Feminine is a cluster of gender characteristics associated with being female. These characteristics have historically been associated with female heterosexuals, but within the LGBTQ community, “feminine” can be used to describe anyone of any gender, orientation, or biological sex.
Femininity is queered, parodied, performed, and disrupted in Gay folk performances and identities, yet it still maintains important meanings for those who choose to identify as such. To understand femininity, it is important to look at heteronormal performances that facilitate the perception of femininity, and then examine how those performances are reinterpreted and accessorized in the Gay community.
Feminine Stereotype in Children’s Folktales
Performance of femininity is part of the socialization process that begins at birth. It is taught to children in many ways, including toys, clothing, and the daily performances of women in a child’s life. Whether children are expected to also perform aspects of femininity (girls) or reject them (boys) as part of their own individual comportment, they nevertheless absorb the criteria. In terms of heteronormal conditioning, one of the most pervasive performances that teaches femininity is the reading and recitation of children’s stories.
Feminist philosophers like Andrea Dworkin have used children’s stories like “Sleeping Beauty” and “Cinderella” to illuminate the most stereotypical aspects of femininity. Princesses are feminine in the most important respects: they are passive, beautiful, and childlike. They wait for their Prince Charming so that they can begin their lives as dependents in romantic love. Sleeping Beauty, for example, is doomed to a perpetual comatose state until she is kissed by Prince Charming. She is passive (literally asleep) until her Prince Charming acts as an active principle that animates her. It is common language to call a stereotypically feminine individual a princess, which denotes being beautiful, helpless, and spoiled.
Femininity implies sexual submission but it does not guarantee it. Because of overlapping associations with submissiveness, feminine individuals also use other tactics to gain the attention of a prospective sexual partner, the most common of these being physical beauty.
Feminine individuals are expected to care about their appearance in ways that masculine individuals are not. Femininity is commonly associated with childlike features; hairless, young, fresh-faced, and blushing. This kind of beauty is light, playful, and frivolous. Feminine individuals wax, shave, pluck, and laser their hair to achieve a childlike ideal of hairlessness other than thin eyebrows, thick eyelashes, and thick hair on the scalp. Young Gay males identified as twinks typically engage in extensive hair removal, wear clothing more geared to fashionable expression than practicality, and prefer their bodies be thin.
Feminine individuals exaggerate color contrasts in their faces with make-up. Although trends shift over time, there are some basic features: lips should be full, shiny and reddish, lashes should be long, cheeks should be rouged. Fingernails and hair are modes of expression for a feminine individual, so color, shape, texture, are all factors in beautification. But the final product ought to look effortless. Features should be highlighted but not exaggerated into grotesquerie.
This is one of the main aspects of femininity that drag shows parody. Drag queens are the very expression of exaggerated beautification. “Blue jean” Lesbians illustrate the contrast here as well: they wear casual dress and do not engage in stereotypical beautification, but still identify as feminine. The fact that this identification must be made in spite of a perceived simpler exterior shows how firmly beautification is taken to signify the feminine individual. Focusing excessively on artfully-modified physical beauty as femininity means treating individuals as objects, works of art that are beautiful and can be bought and sold, trading on value that comes directly from beauty and not intrinsic self-worth.
Feminist theorists like Simone de Beauvoir have argued that along with femininity comes mystification of the feminine. This means that feminine individuals are treated as Other – their object status deploys mysterious forces to bewitch their sexual partners. Femininity gains its mystery from being dominated by instinct, permeated by the forces of nature rendering the feminine individuals passive and restrained. This mystification is a determining factor in the still prevalent trend of accepting masculine individuals in positions of authority. Cool, rational leadership from feminine individuals is unattainable, neither should it be expected.
Mystification of the feminine, however, changes over time. Markers of femininity have been trending away from passivity towards a more dynamic and nuanced understanding of gender. Instead of specific markers that always mean one thing, the ensemble of markers is the paramount key to reading femininity. This emphasis on the ensemble brings a corresponding enrichment of feminine that cannot be read in a simple passive active dichotomy.
Feminine Performance in Gay Folklife
When looking specifically at the LGBTQ community, the performance of femininity in Gay folklife may be seen in two ways: the daily performance of femininity by women, transwomen, and men that marks them publicly as non-heteronormal, and the staged performance of femininity in drag shows and burlesque.
One feature of Gay folklife that traverses both street and stage is camp, exaggerated performance that most often includes feminine elements recognized as effeminate. Camp need not be feminine, as in the macho disco group the Village People, or as in Xena, Warrior Princess, whose femininity was in direct contrast with the masculine demeanor associated with the warrior. But camp often alludes to femininity. The Village People sang disco songs (which by 1979 was often labeled unmasculine, as in “Disco Sucks”), and Xena’s armor appeared to be designed less for protection and more for fashion and display of Xena’s physique, especially her bosoms and thighs.
In terms of staged performance, LGBTQ folklife has examples of feminine extravaganzas going back to the early twentieth century. The drag balls of Harlem and other major American cities were spectacles of feminine performance by males (often African Americans), a tradition that continues in drag pageants across the world. Ballroom runway categories such as femme queen and femme queen sex siren stay true to the feminine-as-glamour performance fostered in the drag balls of the 1920s and 1930s.
Public performances of femininity, or performances that incorporate feminine elements, are regular features of LGBTQ activism. The Stonewall Uprising was the site for effeminate behavior by the “Stonewall Girls,” an impromptu troupe of Gay males who sang and danced in front of riot police. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence likewise incorporate feminine dress and camp with Roman Catholic religious symbolism in street performances for various LGBTQ causes, as does the International Court System with regal attire and titles of nobility such as “empress,” “queen,” and “duchess.” The Pussy Palace Panties Picket Protest in Toronto (over a police raid of a women’s bathhouse event) incorporated campy chants and a variety of gendered underwear, including lace panties and flannel boxer shorts, as Lesbians and their allies protested in front of the police station that authorized the raid.
Femininity, Eroticism, and Leather
Historical associations of men possessing women have created a context of dominance as a forced or coercive enterprise, but the submission/dominance need not map in this way at all. Within the LGBTQ community, dynamics are much more fluid, especially in the Leather community. The sex-play of bondage, dominance, submissive/sado-masochism (BDSM) fundamentally relies upon the sexual dyad of active and passive, but it implies no coercion or force – individuals freely choose to be tops or bottoms, givers or receivers. The Lesbian Leather community is especially subversive when considering assumptions about dominance and submission based on heteronormal ideas about sexuality. Femmes (people taking on effeminate roles) are not necessarily submissive, and butches (those taking on masculine roles) are not necessarily dominant. Furthermore, some people disrupt these categories completely by identifying as switches (neither exclusively one thing or another).
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