A Reflection on “Making Strange”: On Exploration and Otherness

Donovan Cleckley and Annika Bastian

“Cosmic fear or angst or despair suggests, even if only temporarily, that the world lacks the secure structure and meaning that we ordinarily assume it to have.”

-Stephen T. Asma, excerpt from On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears

“Queer theorists are thus devoted to rereading past events, texts, and social theories—especially those related to sexuality—with an eye toward disruption, on the slant if you will.”

– Kathy Rudy, excerpt from “Queer Theory and Feminism”

How does something such as one’s gender performance and gender expression become strange? How does sex in itself become a process of othering?

Over the course of the semester, I enjoyed our explorations into readings on what it means to make strange and how to define the process of “making strange.” When I consider our past readings and how they tie in with topics in gender and sexuality which Annika and I have explored, I think about how we’ve waded into topics so often left unexplored or rather disregarded. As Annika and I have discussed othering and what it means to other femininity, to make it strange with discourse, we’ve also considered the way outsiders are often treated with violence and brutality. In “Torturers, Terrorists, and Zombies: The Products of Monstrous Societies,” Stephen Asma writes: “Chimps, like humans, can perceive their enemies as monsters and then respond with torture and other forms of excessive brutality. Perceived monsters bring out monstrous reactions” (p. 239). Within our studies and research, we view how gay feminine males often become the outsiders whom violence is committed against. Particularly, in Boys Love (BL) manga, we view how the status of being feminine is not only othered, but also constructed as essentially a “deviant,” feminized, and often demonized type of maleness.

Topics such as what I’ve mentioned above have been part of our discussions over this past spring semester.

Making a website/blog-type project about “strange” gender and sexuality has been a rewarding experience this semester and also a process of “making familiar” from what was once alien to us. In combining the fields of English studies, rhetoric, sociology, communication studies, gender studies, and philosophy, we created an interdisciplinary multi-feature that allowed us to wrangle making strange in terms of gender and sexuality.

On further improvements, I would have really loved to spend more time analyzing more media and further integrating sources. There really was so much Annika and I wanted to do beyond what we’ve accomplished, even if we are proud of our accomplished project.

Moving forward, I know I will take much of what we’ve done with me. I’ve loved sharing my analyses with Annika and discussing queer theory with her. More than the content itself, I’m so happy for the work I’ve done with Annika this semester and how dedicated and wonderful she’s been to work with as a colleague and as a peer mentee in our Honors Program at the University of Montevallo.

Through our explorations, we’ve, in ways, made the strange more familiar, unmasking the obscure figures at the masquerade, and, at least, engaging in a discourse of otherness. Employing queer theory, we dispel the layer of normalcy that people ascribe to reality and thus view a queer—and strange—reality in a way that makes it familiar.

The Mask by Donovan Cleckley

Making Reflections on Making Strange

I’ll admit, I was hesitant at first to take an online course. I’d heard horror stories from classmates in high school who’d attempted them. They told me about teachers who never checked their email, obscure assignments with unintelligible directions, and technical problems that made turning in assignments on time a disaster.

I’m very glad I didn’t listen to them, because this class hasn’t been that at all.

Instead, this class has been an incredibly eye-opening experience.

More than anything, this class gave me the tools I need to identify and talk about othering and making the mundane strange. With our lively discussions each week applying the concept to different social issues, I got to see the words and concepts we read about used in actual conversations.

In my English class, when we began discussing postcolonialism and othering, I was completely equipped for the discussion, and came into the theory with such a practical, applicable knowledge.

The ideas I learned in this class I can apply to so many of the classes I’ll be taking from here on out. Even in my final English paper, I talked a lot about stripping away social contexts to make something strange and turn it into something foreign and other- so I can definitely say this class was worth it, and I was right to take it despite my initial trepidation.

I particularly enjoyed our discussions on othering and making strange in art and religion. The art exhibit where the artist created a model and took pictures of it only to destroy the original so only the photos remained is something that will stick with me for a long time.

BUT, I didn’t just enjoy the curriculum!

I think the class we had, students and teachers, was stellar. All the students were actually, earnestly involving themselves and were engaged in the conversation. The same can be said for the teachers, in addition to their being prompt on delivering readings, responding to emails, and being understanding about set backs and problems we might encounter through out our projects. I really appreciated them being so inviting of people asking the class for advice or solutions for problems, and encouraging honesty about set backs in our projects.

I would say, I’ve run blogs on Tumblr and Bloggr before, and there were features on both of those sites that I think made them easier to work in some ways compared to WordPress. (LOOKIN AT YOU PICTURE INSERT FEATURE. YOU ARE NOT EASY TO USE.) But besides that, I had absolutely no complaints with the technology side of this course. None. It honestly went so much more smoothly than I ever imagined.

I don’t have any qualms with the curriculum side of the course, either. It was interesting, it broadened my horizons, and I came out the other side of it feeling like I had the tools to join academic discussions about a whole new subject I knew nothing about when the course started.

BL Manga, Right Here, Right Now: What Does It Say About Modern Culture?

So, over the length of this course, I’ve talked about several things. First, I talked about how feminism seeks to empower women and advocate for equality, while queer theory looks to break down the very ideas of gender and sex, and their roles in society. Next I talked about fujoshi, the women who are happily accepting society’s othering in favor of their own, redefined version of womanhood, which is much more sexually enterprising than femininity has traditionally been. Then, I talked about how BL as a genre is not just othered but does itself other. BL readers other gay men, picking and choosing which parts of the gay experience they wish to consume. In so doing, they push away the real gay experience, because it doesn’t fit their idyllic escapist literature. BL readers also other traditional femininity, except instead of magnifying the positives, they exacerbate the negatives, leaving femininity a weak, whiny label no one wants to take on.

