“Femininity? It’s the Aesthetic of Subordination”: Examining Femmephobia, the Gender Binary, and Experiences of Oppression Among Sexual and Gender Minorities

Abstract

The devaluing of femininity is a social problem with serious consequences. Violence against women, men, transgender people, and racial minorities is often exacerbated when elements of femmephobia are present. Femmephobia refers to the devaluation and regulation of femininity and suggests a separate, perhaps overlapping, phenomenon specific to gender (e.g., femininity), rather than gender/sex (e.g., woman) or sex (e.g., female). Yet, despite growing evidence warranting the consideration of femmephobia, little research has considered femininity as an intersectional axis. Femmephobia has been examined in a fractured manner, isolating its various manifestations in specific, rather than overarching ways. The current paper explored how these systems are interrelated and argues that sources of oppression underlying many forms of violence today (e.g., anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes, Incel attacks, sexual violence, transgender murders) are all symptoms of the same underlying social prejudice: femmephobia. While sexism, transphobia, homophobia, and racism also play a role, previous research tends to overlook or conflate the role of femmephobia in fueling prejudice and violence. Using in-depth interviews and thematic analysis, the current paper explored the intersecting role of femmephobia in experiences of oppression among sexual and gender minorities (N = 38). Two thematic networks are presented. The first network pertains to masculine themes: masculine privilege, masculinity as protective, and masculinity as the norm. The second network pertains to femininity: feminine inferiority, femininity as target, and femininity as inauthentic. The connection between these two thematic networks illustrates the symbiotic relationship between femmephobia and the gender binary. Finally, patterns identified from the thematic analysis were used to generate a model of femmephobia. This paper suggests that the gender binary is not merely a division; it is also hierarchical and regulated by femmephobia.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Notes

  1. 1.

    Arguably, the reason femininity is blamed is precisely because it is devalued.

  2. 2.

    The term “gender nonconforming” is used to refer to people whose “gender exists outside of the norm of their gender or for a gender binary” (van Anders, Galupo, Irwin, Twist, & Reynolds, 2019, n.p.). While noted as being dated, this term is also critiqued for having a medical/pathologizing frame (e.g., it is a term that is often applied to others, and rarely adopted by an individual; see van Anders et al., 2019). However, it should also be noted that many femme women consider their gender to exist outside of gender norms and therefore frame femme as a form of gender nonconformity (Brushwood Rose & Camilleri, 2002; Hoskin, 2019b; Volcano & Dahl, 2008). Thus, these categories should not be considered mutually exclusive.

  3. 3.

    It should be noted that, although gay men are often categorized as “subordinate masculinities” within the field of Masculinities, given that they are men who are frequently excluded from (hegemonic) masculinity, gay men can equally express femininity, masculinity or androgyny while being classified as such. Thus, the language used to characterize participants’ gender expression throughout is reflective of their own gender stylization and self-determination.

  4. 4.

    The question of able-bodied status, however, was not systematically asked at any point during the study, and larger considerations for the intersection of disability cannot be made. While this is a limitation of the data, it is important to note that the sample was not entirely comprised of able-bodied individuals.

  5. 5.

    While the sample did not allow for an in-depth analysis of race, it should be noted that race is always infused with experiences of acceptance and discrimination, whether or not it is recognized by participants.

  6. 6.

    This is reflected in the first point of the model of femmephobia (Fig. 2; see “Discussion” for a full description).

  7. 7.

    This is the crux of the model of femmephobia as a whole: how gender and axes of power come together to make femininity a target for violence and discrimination.

  8. 8.

    This is reflected in the second point of the model of femmephobia (Fig. 2; see “Discussion” for a full description).

  9. 9.

    While the theme of masculinity as protective was identified within the data, it is important to consider for whom masculinity is protective, and in what social relations or institutions.

  10. 10.

    This is reflected in the third point of the model of femmephobia (Fig. 2; see “Discussion” for a full description).

  11. 11.

    This is reflected in the fifth point of the model of femmephobia (Fig. 2; see “Discussion” for a full description).

  12. 12.

    As described in the “Discussion”, and Point 3 of the model, entrances into masculinity by those AFAB are simultaneously policed for the failure to comply with patriarchal feminine norms (Fig. 2; see “Discussion” for a full description).

  13. 13.

    These findings are reflected in the fourth point of the model of femmephobia (Fig. 2; see “Discussion” for a full description).

  14. 14.

    The diagram illustrates five examples of the many intersectional regulatory forces that maintain patriarchal femininity. Other regulatory forces might include, but are not limited to, ableism, affect, or the valuation and celebration of femininity itself.

  15. 15.

    To clarify, hegemonic masculinity refers to a type of masculinity that is “culturally exalted above other expressions of masculinity” and femininity (Connell, 1995, p. 77).

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Funding

This study was funded by The Soroptimist Foundation of Canada and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada doctoral award. The first author was supported by a Social Science and Humanities Research Council Doctoral Award as well as by The Soroptimist Foundation of Canada.

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Correspondence to Rhea Ashley Hoskin.

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Hoskin, R.A. “Femininity? It’s the Aesthetic of Subordination”: Examining Femmephobia, the Gender Binary, and Experiences of Oppression Among Sexual and Gender Minorities. Arch Sex Behav 49, 2319–2339 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-020-01641-x

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Keywords

  • Gender binary
  • Femmephobia
  • Femininity
  • Gender hegemony
  • LGBT+ prejudice
  • Femme theory