Presentation on theme: "Will the real lesbian please stand up"— Presentation transcript:
1 Will the real lesbian please stand up Will the real lesbian please stand up? Constructing and resisting visible non-heterosexual identities through dress and appearanceVictoria Clarke & Katherine SpenceReader in Sexuality Studies, Department of Psychology, University of the West of EnglandThis paper explores dress and appearance as key sites in the construction of sexual (and gender) subjectivities and the ways in which lesbian and bisexual women use dress and appearance to construct individual and group identities.Within feminist scholarship and politics, fashion is traditionally thought of as a site of oppression, but more recently, a number of feminist scholars have argued that fashion can be used to critique the dominant culture and explore alternative subjectivities (Riley & Cahill, 2005).Feminist fashion theorists such as Elizabeth Wilson (2003) and Joanna Entwistle (2000) have argued that fashion has played an important part in articulating sexual desires and identities, particularly those associated with marginal sexualities that would otherwise be invisible, and in producing sexuality as an important aspect of identity.A number of scholars working in different disciplines have argued that non-heterosexuals/queers have made use of the semiotic codes woven into clothing (and adornment) to articulate their identities and desires to the wider world (or just to those in the know), to resist heteronormative constructions of sexuality and gender (particularly through butch style), to pass as heterosexual, and to produce the (clothed) body as a site of political action/resistance (Rothblum, 1994).Within the lesbian community, in particular, there has been an intense preoccupation with the visual presentation of the sexual self – for instance, Barbara Creed (1999) argued that lesbian feminists in the 1970s became ‘obsessed’ with appearance and with using the outer (lesbian) self to communicate the ‘true lesbian’s’ rejection of patriarchal capitalism.
2 AimsHow lesbians and bisexual women negotiate the discursive structures of gender and sexuality through their everyday clothing and appearance practicesThe usefulness of queer theory as a description of how lesbians and bisexual women experience themselves as lesbians and bisexual women (Esterberg, 1996, Eves, 2004, Weston, 1993)Although there is a sizeable body of work on butch/femme identities, especially in the humanities, there is very little social science, and particularly, psychological work on the visual aspects of lesbian identities and communities. The aim of the study was to build on previous work and explore how dress and appearance function as active vehicles for the construction of identity for a sample of non-heterosexual women (Riley & Cahill, 2005). In particular, we were interested in the discourses through which non-heterosexual women account for their clothing and appearance practices.The explosion of QT (and politics) in the early 1990s produced a new conceptual language with which to understand the visual sexual self. Although QT is not a uniform body of theory, in broad terms, it challenges the notion that sexual identity is a unitary essence residing in the person, queer identities are viewed as performative (Esterberg, 1996).Queer theorists such as Judith Butler (1990) have reversed the relationship between the inner and outer gendered self/body by arguing that outward expressions of gender are constitutive, rather than reflective of gendered subjectivity, that we do gender (rather than be gendered).Some social scientists have asked whether QT is useful as a description of how non-heterosexual women experience their ‘identities’ (the suggestion is not that we subject QT to empirical test, but if QT is to help illuminate queer life it must be rooted in the subjective experiences of non-heterosexual women)? (Esterberg, 1996)Do some lesbians see themselves as playing with sexual style and self-representation, and, for instance, using butch/femme style to expose gender as a social construction or is ‘sexual identity’ experienced as a fixed and essential part of the self? Has the supposedly ‘liberating’ influence of QT/politics been felt in the lives of ‘ordinary’ non-heterosexual women - is any form of dress acceptable within lesbian space? Or is there (still) a lesbian ‘uniform’?
