The Reddest Rouge: Feminine Transgression

Blood by Donovan Cleckley

When a boy wears a dress, we often see people responding to him negatively. Seeing feminine characteristics on a biological male alarms people—horrifies them—because they perhaps visualize masculinity and femininity as separate statuses that never transgress their respective boundaries. Civilization weaponizes gender against men who are “too feminine,” men who look a little bit too ladylike. These men, as masculine males view them as Other, become the sissies and the fags, unacceptable deviations of “proper masculinity.” In breaking from proper masculinity, a male could do something as simple as appearing to have lips that are a bit too red or by displaying feminine features (e.g. a shaven face).

Being Biologically Male, But Embodying and Performing Femininity

The ideals of proper masculinity in themselves create confines and restrictions that define men according to a hypermasculinized measuring stick. Feminine men such as myself are oftentimes beaten over the head with this measuring stick of manliness. In her short printed essay We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2014) writes, “Gender as it functions today is a grave injustice. I am angry. We should all be angry. Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change” (p. 21). While I discuss my embodiment and performance of femininity, I furthermore find it necessary to discuss the struggles of trans women. Even if trans women share different experiences from my experiences as a queer feminine male, we understand what it means to be feminine in a civilization that hates femininity when it cannot put a proper box around it. I do not exclude feminine heterosexual males from this discussion of performance violation, but I must note that the public recognition of their heterosexual status can oftentimes alleviate the liability of a feminine gender performance. In transgressing gender norms, we, queer feminine men and trans women, are the ones with the cherry lips, hated for embodying and performing femininity because civilization views us as traitors to the ideals of masculinity. We’re quite disloyal to civilization in the violation of gender norms which dictate that someone born biologically male must embody definite masculinity and perform definite masculinity in only the most “proper” ways.

Hegemonic Masculinity: When Appearing Feminine Becomes “Gender Treachery”

Providing a history for the case of gender norm transgression by queer feminine men and trans women, the symbolic nature of appearance plays a role in the communication of masculine or feminine gender identity, yet I do not consider these mutually exclusive considering people can perform masculinity and femininity simultaneously in an act of androgynous transgression. In my analysis of gender norm violators (including me), it becomes necessary to address the symbolic pieces of one’s appearance that communicate with the audience and signify masculinity or femininity. Defining symbols, Julia Wood (2013) writes, “Symbols are abstract, arbitrary, and often ambiguous ways of representing phenomena. […] The fact that symbols are abstract, ambiguous, and arbitrary makes it impossible to think of meaning as inherent in symbols themselves” (p. 35). To modify Wood’s provided definition, I add that symbols, such as the aspects of one’s feminine gender performance (e.g. cherry lips and a shaven face) can be interpreted by the onlooker as signifiers of masculinity in a male or his lack thereof. Based on her study titled “A Very Straight Gay: Masculinity, Homosexual Experience, and the Dynamics of Gender” involving the critical analysis of qualitative responses of gay men, R.W. Connell (1992) writes, “The relation between hegemonic masculinity and homosexual masculinity includes criminalization of male-to-male sex, homophobic speech and culture, and a bitter history of intimidation and violence. […] Heterosexual masculinity, then, is encountered in everyday relations with straight men that often have an undercurrent of threat” (p. 745). In the case of biological males who are gay, we see the exertion of social pressure for them to adhere to more masculine means of presenting themselves in everyday life. Femininity becomes threatening because it undoes the embodiment of masculine gender. In the case of biological males wearing makeup—or even just seemingly wearing rouge—these individuals are often perceived as if they are committing an offense against the “gender binary,” engaging in an act of visible deviance. With this gender treachery, hegemonic masculinity comes into play as the enforcer of the “proper” performance of manhood acts vis-à-vis one’s appearance. Connell’s and James W. Messerschmidt’s (2005) piece titled “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept” states the following: “The concept of hegemonic masculinity was originally formulated in tandem with a concept of hegemonic femininity—soon renamed ’emphasized femininity’ to acknowledge the asymmetrical position of masculinities and femininities in a patriarchal gender order. […] Gender is always relational, and patterns of masculinity are socially defined in contradistinction from some model (whether real or imaginary) of femininity” (p. 848). Once again, we see that femininity presents the supposedly contradictory presence to masculinity, appearing as “the Other.” Feminine performance by a biological male in the act of appearing feminine and wearing any degree of makeup (or even appearing in makeup) results in the expected censure due to the breaching of previous drawn boundaries separating men from women and masculinity from femininity. Even while imaginary, the rules of the “gender binary” apply to people, policing whether a biological male can possess womanly characteristics or embody and present feminine gender through particular expressive bodily acts. Society desires for the biological male to put on a proper manhood act and embody and internalize the norms of masculinity. From another study titled “Men, Masculinity, and Manhood Acts,” Douglas Schrock and Michael Schwalbe (2009) write, “Boys’ homophobic taunting of other boys who are deemed feminine is also a means of signifying heterosexuality” (p. 282). As Schrock and Schwalbe note, femininity in males is discouraged using taunting and shaming from other males, thus we see why young males who display feminine characteristics are so often treated as if they commit literal violations. In the world of ideal manhood acts signified by physical masculinity and nonphysical masculinity, appearance affects one’s treatment due to the conception of gender by culture and the perception of gender by people within that culture.

