Ladyface, You Got the Cutest Little Ladyface…

Blackface was once a staple of the vaudeville circuit. Those days are gone, and with good reason.

Blackface pantomimed and satirized a downtrodden group of people in the United States. Darkening their faces and engaging doing things such as eating watermelon, singing minstrel songs and “shucking and jiving” while making fun of black dialect served to reinforce the worst stereotypes of black people. It reinforced the idea that all black people are the same, that all black people are less intelligent and trustworthy than white people, and that they deserved their status as second-class citizen.

Blackface remains as a stain on American culture, and I’m glad it’s fallen out of favor – in its original context. But it still thrives in another.

In many nightclubs, a form of blackface still exists. Men put on elaborate costumes and cake on makeup in a caricature of women, calling it drag. That form of ‘ladyface’ is overt. But there’s another kind that that’s more insidious, and that happens when male-to-female transgender people try to become living stereotypes of all that women are supposed to be, circa 1958.

And just as blackface is now regarded with horror, it’s time for ladyface to go, too.

I was raised to be an independent and self-reliant woman. I was never asked, “Are you going to college,” but “What are you going to study?” I was never asked by anyone in my family what my wedding would be like, but what I wanted to be. I was never taught how to apply eye shadow or do my nails because my mother couldn’t care less about such things. I was told, implicitly and explicitly, that women were meant to be more than a palette for cosmetics and clothes.

So when I saw drag queens glamorizing the most superficial aspects of womanhood, it made me uneasy. Here was a minstrel show, with (usually) white men making fun of women instead of making fun of black people. The more things change…

But I suppose you could at least argue that drag shows are entertainment, and satire does have a valid place in artistic expression. I don’t like that argument in this context, and I think it misses the point, but you could make an honest go of arguing it.

But what, then, am I supposed to make of male-to-female transgendered people who do the same thing in their pursuit of being a “real” woman?

I recently had an exchange with a MTF who was upset because he had to engage in an activity he saw as masculine. He ended the day gritty and discouraged because a “real” woman wouldn’t have done that kind of work. But as the activity didn’t require the use of a penis, nor did the presence of female genitals get in the way of the work, I asked why a woman couldn’t do it, too?

I was told I didn’t understand transgender psychology, and that MTFs often hypermasculinize to hide their transgender feelings. He said once they transition, they try to adhere to female stereotypes in an attempt to be convincing.

And, he insisted, there’s nothing misogynistc about that.

Now wait up.

Since time began, women have been told what they must do and what they cannot do because they are women. Women have told they must be married off and become mothers and stay at home. Women have been told they cannot live alone or have a career or be independent. Women have been told they must keep their hair certain length and a certain shade, that their face must be hidden under layers of chemical sludge, that they have to wear clothes that mark them as women. Women are told that their natural bodies are wrong, ugly too hairy, age too quickly and are only worth something when men find them worthwhile. Women can’t do things reserved for men, like work with their hands, or do dangerous things or hold positions of power. Women can’t act too smart, lest men fear that she is smarter than they are. Women can’t pursue a man she likes, lest she be a slut. And god forbid she’s rather be with a woman than a man.

Since time began, women have been told what they must do to be a woman and what they can’t do. It’s often men who tell them this. Sometimes, it’s other women who reinforce it. And worst of all is when a woman does it to herself. But no matter who is saying it, it’s misogyny, because its aim is to keep women in a subservient place, rather than letting her be the author of her own destiny.

Feminism has fought hard to change that. Feminism has told women we can be scientists rather than servants, mechanics instead of mothers and welders instead of just wives. Feminism has told girls that they can climb trees and play in mud rather than have pretend tea parties and play with dolls. Feminism has broadened our horizons and dared us to dream for greater.

But instead of cleave to that, I have seen most MTF transgender people I know opt for the stereotypes of womanhood. Rather than smashing sex stereotypes, they have seemed to be heavily invested in maintaining and reinforcing them.

And that’s going backward.

I’ve had people try to tell me all my life what a real woman is or isn’t. The last thing I need is self-proclaimed women doing the same. The minstrel show needs end.

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5 comments

  1. I saw a drag queen show in Vegas about 3 years ago. We must’ve gone to *very* different venues, because I didn’t feel made fun of at all. It was mostly singers/performers, and although the comedy routine halfway through *definitely* was satire, the rest of the show was quite awesome to watch. For some of the singers, you forgot them were actually men!

    As for the second part of your post, I understand where both of you are coming from. You are offended by MtF transgenders using stereotypes of feminine behavior/looks, because you grew up (like myself) being told by Society that “this is what you should be”. I was raised in a non feminist household though…I’m 28 and have lived independently for 11 years, and my mother STILL gets depressed that I don’t date, do my nails, like clothes shopping or spend gobs of money on makeup/hair products. Luckily, my 2 younger sisters are “girly girls” to the extreme…

    But women who were formerly men have not been through this. The stereotypes they dealt with are different than ours, though also harmful. I don’t really blame them for acting/dressing hyper feminine, at least for the first few years…after all, once someone degrades them for being female or refuses to respect their personal space because their womanly body “belongs” to everybody…they will most likely become less stereotypical. It’s a learning process, and while it is a little annoying to see overt stereotypes used to show that one is a “real woman”, it’s not anything to lose sleep over (imo).

  2. It’s just another case of men perpetuating the Cult of True Womanhood.
    It reminds me of this documentary on kabuki plays I saw in high school in which the narrator commented that the men who play female characters are able to be more woman than actual women.
    There really is no difference between blackface and drag except that people know that blackface is used by racists but not that misogynists dress in drag. In their defense, I’m sure most aren’t intentional about their misogyny, but they are perpetuating a negative idea of women nonetheless.

  3. SweetandSour

    Glad I stumbled on this site – I’m currently married to a MTF crossdresser and this issue annoys me NO END! My husband would have you believe that the sole sum of a woman is how red are her nails and how tight her dress. Not to mention the clown make up and six inch heels. Like, seriously?!! Luckily, I’m one of those genetically blessed ‘vagina owners’ and don’t need all that crap to look female. I just do. The end. And amazingly enough, this vagina of mine doesn’t stop me kicking balls or running businesses or doing all sorts of ‘manly’ stuff that girls couldn’t possibly do if they’re feeling feminine. We must feel all icky and manly inside.

    Yep, that’s probably the most irritating comment of the lot. They ‘feel feminine’ when they dress like 1950s housewives or a hooker down the same street. Funny, because I don’t remember ever feeling feminine. I feel human, like everyone else.

    Makes me question what the hell they’re all talking about. Is there a version of womanhood us born girls don’t know about? For I’ve never met a genetic girl yet who feels feminine, unless we’re taking mo they hygiene products, lol.

    Just sayin’.

    • Oh, I hear you. I tried to be supportive – I really did. It just felt ickier and ickier each time. The funny thing is, I went into that relationship after thinking it over a good couple days and deciding I would be as supportive and open-minded as I could. I bought clothes for him, took him to a day of spa treatments, the works. I went to support groups and even tried crossdressing myself. It was transgendered people themselves who turned me off on transgenderism. They treated wives and girlfriends horribly.

  4. SweetandSour

    Feminine hygiene products – not ‘mo they’. What the hell is ‘mo they’?! Even auto-correct is trying to tell me what to do. 🙂

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