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Sweetly Subversive: Feminine Aesthetic as Performance Art

Sweetly Subversive: Feminine Aesthetic as Performance Art

Mimi Nadia Chenyao | Fake and Basic

“How are you a trans man but present female? ????”

– Some rando on Instagram

“You think you’re a guy, but you always wear these dresses. You’re some kind of freak.”

– Former family friend

“These dresses, your style, and your long hair are all girl things … I don’t understand why you’re so determined to be a ‘tomboy’. It’s not your nature.”

– My mom

“I could never go out in public looking like that and not feel massive amounts of dysphoria. You’re obviously just a very confused cis woman.”

– Some rando on Reddit

“So, tell me … how do you wear dresses, and think of yourself as a ‘he’?”

– Former coworker

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for performance art.

Performance art is different from the performing arts. The latter involves putting on performances — such as singing, dancing, or acting — to be consumed by an audience without their explicit participation. The former, on the other hand, is the act of putting on a real-time, often interactive experience for the intended audience.

The intended audience may not even know that they are an audience, which makes it all the more fun.

An example of the performing arts is putting on a play about a trans boy who dresses like a girl to make people question the role of gender aesthetics in society. The play follows the boy as he goes to a dress shop looking like a “girl” and gets misgendered a few times by people in the store. He stops and corrects them; when they express confusion about his gender identity, he explains himself. The audience sits back and watches; all the action happens on the stage.

An example of performance art, on the other hand, is to just be in a dress shop one day and have someone who you think is a girl walk in, only to have them reveal that they’re actually a guy. The audience is part of the action; what they do and say influence the outcome and thus the piece of art as a whole. Do they react with disbelief, confusion, horror? The purpose of the performance here would be to make people question the role of gender aesthetics in society by creating a disturbance in their real lives.

I consider myself primarily a writer and a visual artist, but my two favorite projects both fall under the “performance art” category.

The first is called Fake and Basic. It’s a brand that looks like standard Instagram-girl fare on the surface, but makes you go “oh, what the fuck?” if you choose to look a little deeper. It pairs showy, colorful, “basic” images with stuff that, up until about a year ago, I couldn’t imagine sharing with even my best friend. The purpose of Fake and Basic is to talk about very real shit under the guise of being frivolous. The project is made up of a website and an Instagram account.

The second is called Sweetly Subversive, but informally I refer to it as “my personal style.” It consists of looking like a dolled-up, ultra girly girl while behaving like my slightly crass, overtly honest, queer-as-all-hell transmasculine self. Sometimes I go for a classic Southern belle vibe, and other times I’m more modern and trendy, but a dress, heels, styled hair, and makeup are always part of the look. The purpose of Sweetly Subversive is to attempt to dispel the notion put forth by the majority of books and movies — that a person who likes dresses, heels, and pink is always a girly girl with traditionally feminine values.

All the girly girls wear pink

In all of the stories I consumed growing up, characters mostly conformed to stereotypes. Looks served as shortcuts to their behaviors and personalities, especially when it came to gender.

Every character who wore dresses or liked pink was portrayed as a “girly girl” — Marie from The Aristocats, Regina George from Mean Girls, Princess Peach from Nintendo’s Mario franchise, Sharpay Evans from High School Musical, and the antagonistic girlfriend from Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” music video are the examples that come off the top of my head at the moment. [1] They were either bitchy, stuck up, or helpless, but they were also beloved, admired, popular, worth saving. This was only reinforced by the pink, feminine aesthetic they all shared.

Mimi Nadia Chenyao | Fake and Basic

Marie is a prissy lady [photo source]

Mimi Nadia Chenyao | Fake and Basic

Regina George is a self-absorbed bitch [photo source]

Mimi Nadia Chenyao | Fake and Basic

Princess Peach always needs to be saved [photo source]

Mimi Nadia Chenyao | Fake and Basic

Sharpay Evans is high-maintenance and must always have her way [photo source]

Mimi Nadia Chenyao | Fake and Basic

The unnamed girlfriend of Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” music video is possessive, mean, and demanding [photo source]

Look at all of that pink! That well-done hair (even in Marie’s case)! Those facial expressions! I get that visual cues in art are necessary to convey a character’s personality, but come on. When all of the characters you think of off the top of your head conform to this stereotype, there’s a problem.