3 The data Thirty women provided qualitative questionnaire data Convenience sample – LGBT groups22 lesbian, 7 bisexual, 1 non-heterosexual19-58 years (mean: 34 years), 26 white, 3 British, 1 Irish20 middle class, 8 working class, 2 other17 FT employment, 11 FT education, 2 PT employment/educationAll out to at least one person, about half out to ‘everyone’About two-thirds members of LGB groups and spend time on the ‘gay scene’The analysis is based on qualitative questionnaire data collected from 30 women – the data were collected for Katherine’s final year psychology project (which I supervised). I have completed my own analysis of the data, and this analysis forms the basis of the presentation todayA convenience/purposive sample collected through contacting local LGBT groups22 women self-identified as lesbian, 7 as bisexual (1 of the women said she was ‘just ‘not straight’, bisexual was a label of convenience) and 1 as non-heterosexual, they were aged between 19 and 58 (with a mean of 34 years), 26 of the women identified as white, 3 as British and 1 as Irish (of these 4, they did not specify a racial background), 20 of the women identified their social class as middle class (of these, 4 said middle class, with a working class background), 8 as working class, 2 as other (1 middle class and working class, and 1 as ‘nouveaux rich’), 17 of the women were in FT employed, 11 in FT education, 2 in PT employment and PT educationAll of the women were out to at least one person, half were out to everyone they know, about 2/3rds members of LGB groups and spent time on the gay sceneThe women completed a qualitative questionnaire consisting of 12 open-ended questions focused on issues such as whether they ever use their dress and appearance to emphasise or de-emphasise their sexuality, whether they made any changes to their dress and appearance after coming out as lesbian/bisexual, whether they ever attempt to read off other women’s sexuality from their dress and appearance… The use of questionnaires (as opposed to interviews or focus groups) was a pragmatic choice - enabling Katherine to collect a larger sample in a relatively short period
4 Themes Norms and conformity Freedom and authenticity We identified 2 main themes in the data - norms and conformity, and freedom and authenticity. These themes represent two rather different ways of conceptualising dress and appearance in relation to non-heterosexual identities and communities. First that dress and appearance for lesbians (and bisexual women) is highly regulated, and women are compelled to negotiate their dress and appearance in relation to a strongly policed butch norm, and second that identifying as a lesbian is a liberating experience, offering women the freedom to be (and to appear to be) the ‘real me’.The data had a strongly dilemmatic quality – in order to be visible/recognisable as a lesbian to others (to the wider world or just to those in the know), one had to conform to the butch norm (and in so doing, reinforce the norm, and make it harder for deviant lesbians to be seen). In lesbian ‘sub-culture’, like in other sub-cultures, being recognised as an authentic member is difficult and requires hard work (‘lesbian’ is a difficult category to be an authentic member of) – in order to belong (Creed, 1999), to be above suspicion and to avoid being subject to a disciplinary gaze, women have to signal their possession of, what Thornton (1997) has dubbed, sub-cultural capital.At the same time, conformity to a (sub-cultural) norm, raises questions about authenticity and individuality. A collectivist identity implies a loss of individuality and self-authenticity (Widdecombe & Wooffitt, 1995), vital for the production of a meaningful personal identity (Riley & Cahill, 2005).I would argue that butch lesbians, even now, define a positive lesbian presence in relation to heteronormative constructions of femininity, but the normalisation of lesbian identities and sexual styles raises questions about individual authenticity in mainstream contexts.How can one be both recognisable/visible as an (authentic, beyond suspicion) lesbian and an authentic individual? The women had a number of strategies for negotiating this dilemma.
5 Norms and conformity – Will the real lesbian please stand up? “I know so many different styles of lesbian, it would be impossible to have a general description. Even so, my ‘gaydar’ works much better for women who dress in trousers and have short hair.” (White, middle class lesbian, aged 53 [P93])“I thought the idea that all lesbians/bisexuals had cropped hair and wore butch clothes was just a stereotype. Until I ventured on to the gay scene, I thought those sorts of women hadn’t existed for decades!” (White, working class bisexual [ ‘just ‘not straight’’] woman, aged 21 [P89])Many of the women commented on the diversification of lesbian (and bisexual) identities and lesbian (and bisexual) styles and that there is no longer a lesbian ‘uniform’ (or ‘dress code’).Some felt that appearance mandates are contextual and subject to broader shifts in fashion and politics, as well as regional variations. Some reluctantly acknowledged a butch norm, presenting it as a “stereotype” rather than an accurate reflection of their or of other non-heterosexual women’s clothing and appearance practices.However, despite nods to the diversification and mainstreaming of lesbian style, the coding of lesbians as ‘not feminine’ predominated, women who conformed to the butch norm were thought to be much easier to read as lesbian (and it is much easier to be visible as a lesbian by creating and negotiating a butch or androgynous style) – some women commented that the ‘lipstick lesbian’ was a mere media creation, that real lesbians are butch.
