Human Impersonators

Posted: February 20, 2011 in Uncategorized

S Moore wants to know ‘how did we get here’?I will return to her question later. But first to explain what she means by ‘here’.

According to Moore’s latest Graun column, ‘here’ is ‘this new aesthetic of femininity where everything is meant to look as fake as possible.  Hair, nails, tan, teeth, tits. Sure, I know the rules: that we are born naked, and “the rest is just drag”. Sure, I get the hyper-femininity of the big queens and the game old birds such as Dolly Parton and Cher. What is strange is that a parody of femininity is now what many ordinary women are aspiring to.’

As the title of her article says, the big question in terms of gender identity that Moore wants answering is ‘why does nobody want to feel like a natural woman anymore?’

My response would have to be in the form of another question: did anyone ever want to feel like a natural woman? From the geisha girls of Japan to the Dandizettes of 19th century England, from  flapper girls to cowgirls, from the  Pussycat Dolls to Babes In Toyland, I don’t believe that the ‘natural’ woman has ever been a popular concept in culture.

But if Moore is determined to paint contemporary society as one where the ‘falseness’ of femininity has reached new heights and industrial consumerist proportions, I still have some problems, some major problems with her argument.

‘The political language of empowerment about reproductive rights and equality in the workplace has itself been given a makeover’ says Moore. ‘Gok Wan makes women feel better not by giving them more actual control, but by giving them control pants’.

So it seems as if she is saying that the fetish women have for ‘working’ on their bodies, cosmetically, sartorially and even surgically, is a way that consumer culture is convincing them they are ‘empowered’, whilst they continue to suffer gender inequalities at the hands of…. who? Men? Capitalism? Suzanne doesn’t say.

But her article gives us a clue as to what she means.

‘I am not saying that men do not objectify the female body’ she writes, ‘but now the gaze we direct at ourselves, at each other and in the mirror is a harsh one, too. It is sexualised in that we see what the body could become, as well as what it is. It is the gaze of search and destroy, and it certainly affects the inner lives of those who are not perfect. Which is a fair few of us’.

This is really a souped-up silicone-enhanced version of Naomi Wolf’s Beauty Myth of 1991:

“The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us…During the past decade, women breached the power structure; meanwhile, eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest-growing specialty…pornography became the main media category, ahead of legitimate films and records combined, and thirty-three thousand American women told researchers that they would rather lose ten to fifteen pounds than achieve any other goal…More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers.”

I know Moore doesn’t rate Wolf, particularly since Naomi came out in support of Assange, and made statements calling for accusers in rape cases to lose their anonymity. But their versions of how women’s oppression functions at the level of the ‘beauty industry’ seem pretty similar to me. Wolf may think women have ‘come further’ economically than Moore does, and that their physical, bodily oppression is a result of their actual ‘empowerment’ in the public sphere. Whereas Moore seems to think this quest of women to be faker than fake is a way of keeping women down across the board, economically and in terms of human rights as well. She doesn’t say it specifically but I think she suggests that ‘fakery’ affects women from the lower classes even more than middle/upper class women. Or that it damages them more.

I think they are both wrong. My real objection to Suzanne Moore’s argument is hinted at by this sentence:

‘Increasingly, surgery cuts across race, gender and age alike.’ That’s it. That is all Moore says to give any suggestion that ‘the beauty industry’ and notions of ‘fake femininity’ effect anyone else other than ‘natural’ born females. What about trans women? What about intersex or gender queer people? What about er… yes… men?

To speak of oppressive models of female beauty, exclusively in terms of how those models oppress women, in 2011, is as outdated as Gok Wan’s camp queen act. They both belong in 1970s musical theatre.

Enter Mark Simpson, clutching his manboobs.

Mark Simpson has been telling us since the early 1990s, which was, yes, twenty years ago! That when it comes to idealised versions of beauty, to body modifications, to ‘fakery’ and ‘hyper-femininity’, men and women, and anyone who identifies as neither, have been subject to the industrial ‘transexy’ metrosexual  make-over:

‘Looking around at our sexually transparent, stimulated-simulated, implanted-imploding cam-fun-anyone? world, it’s difficult not to conclude that most of us are going tranny but without the, er, balls to actually change sex or even properly cross-dress. We’re all becoming male-to-male and female-to-female transsexuals: transexy.’

So, placing this situation as one in which women are the ‘objects’ , the victims, and men are the perpetrators seems incredibly off beam to me.

Suzanne concedes ‘it is the entire culture, not a male conspiracy, that is making impossible demands. Yet none of this is simple’.

Well it is nice to know it is not a ‘male conspiracy’, and as Suzanne says, ‘none of this is simple’. But when it comes to essentialist arguments of feminine v masculine, fake v natural, male v female, the complexity of gendered identities gets rather lost in feminism’s binary onslaught.

