Nicola Lauré al-Samarai
Reference text Beauvoir
Dagmar Fink, 2011
“On ne naît pas femme: on le devient” (One is not born, but rather becomes, woman)—probably Simone de Beauvoir’s most famous sentence—long circulated in German as: “Man kommt nicht als Frau zur Welt, man wird dazu gemacht.” (One is not born, but rather made woman). This translation suggests that femininity is a form of disfiguring or training that turns human individuals into women. And, actually, that is what Beauvoir means. But the more accurate version—“man wird es” (one becomes woman)—also suggests that women do not occur naturally and that femininity is not an innate quality. And this, too, reflects Beauvoir’s view.
Thus, she is compatible with a queer-feminist perspective, a view that uses the concept of heteronormativity to call the naturalness, unambiguity, and immutability of gender and sexuality into question, identifying the two-gender model and the heterosexual norm as central power and dominance relations in society. Accordingly, cross-dressing, transsexuality, female masculinities such as butches or drag kings, but also drag queens, have been celebrated as subversive, camp performances of gender. Curiously, however, it was never femininities that were queer, subversive, or parodic. Not even drag queens could be celebrated as subversive male femininities without reservation—somehow they bore the “taint” of the feminine.
Angered by this devaluation, I have in recent years increasingly turned my attention toward femininities. My main interest has been in the femme as a figuration of queer (i.e., critically distinct from the heteronorm) femininity. She is not simply “femme,” i.e., woman, but “femme“: similar to “woman” and at the same time willfully different. In their self-representations, femmes use symbols of traditional femininity, but they rework, displace, and re-signify these symbols. Their ironic and joyful play on “appearing like” at the same time as “not appearing like” destabilizes heteronormative expectations—but without entering into opposition to femininity.  While many femmes are mistakenly read as women, their assigned sex was / is not necessarily female.
Prompted by my concurrent wish to understand why—paradoxically—femininity is also devalued in feminist and queer theory, I reread Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. After all, this book is something of a seminal feminist text. Moreover, Beauvoir understands gender in terms of becoming—and not of being. And if gender is something that is not given to us, but that we become, then we can become it in different ways. Consequently, there is no reason why femininity must be always-already heteronormative. Right?
Like Irigaray after her, Beauvoir explains that there is no positive definition of woman: humanity is masculine and woman is defined as the Other of man, while man is not defined in terms of woman. Consequently, man appears as essential and absolute, woman as non-essential. The man imagines himself as a subject blessed with creative transcendence, as being-for-itself (être-pour-soi). Femininity, on the other hand, is equated with immanence, with being-for-others (être-pour-autrui), and thus with reproduction, nurture, physicality, transience… On this subject, I always remember a line from the incomparable Nina Hagen: “Simone de Beauvoir sagt: Gott bewahr! Und vor dem ersten Kinderschrei’n muss ich mich erstmal selbst befrei’n” (Simone de Beauvoir says: Au revoir! And before the first baby’s scream, I gotta begin by freeing me).  Only when women assert themselves as human, Beauvoir says, do they lose this quality of the Other. Correspondingly, she understands femininity as contrived and artificial, as training and mutilation. But this is not just an analysis of how (White,  heterosexual, …) femininity is constructed in modern, bourgeois, western society, Beauvoir also follows this description and does not contradict it. And, specifically, she doesn’t inquire into the qualities that “becoming woman” (or rather: the appropriation of different femininities) may possess for different subjects.
In her thoughts on “the” lesbian, Beauvoir comes to some different conclusions. Nevertheless, this does not alter her perspective on femininity. For even when she is describing lesbian or queer relationships, she never sees them in anything other than heteronormative terms. With remarkable curiosity and openness, Beauvoir investigates diverse forms of femininity (and female masculinities). Using the example of literary texts (e.g., Gertrude Stein, Colette, Radclyffe Hall), she shows femininities that do not fit into the heteronormative matrix or that explicitly resist it. At the same time, she is unable to see anything other than “woman” and classifies all forms of femininity according to the two-gender model.
This also becomes evident when she describes lesbian sex as a mutual mirroring: If one woman caresses another’s breasts, she writes, for example, then the one caressing not only feels the touch, but also knows how her lover is experiencing the caress. Beauvoir assumes, then, that there is a single female sexual body that is experienced by all in the same way. However, not all of those who have a female sexual body identify as women. In addition, each sexual body—even if it is female—is lived and experienced individually.
Although Beauvoir does consider other social categorizations, such as race, class or ethnicity, she always views them as separate from femininity. The interfaces marking out what it means to be in the world as a bourgeois or a proletarian woman, as a White or a Black woman, and what this in turn means for concepts of femininity, are not taken into consideration. The Second Sex constructs a single myth of femininity that is White, western, bourgeois, and heteronormative. Beauvoir does analyze the historicity of this myth, but she treats the two-gender model—against her better knowledge—as a constant. As a result, she fails to identify different concepts of femininity as they are defined by society as well as performed and lived by individuals. Based on this assumption, Shakira, Amy Winehouse, Marla Glen, Johanna Dohnal  would all be grouped together under the same myth of femininity, while Boy George would not even be read as feminine. And precisely here, in the construction of a single femininity that is at odds with freedom (as I have shown using Beauvoir as an example), lies one of the causes for the devaluation of femininities.
If femininity is not to be in and of itself at odds with freedom, we must focus on its diversity: it is a matter of seeing the countless ways in which subjects appropriate femininity—both with the norm and against it. Only then will it be possible to analyze the effects of the various forms of non-heteronormative femininity. Or put another way: only then can we recognize and appreciate the possibilities for becoming liberatingly feminine.
Dagmar Fink is a cultural theorist, translator, and lecturer at Vienna University.
Edited by Sabine Rohlf & Jo Schmeiser
Translated from the German by Nicholas Grindell, copyedited by Harold Otto
This text was published (in German) on November 19, 2011, in the Austrian daily newspaper Der Standard.
1) See my essays: “Cherished As Well As Suspicious: Femme Femininities,” in: Walter W. Höbling et al (eds.), US Icons and Iconicity, Vienna 2006, pp. 167-185, and “Rot wie eine Kirsche, pink wie Fuchsia: Femme in Melissa Scotts queer-feministischer Science Fiction,” in: Barbara Holland-Cunz et al (eds.), Genderzukunft. Zur Transformation feministischer Visionen in der Science-Fiction, Königstein 2008, pp. 169-187.
2) Nina Hagen, 1978, “unbeschreiblich weiblich” (indescribably feminine)
3) Following usage in Critical Whiteness Studies, I capitalize “White” to underline the fact that it is not a “skin color” but a social position within a racist categorization system.
4) Johanna Dohnal is an icon of the Austrian women’s movement. In 1979, she became the country’s first secretary of state for women’s affairs and, from 1990, minister for women’s affairs. Facing fierce criticism from the political far-right, Dohnal was dismissed in 1995 by the social-democratic chancellor. She did active political work for NGOs and several women’s organizations until her death in 2010. Dohnal was also a very tough butch, always wearing a traditional suit in public.