by Maisha Z. Johnson
Many mainstream feminists would have a problem with me, and in order to work for true liberation for all people, they’re going to have to get over it.
These feminists would criticize some of the aspects of my self-expression that keep me grounded in my sense of self-worth, even as I come across daily reminders of how little I’m valued as a queer black woman in this world. They’d have a problem with the way I dance, feeling myself as I swerve to the music in a way that makes some straight men leer. They’d have a problem with the way I walk, swaying these hips I couldn’t contain even if I tried. And they’d have a problem with the way I dress, when I’m all femmed out and showing off my curves.
I haven’t spoken to any of these feminists about my self-expression, so you may wonder how I know they’d have a problem with me. In mainstream feminist conversations, the messages are everywhere. People are debating whether or not Beyoncé can claim to be a feminist, as if sexual objectification of her body takes away her agency to determine what she wants to call herself. They’re criticizing the glamorous appearance of trans women of color activists, as if a person who embraces femmeness is disqualified from true activism. They’re denouncing Nicki Minaj for positioning herself under the male gaze, as if her presence in the public eye is harmful to women.
So even though I’m not the subject of these conversations, I get the message. If you are a woman of color, in particular, and your actions or appearance might arouse straight men, you aren’t allowed to participate in their brand of feminism. This exclusionary feminism claims to speak for the needs of women, but in practice, it only demonizes the most vulnerable women, especially women of color, transgender women, and femmes. It upholds a horrible legacy of policing black women’s bodies, forbidding us from making our own choices and villainizing us when we’re deemed overtly sexual.
BGD accepts writing and video from queer and trans people of color! SUBMIT your work.
I’m not here to debate Beyoncé’s feminism. Others have spoken and written beautifully on the subject, so you can read their work if that’s what you’re here for. I can’t speak for the trans women who choose glamour as a form of self-expression, though I can listen as they speak for themselves about what visibility means to them.
I can speak for what my own femme self-expression means to me. I’m well aware of the male gaze on my body. If the media’s treatment of women wasn’t enough of a reminder, I’ve got regular cat-calling and other forms of sexual harassment to let me know I’m being objectified. So it’s taken work for me to de-center the male gaze and carry myself in a way that just feels good to me.
That means when I’m putting on make-up, I choose shades because I like how they look on my skin. When I’m getting dressed, I choose a skirt that’ll make me say damn, girl when I glimpse my legs in the mirror. When I’m dancing, I make the moves that rock naturally through my body and make me feel good.
Some might say my choices invite straight male attention. But if I avoided doing what makes me happy just because straight men might find it sexually appealing, I’d be one miserable femme. More than that, I’d be yet another black woman silenced by white feminists paying more attention to white, heterosexist norms of womanhood than to the needs of women of color or queer women.
This has happened throughout the history of women’s equality campaigns. In 1851, Sojourner Truth had to ask, “Ain’t I a woman?” to assert her place in the women’s movement, and black women still have to remind white feminists that we, too, are women worth fighting for. In pop culture today, Lily Allen sings “Hard Out Here” as a feminist anthem about “equality” and against objectification, singing, “Don’t need to shake my ass for you ’cause I’ve got a brain” as black women shake their asses around her. And white feminists expressed their outrage when hackers leaked Jennifer Lawrence’s nude photos, but said not a word when Jill Scott suffered through the same violation, as well as body shaming, when her nudes were released.
The attitudes from these pop culture examples also prevail throughout our movements. That much is clear from the fact that women of color and transgender women often take a back seat, if they have a seat at all, in mainstream feminist conversations. It’s the reason we must create our own movement spaces, where we can celebrate our self-expression as one of our tools for surviving policing from all sides – including the patriarchy’s expectations of what we should be and mainstream feminism’s rules about what we shouldn’t be.
If even feminists, who claim to fight for the rights of women, center the male gaze and refuse to speak up for those of us with a femme expression of sexuality, then I must speak up for myself. I say that my femme expression is not a roadblock against women’s liberation. My self-expression is an essential part of the healing and empowerment that allows me to create my own place to thrive in this world. And ain’t I a woman?
BGD is a reader-funded, non-profit project. Please GIVE today and help amplify marginalized voices.
Do not republish anything from this site without express written permission from BGD. For more info, go here.
Maisha Z. Johnson is a healer, a troublemaker, and author of two poetry chapbooks, Split Ears and Uprooted. She breathes her Trinidadian roots and experiences as a queer black woman and survivor of violence into her art, working to amplify the voices of those often silenced. She blogs at www.maishazjohnson.com.