Implications Gender, Sex and Sexuality

In her chapter, Hemmings addresses the problem of sexual orientation and identity, focusing particularly on bisexual femme, as well as lesbian femme culture. A self identified bisexual femme herself, Hemmings identifies some of the difficulties associated with this label and those who identify with it. The idea of the bisexual femme is highly criticized, among both hetero- and homosexual communities alike (422). 

The femme is accused of taking the easy way out; clinging to their femininity as a way preserving an appearance of heterosexuality, or doing so in order to slake an internalized homophobia. This view is particularly strong among feminist lesbian culture, where the bi-femme existence has also become a kind of mythological demon. This demonization comes, in part, as a result of the fact that femme women are more likely to make the return to heterosexuality than their butch counterparts; abandoning their butch lesbian partner for a man (Hemmings 420-22).  

Butch and Femme (courtesy of Blogspot.ca)

This myth of the ever bisexual or undecided femme, abandoning her female lover for a man partly stem from the similarities of gender roles between a strict butch-femme relationship and male-female relationships. The fact that a femme’s gender identification is clearly visible while no distinct sign of their sexual preference exists without the presence of a butch partner also plays a role. These very conditions make the existence of a femme individual quite difficult, having to bear scrutiny from both heterosexual and lesbian communities; being perceived as “not-quite-not-straight”, all because of the hegemonic link between femininity and heterosexuality (Hemmings 421-22). 

This is not the only problematic situation which arrises from our system of sexual classification. Questions of sexual orientation and the status of relationships also gets kind of fuzzy when it comes to relationships involving trans partners. Consider a relationship involving a femme woman and a trans-man, does this relationship constitute as lesbian or heterosexual in nature? And does it in any way change the femme’s status within the lesbian community? This problem of labels and their rigidity leads to conflicts of identity for many who experience situations similar to this scenario (Hemmings 426-27).

(image courtesy of wordans.com)

The constraints of categorization and labeling are such as this act as a detriment to society; honestly what good can come out of trying to fit people, and the world for that matter, into neat little compartments. Inevitably, not everyone will fit into any category you prescribe, and when it comes to sexuality and love, is it really necessary to provide any more specific classification? Regardless of biological sex and gender orientation, the individuals involved in the relationship are human beings. In the case of sexuality, we are capable of appreciating the human form in its various form, though some have their preferences. In the end is it all that different than say, flavours of ice-cream? I may prefer mint and you may only eat vanilla, another person could just enjoy ice-cream in general and we don’t begrudge them this. 

I realize that this is a loose analogy, but I think the exaggeration helps make my point; the classification of ones sexuality does not need to be completely centred around their biological sex nor does ones sexual orientation need to define them as a person. I also recognize that for some people, their sexual orientation is a defining factor that they are proud of. I am not contesting the fact that they have something to be proud of, merely suggesting that in a society where sexuality was more fluid and not weighed down with labels, pride in ones sexuality wouldn’t be the defiant construct it is today.

Works Cited

Hemmings, Clare. “Waiting for no Man: Bisexual femme subjectivity and cultural repudiation.”

      The Subcultures Reader. 2nd ed. Ken Gelder. London: Routledge, 2005. 418-412. Print.

Discussion of femme struggles (clipped from http://thislesbianlife.wordpress.com/)

Discussion of femme struggles (clipped from http://thislesbianlife.wordpress.com/)


ACT UP demonstration March 1989


Subcultural Awareness and Activism

As mentioned in my post “Subcultural Organization and Style”, Milton Gordon roughly defines a subculture as branch of cultural patterns and practices that are performed by a portion of the population, however Irwin would argue that this definition leaves out important elements that are very much at play with in the realm of subculture, particularly in today’s society. In what Irwin describes as the “contemporary subcultural phenomena”, it must be understood that the general public is much more conscious of subcultural movements than in previous generations (Irwin 74). 

Greater ease of mobility, mass media and higher education all helped lead to a general recognition of the existence of cultural variations; not only beyond the boarders, but within ones own country. In this age of communication, how can we not be well aware of the existence of subcultures and untraditional life styles? With mass media and instant access to a never-ending flow of information, it is awfully hard for a member of the general public to remain blind to the multitude of cultural nuances that exist outside our own reference groups. Along with this growing consciousness of this subcultural pluralism came and increase in the categorization and marginalization of individuals which in turn lead to the individual’s increased awareness of the judging eye of the “other” (Irwin 75). 

Not only have subcultures come to the forefront because of the media, but subcultures have been taking advantage of mass media to have their voices heard and provoke change. Rather than their silently revolting through their coded systems of meaning displayed through style, groups such as ACT UP, an AIDS activism group, are taking a stance, sharing their message and taking “direct action”. They express the anger they feel at their marginalization in ways that are hard to ignore. However the appropriation and co-optation of symbols is still a big part of the process (Crimp and Rolston 359).

ACT UP campaign button                                                 (image from ztoe.net)

ACT UP has consistently used the medium of graphic art to disseminate their message; employing the use of easily identifiable mainstream symbols to lend emphasis and interest to their images, giving them greater power (see previous post). This kind of juxtaposition is combined with well researched and backed up messages/statements which often provide effective shock value while doing the job of informing the masses and calling for reform. These images are developed by Gran Fury, ACT UP’s graphic designers and propaganda artist, act as a compressed or abbreviated version of the groups political message and often provide a push-off point for future slogans (crimp and Rolston 361). 