6 Norms and conformity - policing and protecting lesbian space “I did once wear a dress to a lesbian disco, and although nobody said anything I did get stared at. I felt judged.” (White, middle class lesbian, aged 39 [P64])“Always felt less legitimate in LG spaces when I had longer hair.” (White, middle class lesbian, aged 32 [P91])“I sometimes meet with suspicion until I verbally ‘come out’.” (White, working/middle class lesbian, aged 41 [P70])“other dykes expect you to follow this code [‘Arthur and Martha’] and don’t understand if you don’t fit this particular mould.” (White, middle class lesbian, aged 48 [P66])Although, some women were reluctant to acknowledge the existence of appearance mandates, many discussed the regulation of dress and appearance (Holliday, 2001) and the coercive nature of the coding of lesbian visibility (as butch) (Esterberg, 1996); by creating a lesbian presence through ‘masculine’ coding, women who do not conform to this norm are marginalised. Eves (2004) argues that such gate-keeping practices are designed to protect and preserve lesbian space and the self-policing nature of the lesbian community is a result of lesbians exclusion from dominant culture, which produces a desire for boundaries and distinction and promotes the policing of who is a lesbianFor some women conformity to butch norms felt inauthentic, but necessary in order to be present as a lesbian to the self and, more importantly, to be recognised as a lesbian by other lesbians and to be positioned and to perform appropriately within the regimes of looking in lesbian space. Conformity and visibility were also thought to be important to younger lesbians/bisexual women and to women when they are first coming out, and constructing and negotiating an identity as lesbian/bisexual – a rigid outer identity provides a scaffold for the vulnerable and precarious inner identity. When the inner self lesbian becomes secure, it not longer needs to be held in place by the outer self, and other modes of identity expression become available...
7 Norms and conformity – bisexual style “Generally similar to straight women but possibly more alternative. For example, coloured dreads/piercings and some with tattoos. Also, fashion tights like fishnets and more masculine dress like baggy jeans.” (White, middle class bisexual woman, aged 22 [P61])“you can’t usually tell if someone is bisexual by the way they dress but often they’re people who dress in a way that draws attention to them, quite impressive or provocative, often quite stylish and open-minded about how they dress. Bisexuals tend to look more feminine than lesbians, but not always.” (White, middle class bisexual woman, aged 19 [P1])Most of the bisexual women and some of the lesbian women commented that bisexual (and queer) communities are more open and accepting and less rigid and policing than lesbian (and gay) communities with regard to dress and appearance – in bisexual communities/spaces, women are freer to express their femininity and their individualityBecause of this, the women felt that bisexual women are, in general, less visible/readable as queer/non-heterosexual than (lesbian) women who conform to butch stylesFew of the women felt that there was an accepted bisexual ‘dress code’, but a number mentioned that bisexual women tend to be more feminine than lesbians, androgynous, alternative, and provocative/flamboyant...
8 Freedom and authenticity - Freedom to be me “I felt more comfortable with who I was and was no longer living a lie to my family and friends.” (White, working class lesbian, aged 19 [P2])“since coming out I wear clothes that I want to wear and feel comfortable in. Previously I have worn things to fit in to the crowd but now I feel I can wear what ever I want and I am more confident in my appearance.” (P2)“I no longer make efforts to wear skirts, dresses to make myself attractive to men. I wear more casual clothes and less makeup. I wear what I feel comfortable wearing which is less feminine than before I came out as I now have nothing to hide.” (White, middle class lesbian, aged 34 [P74])“I am who I am” (White, middle class lesbian, aged 46 [P69])One of the most striking features of the data was the emphasis on authenticity and on dressing for comfort (both physical and, more importantly, psychological comfort), on being oneself (being true to oneself, being honest - see Big Brother!!)Coming out as lesbian gave the women freedom to be themselves, freedom from heteronormative (imposed) constructions of femininity, freedom to achieve a fit between their inner and outer selvesAs Ruth Holliday (1999) noted, “the naturalizing discourse of comfort... signifies the comfort one feels from the degree of fit between the outside of one’s body and its inside (not blood, guts or organs, but the ‘imagined’ or ‘true’ self) - the way in which identity is mapped onto the body. Comfort means in this case expressing externally that which one feels inside. In other words, there is a wish to close the gap between performance (acting) and ontology (being), a desire to be self-present to both oneself and others.” (p. 481)As Holliday noted, discourses of comfort are strongly tied to the production of individualitySo, how did the women close the gap? How did they become self-present? How did they manage the dilemma of authenticity?
