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Relationship between Gender Empowerment and Fashion

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Fashion
Wordcount: 2366 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Strike a Pose

“…actor Billy Porter, donning a golden catsuit, being carried out on a gold-trimmed litter by six shirtless men wearing golden pants. And then casually revealing that his catsuit also has 10-foot golden wings” (Nett). Some readers may be confused by this prose introducing Billy Porter at the 2019 Met Gala. ‘Are they really talking about a man?’ ‘I’m sure they have the wrong pronoun, here.’ Just like celebrities, real people and even characters in books are beginning to bend how we discuss gender and fashion and have us questioning whether we only wear clothes, or if we really wear costumes. Of such characters, Jennifer Finny Boylan – transgender, woman, baby-boomer author — and Kamala Kahn – Islamic, teenage, millennial superhero – introduce us to their worlds as “other” types of women who use fashion choices to identify themselves. As a way to conform to society’s strict rules about gender, some, like Jenny Boylan and Kamala Kahn, are obliged to choose a costume to hide their true self from the judging and unforgiving world.

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How can fashion choices dictate the life we lead? While a seemingly trivial question – how can clothes be that important? –, many layers are, in fact, in play. From the time Boylan was a young boy in the 1960s, she questioned the clothes she “had” to wear as a biologically-born male. According to social constructs of gender at the time, boys wore pants and t-shirts, and little girls wore dresses; deviating from these norms was not the ‘norm’. So, what did young Boylan do to feel ‘normal’? He dressed as a boy in public, but in a great, private world – “girl planet” –, she created a space to be herself and wore dresses, make-up, and bras, and all. She calls it, “go(ing) female” (Boylan 20,70).  Similarly, from the time Kamala Kahn, also known as Ms. Marvel, realizes her powers, her choice as to which costume she was most comfortable in was up for grabs. Would she choose to mirror her heroine, Carol Danvers, a tall, white, blonde, bombshell, or would she be uncomfortable in that patriarchally accepted persona? Kamala ends up donning a burkini — “(or burqini; a portmanteau of burqa and bikini, though qualifying as neither of these garments) is a type of modesty swimsuit for women” – in lieu of a short, tight dress, flowing blonde hair, and thigh-high boots as her alter-ego superhero attire. The University of Puget Sound’s Gender & Queer Studies student, Noelle Donnelly, summarizes, “Carol Danvers was a male fantasy. Kamala Khan is a person” (Donnelly). Kamala’s choice to wear a less revealing, far more modest costume, asserts that she is bucking the patriarchal standards of American beauty, in favor of a far more 3rd-wave-feminist statement on female choice and empowerment. Profoundly quoted in Ms. Marvel, “Being someone else isn’t liberating. It’s exhausting”, seems to be relevant for both stories, and ultimately relevant to all people who feel like they must hide their true self in fear of being marginalized, tormented, and judged. What we wear on our bodies is one way we show the world who we are.

One person not hiding their true self anymore is YouTube extraordinaire, Natalie Wynn, or Contrapoints, a transgender woman creating educational videos on politics, gender, race, and philosophy. In 2017, she tweeted the question “Costumes or clothes?” along with photos of the great entertainers Prince, Jimi Hendrix, and Liberace – all decked out in their typical performing attire. In true Twitter fashion, her page lit up with comments like, “Costumes. They didn’t dress like that at home or the supermarket–or did they?” and “If they make it work, it’s clothes”, and “Is there a difference? ;)” In order to make distinctions between the terms clothing and costume, defining both terms seems prudent. Clothing is efficiently defined as, “garments in general; also: covering” (Merrium-Webster). However, costume has several meanings: “1: the prevailing fashion in coiffure, jewelry, and apparel of a period, country, or class. 2: an outfit worn to create the appearance characteristic of a particular period, person, place, or thing. 3: a person’s ensemble of outer garments” (Merrium-Webster). Arguably, “garments in general; also: covering” and 3: “a person’s ensemble of outer garments” are strikingly similar. So, is there really a difference? Aren’t clothes merely costumes we wear for the world to perceive us the way we want it to? If that’s the case, people like entertainer Billy Porter and intellectual Contrapoints want the world to know they are here, they dress the way they want, and they don’t care what you think. Sadly, our two protagonists don’t have such gusto in the infancy of their story archetype.

