I recently saw something which referred to some tools of gender performance as “fake.” It was a list of things which people were supposed to add up to determine their percentage of “fakeness,” from wearing lipstick to getting plastic surgery.
It troubled me. A lot. It bothered me when I first saw it and I turned it over in my head for a while, and now I am going to write about it.
I am, as has been established, not a fan of dividing bodies into “fake” and “real.” I think that it’s extremely troubling, especially because it is most commonly used against women. Women’s bodies are loaded. Saying that some women are more “real” than others supports the assumption and idea that there are “fake” women out there. And thus I don’t like to see trans women referred to as “men in dresses.” I don’t like to see fat women referred to with the catchphrase “real women have curves.” I don’t like to see women who have received large amounts of plastic surgery referred to as “fake.”
All of these women are women. They are just women. Pure and simple. They are not real or fake or anything in between. They are women living in female bodies. And, unfortunately, this real/fake dichotomy is often weaponised by other women. It is socially acceptable in some communities, including feminist ones, to draw lines between different kinds of bodies. To say that some bodies are real and some are not.
This becomes especially fraught in my eyes in the realm of gender performance. Women engage in gender performance for a lot of different reasons. Because they like it. Because they are pressured to do so by society. To comply with the company dress code. For safety. Because sometimes it is fun. These reasons are complex and it is not possible to single out any specific woman and declare her “fake” or “not a feminist” because she is engaging in gender performance.
We can talk about the social structures which surround that performance. We can ask why it is that dress codes specify that women wear feminine garments. We can talk about the fact that women who appear to be of ambiguous gender can be unsafe, so sometimes they apply makeup with a heavy hand and wear overtly feminine garments, because they need to, in order to be judged acceptable by society. We can talk about the fact that, in Hollywood, women are expected to look a certain way and if they do not, they are out of a job, so they do things like getting plastic surgery, because they have to, to survive.
We can talk about the complex and loaded history of gender performance. The discrimination experienced by women who refuse to engage in gender performance. The history of rejection of gender performance; women who don’t wear makeup, don’t shave their legs, cut their hair short.
And we can damn well talk about how important it is to tear down this system. How critical it is that we stop doing this to women. But what we should not be doing is declaring that some women are “fake,” according to our arbitrary lists. Even when these lists are being employed for supposedly feminist causes like highlighting how fucked up this world is when it comes to talking about gender. Because what it fundamentally comes down to is saying that some women aren’t real. And when we do this, when we try to generate cutesy memes about “real” and “fake” women, we are doing the very thing we criticize and we are tearing down women in the process.
If you are referring to some bodies and women as fake and others as real, even if you claim to be deconstructing gender, you are contributing to the very system which you are supposedly fighting against. You are not subverting the system. You are not making a commentary on the system. You are telling people that it is ok to police bodies. Not just ok! It’s a feminist act to police bodies.
I hope that you can see the problem here. This fake/real language is very, very dangerous, and it needs to stop. The people who are engaging in it aren’t skating on thin ice; they’re already flailing around in the pond, and they just don’t know it. Because they are propping up kyriarchal systems. Systems which say that bodies are public property. Systems which say that all people can and should be evaluated in terms of how well they perform gender, or sexuality, or any other aspect of identity. Systems which say that some people, some methods, some things, some ways of being, are better than others.
When you say that a woman with heavy makeup is “fake” you are just as bad as the person who says that a woman with ambiguous gender presentation who wears no makeup “isn’t a real woman.” Because what you are saying is that a woman, a fellow human being, a person, is “fake.” Not real. And thus can be an object of dismissal. She doesn’t exist. You don’t need to fight for her. You don’t need to address her. Hell, you don’t even need to acknowledge that she is a person too, because she’s fake.
She must be a fembot.
So it’s ok if you trample her. It’s ok if you ignore her. It’s ok if you refuse to acknowledge, examine, and address the structural systems which contribute to the way in which she lives and the choices which she makes. You can just write her off because she’s “fake” and feminism is about “real” women. And you can ignore the challenges she presents to your definition of “feminism.”