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18 July 2013 @ 09:40 am
Gender in Genre, Part 3: Gender Presentation Takes Work  
Here's another installment of Gender in Genre! Feel free to read parts one and two first.


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.

 
 
( 34 comments — Leave a comment )
Fade M.fadethecat on July 18th, 2013 05:50 pm (UTC)
I find this post fascinating partly because I'm a woman who has deliberately rejected presenting as femme, in the vast majority of my life, and my primary reason for that was how much effort it took. The cost of tools and expendable goods, the effort required to acquire the necessary skills, the time spent in maintaining and preparing everything... At a certain point in life I moved from being defensively awkward and half-assed about femme behavior to a deliberate decision to not put in the work. And to thus expect (whether or not I liked it) the drawbacks thereof.

I don't write femme women as viewpoint characters very often because I don't have a lot of knowledge about how it does work. But I am at least dimly aware that it takes work, and that "Take off your glasses, let down your hair, put on a pretty dress... Now you're beautiful!" is not how it goes.
chinderschinders on July 18th, 2013 05:54 pm (UTC)
I think this is true for a lot of the folks writing genre. There aren't that many people writing genre who already have the skill set, and doing the actual anthropology required to put interesting detail in doesn't seem like fun in the same way that researching mythology seems like fun.
Fade M.fadethecat on July 18th, 2013 05:58 pm (UTC)
Yeah, and in general I try to write around things where I don't find the research very fun. (My characters do a lot of walking and stabbing instead of riding horses or firing guns for this very reason.) But with the femme aspect, I think it's also hitting the problem of "It's not what you don't know, it's what you don't know you don't know."

Most people who write about, oh, architects or wine tasting are at least dimly aware that they don't know the details and should either gloss briskly or do some researching. With presenting as femme, the cultural narrative of it being effortless and natural is pushed so hard that people who aren't familiar with it don't realize their lack of knowledge.
chinderschinders on July 18th, 2013 06:01 pm (UTC)
That is a really excellent point. Thank you.
Darkhawk: writinglilairen on July 19th, 2013 01:21 pm (UTC)
It suddenly occurs to me that I have a character in some stuff I've written who is explicitly not femme to a point that it causes her some social issues, and when she's put in a position of social prominence she has to start navigating this problem, and I actually wrote it! Like, acknowledging this, even though she will never be femme at all ever.

She did grow her hair out a bit. (Culturally, both men and women in her universe have hair long enough to put ribbons in to show affiliation; she kept hers cut way too short for ribbons because not signalling affiliation was worth it to her, as was not having hair long enough that someone could grab it in a fight.)

(Her husband* is a much better femme than she is, and she teases him over being a clothes horse constantly. But he doesn't have cosmetics skills either. He does have fabulous hair.)


* for lack of better terminology.
chinderschinders on July 18th, 2013 05:58 pm (UTC)
Also, on a personal note, I've gone through a lot of permutations on the effort of being femme, and I cycle a lot in terms of how much femme-ing effort I put in on a day to day basis. The rule I eventually ended up with to help moderate how much investment/sacrifice I was putting into being femme is that being femme should never stop me from doing awesome things. Which is how I ended up as a nail polish addict who loves rock climbing.
Fade M.fadethecat on July 18th, 2013 06:02 pm (UTC)
See, I love nail polish. It is glorious and fascinating and SHINY. But I never invested in the "putting on nail polish" skill, so now when I try to wear any, I'm dreadful at it. And thus my sparkly black fingernails of rock climbing do not happen.
chinderschinders on July 18th, 2013 06:04 pm (UTC)
It turns out that if you keep doing it you'll get better at it! I promise!

I ran into this same situation with a trans friend, where I'd forgotten that nail polishing was a skill, because I invested time in it when I was 10 and promptly forgot that it was hard.
Fade M.fadethecat on July 18th, 2013 06:09 pm (UTC)
YOu make a good point. Maybe it's something I should work on before classes start again.
aedificaaedifica on July 23rd, 2013 11:28 pm (UTC)
I picked up nail painting as a hobby three or four months ago (it's creative, like knitting, only I get to change my project more often!) and I'd be happy to tell you things I've learned along the way, if you're interested sometime. :-)
Fade M.fadethecat on July 23rd, 2013 11:33 pm (UTC)
If it's 101 level stuff, I'd love to hear more!
aedificaaedifica on July 24th, 2013 12:15 am (UTC)
It's maybe 101 to 201?

Let's see...

* Do use a product sold as a base coat and a product sold as a top coat. I thought they were 401-level stuff or else a waste of money, I wasn't sure which, but it turns out a base coat keeps strong colors from soaking into your nails (no taking off the blue nail polish and finding out that your nails are stained blue!) and a top coat can make your nail polish last and last. (I usually paint my nails on Sunday and leave them alone til the next Saturday, when I take the polish off and give them a day off. I hear other people complain about chipping after a day or two. That's the power of a good top coat.)