Evidence of a fujoshi’s lack of shame at her interest in homoeroticism. Teague, Justin. Fujoshi Pins, Pack of Four.

So while that’s a brief overview of the BL phenomenon as a whole, that’s where it was as of the last batch of research papers to be published.

BL lives, like the rest of us, in the age of the internet, and is continuously changing as it subsumes media, voraciously consuming itself as an ever-morphing amalgamation of Western and Eastern culture. While scholars can look at the landscape of BL as it was five or ten years ago, when they started their research, where is BL right now, as of May 2017?

That’s a hard question to answer. In some ways, it’s the same as ever: othering gay men and feminine women, critiquing gender roles, and questioning traditional relationship dynamics, all with gratuitous helpings of self-indulgent pornography and sexual taboos. On the other hand, writers and readers of BL have become more and more outspoken against prejudice, with the publishing companies responding accordingly. Most scholarly papers have looked at BL manga from 2010 or earlier, but even in that relatively short time frame, fangirls have become more outspoken in their critiquing of rape culture and the suave alpha male character. They’re asking for discussions about consent and relationship ethics, and wondering why no one has put out a restraining order against the crazy guy who shoots first and asks questions later.

I’d to give some concrete examples of this.

Viewfinder, a long-running juggernaut in the BL manga world, represents everything about rape tropes and sexual objectification that critics of BL have a problem with. However, the ten year old series is no longer the the number one title in BL. Ten Count and Don’t Be Cruel to Me, two other series which are long-running and have swept up various awards, have acquired popularity on par with Viewfinder, and the newer generation they represent is encapsulated in the themes of these two newer works.

The works both represent more realistic relationships, with Don’t Be Cruel to Me seriously addressing rape and homophobia in Japan, and Ten Count addressing the relatively taboo topic of mental health while favoring the development of the characters over their sexual chemistry—though both of these are still highly adult and escapist in nature. Don’t Be Cruel to Me in particular reflects the changing times, as it started out  nonconsensual—as you could probably infer by the risque title— and the characters’ relationship has since changed in response to the popular demands of the BL fandom. Now the couple is earnestly working towards clear communication and trust, and every chapter features a different challenge in their lives they have to overcome, sometimes as an individual, sometimes together.

However, it would be a mistake to look at these two works and decide that BL manga and its readers are suddenly wholesome, problem-free topics. We can’t simply label the BL fandom as wholly reformed, or even on the road to reformation. To say they’ve been shamed into morality and othered into following the rules would not be true at all. Rather, the nature of BL is simply morphing. With every step towards social justice, readers of BL take a step away from shame, meaning that while BL manga itself might not seem so taboo, its

BLu-Ray Cover for Kiss Him, Not Me!, a 2016 anime about a fujoshi. Junko. Watashi ga Motete Dōsunda, Blu-Ray, Volume 1.  2016. Brain’s Base, Crunchyroll.

fans seem more and more bizarre. The fujoshi presence in Japan is strong enough that there have been whole shows aired around the archetype, portraying fans of BL manga as deranged characters with an insatiable lust for homoeroticism, throwing away their social standing and reputation for any glimpse of guy-on-guy action.

So is there othering going on in BL manga? Yes. The fans are othered more than ever, and the genre is too varied to really draw any decisive conclusions about its overall morality. But is the othering going on within a total lack of self awareness when it comes to consuming the other for voyeuristic, sexual gain? That’s where the waters get murky. I would like to suggest that going forward, scholars going forward look more at society’s relationship with fujoshis than the morality of escapist literature. That’s not to say neglect looking at BL itself, but I do feel that fujoshis have been seen as dirty old men peeking at what they shouldn’t by more than enough authors looking to shame and other them. It’s time to look at what’s so shameful about men having sex and women enjoying watching it in the first place.

How Others Other Each Other

Feminism in modern media is all about taking ownership of your vagina and being your own boss: getting the corner office, the boyfriend of your dreams, and an orgasm whenever you need it, wherever you want it. In the early 2000s Sex and The City continually shocked viewers with its frank discussions of safe sex and promiscuity, and the trend continued in the 2010s, with Orange is the New Black showcasing both strong female characters and a portrayal of femininity as downright feral and violent as any man’s world. Mass media opened society’s eyes to the fact that women have a sex drive too, and traditional gender norms watched, horrified and fascinated, as women began taking the initiative in their sex lives, no longer remaining a passive specter of femininity, a contrast to the universally accepted masculine.

Meanwhile, LGBT representation in modern media has also improved over the past decade. While the community is underrepresented, it’s getting more visibility all the time. Before LGBT visibility grew to where it could not be ignored, media catered to the cis-het worldview and shunned gay men and queer identities, othering them by only using them for humor. Now, LGBT content can be serious, though many still complain LGBT characters are included ONLY to be queer, not complex well-rounded individuals whose LGBT status is only a part of their identity.

Now, that’s mainstream Western media. Do we see these ideals also reflected in the niche market of BL? The argument has been made both ways. Some argue BL others the gay men it consumes, while scholars on the opposing side hail the genre as female empowerment.

Equally empowering? Is one empowering and one fetishizing?
KaKanai, Kei. An Even More Beautiful Lie. Juné Manga.
King, Michael. Sex and The City Cover Art. 2004.
King, Michael. Sex and The City Cover Art. 2004.


Equally empowering? Is one empowering and one fetishizing?