I could never for the life of me figure out whether or not these characters were supposed to be likeable. I hated all of them on principle, because they made it seem as though liking pink or liking dresses was directly correlated to being feminine. Where were the femme characters who weren’t like this? I wanted to see characters in frilly dresses who weren’t afraid of getting dirty, characters with immaculately done hair and makeup being loud and outspoken. I wanted the princess to save the knight for once, goddammit. Weren’t all royals taught how to be valiant and to fight well?

Most importantly, I wanted to see a girly-looking girl who wasn’t sure she was a girl at all. As someone who loved feminine aesthetics but had never felt “like a girl”, I was constantly frustrated by the fact that there wasn’t even the inkling of a notion that one could be femme looking, but not feminine. Why were all dress-wearing people portrayed as submissive, stuck up, or high-maintenance?

After many nights of rants to my best friend and my mom (both of whom didn’t really understand why I thought that this was such a big deal), I decided that I’d had enough. If I couldn’t find representation for people like me, I would become that representation. I wanted to fully divorce the image of a dress and heels from the symbol of traditional femininity that it had been attached to for far too long.

Thus, Sweetly Subversive was born. I was seventeen years old.

The making of a wardrobe

I’d landed my first job as a store model for Abercrombie and Fitch near the end of high school. It paid minimum wage, and I had to deal with many a harried customer — “store model” was a fancy term for “employee whose headshot got sent to HQ in case they were a fit for advertising” — but I had my own pocket money and a sweet A&F discount, both of which would be important when it came to the logistics of building out my wardrobe.

I’d accumulated quite a few dresses already; my mother thought I looked “sweet” in them and had gotten a few for me as gifts. However, the existence of my own money meant that I could now shop online, and that turned out to make all the difference.

Both of my parents were against the idea of online shopping in the early 2010s, especially on sites such as eBay and Poshmark. Those online marketplaces stored personal information, such as your address and your credit card number, and the transactions themselves were between you and an independent seller. Who was to say that one wouldn’t be scammed?

I had no such reservations, and dove into the wonderful world of secondhand shopping. Not only was I able to find the dresses I’d coveted years ago when they were still being sold in store, but I could buy them for way, way, way less. $10 for vintage Hollister? $15 for a new Lilly Pulitzer dress? Sign me the fuck up.

I’d taught myself how to sew a while back, and with the arrival of these new dresses, I threw myself into altering through trial and error. Additional straps here, a lowered hemline there … soon enough, I was confident that I could alter almost any dress to fit me. Combined with the dresses I’d owned prior to this time, which had been banished to the back of the closet during my hair-gel-and-AXE-body-spray phase, I now had a full wardrobe that I loved.

Sweetly Subversive was ready to go live.

Lights, camera, acción

I’d worn dresses since I was young, but at sixteen, I was so dysphoric that I’d chopped my hair and was slowly inching my way out of the closet. Unfortunately, this was before I knew of the existence of binding, so every time I tried on clothes meant for people assigned male at birth, I felt like an awkward little girl playing dress-up in her older brother’s clothes. Masculine clothing only served to emphasize the “female” parts of my body that I hated — my chest was clearly visible under a button-down shirt, and my waist-to-hip ratio was made obvious by any pair of mens’ pants, even with a belt.

I had no such problem with dresses.

To my delight, once I’d altered them, the majority of frilly frocks hid my boobs and made me look like I was made of angles, not curves. My delicate-looking bone structure, which made me look scrawny in boys’ clothes, seemed as though they were made for dresses. Full skirts hid my hips and behind.

In short, I looked like a pretty doll in dresses, void of any sex appeal whatsoever.

It was perfect.

The timing was perfect, too — in the fall, I would be starting college far, far away from anyone who’d previously known me as a weird kid who was very clearly having gender identity issues. The school was in the South, which meant dress-appropriate temperatures year-round, and it was an alternative college with a large LGBTQIA+ population. A quick scroll through the “Welcome Class of 2014” [2] Facebook page told me that my new classmates were similar to me in that they liked books and stories and disliked gender stereotypes. There were even some posts by older students explaining why some people on campus who were assigned female at birth didn’t shave their legs, or why some people who were assigned male at birth walked around in skirts with painted nails.

Surely these people will Get It, I thought excitedly, as I packed my suitcase full of seersucker dresses, Jack Rogers sandals, and tulle. I intended to go in looking like the most stereotypically vapid, basic Southern girl on the planet, as if I’d walked out of my sorority house during a dress-up event, gotten lost, and had somehow ended up on my college’s campus.

