Tomboy

Tomboy is a graphic novel authored by Liz Prince, and published in 2015. It humorously, and very simply, illustrates the many struggles gender-nonconforming females experience growing up. While specific to Prince’s own life, it is a fantastic representation of youth (and typical youth struggles – parents/family, developing friendships, romantic attraction, ideas surrounding sex) intertwined with the struggles of being a masculine presenting girl/young woman in a culture that is largely unaccepting of this type (“tomboys”).

The novel opens with a scene of four year old Liz Prince in emotional disarray from the thought of having to wear a dress that her grandmother bought for her and ends with a humorous layout of her preferred display of masculinity. As she explains the recurrent theme of her own masculinity throughout childhood and young teenage years, along with the resulting emotional turmoil she experienced because of bullying and the general lack of acceptance from her peers, she continually breaks down her own evolving gender display with humorous commentary.

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A particular struggle for Liz Prince was trying to date boys. A boy she admired and fell for was a boy every girl in her school dreamed of dating; he was a school heart-throb. She was not the typical feminine presenting girl – she presented as more masculine, wore men’s clothes – and he rejected her because of it. This seemed to contribute to her struggle of general acceptance, understanding, and good-feelings of herself.

In An Introduction to Female Masculinity, Judith Halberstam asserts that displays/modes of female masculinity are perceived to be the rejected scraps of heroic and legitimate masculinity, in order to make legitimate masculinity legitimate – the right way to be masculine. It instead, according to Halberstam, is a window through which we can see how masculinity is constructed. When Liz Prince began realizing that she embodied a gender display that is not in line with traditional display for females (being feminine), she captures the emotion perfectly in a single page:

The second image on the page shows the pervasive idea that female masculinity does not equal legitimate masculinity because legitimate masculinity can be found only in males and this is the only way to have a legitimate masculine identity. In the first image, female masculinity also means not being legitimately female (female = co-occuring femininity under this logic), and the last illustration shows utter confusion – a sort of, “what am I?” crisis. If not considered – looking through the lens of the binary – to be truly feminine or truly masculine, where does that leave the gender non-conforming female/woman? It leaves them with no legitimate identity. Judith Halberstam points out that tomboyism is harshly punished (including attempts to “reorient” the individual) and seen as a real problem only when it continues into adolescence and adulthood. As Liz Prince grows up, her continuing tomboyism is more harshly punished by peers, and I believe that the partial results of this punishment of the tomboy individual is the emotion that can be seen in the image above. To quote Judith Halberstam, “Female adolescence represents the crisis of coming of age as a girl in a male-dominated society.” Living within this male dominated society, it is possible to assert that whatever most legitimately masculine males perceive as attractive is the rule, and legitimately masculine males are not attracted to displays of masculinity – so not attracted to Liz Prince; I consider this to be one of the many forms of punishment. She felt this strongly and couldn’t seem to figure out why she was never fully accepted throughout her childhood and young teenage years.

I like Tomboy because it illustrates in pictures, as well as words, the struggles of gender non-conforming females, but with the comfort of humor. Thinking of my own childhood, teenage, and adult experience as a tomboy, I can relate strongly to the experiences of Liz Prince, which made this a very enjoyable read for me.

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-Towards the end of Tomboy, Liz Prince illustrates a time when she discovered the works of Ariel Schrag – another graphic novelist. I highly recommend reading Awkward and Definition, Potential, and Likewise if interested in a story about a masculine presenting woman’s struggle with discovering her sexuality throughout high school…and if you’re as enthralled with graphic novels as me.

Here is a pretty great illustration from Potential –

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Sharon Needles

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Sharon Needles is by far my favorite drag performer. She embodies a drag persona that consistently challenges it’s own culture – the high-femme of drag queens – with her love of shock value. Her persona is strongly androgyne, and at other times “dusty-femme,” (defined below) but is presented within an art that most often deliberately acts in strict opposition to traditional gender display. Traditional here meaning consistent with one’s biological sex and accordingly masculine or feminine. Drag performers typically embody the opposite side of the gender binary to an exaggerated degree, which often produces a parody and theatrical performance of culturally constructed traditional gender – this can be seen in Ru Paul, Adore Delano, Alaska Thunderfuck, Courtney Act, etc. Sharon Needles does not seem to follow this “rule” of drag queen culture.

I consider dusty-femme to be a persona that is not traditionally feminine, but still is feminine: it is hard to see (it is “dusty”); it is rough around the edges, blunt, and/or crude, yet ultimately femininely styled. The mode of dress, including makeup and hair, is not always finely groomed, or elegantly presented, but the bodily movements are. This aesthetic is exemplified in the video “Kai Kai” with Sharon’s frizzy yellow hair, dark lipstick, and marijuana-leaf dress paired with femininely stylized movements. It is exemplified also in the glam-goth aesthetic of “Dressed to Kill” and “Call me on the Ouija Board.”

 

Call me on the Ouija Board

In both of these videos, Sharon Needles embodies a glam-goth aesthetic, which I consider to fall under the category of dusty-femme. In my observations and understandings, goth-aesthetic embodying females are generally viewed as unfeminine in relation to traditional female identity as a “pretty woman” (the woman we see in mass media) and thus mostly undesirable to our heterosexist and misogynistic culture at large – it is not the “proper” way to be feminine and female. It’s heavy and dark, blunt and overt, as opposed to light and passive.  Sharon Needles is the goth woman with traditional power, creating glamorous femininity with elegant movement on the fashion runway in “Dressed to Kill.”