The argument for BL being a source of fetishization of the gay male experience is not without merit. BL definitely others being gay, removing from it all of the negative aspects of its reality, and exaggerating the positives to cater to its own readership. The BL readership reconstructs homosexuality for their own purposes, picking and choosing which parts of it they will accept, and discarding those they don’t.

However, defenders of the genre argue that the othering isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and that gay men aren’t the only ones subjected to said othering. Female characters in BL are few and far between, and when they do show up, all positive aspects of the performance of femininity have often been stripped away, leaving a whiny, nagging shrew whose only role is to interrupt the love story playing out between the two men. The women in BL have been othered so that there is as little chance as possible of empathizing with them. These women often embody all traditional feminine ideals, the home, marriage and feminine clothing and mannerisms, so when BL texts make them into unrealistic characters, caricatured beyond any sense of kinship, authors are in a sense othering femininity itself.

“This leaves BL as too queer, as it cannot be declared unproblematically be declared heterosexist or homophobic due to the focus on love through hommoeroticism, yet not queer enough, as it cannot be unproblematically declared pro-gay or anti-homophobic due to its treatment of homosexuality as an aesthetic without social consequences.”

– Neal K. Akatsuka, excerpt from “Uttering the Absurd, Revaluing the Abject: Femininity and the Disavowal of Homosexuality in Transnational Boys’ Love Manga”

This fact performs a dual defense of the genre. On one hand, othering femininity means this genre is groundbreaking, defending women from the patriarchy. It not only others homosexual males, but also feminine females, meaning that the genre isn’t about fetishizing, it’s about the pursuance of an erotic, romantic ideal. On the other hand, no matter how much the case may be made for BL as an instrument of social change, its defenders cannot escape the fact that straight women use gay males for their own empowerment.

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.

Feminizer: “Sissy Boys” and “Fags” in the Masculine Gaze

A Loud Gaze (Allowed Gays) by Donovan Cleckley

“Doing Gender”: Like a Boy? Like a Girl? Like Both?
When people engage in gendered discourse(s), they shape the acceptable and unacceptable performances and presentations of gender, gendering bodies as either “normal” or “deviant.” The subjectivity of both normality and deviance make the assigning of gendered meaning troublesome, creating gender trouble. Madonna’s (2000) song “What It Feels Like for a Girl” begins with a spoken word sample from the 1993 film The Cement Garden that, in one excerpt from Madonna’s chosen sample, says, “[…] But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading because you think that being a girl is degrading […].” The image of a feminine male presents a contradiction to people who mistakenly—and oftentimes purposefully—associate gender with biology.  These same individuals rhetorically shape their arguments in the facts of the nonexistent “biological gender.” Yet, these people [perhaps] do not understand that gender is not connected to the nature of being human. Gender, as Kathy Rudy (2000) writes, is rather a “matter of performance,” “doing the things a woman or man does and thereby coding ourselves as such—not ontological certainty” (p. 201). With this definition of gender in mind, I consider the discourses surrounding gendered bodies, particularly feminine males (heterosexual or homosexual) subjected to monikers such as “sissy boy” and “fag.” Analyzing and critiquing the way male bodies are gendered proves particularly relevant today as the meaning of “man” is conflated with an absolutist conception of “masculinity.” This issue must be explored because its wrongness lies in the way femininity is used as a marker of shame, a stigma, when applied to males, thus coercing feminine males to masquerade their identities beneath hypermasculine, hypersexual artificial personas.

Gender as “Project” and “Construct”

One can neither be born a man nor be born a woman because gender allows for variance in performance and presentation, creating channels through which one configures and reconfigures expressed identity. The body, however, is not only sexed, but also gendered even before birth as parents find out the sex and then use sex as a means of applying a matching gender to the child that adheres to the biological constraints of a given sex. Yet, the usage of language allows the surrounding culture to apply the status of “boy” or “girl” (essentially “man” or “woman”) upon the originally (and realistically) genderless body of the soon to be developed fetus—since the individual, in part, must self-determine gender (even if restrictions are put upon some individuals across our culture). Judith Butler (1986), in her analysis of Simone de Beauvoir’s notable assertion “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman,” discusses Beauvoir’s statement as identifying gender as “project” and “construct,” being shaped not only by one’s self-determined gender performance, but also by one’s perceived gender presentation (p. 35, p. 37). With this identification of gender as both “project” and “construct,” I assert the existence of a masculine gaze (with the observer being the “feminizer”), set apart from the male gaze. Describing the male gaze, feminist film critic Laura Mulvey (1999), addressing the framing of “woman” within a Freudian framework, writes, “Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning” (p. 834). The feminine gay male body, defined by discourse, becomes not the “maker of meaning,” but rather “the bearer of meaning.” A man is as feminine as he desires to be, yet society and culture act as the feminizer, the invisible force that confers deviant emasculation upon presumably masculine male bodies.