‘Artificially enhanced femininity is on display everywhere’ writes Moore. ‘Older women pay to look younger. Young women start altering themselves very early on. One result is a kind of glazed uniformity. You see it in porn. You see it in all those late-30s, Botoxed faces that look neither old nor young, just done.’

Comparing that paragraph to this one by Simpson about men taking steroids, I don’t see much difference:

‘The vast majority of males taking “the juice” are not doing so to be stronger or faster or scarier, all traditionally masculine ambitions, but simply to look more attractive in the gym, on the dance floor, at the beach, or in their online profiles — to look, in other words, like male strippers: Stud-U-Like. Or what is much the same thing, Vin Diesel.But steroids, like transexiness itself, can have a paradoxical effect. In addition to testicle shrinkage and erectile problems, in large doses they can turn into estrogen in the body, which causes “bitch tits” and female fat distribution: Stud-U-Like into Chick-U-Love. Perhaps this is why Sylvester Stallone looks more and more like his mother, Jackie. Given his recent steroid scandals, the tagline for his new Rambo movie, “Heroes never die…they just reload,” probably refers to syringes rather than ammunition’

I have picked a small section of one article by Mark Simpson, out of a large and impressive -ahem- body of work, that shows, over and over again, how when it comes to things like ‘objectification’ ‘sexualisation’ ‘drag’  and the ‘beauty industry’, men are just as much affected if not more so, than women these days. And that the concepts of ‘men’ and ‘women’ as we have come to know them are becoming as useless to our understanding of gender as a load of tissues stuffed in your bra. The female ‘beauty myth’ is just that. It is a myth.

Moore ends her article with one pertinent point about Lady Gaga’s particular brand of ‘fake femininity’:

‘Lady Gaga may sing Born This Way, while clearly demonstrating with her hard body – complete with internal shoulder pads/prosthesis/spare ectoplasm – that she wasn’t, that this is all an act.’

This is true. But I think Suzanne Moore’s eulogy to the ‘natural woman’ is an act as well. Her final paragraph reads:

‘A look that has comes to us via porn, ladyboys, transsexuals, queer culture and high fashion is a look I now see on the bus. This excess of femininity may compensate for endless anxiety about appearances. There is nothing natural going on here, and some women are not hiding that fact. To become a woman is to become a female impersonator. How, in such a world, can we say to any young girl: “You are fine just as you are”?’

To become a woman is to become a female impersonator. I know. And back in the 1990s, Mark Simpson said the same about ‘male impersonators’ and masculinities. Maybe that is even where Moore got the idea from. But to try and take the complex issues around masculinity, femininity, transgender identities, drag, ‘queer’ and gender performance, and turn it into a Guardian-friendly, feminist dogma-strewn dirge about ‘women’ and ‘girls’? In this day and age I think that is a sad (transphobic at the very least and possibly misandrist too) kind of show.

Moore asked ‘how did we get here?’

Well. When it comes to feminist theories of gender identity, I think we got here by a series of manoeuvres. Feminists in the late 1980s-1990s had a choice-they could either get involved in the exciting changes to gender theory that were occurring, mainly in ‘queer theory’ but also that were acted out in the form of movements such as ‘riot grrl’ and ‘Queer Nation’, the art of figures such as Leigh Bowery (top image) and the literature of writers such as Jeanette Winterson and Jackie Kay. And in every day arguments and activities in people’s households and workplaces. Campaigns against Clause 28, AIDS awareness movements, the explosion of the fanzine culture, actions by trans people which led to increased visibility and improvements to their  legal status, the inclusion of ‘male rape’ on the statute books, the lowering of the homosexual age of consent, all related to a breaking down of the traditional gendered order. Or, they could stick their heads in the sand (whilst simultaneously consolidating their middle class power base in the media, politics and legal institutions) and wait until it was ok to come out again, when the crisis had passed, when a more conservative, essentialist feminism would tickle people’s (Tory?) tastebuds once more.

In fact, if you look at who is allied with feminism these days, you will find a surprising number of Big C and little c conservatives, from the ex-Tory lawyer and ‘skeptic’ David Allen Green, to the anti-pornography campaigner and pal of radical feminist Julie Bindel, Gail Dines to the Conservative feminist MP who argued with Naomi Wolf on newsnight- Louise Bagshaw

On twitter earlier today, Moore told me that in politics you have to take ‘sides’. But judging by feminism’s bedfellows at the moment, I think it is legitimate to wonder which ‘side’ she (not to mention feminism, and The Guardian) is actually on.