Boylan’s memoir is a buffet of storytelling archetypes; she effortlessly seams together nearly all of the seven basic plots: “Overcoming the Monster”, “The Quest”, “Comedy”, “Tragedy”, and finally and most poignantly, “Rebirth”, for one, honest, fruitful, hilarious, sad, and empowering narrative (Futurelearn.com). This tying together of genres is something both our authors do, and do well. From the very beginning, Jim Boylan was perplexed as to why fashion choices seemed to be vexing him. In her ground-breaking memoir, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, Jennifer Finney Boylan (formerly Jim Boylan), recounts her life as a transgender woman trapped in the body – and clothes – of a tall, slender, white man. From a young age, Boylan knew he was different from the rest. Arguably one of the most memorable moments from Boylan’s memoir recounts the inner-monologue of a little boy:

She was watching Art Linkletter’s House Party on TV. I saw her ironing my father’s white shirt—a sprinkle of water from her blue plastic bottle, a short spurt of steam as it sizzled beneath the iron. “Some day you’ll wear shirts like this,” said Mom.

I just listened to her strange words, as if they were a language other than English. I didn’t understand what she was getting at. She never wore shirts like that. Why would I ever be wearing shirts like my fathers? Since then, the awareness that I was in the wrong body, living the wrong life, was never out of my conscious mind—never… (Boylan 19).

Boylan began to wear women’s clothing when she was a young boy. While only in these “costumes”, Boylan felt herself. In a book with 277 pages, no less than sixty pages in the book mention clothes, attire, and accessories. This statistic, alone, causes the reader to question what Boylan meant on page thirty-one when she writes,

Wearing my sisters and mother’s clothes wasn’t exactly satisfying, though. Dressing up was the start; it enabled me to use the only external cues I had to me or how I felt inside. Yet it was the thing inside that I wanted to express. I was filled with the urine that could not be quelled by Rayon (Boylan 31). 

Then why all the fuss about clothes? Why describe outfits, make-up, hair-styles, and shoes? Why use clothing descriptors as people descriptors? Boylan accentuates clothing as identifiers, just like some would accentuate gender markers as identifiers. Her relationship with clothing as means of “hiding” her true identity – and finally, freeing her true self — is present in nearly 25% of her book. Hiding in clothes and wearing costumes is just a small indication of our need to conform and play by the rules. Playing by the rules seems safe; until it’s not.

     Young rule-follower, Kamala Khan was just a typical, teenage, American girl. But was she? Noah Berlatsky of The Atlantic writes,

Like many a Peter Parker-esque nerd before her, Kamala is out of place and uncomfortable. Her parents don’t let her go to parties, and her acquaintances make clueless/mean-spirited comments about her background (“Nobody’s going to, like, honor kill you? I’m just concerned.”). The first scene … shows Kamala sniffing a bacon sandwich that she can’t eat because of her family’s dietary restrictions—wanting but not quite able to do that thing everybody else does: eat American. She’s the unpopular kid, and then she gets superpowers so she can be admired by all those who rejected her (Bertatsky).

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By using a “complicated combination” or “Rags to Riches” and “Overcoming the Monster”, Wilson tells a story of a confused, and unconfident young woman (Futurelearn.com). Kamala’s discomfort in her own body directly correlated to the discomfort she feels wearing the revealing clothes of someone else. Until she can feel less self-conscious and more comfortable in her own skin, she won’t be effective at fighting crime and ‘saving the world’. While not all coming-of-age stories have such heavy burdens – saving their communities and the world, and all – teenagers, at large, are feeling out of place, self-conscious, and weird. A study on teenagers at Harvard “…identifies adolescence as a unique period of the life span in which self-conscious emotion, physiological reactivity, and activity in specific brain areas converge and peak in response to being evaluated by others” (LiveScience). These stronger emotional feelings explain why Kamala feels terrible for being a nerdy Islamic girl, and only begins to have self-confidence when she wears her superhero costume.