The Gender “Dichotomy”: Masculine as Universal, Feminine as Other

Masculinity becomes taken as the standard with femininity being the Other, a contrast to the universal. In C.J. Pascoe’s (2007) work Dude, You’re a Fag: Sexuality and Masculinity in High School, she examines what she terms as the “fag discourse,” a discourse built on using the word fag as a signifier for an Other, a male who exists as something lesser than the males doing “proper” masculinity (p. 85). “Gay,” while being used to signify “stupid,” not be restricted to either males or females (and “gay” is even applicable to inanimate objects), differs significant from “fag” in that, the latter is used only to identify “unmasculine” (heterosexual or homosexual) males (Pascoe, 2007, p. 56). The usage of “fag” on othered feminine males functions not only to signify a male’s lack of masculinity, but also to further solidify one’s own masculinity by identifying perceivably “lesser,” “inferior” males. With femininity being viewed as Other due to discourses that stigmatize and shame feminine expressions of gender in males, it becomes important to consider, first, gender performance and, second, recognition and rejection of a deviant gender expression. Echoing and adding to Beauvoir’s assertion mentioned earlier in this paper, Butler (1990) discusses gender as an action, writing:

Consider the further consequence that if gender is something that one becomes—but can never be—then gender is itself a kind of becoming or activity, and that gender ought not to be conceived as a noun or a substantial thing or a static cultural marker, but rather as an incessant and repeated action of some sort. (p.152)

Gender essentially functions more as a verb than as a noun, granted that gender is always within a state of performance and presentation. One is always putting on the show of gender to not only express it, but also be perceived in the way one desires. With the desirable masculine performance being recognized as positive and as the standard, the undesirable feminine performance is recognized as negative and as the deviation. The project of gender, in part, involves the recognition and rejection of gender identities that differ or in any way disturb one’s conception of a finite masculinity and a finite femininity. In this way, Pascoe’s work addresses the way males end up in a masculine conflict, a struggle to maintain what is perceived as the “proper” standard for masculine performance—with no deviation allowed. Males engage in a kind of combat against feminine males, being that the feminine males represent deviant—or perhaps even failed—forms of performed masculinity. Pascoe further discusses the war waged upon unmasculine males, writing:

The war against fags as the specter of unmasculine manhood appears in gay male personal ads in which men look for “straight-appearing, straight-acting men.” This concern with both straight and gay men’s masculinity not only reflects teenage boys’ obsession with hypermasculinity but also points to the conflict at the heart of the contemporary “crisis of masculinity” being played out in popular, scientific, and educational arenas. (p. 59)

As Pascoe indicates, gay men are even affected by the fag discourse, by what culture determines as undesirable femininity. Gay men look for “straight-appearing, straight-acting men,” and I further add that gay men look for straight-passing men too, men who do not raise any eyebrows with their gayness. Part of this issue is that these discourses on masculine performance—being often quite restrictive—are not challenged by displays of queer identity or male femininity. Rather the discourses tend to overcome and overpower males who then retreat to the fortress of straight-passing. Males—and the conception of idealized masculinity—present the universal which females and othered femininity transgress. In Beauvoir’s (1953) Second Sex, she comments on the dichotomization of man and woman, writing, “The truth is that man today represents the positive and the neutral—that is to say, the male and the human being—whereas woman is only the negative, the female” (p. 408). Woman, the feminine, exists as the contrasting Other placed up against the standard—and familiar—masculine. Femininity is thus made strange even before it is exhibited by males. Because of the way our culture (American culture particularly) views women, it uses the disdain for womanhood on gay men, telling them that it is wrong for a boy to look like a girl or for a man to seem like a woman. In the subtext, however, I assert that this same discourse knowingly repudiates femininity and womanhood—as long as they cannot be controlled and maintained within the male gaze and within the masculine gaze.

Feminization of the Male Body and the Project of Being and Becoming Male

Just as women in the male gaze “hold the look, play to and signify male desire,” feminine males in the masculine gaze represent the undesirable femininity, a performance that downplays the presence of the phallus as a symbol of definite masculinity (Mulvey, 1999, p. 837). On a peculiarly feminine gay man, the penis in fact loses its status as a signifier—and symbol—for what society views as the “properly” performed masculine. To provide a definition for 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). The feminine male body often symbolizes deviance, with its inscribed meaning being related to whether the performance and acting are straight enough. The penis, or rather the phallus, is oftentimes viewed as being indicative of masculinity, as John M. Sloop (2000) writes, there is a “cultural impulse to work the body into a traditionally sexed position and to align genitalia (sex) with ‘true gender’” (p. 170). Being that the penis symbolizes masculinity in our culture, the feminine male’s performance of femininity, given cultural discourse, does not match up. Feminization of the male body and unchecked expressions of male femininity are then viewed as being destructive and even unnatural to project of performing masculinity. Wood (2013) further writes, “The sex-object stereotype is also used to define and harass gay men and lesbians. Like heterosexual women, gays and lesbians are often perceived primary in terms of their sexuality and their conformity—or lack of conformity—to conventional gender roles” (p. 235). The feminine male becomes the target of monikers like “sissy boy” and “fag,” methods of combating the feminine by feminizing the male body and othering it through language. Rather than being viewed simply as just a body, the feminine gay male body, often becomes viewed as a caricature, a twisted cartoon of failed masculinity to be ridiculed within discourses (namely the fag discourse). The mere existence of “top” and “bottom” designations impressed upon gay male couples particularly emphasizes power distribution through the gendering of gay male bodies as indicatively masculine and indicatively feminine. This same labeling, although differing from the fag discourse, still adheres to conferring deviant femininity upon the feminine male body to subordinate it and craft it into a dominated Other.

