As a straight, cis woman, I don’t do too much thinking about my womanhood. No one misgenders me. I’ve never been clocked. Yes, I joke about how terrible I am at stereotypical lady stuff. My hair, make-up, and nail game leaves much to be desired. This is not a source of pride for me, but rather a mild embarrassment. I’m 35 — shouldn’t I be able to blow dry my hair by now? Yet my lack of both inclination and skill in this department doesn’t make me less of a “real” woman. I’m not endangered because of it, the consequences are minimal. In fact, the only one joking about my inability to perform these aspects of femininity is me.
In addition to being dedicated to looking a certain way, society also expects women to be naturally nurturing. We’re the mothers, the people-people, the ones with emotions. But I’m not what you’d call a “warm, fuzzy” person. I always get analytical instead of emotional on those personality tests. My husband once insinuated that I let our baby cry too long before picking her up. I wouldn’t describe myself as cruel by any means but quick-to-the-hug, I am not. Yet again, no one doubts the actual fact of my womanhood, even if I sometimes get comments about acting “more like a man.”
So if I don’t meet the expectations around looks or personality, I have to wonder, why is my womanhood never questioned? Is it the fact that I have a vagina? That seems highly unlikely. Everywhere I go, people treat me as a woman and 99.9% of them have no knowledge of my reproductive organs. They couldn’t vouch for my vagina’s existence. I certainly don’t go around imagining strangers’ genitalia. Do you?
So, the question remains: what makes a person a woman?
Watching Pose, I never doubted the femaleness of Blanca, Elektra, Angel, Lulu, Candy, and crew. Sometimes, I got confused when other characters would perceive them as male — what were they seeing that I wasn’t? It’s like when other shows pretend someone is regular looking (say because they’re wearing glasses and a cardigan) and we’re not supposed to notice that there’s a weirdly attractive person under there.
The thing is, the women of Pose are so skilled at performing womanhood. The clothes. The nails. The hair. The makeup. The shoes. They understand the trappings of femaleness and are committed to executing it each and every day. I imagine for them, as activist and show writer/producer/director Janet Mock wrote, “Femininity was more than just adornments; they were extensions of me, enabling me to express myself and my identity. My body, my clothes, and my makeup are on purpose, just as I am on purpose.” And this purposefulness is key — it is not enough to simply dress a part, that part has to be integral to your identity.
Think of the season two finale — in it, we see the male characters walk the ball in drag. They’ve practiced strutting (or stumbling) in heels. They’ve got on wigs and dresses and jewelry. But as Elektra says, “Don’t get it twisted. These men are not trying to be women. These linebackers are tapping into their inner femininity and letting their inner queen come out to play.” In Pose and in real life, dressing up as a woman (whether you “pass” or not) does not make you a woman, no matter how feminine.
There’s this idea that “masculine” and “feminine” are polls, two complementary forces that a person is between. We all know this script — the “masculine” is rationale, stoic, violent even while the “feminine” is emotional, nurturing, expressive. In this framework, to be “feminine” is to be vulnerable, less than. We see this play out in Pose as characters are continually punished for showing “feminine” traits, gay and trans kids kicked out of their homes, beaten, or worse. The consequences for being outside the norm are real from women who wear less makeup getting paid less all the way to the extreme violence perpetrated against the trans community. It’s a culture of violence, of regulation, of suppression.
As a feminist, I don’t believe there’s a correlation between someone’s sex and how “masculine” or “feminine” they are. Yes, women are socialized to be “feminine” and men, “masculine.” But people are primarily people and the expectations we put on them around gender are extremely limiting and unhealthy. As activist and author Jacob Tobia told Paper Magazine, “there’s this idea that there’s only cis people and trans people, and trans people have the complicated genders and cis people have the simple genders. That could not be further from the truth — gender is simple for nobody. Even people who think that they’ve experienced gender ‘simply’ have a nuanced, complicated, and multidimensional gender experience.” None of us are just or even primarily our gender.
Pose demonstrates this complexity so well. Think of how different the women’s personalities are, how each of them is a complex mix of traits. I particularly like how the show portrays motherhood in Blanca and Elektra. Blanca is the good, “feminine” mother we are used to seeing — she loves her children, nurtures them, and fights for them. She’s descended from Clair Huxtable and Tami Taylor, strong women who use both tough and unconditional love to raise their children. Elektra, on the other hand, could be seen as the “bad” mother — she starts the show putting down her family members in an attempt to make herself feel more superior. And while she grows over the two seasons (think of the beach trip as an example of how she takes care of her daughters), she’s not who you’d go to for a self-esteem boost. No, Elektra mostly provides for her children monetarily — her house is swanky, her ball costumes and props luxurious. This may be the more “masculine” way to care for people, but it never threatens Elektra’s womanhood. Indeed, it’s Blanca who worries more about getting clocked while Elektra passes with greater ease. Where their personalities fall on the socially-constructed spectrum of “masculine” and “feminine” does not determine their womanhood, either for themselves or the society that judges them.
Gender is also not defined genitalia. That’s just silly. We categorize every person we meet quickly and easily into a gendered category with no knowledge of what’s between their legs. And it’s not about hormones or other biological processes either (see the backlash against women’s running for trying to define womanhood by testosterone level). We just don’t know those things about other people (or ourselves) and yet we’re all out here using gendered pronouns as a matter of course.
So, again, what does make a woman? If it’s not how you look, not who you are, not your biology, what’s left? Part of me wants to say it’s a performance. It’s certainly something I do every day, consciously or not. It’s in how I dress, how I walk, even how I speak. But you choose to perform and I never chose to be a woman, I never chose to be straight, and no one else does either.
Being a woman is more like a role that chooses you. It comes with impossible expectations, the pressure to live up to an unattainable ideal of womanhood. Sometimes as women we mold ourselves to match an ideal, trying to get as close as possible. Think of Pose’s Angel — she succeeds at portraying feminine beauty to such an extent that she gets big contracts in the modeling industry (only to see her success stalled thanks to the rumor mill). Sometimes, we rebel against those expectations, going in an opposite or third direction. Like Candy always ready to pull out her hammer, ready to defend herself physically whenever the situation called for it.
Regardless, when you’re a woman, you’re identity is in relationship to the feminine ideal in a way that a man’s or genderqueer person’s is not. Maybe that’s what makes a woman.