Unfortunately, these feelings of inadequacy don’t always dissipate at the close of adolescence and onset of adulthood. In an interview, award-winning feminist, fabulist writer, Carmen Maria Machado, who wrote Her Bodies and Other Stories (“…a collection of short stories that uses pop culture, science fiction, fantasy and horror to meditate on women’s bodies, sexuality and mental health”), explains:

I found beauty very interesting and mysterious, but it never felt meant for me. I always did it wrong… I never liked how it looked…  But now I’ve become comfortable experimenting with different looks. I no longer feel accountable to anyone but myself, and that’s exciting and freeing. I used to feel uncomfortable in my body, which I hated for such a long time. Now I’m trying to make it up to her, because she is the vehicle that ferries my weird mind through this world, and that’s pretty amazing (Cahn).

Isn’t that what happens to Boylan and Kamala Kahn? Each is merely a shell of a human until she can find herself; be herself; love herself.

     When we empower clothing to decide what our identity is, we can be held captive and some experience freedom, simultaneously. Striking a pose becomes more about trying to prove something, than showing the world who and what you are. The cognitive dissonance of dressing one way and feeling a different way is too much for many to handle; pile on the extreme gender expectations of the modern world, and you have a perfect storm of low confidence, confusion, and unhappiness. Through the synthesis of some complex and dynamic characters – Jennifer Finney Boylan and Kamala Kahn – we see that some are forced to hide their true identity as a form of self-preservation. Only with showing your true colors, letting loose, and being yourself can you experience true freedom and happiness; even if it comes at a cost.

Works Cited

  • Berlatsky, Noah. “What Makes the Muslim Ms. Marvel Awesome: She’s Just Like Everyone.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 20 Mar. 2014, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/03/what-makes-the-muslim-em-ms-marvel-em-awesome-shes-just-like-everyone/284517/.
  • Boylan, Jennifer Finney. She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders. Broadway Paperbacks, 2013.
  • “Burkini.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 8 May 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burkini.
  • Cahn, Megan. “My Beauty Uniform: Carmen Maria Machado.” A Cup of Jo, 6 Oct. 2017, cupofjo.com/2017/10/carmen-machado-beauty-uniform/.
  • Donnelly, Noelle, “This Female Fights Back: Carol Danvers, Kamala Khan, and Ambivalence Towards Feminism in Ms. Marvel Comics” (2015). Gender Studies Research Papers. 3.
  • Khan, Coco. “All Hail Ms Marvel, a Young, Female Muslim Superhero for Our Times | Coco Khan.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 17 May 2018, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/may/17/ms-marvel-female-muslim-superhero-kamala-khan.
  • LiveScience. “Why Self-Consciousness Peaks in Teenage Years.” LiveScience, Purch, 2 July 2013, www.livescience.com/37910-self-consciousness-teenage-brain.html.
  • Nett, Danny. “2019 Met Gala: Lady Gaga, Billy Porter Bring Camp To The Red Carpet.” NPR, NPR, 7 May 2019, www.npr.org/2019/05/06/720844191/2019-met-gala-lady-gaga-billy-porter-bring-camp-to-the-red-carpet.
  • “The Seven Story Archetypes – Storytelling in Advertising.” FutureLearn, www.futurelearn.com/courses/brand-storytelling/0/steps/11272.
  • Wilson, G. Willow, et al. Ms. Marvel. Marvel Worldwide, Inc., a Subsidiary of Marvel Entertainment, LLC, 2015.
  • Wynn, Natalie (Contrapoints). “Costumes or clothes?” 22, April 2017. 3:07pm. Tweet.


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