Personae by Donovan Cleckley

Culturally Intelligible or Culturally Unintelligible

Within a Butlerian model, interaction shapes gender norms because, as Pascoe (2007) writes, an “abject identity” exists that is continually iterated and repudiated,—identified and rejected—to affirm and concretize identities recognized as “culturally intelligible” (p. 14). The way one does gender, then, defines the way one is identified and accepted or denied by the surrounding culture. One is considered either culturally intelligible or culturally unintelligible, recognizable or unrecognizable in the public viewing of one’s individual gender performance. Regardless of whether one’s gender performance takes on the label of the Other or whether the performance is accepted as the standard, the onlooker—the audience member—and the feminine gay male—the performer—play roles within the discourse of accepted or denied expressions of masculinity and femininity. Thus, “the fag” and “the sissy boy” become signposts of deviance, linguistic modes of establishing abjection in terms of gendered bodies. For the feminine gay male (or even for the feminine male in general), this state of abjection becomes apparent through the forced necessity to shroud femininity and put on the mask of his most masculine self. Putting on the hypermasculine, hypersexual mask, the man looks straight, so he remains safe.

Culture and the Rhetorical Construction of Male and Female Bodies

Coding allows for our performances and presentations to function in particular ways, functioning as the subtext of gender in the external display of the internal self. One’s persona can allow for the external presentation of gender, allowing for the self-composition of the “project” with culture playing the role in “construction” set apart from the “project.” Culture creates an environment where men are caged within certain masculine confines and women are caged within certain feminine confines, predisposing one’s life to an oftentimes forcefully assigned and regulated gender. I argue that, through visibility and the understanding of gendered discourse (such as the fag discourse conceptualized by Pascoe), we can reshape rhetorical means of constructing the male body. By actively engaging in dialogue and promoting queer visibility (to me, this kind of visibility means, in some ways, displaying queered gender performances and also removing the door from the closet that traps gay men and lesbians), we can subvert the gendered discourse that solidifies (and simplifies) the male body into a restrictive site of masculinity. When people wonder what is going on with the male rejects, the sissy boys, the fags, perhaps part of the observers’ problem, is losing—or never previously gaining—the ability to imagine beyond the confines of gendered bodies, gendered rhetoric, and gendered lives.

Gay Dudes, Desire, and the Secondhand Fuck Fantasy: Playing with the Sexualized Other (While He Plays Back)

Gay Dude in a Mask by Donovan Cleckley

“Like all human behavior, homosexuality leads to make-believe, disequilibrium, frustration, lies, or, on the contrary, it becomes the source of rewarding experiences, in accordance with its manner of expression in actual living—whether in bad faith, laziness, and falsity, or in lucidity, generosity, and freedom.”
– Simone de Beauvoir, excerpt from The Second Sex (1949)

Ask a Gay Dude…

White individuals could very well ask: What is it like to be black? Similarly, “straight” men could very well ask: What is it like to be gay? Even though both questions are awkward, they demonstrate people’s sense of sameness and difference, people’s sense of the Other. “Ask a Gay Dude,” a sketch from Chappelle’s Show, critiques perceptions of the Other, particularly commenting on the ways sexuality is made into Other for desire and consumption via heteronormative fantasizing. In the sketch, straight men are interviewed who “ask a gay dude” questions about what it is like to be gay, including questions about sex and desire. Like his treatment of “race,” Chappelle treats “gender” in a way that exposes its absurdity, displaying the ridiculousness of masculinity and femininity and the way people apply maleness and femaleness, especially using the gay male body as a site of female heteronormative sex role designation. Sex, particularly “fucking,” becomes the way in which the interviewed men designate otherness in gay men, a vehicle through which they depict a form of “othered sexuality.” Regarding “fucking,” in “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” bell hooks writes, “To these young males and their buddies, fucking was a way to confront the Other, as well as a way to make themselves over, to leave behind white ‘innocence’ and enter the world of ‘experience’” (23). While hooks addresses white desire towards black individuals, I apply this same framework to “heterosexual” desire towards “homosexual” individuals, a means of breaking “innocence” to gain “experience.” As evident in the interviews, the males use a kind of “secondhand fucking” to avoid actually engaging in intercourse with gay men, but, instead, the males use fantasy as a vehicle to engage in the consumption of the gay male as Other. Chappelle’s sketch utilizes “eating the Other” as the two black heterosexual male interviewees and the white male heterosexual interviewee (Dee Snider from Twisted Sister) engage in the desire to know what gay men are like, to explore the Other using sex or rather their secondhand fuck fantasies. 

Here’s a link to the sketch titled “Ask a Gay Dude” from Chappelle’s Show:

“Ask a Gay Dude,” Chappelle’s Show

Fantasizing about the Other

From the start, Chappelle begins with addressing the secondhand fuck fantasy in the way the black straight man ponders what a gay man feels like during oral sex, questioning the gay man’s potential dick-sucking expertise. The first interviewee says, “Alright. I would like to know: When a gay guy is performing oral sex, is it better than the female?” with Mario Cantone answering, “Better? How the fuck do I know? Next question. [Pause] It’s better!” (Chappelle). Similar to the fascination with black sexuality in terms of stereotyped penis size, this black male engages in the stereotyping of gay men as fantasized dick-sucking experts. Chappelle interestingly uses satire to transcend heterosexism, but he also uses it with an introspective purpose; the way the black male stereotypes gay males mirrors ways white individuals stereotype black males (although in different ways such as imposed hypermasculinity and over-sexualization). Black men and gay men can be stereotyped, but they can also stereotype each other and use desire to practice in the secondhand fucking of each other. Involving the gay man confirming the fantasy by saying “It’s better!” when asked about gay male oral sex proficiency in regards to female oral sex proficiency, Chappelle further satirizes perceptions of the Other, of the way “othered sexualities” such as homosexuality and black sexuality appear as different, as the two seem bundled together in their exoticism.

Who’s the Bitch Now?