Note: Not that upholding traditional values of the necessity of femininity in females and/or women is a great thing, but drag is an intentional performance of gender, and Sharon Needles performs well.

However, in “Call me on the Ouija Board” for a portion of the video she creates a sort of meta-drag with goth aesthetic – a male, impersonating a female, dressed in partial men’s attire. She pulls it off well, maintaining an air of femininity with elegant movements, but in partial male dress – producing a very powerful androgynous glam-goth woman complete with dark eye makeup, short black hair, long black nails, red eyes, red tie, white button-up, black dress, an aesthetically pleasing black hat, and words of ouija boards.
Sharon Needles
The androgynous figure she embodies in “Call me on the Ouija Board” calls to mind Judith Halberstam’s An Introduction to Female Masculinity as well as Judith Butler’s explanations of performance and performativity.

 

Kai Kai – Sharon Needles and Alaska Thunderfuck

I’d like to consider the approach of this video to be a parody of Pure Camp. According to Susan Sontag in “Notes on Camp,” Pure Camp is essentially naive and serious, in that the seriousness fails to be serious. This means that Pure Camp cannot be obtained with the intention to produce Camp because then it is not naive. The very statement of “going camping” is an act of deliberate Camp; deliberate camp is produced with the intention to be Campy. Alaska and Sharon fantastically, with exaggerated inflection, refer to going camping declaring, “It will be Pure Camp!” I analyze this to be a statement with deliberate intention to be paradoxical. It is not Pure Camp, and is thus a parody of Pure Camp. It is Camp that knows itself to be Camp while claiming the opposite. Camp itself has an element of parody, and self-parody, seeming to make this production a parody of parody, and under this analysis, is unquestionably humorous.
It’s certain that “Kai Kai” is Camp – it is very stylized, very exaggerated, and essentially contentless – much like John Waters film “Pink Flamingos.” In “Pink Flamingos” it is impossible to draw symbolic meaning. Every image is exaggerated and stylized to a point of unreal-ness. It is a great example of Camp (maybe even parody Camp) and is a fantastic representation of, to quote Susan Sontag, “things-being-what-they-are not.”

 

“Notes on Camp” – Susan Sontag: http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Sontag-NotesOnCamp-1964.html

Tipping the Velvet: The Lesbian Underground

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Tipping the Velvet is a historical fiction novel written by Sarah Waters, and published in 1998. I chose to review the three-episode film adaptation released in 2002.

The story takes place in Victorian England during the 1890s and follows the life of Nan Astley as she starts to recognize her sexuality. She falls madly in love with a woman named Kitty Butler who poses as a man in theatre. They develop a close and fun love that goes sour. Nan is shattered, leaves their apartment and tries to make a life of her own. She encounters numerous situations that leave her worse off than the last (there is not much a woman in the 1890’s can do as an independent) until she has nothing left to sustain her – injured, homeless, and hungry. She finds a woman from two years prior that she was developing feelings for, asks to stay with her, and they fall in love.

I chose to add this to the archive because throughout Nan’s entire experience, not much judgment is placed on her. There are few short scenes which do serve to show the overall intolerance of female-female sexual relations of that era. She was completely rejected by her sister after revealing her love for Kitty Butler. A prominent man in Kitty’s life dismissed the idea that women could have real sex together, saying, “You need a man for that, I think you’ll find.” highlighting the idea that penile-vaginal intercourse is the only proper, and legitimate, act of sexual behavior. In another scene, a few drunken men in an alley tried to attack Nan and her girlfriend after Nan stood up to their crude remarks.

It’s important to highlight, however; that while the story in Tipping the Velvet is a created history, Nan found social environments that supported her own identity. She frequented spaces that were comprised of women dressed like men and accompanied by their “wives.” She was in a relationship (though abusive) with a woman that heavily centered her life around this social environment.
I draw a relation between the underground scene in Tipping the Velvet to that of the gay world mentioned in George Chauncey’s introduction to Gay New York. Though same sex sexual relationships were heavily frowned upon, individuals who identified with those interests were able to create a thriving counterculture that suited their needs of expression, search for partners, and validation. They weren’t forced into feeling that they must completely shut themselves away in isolation because of the harsh judgments and regulations of the dominant culture – one of the three “myths” Chauncey introduces in his text.

(skip to 7:30 to see an example of social gatherings of the quest community, and to avoid spoilers)

Nan extensively challenged societal norms. She regularly passed as a man in her day-to-day life, or went on as a woman whenever she felt. While this idea ties into the concepts of gender (as we interpret it today), many people of the time would have labeled such a person an invert.  There are several mentions of the unnaturalness of the lives of women who love women. I think that the reverse gender presentation of many of the characters in the show highlight the idea that crossing gender boundaries is wrong, and contribute to thinking homosexual activity to be unnatural. Choosing to adorn oneself in men’s attire transgressed cultural expectations of females, and this sort of behavior was typical among the female homosexual community in Tipping the Velvet. Sigmund Freud (while his work appears later than the time of this story) considered inversion to be a deviation, but not innate – so essentially unnatural, and this show presents that idea.
The TV adaptation of Tipping the Velvet is a drama, based off of historical fiction, and produces a story of some seemingly unrealistic encounters. Yet, it offers a representation of the resilience of the female homosexual community, much like what is offered in George Chauncey’s true historical analysis of the gay male world in New York. Tipping the Velvet serves to create a history where one is lacking, and offers representation of a historical community to those that need one – the lesbian world.