September 22, 2011

Androgynous femme nostalgia, a throwback to Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman

Hey there gender blenders,

Back when I was in elementary school, I had a very serious love affair with Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman. Little me was inspired by the story of a woman with brains, guts, and drive, striking it out West on her own, and surviving.

What does this have to do with androgyny, you might ask. Well, in my favorite episode, Dr. Quinn cross-dresses as a boy so she can ride her horse in a race. Cross-dressing, horses, and Dr. Quinn? Count me in! (Is it any surprise that I loved National Velvet too?)

Part of why I love "The Race" episode is that it obviously recognizes gender as a performance, something that can be acted. My favorite part, aside from the badassery of Dr. Quinn in the race itself, is the process of her "putting on" masculinity (see the clip below).

The sequence is played off as funny--as cross-dressing often is in TV land--but at the same time, she is very serious about what she wants: the equal opportunity to ride her horse in a race. Because she is perfectly capable, because she effing wants to, and because it's her horse, dammit!

September 16, 2011

Written on the non-gendered body

Hey there gender blenders,

via Goodreads
I recently finished reading Jeanette Winterson's novel, Written on the Body. It is a love story, but is light-years away from a cliched romance. The characters are realistically flawed, and the story is often painfully raw--no frills here. But the best thing of all is Winterson's deftness at never revealing the gender of the narrator.

Interestingly, I consistently saw the narrator as a woman, albeit a more androgynous one. My reasoning for this gender assignment is complicated and somewhat of a gut or subconscious reaction. Still, I want to untangle the assumptions I'm making.
  1. Because the world of the novel seems to be in our world and within our time, I assume that the narrator must have a gender.
  2. I find the narrator more relateable as an androgynous woman who is in love with a woman than as a man (androgynous or otherwise) who is in love with a woman. 
  3. A love story about two women is better/more interesting than a love story about a man and a woman because it is non-heteronormative and works against the under-representation/invisibility of woman-loving women.
I think it is important to recognize these assumptions as being rooted in my identity as a person and reader. When a novel presents itself as taking place in a world or time where a completely nongendered or other-gendered reality is possible, I am much more successful at refraining from reading gender into characters. (I'm thinking of Ursula Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness for example.) But Written on the Body isn't quite in that kind of speculative category. I also recognize that my thinking--no matter how awesomely queered it is--is still affected by societal structures.

I am invested in queer feminist culture, and I have often felt alienated by male protagonists (and their interpretations of the female characters that appear in novels with them). As a reader, I want to relate to the protagonist because "she" is very likeable (despite "her" shortcomings). Therefore, I very nearly need "her" to be a she because as a she I can feel "her" more viscerally. But at the same time, I'm also very open to the protagonist queering what it means to be gendered.

September 7, 2011

Your body doth protest too much, on Vogue Italia's recent use of the corset

Oh hey there gender blenders,

Let me tell you a little thing about corsets... My feelings about them vary greatly depending on how they are used. I love burlesque, for example, which often involves corsets. But there is a vast difference between the following two examples. The first is a photograph I took at a recent burlesque show, and the second is a photograph from Vogue of Ethel Granger.

Sammich the Tramp and Lola van Ella
Ethel Granger

Lola van Ella and other burlesque performers I've seen often wear corsets, but it's all about performance and taking off the bindings of femininity to let the body speak for itself. Ethel Granger's body tells a different story.

Granger holds the world record for the smallest waist, but she didn't there all on her own. Vogue writes the following about Granger:
Before their marriage Ethel was a plain, unsophisticated twenty-three year old girl who wore the shapeless 1920s dresses that William [her future husband] despised. William told Ethel about his appreciation for corsets, and expressed his wish to feel one around the waist of his wife. One epochal day, when William put his arm around Ethel's waist she asked "darling, can you feel any difference?" He could: a pair of corsets that tied Ethel into 24 inches, more or less her natural waist line. The process of Ethel's waist modification began. Initially Ethel was satisfied with wearing a corset only during the day, but William convinced her to keep it on while sleeping.
I find Vogue's description troubling, not just because of the story being related--although that is disturbing enough on its own--but because of the way they chose to describe Ethel and the wording they chose throughout. Describing Ethel as "a plain, unsophisticated... girl" before she started her "waist modification," indicates certain values on Vogue's part. Ethel Granger's record holding waist was 13 inches. Did you see the photograph? There is no place for her organs. That kind of waist modification actually forces the organs to shift position.

How exactly does Vogue not see how problematic this modification is? Not only that, but Granger's husband seems to have a dangerous claim to the very shape of her body.

But that still isn't the whole story. Vogue Italia's September 2011 cover features a model whose tiny waist they say is inspired by Ethel Granger.

I am extremely troubled by the way Vogue is presenting the fiercely modified female waist as beautiful, sexy, and as a possibility. It would be different if the images clearly expressed the pain of this kind of modification, and the history of societal control over the female body. But Vogue didn't choose that route, and instead subscribes to a much more sinister aesthetic--that women's bodies must be forced into submission, that their organs must move out of the way so they won't be considered "plain, unsophisticated girls."

I choose androgyny over the long history of stylizing, controlling, modifying, and taming the female body. Female androgyny splits from these traditions by breaking down the gender binaries that created them, and formulating a new, freer aesthetic.