Even while the sketch stays within the realm of secondhand fucking, fantasizing about the Other, the audience sees somewhat of a change in topic: the reflection of being “made the bitch” back at a hypermasculine, stereotypical black male representation. The second interviewee says, “Ay, yo! I just got one question for you fruity pants out there. It’s Bazaar Royale from Bloodline Records. I want to know: What is the rainbow about!? What is the rainbow about!? I’m not feeling the rainbow! I’m not feeling the rainbow! Get back at me about dat!” with Mario Cantone answering, “Fruity pants? Let me tell you something. I’ll put a band-aid over your left cheek and make you my Nelly. [Cantone makes suggestive humping gestures] [Pause] Fruity pants!” (Chappelle). Notably, Cantone references to Nelly with a band-aid on his left cheek as seen in his “Hot in Herre” (2002) music video in particular. This reference is significant because it, in some ways, transcends heterosexism by Cantone’s obvious mockery of Bazaar Royale, saying that Royale could essentially be “made his bitch.” Moreover, I think the Nelly reference could be considered in itself as a way that Cantone, even as gay man, a minority group member, partakes in the desired consumption of a black male body, so this portion of the sketch melds both homosexuality and black sexuality in an interesting way. As mentioned previously, both homosexuality and black sexuality meet together as “othered sexualities,” as acts beyond the limits of imaginable norms within white heteronormativity. Chappelle flips the perceived notion of the hypermasculine black guy and introduces a gay guy who strips that sense of hypermasculinity by telling Royale that he could be a fuckable Nelly (with humping gestures indicated). Cantone, in this satirical dialogue, “changed the joke and slipped the yoke” as he shredded the typified image of the subordinate gay bottom, made Royale his bitch in his own fantasy, and transcended the stereotype of the feminized sex object which often yokes gay men, particularly feminine gay men.

“Lustworthy”: From Innocence to Experience

In the last portion of the sketch, Chappelle further explores the stereotyping of gay men through straight male fantasies of the Other. The third interviewee Dee Snider says, “Since you’re guys. Like guys always [are] like after every chick, so since you’re still a guy, but you like guys, would you be after every guy? So, do you want me? Now? [Bends over, indicating his ass] Do you want this? You can’t have this, but if you want—I want to know if you want this” with Mario Cantone replying, “Oh! You tease! You big tease! Hold on one second [Imitates heaving and throwing up]” (Chappelle). The most striking image in this satirical exchange is Snider asking if the gay man wants him while he states that the gay man cannot have him—but he still wants to know if the gay man wants him. This part of the sketch clearly underscores the idea of using “fucking” and fantasy to explore the Other, to gain “experience” from “innocence.” Chappelle furthermore flips gendered behaviors as Snider talks about men typically chasing all women, but then questions if gay men chase all men. This exchange seems to critique hypersexuality and over-sexualization generally associated with masculinity and manhood. With Cantone’s response of sarcastically calling Snider a “tease” and then imitating heaving and throwing up, the sketch ridicules the absurdity of heterosexist assumptions about gay men being promiscuous sex beasts. When Snider asserts that gay men lust after all men, followed by Cantone responding by heaving at the idea of being with Snider, Chappelle’s satire dismantles the absurdity of homophobia, of men’s fear that all gay men find every man innately “lustworthy.”

Being Black, Being Gay, Being “Other”

Through the lens of the secondhand fuck fantasy, gay men are subject to absurd stereotyping just as black men are often painted with over-sexualized assumptions of the Other. With the invention of black people, white people came into existence as the recognized dominant group while black people became regarded as a backdrop to accentuate the power of white cultural dominance. Similarly, without “homosexuality,” “heterosexuality” does not exist. By this statement, I mean that differentiated sexuality (sexuality made Other) gives rise to a sexuality deemed more acceptable, more dominant. The mere existence of difference permits the existence of sameness, so the categories “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” function as indicators of sexual differences, of defining and separating an Other (“the homosexual”) from the dominant heterosexual culture. Within this framework, Chappelle plays with the way black sexuality and homosexuality are in themselves considered “othered sexualities,” that these ways of intimacy and sexual expression are essentially bundled together and separated from white sexuality and heterosexuality (which, in a similar way, white sexuality and heterosexuality are essentially bundled together as well being that power allows for them to exist in dominance over both black sexuality and homosexuality). Furthermore, as viewed in the sketch, Chappelle shows the problematic nature of hypersexuality, of the way over-sexualized attributes are assigned without much reason other than the person “being black” or “being gay.” In this way, Chappelle’s sketch overall functions as both transcendent and introspective in ridiculing racism (indirectly) and heterosexism (directly) while also pushing for self-reflection over stereotypes applied to people because of absurdly fantasized perceptions of what it is to be “black” or “gay.”

Fujoshi: Happy to Be Othered

Manga, a form of comic originating from Japan, has taken its place alongside its Western visual narrative counterparts as a stable sub-culture within modern media. One subgenre, that of boys’ love manga- or BL manga for short- is a one of a kind experience, existing as a tenuous dichotomy of Othering and being Othered.

Boys’ love manga, as the name might suggest, is a genre of manga which features homosexual relationships between two males, produced by straight women for straight women. The varying levels of sexually explicit content within the genre make it its own special kind of hodgepodge culture, blending romance novels and their escapist literature tendencies, pornography and its overt objectification for aesthetic and erotic pleasure for the viewer, and fandom culture and its tight-knit community that collectively receives emotional gratification and catharsis from the romantic stories they obsess over.

