discuss it.
There are not a lot of folks talking about the costs and benefits of presenting as femme, or the work that goes into it. (That’s true inside and outside of fiction; FYI. The effort women put into their appearance is largely invisible.) In SF/F, there are a lot of women who are effortlessly beautiful. (See: every fairy ever.) However, there are not many women who are doing the mental calculus between wearing higher heels or a shorter skirt because it will bring in extra tips versus the aggravation and back pain it will bring them. There are very few women who are trying to get their makeup routine down to a bare 90 seconds in between training and work, because otherwise they aren't considered to be dressing professionally. I have never seen a woman paint her nails and then have to actually avoid touching anything for the next 20 minutes. Part of this is because the hows of being beautiful are not the interesting part of the story, but part of it is that our cultural narrative around beauty is that you need to be effortlessly, naturally beautiful, and no one should ever see how the magic is made.
The Alanna books, which I love to death, portray presenting as femme to be pretty straightforward. You just buy yourself a dress and some eye kohl and you're good, right? Okay, but why doesn’t she have to practice putting on makeup without looking like a clown? She's been hanging out exclusively with boys, but she doesn't have to practice moving like a girl? What about acting or talking in a contextually-appropriately feminine manner? There is a lot more that goes into gender presentation than the clothes, folks. Frankly, the first time she dresses up, she really ought to come off as a boy in drag, because training-wise, that's exactly what she is.
The women who perform femininity in genre seem to do it without any of the drawbacks, and that has two problems. For one, you're discounting the skill set. (If you don't believe it's a skill set, I will very happily write out a painstakingly detailed how-to on my Getting Femmed Up routine. Alternately, ask a trans woman about the learning curve.) The other problem is that you're ignoring the reasons that women would bother to put up with the pain in the ass that is presenting as femme, and acknowledging those reasons will make your world richer and more complete.
Some women may go to the trouble of presenting as femme purely for the joy of it, but the truth is, that's not the big reason to do so. In our culture, women are expected to display a certain minimum of femininity in order to look professional; in some cases wearing makeup may actually be in the work dress code. In the past, being beautiful literally added to your monetary value, and unfortunately, that's still pretty close to true; there's research indicating that women who wear a moderate amount of makeup in the workplace are treated as being more competent than those who don't. We see variations on these standards of beauty and the effort it takes to achieve them across cultures and through time. What they look like tells us a lot about the world.
The Tiffany Aching books in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series discuss some parallels to these issues that are not strictly gender-specific. To be taken seriously as a witch in her village, Tiffany adopts certain appearances and mannerisms. If someone is insufficiently convincing as a witch, you are quietly advised to incorporate some 'boffo' into your witchery - trappings of the occult that you don't need to get the job done, but that will make people take you more seriously. Which is, after all, part of getting the job done.
There's also social pressure outside of the workplace to look femme; frankly, in most areas, women who don't do femme to some extent are seen as weird, or perhaps as not having very good grooming. You also get different kinds of harassment depending on how femme you present, or how well-groomed you appear. There's calculus that goes into that, too. (I'm much less comfortable being out at night alone when I'm femmed up than when I'm in my standard jeans-and-tshirt daily uniform.)
So, writers, consider your characters’ gender presentations, and what the costs and benefits are. You don't have to make your story all about it, but I guarantee that thinking about that context will make your world more realistic. Obviously, your world doesn’t have to mirror our current society, but you can learn a lot about how societies treat gender presentation by looking at ours.
I want to mention Seanan McGuire as an author who gets this right; in particular, Verity Price does several different levels of femininity very intentionally, and although the work is not always shown, it is acknowledged. When she has an asshole boss who requires them to dress in Lolita cheerleader outfits, it's called out as being a distasteful requirement of the job, and she shows some of the ways that customers react to it, ranging from higher tips to harassment. When she dresses in ballroom dancing costumes, she discusses how many weapons she can hide under them and how she's learned to fight in heels. But when she's going out with the expectation of a fight? She wears her functional fighting clothes.
I’m certainly not saying that all genre books should be talking about gender presentation all the time; far from it. But when it’s relevant to the work, I really appreciate someone who has taken the time to show some of the work that goes into gender presentation, partially because it helps the work feel more real to me, and partly because I believe it’s really helpful for gender equality to expose the work that women are expected to do just as the price of being female.