By Siân Hunter
Vanity Fair’s cover that launched Caitlyn Jenner into the public eye in June 2015 signified the growing importance and acceptance of transgender representation in fashion and popular culture. However, the styling of Jenner — and of Annie Leibovitz’s photographs — reproduces the traditional idealised femininity that permeates much of the fashion press and advertising. While the fashion industry can be key in expressing societal tensions and signal-boosting marginalised groups, there are still strict codes to which it must adhere. In this two-part blog I will explore the theory behind the representation of gender, both in the media and in everyday life and apply this to examples of transgender individuals who are present in the fashion media.
The gender binary
In Gender Trouble (1999), Judith Butler states that individuals ‘only become intelligible through becoming gendered in conformity with recognizable standards of gender intelligibility’ (Butler, 1999: p22). Gender norms are based on ideals of masculinity and femininity, in order to continue the ‘heterosexualization of desire’ (Butler, 1999: p24).
With the idealised ‘hyperbolic versions of “man” and “woman”‘ (Butler, 1993: p257), those who fail to fit specific ideals can risk punishment. In fact, the myth is believed over the lived experiences of individuals. As Simone de Beauvoir writes, if the feminine ideal ‘is contradicted by the behaviour of flesh-and-blood women, it is the latter who are wrong: we are told not that Femininity is a false entity, but that the women concerned are not feminine’ (de Beauvoir, 1949: p283).
The performativity of gender
According to Butler, gender norms are achieved ‘through a stylized repetition of acts‘ (Butler, 1988: p519) that include bodily gestures and movements as well as dress (Butler, 1999). In this way, gender is performative: the reality is only true to the extent that it is performed (Butler, 1988).
The desire for coherence in our identities causes this repetition of acts through our bodies, which in turn creates the illusion of a natural gender that is being expressed. Acts are repeated by other actors and the illusion continues as imitations of imitations proliferate. This construction of gender conceals the reality that it is based upon fiction (Butler, 1999). There is no such thing as a ‘real woman’ and yet fashion is complicit in the perpetuation of this myth. Magazines and brands rely on our desire to re-enact gender in order to sell their products.
Butler, J. (1988) ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,’ Theatre Journal 40(4): 519-531
Butler, J. (1993) Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of “sex”. New York: Routledge
Butler, J. (1999) Gender trouble. Tenth Anniversary Edition. London: Routledge
De Beauvoir, S. (1949) The second sex. London: Random house