The community of readers for BL manga are especially self aware, calling themselves “fujoshi,” a self-deprecating term that makes a homonym of the phrase “proper girl,” turning it into “rotten girl.” The fans of the genre openly acknowledge that finding emotional fulfillment in the sex lives of fictional gay men is not part of mainstream culture, and wear the Othering phrase like a badge of pride. Their self-chosen identifier simultaneously recognizes the ostracization society imposes on them while poking fun at themselves for their immoral or indecent hobby.

BL manga and its even more overtly pornographic cousin yaoi (a play on the words yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi, “no climax, no point, no meaning”) exist as one of the most fringe of fringe subcultures. Modern society sees nerds, geeks, and fandom culture as an already unsavory collection of people too weird and Other to fit in anywhere else, but even among these outcasts, fujoshi are seen as too Other for their should-be peers.

Junko. Watashi ga Motete Dōsunda. Brain’s Base, Crunchyroll.


Junko. Watashi ga Motete Dōsunda. Brain’s Base, Crunchyroll.

Causes of Othering the Fujoshi

One reason fujoshi might experience such Othering because they are extremely forthcoming with their sexual desires. Hearing girls gush about how hot they find gay sex to be might be offputting for a society that still expects women to by and largely be sexless creatures, with no erotic desires of their own but rather behaving in a reactionary way to the men in their life.

It might also be because the straight, white men who make up the majority of American and European fandom culture feel uncomfortable at being objectified. To see girls reblogging uncensored, highly NSFW works of a homoerotic nature and commenting on the aesthetic pleasure they receive from it puts men in the uncomfortable place of objectification women have been for years. Being faced with an idealized version of their bodies being put on display in an erotic manner for the public at large gives men a taste of their own medicine they don’t want to swallow.

Stray Mei. Fujoshi.

However, while already subjected to Othering because of their warping of society’s expected sexual and gender norms, fujoshi make no effort to integrate with society. Where society is shocked and scandalized by porn and what they see as porn, these women treat it as any other romance novel or TV show, lacking the shame and secrecy given to other types of sexually explicit materials. They gleefully joke about friends they’ve “infected” or “turned to the dark side,” acknowledging that this is seen as a disease or a societal ill. By simultaneously accepting and taking ownership of these negative stereotypes, they let themselves be pushed away from society, and even cheerfully help build some of the walls between themselves and others. Fujoshi choose to allow the ostracization to happen, helping it along rather than fighting it, in what may be a one-of-a-kind situation where the Other is all right, and maybe even amused or happy, to be Othered.


AkiDearest [YouTube User]. “THE FUJOSHI,” 8:19, posted September 2, 2016.

Blue, Red, and Purple: Garbage’s “Androgyny” and “Cherry Lips”

Images from Garbage’s “Androgyny” (2001) music video

Queerness is not necessarily an immediate signifier of same-sex attraction. To be queer does not mean that you must be a man who likes men or a woman who likes women, yet, in the most political sense, being queer involves being LGBTQ+. Examining the idea of what it means to queer gender norms, I examine two particular music videos for two songs from the band Garbage’s Beautiful Garbage (2001) album. These two music videos are for “Androgyny” (2001) and “Cherry Lips” (2001), both released as singles from the band’s album.

Before examining queerness in the context of these two musical artifacts, we could perhaps ask three questions:

1.) What does it mean to perform gender in a particular way?

2.) How does the spectated performance affect the perception of gender?

3.) Why do spectated performances of gender engender or transgress certain deeply held perceptions about masculinity and femininity?

When we consider the ways in which people queer gender performances, we must think of masculinity and femininity not as mutually exclusive categories, but rather as inclusive categories, areas that overlap and oftentimes mix together. To help visualize this idea, one could consider the way in which the color purple is made from both blue and red. Without either blue or red, the color purple is not the color purple, yet blue and red can sometimes be unequally distributed throughout what we understand as a strictly purple mixture. In fact, what we interpret as purple might be a large portion red and a small portion blue or vice versa. Given this example involving how both blue and red constitute the color purple, we then can apply this to gender because both masculinity and femininity combine to constitute the particular gender identities of people. Gender, however, is far more difficult to bring into conversation than the color purple; it is problematic because of its perceived restrictiveness. People moreover push themselves—and other people—into silence over gender because they would rather not face a reality in which their initial simplistic perceptions are contested by the complex reality of human difference. On gender, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2014) writes:

Gender as it functions today is a grave injustice […] Gender is not an easy conversation to have. It makes people uncomfortable, sometimes even irritable. Both men and women are resistant to talk about gender, or are quick to dismiss the problems of gender. Because thinking of changing the status quo is always uncomfortable. (p. 21; p. 40)

The trouble with gender (the “gender trouble” in reference to Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble) is that people think masculinity and femininity are exclusive categories that cannot be transgressed. People create boundaries around what they perceive as masculine and feminine, defining anyone who transgresses these boundaries as a stranger or as an “Other.” In Garbage’s music video for the song “Androgyny,” the band contests what much of American society might perceive as “the masculine” and “the feminine” by queering expressions of gender, sexuality, and desire. Here is the music video for “Androgyny” on YouTube:

Regarding “changing the status quo,” Garbage’s “Androgyny” presents images that contradict what we perceive in our civilization as a familiarity of gender. Shirley Manson (the lead singer) performs gender in a queer—and androgynous—way which exists between the masculine and the feminine. Manson’s performance in “Androgyny” represents the color purple, consisting of both blue and red. In the music video, gender becomes a visible mixture of masculine and feminine.