‘Certainly, the way to counter what is going on here has to be strategic.’ wrote Moore. I think her article shows that feminism does have strategies, strategies which, despite all its incoherence and ridiculous posturing, have kept it in the ‘game’ of media, politics and gender discourse, long after it should have shuffled off the stage, its false eyelashes wilting.

That’s fine Ladies, because  I have some strategies of my own.

  1. Great article….

    For the record, I like natural breasts….

    and, for the record, unlike they guy pictured above. I have chest hair….no manscaping for me, maybe a little mansplaining though…….

  2. Fissure says:

    A common problem with much feminist and gender theory is that it acts as though the social attitudes of the 1930s have been the norm throughout history. Thus when people complain of womens histrical oppression with regards to standards of fashion, they overlook stringent and balancing fashion demands made of men. The dandies you mentioned above are one good example, another is the Vikings, who were in fact known for their preening. Additionally, the taboo against men wearing make-up is comapritivly modern.

    In fashion there’s a balance. You’re expected to make yourself look good, and your expected to not look like you’ve made any effort to look good. These almost contradiciting demands are oft bemoaned by feminists. The thing is though, this balance changes with the relative importance of achieving one sometimes being given far more weight than the other.

    Things are starting to change quite quickly, but until recently, the weight of this balance, for males, lay very very heavily on the “Don’t look like you’ve made an effort” side. Sometimes to the extent of actually working to make oneself look bad. In comparrison, I think the female side has been relativly balanced (yes I know, high heels suck, but nobody expects you to wear an organ displacing corset or paint your face bone white). The trend you detail above suggests to me that for women the “Look good” may be starting to overbalance the “Don’t look like your trying”.

  3. Thomas says:

    Great post. The Guardian article is very typical. That beauty standards affect other people than woman is hardly ever acknowledged by feminists.

    I was born in the 80s and always felt pressure to obtain a certain beauty ideal. When I was a teenager all those boygroups were hugely popular. Of course me and my friends hated them, but secretly we wanted to look like them with their athletic, hairless, tanned bodies and shiny teeth. Now ten years later we freak out because our hair is starting to fall out.

    Just recently I saw a test of a intimate care product on a men’s fashion blog. Apparently, it smells like lavender and makes the skin of your bollocks smoother. I guess the playing field is leveled, when it comes to ridiculous beauty standards.

    • I think you are right Thomas. And for young men of your generation, it is just the norm. I recommend the work of Mark Simpson as quoted in this post it is all about how men are in a way, the new ‘women’!

  4. elissa says:

    The notion of “free will” entwines this conversation into a knot of confusion. It is utter common sense that we all are influenced but it is not a common sense that what would be best for all is an ability to freely do anything we desire. Without the twinge of guilt, or the prospect of opprobrium, for example, the whole purpose of deviation would be null and void. Part of the role of culture is to exaggerate, make larger, persuade and coerce, then pull back and withdraw, settle, and then start all over again. That Snooky is a heightened caricature of Gina, and that “The Situation” is no less or more – is neither new nor alarming. The speed of travel could be more dangerous. The jury is still out on technology and change. Then I remember the African lip plates and think that technology may actually minimize our wonderfully deviant stupidity.

  5. I am not a small ‘c’ conservative on any matter I can think of….

  6. I am certainly not a small ‘c’ conserative on gender.

    I just have never published my views.

    That is quite a presumption for you to make on the information available to you…

  7. It is one I shall stick to until I see any evidence to the contrary. You can take the man out of the Tory party but… etc….

    I have seen some evidence you have written about/discussed transgender issues, and you call women ‘females’ all the time.
    ‘female lawyers’ ‘female complainants’ and I have seen you state your views on Assange and Robertson. And I have met you and heard you speak!

  8. Papi50 says:

    Well, QRG, this is brilliant analysis of the nature problem with the body. I hear echoes of the Repressive Hypothesis, which you’re deploying in a really cool way. I reject the “you’re fine the way you are” argument as gender or fitness specific. Social groups produce pressures: these are ours. We can never really do anything politically with them while we measure “pressure” against “no pressure.”

    For the record — and as I know you know — I like doing body building competitions, I body shave, I like anabolics, I like body creams. I have never been able to respond sexually to another man, although my students often speculate that I’m, you know, gay. Once a class got into a big debate over whether I’m a “Metro,” but decided I don’t make enough money.

    I think the “Nature” argument is turtles on down, and that it gets summoned when we need a quick kill on a moral-ethical question. Body building, most often coded as a super-masculinist macho sport, is actually the queerest sport there is after American football.

    I love this blog and love the crevices you try to think your way through. I’ve been on the road some and so as you can see am a little behind on reading you.

    Big ups,


    • thanks P. You can tell your students that metrosexuality is not dependent on salary scale. Some of the most devout metros are in very low earning brackets-their body is their key currency!

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