Other activism groups such as the Yes Men, use other strategies to have their opinion heard and bring about desired change. The internet has become a powerful platform for subculture and subcultural messages; allowing for the congregation of like minds and, in the case of the Yes Men, the opportunity to impersonate and exploit those that they oppose. 

This bold and radical group have a goal of social justice and target the large corporations that negate social responsibility in favour of profit. The Yes Men endeavour to achieve this through the impersonation and humiliation of these business giants. This is often achieved by  the assembly of fake websites for offending corporations, which provide the group with the opportunity to make public appearances and make their point. This strategy may not bring about immediate change, but it certainly gets media attention and spreads awareness at near lightning speed. Several such media hoaxes are documented in their film The Yes Men Fix the World(watch).

movie poster (image from imdb.com)

Works Cited

Crimp, Douglas and Adam Rolston. “AIDs Activist Graphics: A Demonstration.”

      The Subcultures Reader. 2nd ed. Ken Gelder. London: Routledge, 2005. 358-

      366. Print.

Irwin, John. “Notes on the Status of the Concept Subculture.” The Subcultures

      Reader. 2nd ed. Ken Gelder. London: Routledge, 2005. 73-77. Print.


Activist Art by Gran Fury


Politics of Style

     Fashion and style have long stood as symbols laden with social and cultural meaning; subcultural styles are no exception. In fact, subcultural style can be considered more self-conscious than that of the mainstream culture, as its consumers are conforming to trends and purchasing what is essentially pre-packaged style rather than selecting items for their symbolic value. 

     Every element of an individual’s appearance contributes to their style and effects the message communicated by the over-all look. Hair is an important facet of individual style; as one of the easiest physical traits the change and manipulate, human hair has become a kind of socialized medium. Hair and hair styles can be laden with various kinds of symbolic meaning in regards to religion gender and race. In truth, hair has been loaded with rather negative connotations with regards to race; carrying an air of superiority for some, or as a sign of inferiority for others (Mercer 299).

     The hair of black peoples, particularly its texture, has been trivialized throughout history; as a result, many black hair styles have been developed with an aim to return positive value tho this ethnic signifier. Styles such as the afro and dreadlocks embraced the natural texture and temperament of the hair; the afro style was even known as the natural. The sheer volume and 3D quality of an afro was very in-your-face, standing as a symbol of black pride. The derision of the name “afro” also suggested a throwback to African roots and a pride in this lineage. ”Eccentric” styles of dress accompanied the Afro, featuring many of these pieces, such as tunics and head wraps, were throw-backs to African culture and dress (Mercer 300-02).

Afro/Natural style as symbol of power (image courtesy of tribe.net)

     These movements contradicted the previously existing, Eurocentric ideal which painted the black populace as having no native culture to return to or be proud of. Even so, these shifting styles were picked up and presented to the general public through the mass media. This led to an increased awareness of black struggles, but it also lead to the commercialization of these styles and thus much of their symbolic meaning was lost. For example, African grab such as  the dashiki were commodified and incorporated by hippie styles (Mercer 302-304). 

     There has existed for decades, a paradoxical relationship between white and black styles. In the modern era/culture, style innovation can more often be accredited to black culture, with white culture doing more imitating. In this relationship a strange cycle occurs: black style innovation is incorporated into the white mainstream. This new, incorporated style then spurs on further innovative and experimental styles from the black community, while also providing a new form for them to emulate and conform to (Mercer 307-11).

     Fashion and style can be seen as the outward manifestations of either personal or group struggles for originality, recognition, status and over all, expression. In the case of the Teddy boys of 60s England, this was accomplished through the employ of eccentrically “dandy” clothing based on Edwardian styles. Their choice of clothing greatly contrasted the Ted’s status as young labours; as did the price of maintaining this look. However, this style of dress signalled to the rest of England and the world that the class of unskilled workers were not willing for be excluded from society. As Ted culture died out, the related dandyism and its elements of personal luxury and fashion prevailed in England’s working-class culture (Fyvel 284-86).

dandified style    (image courtesy of blogspot.com)

     Today, the everyday man/woman remains highly style-conscious; almost hyperaware of what messages their appearances send to the world. It is possible that there is nowhere where this is more true than in New York City. Perhaps one of the best references for this is the work of Bill Cunningham. Having recorded and put on display NYCs everyday fashion for decades, his work shines a spotlight on the innovation and originality of individuals and, as he admits in Bill Cunningham New York, tends to shun celebrity and couture fashion. If it isn’t bold, interesting, and above all wearable for the average person then it is not bestowed the honour of his time. 

 (image courtesy of zeitgeistfilms.com)

Bill Cunningham’s “On The Street" segments past and present

(image courtesy of lookonline.com)

Works Cited
Fyvel, T.R. “Fashion and Revolt.” The Subcultures Reader. 2nd ed. Ken Gelder.
      London: Routledge, 2005. 284-287. Print.
Mercer, Kobena. “Black Hair/Style Politics.” The Subcultures Reader. 2nd ed.
      Ken Gelder. London: Routledge, 2005. 299-311 Print.

incorporation and appropriation of style

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