Mimi Nadia Chenyao | Fake and Basic

Me on my first day of college, age 18

Let the performance commence! I thought on the first day of orientation. My hair was curled Southern-girl style, and I wore an innocent-looking white dress and pink wedges. I decided to keep the fact that I was doing this ironically to myself for the time being. Performance art was always better when the audience wasn’t expecting anything.

Sweetly Subversive was a hit, although only a few people actually Got It. I was determined to not ruin it for anyone; I would only tell them that the whole thing was meant to be an ironic statement if they brought it up first. I got through college, started Fake and Basic the project (which overlapped with Sweetly Subversive in more ways than I’d intended), graduated, and moved.

Am I saying that I trolled literally everyone who assumed that I was a pretty, docile little girl?

Am I saying that I put on my dresses every day with my tongue firmly lodged in my cheek?

Why yes, yes I am. [3]

Surprise!

Letting the cat out of the bag

I’m only spilling the secret now because I’ve already spilled the “secret” that I’m trans, and by the looks of the comments at the beginning of this whole thing, not enough people are Getting It.

Aesthetic is powerful. I’ve been working on both Fake and Basic and Sweetly Subversive since college, and I can say first-hand that humans are highly visceral creatures who have definitely been brainwashed by stereotypes. I’ve never liked the human tendency to take things at face value, but since it was an inevitable part of human nature to judge based on looks, I decided to have fun with it.

It’s been almost six years now. To be honest, now that I’m fully out as a man, I don’t know if it’s time to end Sweetly Subversive once and for all. It turns out that it’s cool to ironically perform femininity when you identify as a cis girl, but you’ll constantly be barraged with questions and invalidation if you do it as a trans guy.

Worth the trouble?

As fun as 24/7 performance art is, there’s a downside to this aesthetic — as long as I continue to dress this way, I have a hundred percent chance of being misgendered every time I go out. Even people who have met me before, and know that I use he/him pronouns, fuck it up sometimes. And ever since I came out to everybody, getting called she/her, even by accident, has become less and less appealing to me.

I’ve spent a good amount of time these past few weeks wondering if the aesthetic was still worth it. There are ways to look like a stereotypical guy and still have a femme aesthetic — see, like, all kpop boys ever — but is it worth sacrificing the dresses that I love so much? I feel sometimes that I would have to completely give the dresses up if I’m ever to be taken seriously as a trans guy, and that fucking sucks.

Also, some members of the trans community have been … let’s say less than welcoming once they saw how I presented myself. Despite the fact that looks are not inherently gendered, and that trans people can look like and identify however they damn well want, I always feel awkward going into trans-only spaces, especially trans men-only spaces. Every time, I wonder if I’m going to be accepted, or questioned so hostilely that I decide to leave.

Is the performance art still worth it, if it invites so much distress and hostility into my life? Isn’t that part of the point of this whole project — to challenge people? Distress and hostility are sometimes direct products of being challenged.

Maybe, after getting top surgery, I’ll undergo hormone replacement therapy and continue to present the way I currently do. Would having a flatter chest and a deeper voice override strangers’ perceptions that they’re speaking to a “girl”? There are trans guys who have transitioned and present masc who still get misgendered. What about within the trans community? Will I be seen as legitimate and not just a “fake” who is “looking for attention”?

How do I balance my personal style with my desire to be seen as male in society’s eyes?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. There’s likely no easy solution. I love dresses and performance art. Do I have to sacrifice one form of self-expression for another?

Whatever the answer may be to my big questions, my response to the quotes at the beginning of this essay is this — I’m not confused, I’m just performing. Whether or not this will stop in the future does not change my past intentions, and I’ve had so much fun subverting stereotypes with dresses and pink over the last five years.

Thank you for being a part of my art. It’s been my pleasure to put on this show. ♚

Notes

[1] If you click on the links, I make no guarantee that those songs won’t be stuck in your head.

[2] Cohorts at my college were named by the year we arrived at the institution, not the year that we graduated.

[3] This is why having a fashion blog never sat well with me — everyone thought that I was, well, actually that sweet and prissy. As much as I loved my daily outfits, it’s much easier for me to write long essays about my thoughts than short, lighthearted paragraphs about my clothes.

View Comments (2)
  • I feel like I’ve been majorly trolled and I’m so okay with it. Love this deep dive into gender (as always) and can’t wait to see what you have in store next. Here for it whether it involves more dresses, a KPop star aesthetic, something else, or a combo of a million things.

    xx
    annabelle | http://www.mixed-hues.com

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© 2019 by Marty Noel Chenyao. All rights reserved.

marty@fakeandbasic.com | @fake.and.basic

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