Image from Garbage’s “Androgyny” (2001) music video

When Manson presents this androgynous gender performance, she takes gender and puts it under a process of making strange, a means through which the familiar is reinterpreted into a newly perceived unfamiliar. Z.D. Gurevitch (1988) writes that the “process of making strange,” occurring only when one looks at a “normal”—and “abnormal”—aspect of life previously taken for granted, may not only bring out “new understandings and recognition,” but also potentially “threat and anxiety,” a sense that the gatekeepers of normalcy are being attacked by the perceived stranger (p. 1186). In the case of Garbage’s “Androgyny,” an obvious discomfort arises as Manson pushes back on images of heteronormativity, on the ways in which gender is constructed rigidly in civilization.

Images from Garbage’s “Androgyny” (2001) music video

Exploring the fluidity of gender, Garbage performs their other single “Cherry Lips” in a video that creates an ambiguity around the gender of the character portrayed by Manson. Here is the music video for “Cherry Lips” on YouTube:

Further queering gender, Garbage’s “Cherry Lips” involves a “delicate boy” who “look[s] just like a girl.” As she performs in the video, Manson’s character is essentially invisible, yet we see him/her on the TV screens with short platinum blonde hair. By the end of the video, the invisible character Manson plays, even while dressed in leather gloves and high-heeled boots, walks into the bathroom and pees while standing. The character in “Cherry Lips” represents not necessarily the androgyny of gender, but rather the ambiguity of gender. The boundaries of what an audience perceives as finitely male and finitely female are transgressed as the character expresses his/her gender fluidly rather than rigidly.

Images from Garbage’s “Cherry Lips” (2001) music video

Garbage’s queering of sexuality and gender in both “Androgyny” and “Cherry Lips” reveal how what civilization perceives as “normal” is not to be taken for granted. What society often understands as “normal” is not the standard by which to measure all other people since there can always be people who exist outside of a normal. Discussing how queerness creates an uncomfortable environment, Kathy Rudy (2000) writes:

Queer politics are explicitly and intentionally designed to make ‘straight people’ feel extremely uncomfortable in order to make them think about how contingent the foundations of the repressive ‘normal’ world really are. (p. 204)

Rudy’s discussion of the “contingent” foundations of normalcy goes back to my third question from earlier in this piece: Why do spectated performances of gender engender or transgress certain deeply held perceptions about masculinity and femininity? 

Image from Garbage’s “Cherry Lips” (2001) music video

We know that people particularly in our society and culture (Western culture) tend to see two colors when thinking of gender: blue and red (NOTE: Gender exists in rigid forms across other cultures besides American culture). People tend to visualize masculinity and femininity as a strict dichotomy, yet Garbage’s “Androgyny” and “Cherry Lips” destabilize the strictness of gendered confinement. Through these presentations and performances of gender and sexuality, the contingency of both gender and sexuality become more evident. Masculinity and femininity, after all, are inventions because humans must first be socialized into manhood and socialized into womanhood. A baby is not born with knowledge of masculine acts just as a baby is not born without knowledge of feminine acts. Society, however, takes masculinity and femininity for granted and any deviations to this imposed normalcy generate “threat and anxiety,” a sense of newly conceived strangeness that contradicts preconceived sameness. Babies are not born with the knowledge to differentiate blue, red, and purple until they are taught the difference between the colors, understanding that blue, red, and purple are supposedly definite in their differentness and sameness, yet the babies forget that purple is not as definite upon closer inspection.

Images from Garbage’s “Androgyny” (2001) music video

But Just What is Queer Theory, and What is Feminism? And How Do They Work Together?

“While earlier forms of feminism centered their politics on the transhistorical, transcultural subject of ‘woman,’ queer theory prods us to question our attachment to the stable categories of men and women.”

– Kathy Rudy, excerpt from “Queer Theory and Feminism” (2000)

Flack by Donovan Cleckley

Feminist theory isn’t just about finding badass women, it’s about looking for women in literature, and in all aspects of life, as characters, creators, and critics, seeing how they’re portrayed or how they portray things, and then considering what that says about women and society as a whole. And, like the feminist lens, queer theory is not just about making everyone gay. It’s about subverting and reinterpreting all of the things which we would consider “normal.”

Over time, these two lenses have become so intertwined that most scholars don’t even say queer theory or feminism, but rather sexuality and gender studies, lumping them together under one umbrella. And while some might consider this a disservice, abridging the two in a kitschy two-for-one deal, feminism and queer theory actually benefit greatly from each other’s influence.

Where feminism would look at a text and ask what it says about the role of women, queer theory would tell the feminist to stop and consider the very idea of a “role” for a “woman,” and encourage the feminist to slant or skew their viewpoint to consider not just their function within the societal construction, but the very society itself. Feminism misses a key component without queer theory, as it comes to rely on the very system it is attempting to subvert, becoming so caught up in fighting the patriarchy that they never even think to question the patriarchy itself.

Likewise, queer theory can become so insistent on advocating for the tearing down of the system that it can forget about the roles of house and home that women have, historically, fulfilled. Feminism holds up traditionally “feminine” aspects of existence and glorifies them, revels in and celebrates them, whereas queer theory is so academically minded, it can toss those thing by the wayside.

The two theories work best in tandem, feminism fighting to defend the roles of motherhood and the traditionally sweet, soft, and feminine while simultaneously defending women who look to defy those roles, and queer theory questioning while all of these things are considered “feminine” in the first place, instead of just aspects of personhood.

While feminism advocates for those who might be perceived as “strange” or “Other” by society, attempting to widen the molds available for women, queer theory looks to make society itself into the “Other,” and the idea of molds for womanhood “strange” in and of itself. Both look to improve society and make it more equal, but do so from opposite ends of the spectrum, in a partnership that might, on the surface, even itself be considered “strange.”