Cherry Lips and Beyond: Examples in Gender Transgression

People sometimes say, “Your lips look so red today! Do you wear lipstick?,” and I always find it strange that other males performing masculinity and embodying manhood acts are not asked the same question, a query reserved for a person like me who queers gender performance. Before studying and critically examining gender, I wondered why people posed this question to me as a male with visibly feminine features. As a physically feminine male, people tend to target my appearance (similarly to how women are oftentimes ridiculed or praised for their makeup or lack thereof). To note one image of a heterosexual male queering gender, Marilyn Manson’s image during the band’s Mechanical Animals era in 1998 best demonstrates American society’s revulsion of gender ambiguity when someone they initially perceived as male performed femininity through appearance and presentation. The lead singer named Marilyn Manson used his gender ambiguity to challenge embedded norms and call into question their existence. Trans women furthermore demonstrate this idea of a masculine-obsessed society, the way biological males are viewed as violators of gender for something as small as putting on lipstick to match their gender identity. In my case, the case of Marilyn Manson, and the case of trans women, we see that dialogue exists regarding the bending of gender, but there is not enough of a substantial and sustained dialogue. While I am happy that people queer gender and show its fluidity, I do, however, desire for people to understand the symbolic nature of the aspects of physical appearance.

Mechanical Animals Album Cover (1998) by Marilyn Manson

Gender, “Feminine Liability,” and Dialogue

Gender, as civilization conceives it and as people perceive it, stifles the queering of the gender binary. Using cherry lips as a symbol, people say that a man’s lips cannot be “too red” because a man cannot wear rouge. In many ways, I think this very idea represents the confinement of gender, the restrictive mindset that shames feminine men for being too much like women. Inherent in this hatred of womanhood, I think that people’s dislike of trans women arises from society’s idea that a biological male must not embody and perform womanhood or else that individual makes embodiment and performance a liability by being too feminine, by wearing the rouge and embracing the cherry lips. Looking towards solutions, we must eventually arrive at an understanding of masculinity and femininity as being performative, concepts driven by both manhood acts and womanhood acts. As I mention my case of appearing feminine, simply possessing cherry lips and being visually androgynous makes me a feminine backdrop against which males perform masculinity and amplify their own masculine performances while degrading a male who looks female to them. For a man to appear publicly feminine, he forfeits the comforts of an expressed act of masculinity. Even though critics of feminism defend Western culture because they claim that it is more progressive in terms of gender equality, these critics cannot deny that American culture views womanhood as a liability. When people call feminine males like me “bitches,” “fags,” sissies,” or “pussies,” they demonstrate my point: society tells us to hate femininity, thus we make feminine individuals into “the Other,” treating the exhibition of “womanliness” as if it is a crime. Herein lies the intersection of sexism and heterosexism as these two meet together in the case of biological males who transgress gender norms. Society punishes the gender norm violators for their crimes against the almighty and rigid gender binary. While I am being somewhat tongue-in-cheek with my statement about the absurdity of the “gender binary,” the symbolism and significance of red lips on a male demonstrates the deeply—and dangerously—ingrained ideals of “proper” masculine and feminine gender performance in our culture. We, however, possess the agency to change our culture from its current disdain towards the embodiment and performance. On culture, Adichie (2014) writes, “Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture” (p. 46). Humanizing women should be our goal in opening a discourse on why men currently are stigmatized for expressions of femininity. The trouble with cherry lips does not simply arise from the slip of one’s manhood act or the compromising of one’s socially and culturally ascribed virtual social identity of “man.” Rather, the issue arises from the lack of a dialogue on what it means to queer gender and advance beyond the ritualistic worship of the “gender binary.” Once we move past the rituals of the “gender binary,” we will view men as humans and women as humans. Embodiment and performance would not be an issue if we engaged in a conversation across society and culture about queerness and about the changeability of gender and sexuality. Without discussion, without words, without engagement, we cannot, however, accomplish “bridging” the imaginary chasm between masculinity and femininity and the ways this divide is used as a weapon to hurt the not only the men like me with the cherry lips, but also the trans women who simply desire unquestioned existence.

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