9 Freedom and authenticity - the essential butch “My hair changed into a lesbian cut before I even realised I was gay so I think it’s a gradual process you don’t often realise is happening.” (British, working class lesbian, aged 19 [P82])“I feel fraudulent in feminine clothes and am becoming more butch again because this has always been my natural garb long before I knew I was gay.” (White, middle class lesbian, aged 35 [P78])“Since a small child I was always the most comfortable in trousers/shorts…” (White, middle class lesbian, aged 50+ [P65])“I wouldn’t know where to start trying to dress fem.” (P82)“Can’t do dresses, I look like a man in drag.” (Irish, working class lesbian, aged 45 [P75])For some of the women, butch style was an authentic reflection of their inner self, for (a smaller number of) others, it was a look that is actively and strategically constructed and deployed in certain contexts. In some spaces, some of the women might “consciously butch up” (P67) or actively construct their appearance to “look like a lesbian” (P70) in order to feel a sense of belonging and membership of lesbian space (or, to put a more negative twist on this, to avoid censure, the disciplining gaze of other lesbians) or to be visible as a lesbian in straight space, “to pull” (P62) (and secure the right kind of look - a look of recognition and desire), to subvert normative assumptions of heterosexuality, and also to express their mobile subjectivities. These women do not ‘play’ with their appearance to subvert norms or to highlight the constructed nature of gender, rather they actively manipulate their appearance to express a mobile sense of self: “I like to use my clothes to express who I am and how I am feeling on certain days. Some days I want to wear heels, stockings and a skirt, other days when I am feeling boyish I wear more the sort of thing you would expect a lesbian to wear.” (White, middle class lesbian, aged 46 [P69])For the women who were butch inside and out, they weren’t consciously so, their style wasn’t a performance, an act, they were simply being (and expressing) themselves. For instance, some didn’t label themselves as possessing a butch or ‘dykey’ (or visibily lesbian) style (or garments) but reported (reluctantly) that others might - “I guess others would describe it as dykey” (P75), “I guess they are probably ‘lesbian shoes’” (P82)... NOTES FOR THIS SLIDE CONTINUE ON NEXT PAGE
10 Freedom and authenticity - Not hiding, not shouting, just me... “I just want to be different. I want my clothes to express who I really am and because of stereotyping I like to go against the grain a bit. People expect me as a lesbian to be vegetarian and to be boyish so I like to surprise them by being a meat eater and wearing skirts!” (White, middle class lesbian, aged 46 [P69])“I do not like being a gay flag ship walking round the streets” (British, working class lesbian, aged 45 [P73])“I did wear some more boyish clothes, hairstyle at some point in the past, but now wear whatever I like, and enjoy being feminine (and yes, I’m feminist too)” (White, middle class bisexual woman, aged 40 [P76])Moreover, their inner dyke often leaked out (note the passive voice - ‘my hair changed’ rather than ‘I changed my hair’) through their styled body before they were ‘consciously aware’ of their sexuality. There is a delightful contrast between the authentic and honest and the dishonest and fake, which highlights the over-riding importance of individual authenticity.An essentialist butch discourse, which draws on the common sense ideology of, what Riley & Cahill (2005), call ‘vertical representation’ (the outer surface expresses the inner self), allows the women who deployed it to manage the dilemma of authenticity, their conformity to the butch norm is a happy coincidence, not artifice. The women drew on the notion of an authentic (butch/dyke) self to argue that their clothed body was an expression of an intrinsic self-identityNOTES FOR THIS SLIDE: For other women, the creation of a meaningful personal identity involved actively or incidentally resisting normative conceptions of lesbian visual identities/sexual styles - these women drew on discourses of individuality and authenticity to justify their deviation from appearance mandates. They were concerned to emphasise that they were not hiding their sexuality (and neither were they shouting about it), they were simply being themselves (expressing their inner self). Being themselves had a political dimension, however, - butch women are not the only ones resisting heteronormative assumptions through their dress and appearance practices, femme women can subvert heteronormative assumptions by infiltrating straight space and showing that any woman can be a lesbian (we suspect that a number of women oriented to the political aspects of appearance because of concerns about ‘letting the side’ down - note P76’s comment ‘and yes, I’m a feminist too’, highlighting appearance norms)
