Deconstructing feminitity

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Now what was the first thing you noticed? The clothes, the posture, the accessories? All of them? The combination?  The female models exude femininity and the male ones masculinity, but how?

A discussion on gender would not be complete without looking at how gender is constructed. Subconsciously (and consciously) everyone displays certain gender markers thus enabling others to draw conclusions about their gender. Judith Butler nailed it when she said gender is a performance.  These markers are a conglomeration of: clothes, expressions, mannerisms, tone of voice, facial structure, accessories (perfume, makeup, shoes, jewellery…) and so forth. Most of these signals proclaiming our gender are so deeply ingrained we are unaware we even express them. Why does a woman not think twice about crossing her legs? Why does the business man tuck in his shirt? Why does the girl gravitate towards softer colours? Tighter shirts? Our senses are assaulted with these different signals but rarely do we stop to think about origin of this information being passed on. Why are certain signals, certain gender markers associated with masculinity, femininity?

Obviously, clothing and fashion play a huge role in gender expression.  Therefore what better way to deconstruct this femininity, than through examining the picture: On the street…Ludlow, st. New York (

I find this photograph very interesting because the face is obscured behind a thick cloud of dark hair and therefore just looking at the face alone one would have a hard time determining if the model was of male or female sex.  But read the comments, not one of them questions the model’s sex; they all take it for granted that “she” is female. But why? Because the model displays femininity. But how? Here we must take several things into account, first the posture; the model is leaning against the bikes with her ankles crossed and a key chain dangling in her palm. She is leaning, putting her weight on the bikes, as if unable to stand alone. It is not a strong pose, her shoulders are slouched forward. This is a feminine pose, she appears submissive and yet she is showing a lot of leg. Once again, a stereotypical female use of the body. Smooth, toned, crossed legs…the eyes are drawn towards them and upward as the imagination takes over. Masculinity would more likely be displayed by a strong stance with broad, square shoulders associated with comfort and protection. While a man’s leg would be shown as hairier, stockier, more muscular pillar of support for the poor meek woman. Bleh. What is fascinating is that in this picture no hips nor breasts are shown but once again the sex and gender of the model is not questioned. For the answer to this, we must turn to clothes.

She is wearing a baggy, gender neutral shirt however the gold, short skirt and high heels scream female. Female clothes are directly linked to sexualisation of the body. Heels kill your feet, destroy your posture but are worn to make the legs look longer and firmer while short skirts make you unable to run and maintain decency.  The interaction between the body, fashion and femininity is very interesting and in no way a new invention. It has long since been known that the sexualisation of the woman body is a form of power over males. Anyway, the model’s last claim to femininity arises through her accessories.  A simple gold bracelet and a ring on the middle finger. Simple but jewellery none the less.

All of these markers signal to the observer that the model is of female gender and sex. Gender expression runs deep and the majority do not question what is masculine and what is feminine and nor where they obtain such notions.  But we must keep in mind that gender expression is not stagnant, it changes over time. Not too long ago, women wearing pants was seen as masculine and inappropriate but now pants and masculinity are not so closely related. Change is slow but there is hope that one day gender markers will not be linked to a certain sex; I think the first step is in recognizing these markers and the conclusions they force upon you.

~ by genderambiguous on April 18, 2010.

2 Responses to “Deconstructing feminitity”

  1. I love this post!

    “Stereotypical use of the female body” really stuck with me, because I think we often disregard the fact that we have a choice regarding how we use our bodies. We can use them (perform them) in feminine OR masculine ways but we don’t (or at least I don’t) often consciously choose to perform my body. My clothes, my activities, yes. But not so much my body.

    There have been a bunch of vintage photos posted on the Sartorialist recently, and one in particular is interesting for this project. It’s called “With the Boys” –

    Look at the woman on the left. Her clothes are masculine, but I’m mostly interested in how she is using her body. She upright, square, taking long, striding steps (especially in comparison with her partner, who is taking the small steps dictated by high heels). She’s carrying her book/purse/item tucked under her arm rather than dangling distractingly from her shoulder as feminine purses tend to do.

  2. Yes, yes, this picture is very interesting. Once again the comments amazed me. Most of the bloggers made some remark about her manly apparel while simultaneously making comments about her spunk, her character. Some bloggers called her beautiful and most liked her “manly” style. Such comments include: “master of style”, “I love how she looks”, “ahead of her time”, “jodhpur-wearing lady looks incredible”. All seem to agree the girl on the left draws your attention but can the same not be said about a man wearing a dress. Why is that man not looked upon as a “master of style” or ahead of his time? Doesn’t that man in a dress show amazing confidence? Now we look at a picture of a woman wearing “manly” pants and proceed not only call her beautiful but to admire her style, why? Is it because society has now marked women wearing pants as fashionable?

    One day will people look back at photographs of this time and make such comments regarding that man in a dress? I hope so.

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