* Applying nail polish neatly does get easier with practice, but I still get some on the skin around my nails every time. It's way easier to clean up nail polish from around the nail while it's still wet, immediately after you paint that nail. (The least-frustrating ways I know require special equipment: either get a tiny stiff paintbrush at an art store, dip it in nail polish remover, and use that to clean the nail polish off your skin, or else buy a nail polish clean-up pen.)

* I've seen it recommended to paint your dominant hand first, that way you get the harder one out of the way first. Also, I usually rest each hand on something while I'm painting its nails, to keep it steadier.

* It can be way easier to remove nail polish than I ever imagined: http://gingerbreadmanne.blogspot.com/2010/09/5-minutes-nail-polish-removal-tutorial.html

* Lots of nail polishes look better with two coats, for whatever reason. Base coat + two coats of color + top coat can take a long time to do, though. :-(

* When to move on to the next layer: I apply the base coat, wait til it's not more than slightly tacky to the touch, apply a coat of color, wait til it's not more than slightly tacky to the touch, etc.

* You'll discover that for a while after your nail polish is dry to the touch, it will still be malleable--you can dent it, push it around, etc. It can be fun or annoying, depending. The Insta Dri top coat I mention below does seem to shorten that stage.

* Nail polish is for having fun with! I usually either do three or four nails a different color than the rest, or add dots of another color, or do something else to keep myself interested. My hands aren't super steady (I get some trembling from one of my antidepressants), so I can't do a lot of fancy stuff by hand, but my latest discovery is nail art stickers (I found them at Walgreens). Right now my left hand has two purple nails and three glittery turquoise ones, and my right hand has one purple with a delicate gold flower (sticker!) and four turquoise nails. :-)

* Nail polish is less likely to chip if you make sure there's no oil on your nails first; one way to do that is to give them a quick wipe with nail polish remover before you paint.

* Odd as it sounds, different nail polish brands work better or worse for different people. I love the $2 Wet n Wild Spoiled nail polish at my CVS, but I tried a bottle of $8 Essie nail polish one time and it was dreadful for me, even though I've read a lot of good reviews for it. Play around, try the cheap stuff first. :-)

* The top coat that, for me, *really* makes my nail polish last is Sally Hansen Insta-Dri. On most nail polish it really isn't Insta at all, but it does make things dry faster than when I don't use it, and like I said, it makes the nail polish *last*.

And two closing thoughts: I've found Cathy's "don't let it keep you from being awesome" to be very helpful. And here's a fun, messy, really pretty nail polish idea: http://gorgeois.blogspot.com/2012/09/abstract-brush-stroke-manicure-tutorial.html

(Also, I still find myself avoiding colors that *I* think of as more femme than I am. I don't do much with reds or pinks, but I've got every other color there is!)
Fade M.fadethecat on July 24th, 2013 12:29 am (UTC)
*totally takes notes*

Thank you!
aedificaaedifica on July 24th, 2013 01:14 am (UTC)
You're welcome! I had fun writing it. I'd already been vaguely thinking of collecting what I've learned and making a post of it sometime; now I can just copy this! :-)
Krissyrightkindofme on July 18th, 2013 10:36 pm (UTC)
My five year old would LOVE to do your nails. Of course it will look like you dipped your fingers into the finger nail polish bottle, but what could be the possible downside to this? :)
Fade M.fadethecat on July 18th, 2013 10:45 pm (UTC)
Hee. Well, that kind of painting I can do myself!
Krissyrightkindofme on July 18th, 2013 10:50 pm (UTC)
Psh. But *we* have extra layers of glitter for you to dip your fingers in after the frighteningly eye catching blood red is applied.

Just sayin'. So you are *properly* fancy.
Brooksbrooksmoses on July 19th, 2013 04:48 am (UTC)
I apparently got at least half of the "putting on nail polish" skill from brush-painting model car parts. (Specifically, the half that doesn't include "doing it to your own fingertips, especially those on your dominant hand".)

I point this out to note that, if you do want to practice, you don't necessarily need to just practice on fingernails!
Darkhawk: buddhalilairen on July 19th, 2013 01:22 pm (UTC)
*noise of lasting affection*
Cass W. Marshalljudith_dascoyne on July 18th, 2013 07:13 pm (UTC)
I am guessing that rock climbing gives you many opportunities to "update" the nail polish.
; )
chinderschinders on July 18th, 2013 07:49 pm (UTC)
You are correct!
areallifekethry: pic#121411888areallifekethry on July 19th, 2013 06:50 am (UTC)
I love nail polish, except for the "staying on and not matching the clothes I'm wearing the next day" part. I also have a father who is allergic to anything with strong scent (other than food), so I had to learn to do nail polish on the bus (timing is everything). But I always end up scratching it off later.