11 Conclusions and future directions Dress and appearance important for constituting and negotiating lesbian identities and lesbian spaceThere is a coercive element to the coding of lesbian visibility (Esterberg, 1996)“The chief characteristic of the sexually inverted woman is a certain degree of masculinity… There is… a very pronounced tendency among sexually inverted women to adopt male attire when practicable. In such cases male garments are not usually regarded as desirable chiefly on account of practical convenience, nor even in order to make an impression on other women, but because the wearer feels more at home in them” (Henry Havelock Ellis, 1901, p. 141, emphasis added).Dress and appearance seem to be far less important for constituting bisexual identities and bisexual space - but this needs further explorationThere may be more diversity in lesbian (and bisexual) style, but the data suggest that butch (and femme) remains a conceptual anchor for any discussion of dress and appearance within the lesbian community [note that we never mentioned butch and femme in the questionnaire, but the women brought it up a lot!]. The ‘butch lesbian’ continues to be a lesbian archetype, the visible representation of lesbian desire (Nestle, 1992), ‘looking like what you are’ (and being recognised for what you are, or at least as having ‘dyke potential’, Kristin Esterberg, 1996) means conforming to the visual code of butch style.The coercive nature of lesbian style means that deviant lesbians (femme lesbians) and bisexuals are marginalised - the participants indicated that the space most associated with the regulation of lesbian visual identities is the commercial ‘gay scene’, whereas, in the past, lesbian feminist communities assumed a central role in the regulation of visual identities (with some participants suggesting that the lesbian feminist era of the 1970s/1980s constituted the pinnacle of the policing of lesbian appearance)Most of the women were invested in creating a coherent identity (Weston, 1993), their narratives drew on an essentialist model of coming out as self-discovery, in which the individual arrives at the final truth of their identity. Although some women experienced their identity as mobile and multiple, only a handful discussing (consciously) ‘playing’ with their appearance in order to expose gender as a social construction.
12 Conclusions and future directions Potential for over-reading sexuality into women’s narratives when asking women to speak as lesbian or bisexual and for privileging sexuality over race and class (Walker, 1993)Emphasis on the ‘writerly text’ and not the ‘readerly text’ – Kessler & McKenna (1978) argued that in relation to the construction of gender in everyday life, the bulk of the work is done by the perceiver not the displayerAlthough it is acknowledged that rendering a plausible account of a social category is an interactional and institutional accomplishment (West & Fenstermaker, 1995), there is a tendency to read practices off monologic interview narrativesA need to analyse practice ‘on the ground’I highlight a danger of over-reading sexuality into women’s narratives because structurally, the dilemma many of the participants were negotiating is little different from the dilemma of authenticity that we all negotiate on a day-to-day basis, and is very similar to that experienced by women (and men) who are members of subcultures, where the clothed body/visual identity is an important element of displaying sub-cultural capital - there is lots of overlap between our data and data collected for research into the Goth, Punk, Hippy, and Body Art sub-cultures (Riley & Cahill, 2005, Widdecombe & Wooffitt, 1995).Amy Robinson (1994) has argued for a politics of optics rather than identity/ontology, visibility is a skill of reading (rather than of being or doing), she highlights “the false promise of the visible as an epistemological guarantee.” (p. 716)Readings of clothed bodies are not fixed effects separate from intentions, the social context is key to how clothed bodies are read (Eves, 2004).Because of the influence of discourse analysis, there is an imperative to base our analyses only on recorded/recordable data, and to move away from observational/ethographic and ethnomethological research. But we often end up reading practice off interview narratives, and in the process, lose as much as as when we base our analyses of talk on interview notes or made-up examples. In order to understand the construction of visual identities in everyday interaction, we need to move away from interview-based research to methods that take us closer to practice.