Dr Ciara Cremin is a senior lecturer of sociology at the University of Auckland. Her work spans a range of topics from Marxism, to video games, to feminism and gender studies, through the lens of Critical Theory (which aims to explain social problems as symptoms of existing social structures and cultural biases, rather than from individuals alone). She has written several books exploring the societal impacts of glorifying masculinity at the expense of femininity - which is associated with traits such as tenderness, empathy, sensuality, and vulnerability. Storyo is a platform that shares the stories about women, stories that are often overlooked for the same reasons why stories about men and masculine traits like success and domination are overhyped. This is why we were especially excited to speak to Dr Cremin, an expert in this field. She has recently published a book, The Future is Feminine, where she explores these ideas deeply and relates them to the current extractive, capitalist era that we are living through.
I discuss in my semi-autobiographical book, Man-Made Woman, my earliest memories of wanting to wear feminine things but repressed desire to do so out of fear of ridicule. My childhood was, like many people who are sexed male, defined by the pressures to be masculine. I played football and video games. My role models were men and I disavowed anything that could be considered girly.
Then, in the 1980s, I encountered Prince. His music and persona had a huge influence on me. He taught me that I didn’t have to be like others, that difference is something to embrace and cultivate. He taught me that there was nothing shameful in being feminine.
It’s thanks to him, I think, that a child, alienated in the working class environment they were brought up in, my horizons extended and I found the inspiration and courage to chart a journey through life that differed from parents, siblings and peers.
I always felt out of sort. I was critical of the world I was brought up in but at the same time rudderless. It was around the age of 17 or 18, for reasons I can’t recall, that I started reading classic fiction but most importantly Marx. Marxist theory helped me to understand why the world is the way it is and, more importantly, what needs to be done about it. But it wasn’t until the age of 24 that I went to university. By then I had read a lot of books and had clearly formed ideas that leant themselves to a sociology degree (I did joint honours in politics and sociology). It’s a bit of a cliché but true that with life experience behind you, studying at university can be easier and sure enough I thrived. I had no desire to be an academic but no desire either for a 9-5 job. I was either on the dole or self-employed before going to university. With the university offering me scholarships to study for an MA and PhD, I ended up having a career in academia by default.
My interest in gendering took a distinctly psychoanalytic turn. I was fascinated by Freud’s theories of childhood repression and how theorists such as Herbert Marcuse and Slavoj Żiżek adapted psychoanalytic theory to their critiques of capitalism, ideology and subjectivity. They helped inform the direction I took my PhD in.
But in all honesty, neither gender or patriarchy were topics that I focused much on until coming out as a [trans] woman in 2015. White heteronormative men are able to theorise gender and coloniality in the abstract. When I started to live as a woman, my perspective on gender took a more concrete and visceral turn.
For the first time in my life I was marginalised because of my identity and how I looked and subject to discrimination. While the effects of patriarchy – I prefer the term androcentrism – affect cis and trans women differently, there are nonetheless similarities, as too with any marginalised group. Hence, my perspective on gender but also, able to empathise with other marginalised groups, race and coloniality underwent a change.
Tenured trans academics are extremely rare in academia, including in sociology, a field that directly addresses social and economic injustice. With my knowledge of sociology - and Marx and psychoanalytic theory in particular - and the unique perspective being trans afforded me, I felt compelled to shift my focus onto this topic. Man-Made Woman was my first tentative step in what in many ways is a sociological minefield, a book that, reflecting on my life, I felt the need to ‘get out of my system.’ But by the time I started writing my follow up book, The Future is Feminine, I felt emboldened to develop a systematic critique of androcentrism and the stunting effects of masculinisation from a [trans] woman’s perspective.
Many cis women would probably find it strange that I love, for example, wearing pantyhose. In fact, everything strongly evocative of femininity. This can in part be explained by years of repressing the desire to wear feminine things, or if doing so only in the home, which felt, in this respect, like a prison.