I can't decide whether it's worth it to keep my tiny hoard of nail polish.
aedificaaedifica on July 23rd, 2013 11:32 pm (UTC)
I don't remember if I told you this already, and I want to make sure I do: your "never let it stop me from being awesome" guideline is one I've adopted, and it's really helpful to me. Thank you!
chinderschinders on July 23rd, 2013 11:44 pm (UTC)
Thank you! <3
Cass W. Marshalljudith_dascoyne on July 18th, 2013 08:05 pm (UTC)
I am fairly sure that the urge (or need, as I have noticed) to ornament ones self is separate from gender. High heel shoes began as male attire if I am remembering correctly. Display and preening are behaviors I have found equally in male as well as female in the circles I frequent. (I am aware that working for a Theatre and Dance Department does bias one)
I am pleased that tattoos have become fashionable allowing men the permission to ornament them selves in a way that didn’t exist 30 years ago. I will admit that the “pain” of ornamentation is front loaded in the case of tattoos. (yes all puns intended) : )
chinderschinders on July 18th, 2013 08:08 pm (UTC)
Oh, absolutely. Ornamentation markers are sparse for men right now, but they've been all over the map for both genders for a long time in various cultures. I think that distinctions about who is held to what standards of personal appearance is really telling about the society, in general. In our culture at the moment, women are generally held to stricter standards, but that's not to say they don't exist for men.
Marissa Lingenmrissa on July 18th, 2013 11:11 pm (UTC)
And it's not to say that knowing how to pick "formal masculine/butch grooming/clothes" is not also a skill! I think it's just that there's less variation in what's socially acceptable for professional (and presumed heterosexual) men, so the range from looking quite unkempt and/or un-dressed-up to looking very spiffy is much compressed.
Brooksbrooksmoses on July 19th, 2013 05:03 am (UTC)
On the male side, there's also the interesting results around here of the collision between computer-science college students and computer-geek culture with professionalism and business culture, and how that plays out in appearance standards.

(One of the results is an innovation that would have baffled people of the past: the existence of "good t-shirts". Almost always not-white, generally a dark solid color, well-fitting, and with reasonably artistic printing -- or at least decently-done graphic design -- ornamenting them.)

It also turns out that this is definitely local. The people in our New York office dress differently.

I thought about this a particular bit when I was interviewing for jobs around here earlier this year, especially since the places I was interviewing said "casual dress." That was a sort of amusing calculus of looking good without looking like I was trying too hard, and also of picking something that I would feel confident about.

A year ago, I bought some comfortable black dress shoes, of a sort that I could do a reasonable bit of walking in. They're about at the formalest end of simple casual leather shoes. Before that, I'd basically only had brown shoes, sort of middle-casual. It turns out that these are outstanding for interview wear; they are comfortable, look dressy, and have a good solid feel that resonates very well with the sort of walking that one does when projecting an attitude of being ready to defend theses and take names.
Marissa Lingenmrissa on July 19th, 2013 12:05 pm (UTC)
When I have pled with markgritter to "at least wear your good jeans to work," I have stepped outside myself and imagined my grandmothers' reaction to that phrase in 1963, and grinned.
Darkhawk: icocklilairen on July 19th, 2013 01:24 pm (UTC)
teinedreugan has occasionally had small fits of frustration about the lack of adequate ornamentation options for men. He wishes more peacocking material.
Liz: feminismlabelleizzy on July 20th, 2013 07:59 am (UTC)
hrm.
as a fan of tammypierce's, I will point out that in the Alanna series, Alanna *does* have to learn how to dress and act like a girl, George Cooper's mum undertakes to teach her. There's a point driven home explicitly in those scenes, that she had to learn how to walk differently, i.e., "not like Squire Alan in a dress", manage skirts and girl clothes, how to apply makeup, learn girl dancing and girl-courtly-manners. I appreciated the frank sex-ed talk that Mistress Cooper also provided, that NEVER happens in YA fiction!

But the part that I absolutely *loved* was that in Tortall, the Goddess Temple sold anti-pregnancy charms, so women had a choice of when to have sex, when to have children, without barrier contraception. Good stuff.

Agree that seanan_mcguire is Doing It Right with urban fantasy and practical clothes for her characters who are going to fight.
aedificaaedifica on July 23rd, 2013 11:33 pm (UTC)
Alanna does have to learn how to dress and act like a girl, yeah, but I think it was just brushed past in a sentence or two, wasn't it?
chinderschinders on July 23rd, 2013 11:46 pm (UTC)
That's certainly my recollection. Perhaps I just felt like she didn't spend as much time on it as I would have liked; obviously, authors are not actually beholden to writing what I want them to.

However, I have never once seen someone wear makeup for the first time and not either look like a clown or *feel* like they look like a clown, so Alanna's more seamless transition felt a little pat to me.
Lizlabelleizzy on July 24th, 2013 01:18 am (UTC)
No, I reread the Lioness quartet ... Last year, I think...
Alanna went in to town regularly to see Mistress Cooper and learn courtly manners befitting a lady, and started building a... Hope chest, I guess, of nice lady's clothes, at the foot of her bed, and carefully locked up.

The jig was up when one day Alanna was at Mistress Cooper's and George stops by for a visit with Jonathan.
*grin*
Jonathan was gabberflasted. It was so funny! (At that point in the story Jon already knew about Alanna because of the Black City adventures).

It was kind of a major plot point of that particular book, Alanna looking forward and cautiously planning to be an actual Lady Knight.
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