Last Saturday night I went to a burlesque show with my parents. (Do you think this is the only blog post that’s ever started that way?) It actually wasn’t purely a burlesque show — by volume it was mostly a ladies-in-lingerie-playing-accordions show — but there was one really terrific burlesque dancer, Alotta Boutté. She had indeed a lotta boutté, and lo did she shake it all over the stage, which was really fun and engaging and had the crowd howling along. At which point my mom leaned over and said “the audience is all gay men. Why do they like this?”
To which of course the first proper response is “why do YOU like it?” since presumably my mom was not enjoying the performance on account of wanting to make tender love to Alotta. But I think in a general sense the answer is that people like burlesque performances even if they’re not sexually interested in the performer (Alotta is also fat, which is not everyone’s cup of donut juice) for the same reason they like drag shows: because the performance of femininity is interesting and exciting in a way that the obligation of femininity is really not. Femininity, when it’s not presented as a compulsory accessory to female genitalia, is pretty fun! Bring on the boas and heels and costume jewelry, if perhaps not the pasties! Who doesn’t like glitter and makeup and flirting and shit?
Well, lots of people, of both sexes, obviously. But whether femininity is treated as a necessary chore or a shameful habit is generally based entirely on the content of your pants, not on whether you actually feel like engaging. And heaven forfend you think of it like something in between, to be dipped into or rejected depending on your mood — you know, given that so much of it has to do with what you wear and how you act, not whether your junk is an innie or an outie. The joyful transgression of burlesque and drag, which is joyful regardless of the audience’s sexual orientation or interest, is that it divorces femininity from femaleness. It’s transgressive because it’s disconnected from sexual orientation or interest, and also heteronormativity, fuckability, and often (or at least, quite plausibly) from vaginas — i.e. all the things that are usually considered to be associated with or mark you out for femininity-on-demand.
This also goes a long way towards explaining the rather curious reaction I had to the blog The Art of Manliness. I found the blog when Soc. Images featured its delightful collection of vintage men’s magazine covers (“chewed to bits by giant turtles!”) and I was instantly smitten. Manly purchase: Fedora! Manly workout: Odd object training! Manly skill: Facial hair maintenance! It was like they were curating and selling (and selling, and selling) a vintage-inspired version of masculinity that never really existed — at once elegant and artless, enlightened and retro-cool. I’ve always been a little more gallant in personality and butch in presentation than a lot of women, just on account of being a sort of big clumsy person who was deeply into tales of chivalry as a child (though I also do love makeup and flirting), so I found this highly stylized form of masculinity terribly appealing. Basically what I’m saying is that I’m very into manliness when it is all about buying really beefy purses.
And then they start in with the essentializing of women (and men), the solecisms about feminism (it’s great but it makes men so confused!) and the relentless heteronormativity. And just like that, it’s a blog for men — straight cis men, specifically — instead of a blog about skills anyone might need and presentation anyone could put on. (I mean, okay, I’ll never grow my own manly mustache, but I appreciate a meditation on its aesthetics as part of the general aesthetic the site promotes.) Suddenly, the performance of masculinity becomes a command performance — for men, for men only, for straight cis men most of all, and certainly to be accompanied by an equivalent compulsory feminine performance by the straight cis ladies on their arms.
This isn’t really about Art of Manliness specifically — they have their thing that they do, and clearly it’s an effective little industry for them. As far as gender-essentialist shit on the internet, it is on average benign, at best useful or fun, and at worst so far from the worst stuff out there that I have no interest in calling them out. But it is (again) about manliness qua “a particular code of presentation and behavior” vs. manliness qua “the way that men are supposed to be.” If masculinity is something that can be performed at will, just a name for one of the many types of style and deportment you can have in your beefy purse of tricks, sign me up. If it’s a privilege or a responsibility conferred by (and only by) the having of a penis, then it’s dragging everyone down, penis-havers and penis-lackers alike. Ditto femininity, with the bits reversed.
These are by no means new ideas, I should note (though please feel free to give me $500 for them, as there’s a beefy purse I have my eye on). I imagine people in the trans community have been writing much better about just these things for years. My blog reading and link knowledge have both atrophied in the last little while, unfortunately. But I think this idea needs to be downright mainstream. I’m not even talking about genderfucking here — I’m talking about the fact that it needs to become tautological that even straight, cis, activism-indifferent, not-at-all-subversive men and women get to pick and choose how they present themselves, for their lifetime or just for the day, and not have it dictated for them by what they’re packing in their chromosomes or their trousers. That gender is something you can fuck but also something you can just diddle, no commitment, no strings attached.