I can’t emphasise enough how liberating it is to put on a dress in the morning and spend twenty minutes or so applying my makeup knowing that I do so in order to present to the world, that ‘women’s’ clothes, shoes, makeup, foundation wear and accessories are all elements of my everyday wear. Being in the world and amongst people dressed this way was initially intimidating. Now it has become me and I wouldn’t dress any other way.
But clearly many women do enjoy wearing makeup and pretty dresses, to ‘get dolled up’ for special nights out. Many of the fabrics, scents and colour combinations are completely foreign to men. I get the impression that cis women take the sensuality of the clothes available to them for granted.
There’s nothing in the masculine wardrobe that’s the equivalent to having your legs encased in a luxury pair of silky pantyhose, none of the pleasures in dressing in a variety of styles, figure hugging dresses, knee length boots or the transformations afforded to you with makeup. It’s a creative process, a playful one even, and you can dramatically change your appearance in ways that you cannot with men’s clothes. Perhaps for some cis women makeup is a routine and an obligation. Not for me. I never get bored of putting makeup on, nor the sensuality of a quality lipstick or contouring the face and achieving dramatic effects with eyeshadow. I’m much happier as a woman, especially as I now no longer have to keep up the pretence of being a man. Part of that is the sensuality of the feminine style.
I guess this is something that The Future is Feminine addresses.
In our topsy-turvy world, being masculine pays dividends and being feminine puts one at a disadvantage and is considered a sign of weakness. Yet many of the traits we consider as feminine, such as caring for others, tenderness, kindness and love, are essential to mental health and well-being, especially of others.
We need to nurture and affirm the feminine, a femininity as the soul of anti-capitalism. For if those with masculine traits, aggression, competitiveness, entitlement, fear of revealing one’s frailties, continue to dominate movements for liberation, we won’t be much better than the capitalists we want to rid the world of.
I love how students in discovering the joy of theory and developing confidence in their voice produce wonderful, imaginative and original work. One of the biggest challenges is the emotional stress, economic and interpersonal difficulties students encounter, and how to ensure they’re able to thrive despite this.
Like many people from working class backgrounds, I had to overcome a lack of confidence and develop a belief in myself, something I still at times struggle with. But there’s a danger of overcompensating and becoming arrogant. Confidence and humility are a good combination. Did I always know what I wanted to do? Absolutely not. I was in my thirties before concluding that an academic career was probably the best option available to me. We think we know ourselves, I don’t think we do. While in some ways I haven’t changed much since my mid 20s, I still to this day have a lot to learn and am constantly adapting through my reflections in ways that I hope make me a stronger and better person.
This is something that I do often struggle with. Affirmation is important but for all the affirmations we receive, it’s the criticisms that we tend to focus on. When alone and feeling depressed, music lifts my spirits, especially when it’s funky.
Well until recently I had Simple Minds down as a generic U2-wannabee rock band, until that is I discovered a rich catalogue of early new wave classics, especially the albums Empires and Dance and Sons and Fascination / Sister Feelings Call. If ‘Lovesong’ doesn’t get you on the dance floor, not much else will. In terms of current music, I’m listening to the album Prioritise Pleasure by Self-Esteem, a really good pop album with a hard edge.
Cultural diversity – UK. Beautiful landscapes and being relatively safe dressing openly as a woman – NZ.
Be confident in yourself, especially around girls; read more books (try Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism for inspiration); there’s nothing wrong in wanting to wear feminine things; the 1980s is the best decade in popular music, make the most of it (check out Prince’s Dirty Mind – see if you can persuade someone to take you to the London gig - and SimpleMinds Empires and Dance, both from around that time, and Miles Davis Ina Silent Way as a gateway into avant-garde jazz); your family can be arseholes but they try their best, be kind to them, antagonising them achieves nothing, be kind to others.
The next big project, whatever that turns out to be.
Bad-ass is being trans.
Professor Alison Pullen is a lovely person who was recently declared the most important feminist in Australia today. I’m sure she’d have a lot of interesting things to say.