- Can Femininity be Queer?
Hannah McCann provides a timely contribution to the burgeoning field of Femininity Studies with her exploration of the questions: what makes feminine presentations queer, and how can femininity be understood beyond the binary of oppressive or empowering? Starting from her own experience of being a queer femme– from growing up in an explicitly feminist household where expressions of femininity were discouraged, to having her queerness rendered invisible by her feminine presentation– and through a critical analysis of key feminist texts, McCann highlights an uncomfortable tendency toward an ‘us versus them’ rhetoric around understandings of femininity: from feminism disavowing feminine presentations of self as oppressive, to queer readings of reclaiming femininity as empowering (provided that it is not a ‘straight’ femininity). This leads her to ask, ‘why femininity always needed to be understood along this binary, and why both feminists and femmes agreed that the best way to overcome gender oppression was at the level of individual gender presentation’ (p10). This book aims to find a new way of understanding presentations of the body, identity, and politics that does not assume these are linked in particular ways.
Through this investigation, McCann outlines how Femininity Studies as a field is underdeveloped, particularly in comparison to Masculinity Studies. She differentiates Femininity Studies from Women’s Studies, which has focused on the oppression of women. While she is critical of those theorists who would only see feminine presentation as oppressive, McCann is also critical of the empowerment trope popularized by third wave feminism, arguing that it is time we ‘pay some attention to the experiences and attachments involved in feminine gender presentation in the first instance’ (p28). She notes that such analyses have been limited, though are beginning to emerge in considerations of aesthetic labour. Another aim of the book is to think critically about queer theory and the claims it makes to anti-normativity, while questioning ‘whether femininity can ever be queer’ (p12). These questions are important and are reflected within some of the attempts to ‘queer’ femininity within contemporary pop culture: as I worked my way through this book on my daily commute, Janelle Monáe’s 2018 album Dirty Computer played in my headphones and I was often struck between the similarities of Monáe’s lyrics and McCann’s critiques.
The book begins by exploring historic and contemporary debates on what [End Page 178] feminine presentations of self mean for feminism, challenging the notion of femininity as anti-feminist. McCann then turns to the question of if it is possible for femininity to be queer, exploring this through interviews with self-identified queer femmes in three Australian cities; reflections on her participation in a conference for femmes; and a continued interrogation of feminist texts. Throughout the book, McCann attempts to disrupt an essentialist linking of femininity to female bodies, most notably through drawing on the work of Jack Halberstam. While it is clear that McCann sees bodies and presentations of gender as separate and able to combine in any number of ways, her arguments are focused on the ability of female-identifying bodies (be they cis or trans) to engage with presentations of gender along a spectrum. Missing from this are considerations of how male-identifying bodies and non-binary-identifying bodies might also engage and queer presentations of femininity. I concede that McCann’s intention is to move beyond queer theory’s ‘attachment to masculinity’ (p82) but am left with questions about the implications a deliberate feminine presentation of a non-female-identifying body has for queering femininity, and particularly for queer femmes. Given interviews were carried out with ‘self-identified queer femmes’ and the analysis is situated as exploring ‘the experiences of those identifying as queer femme within the LGBTQ community’ (p81), it is unfortunate the analysis seems to be focused solely on women. The use of gender-neutral language at times obscures aspects of the twelve femmes interviewed, however it is notable that only one participant is identified as a trans woman, while the other eleven appear to be...