The Blackwood Research Group

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On Love and Family —Cross-posted from the Feminist Wire

Our very own Evelyn Blackwood shares her thoughts on love and family with the Feminist Wire

On Love and Family


Queer Fashion in Singapore: When “lesbian chic” is about being afraid to look like a lesbian

Was just reading Gayle Pitman’s article on “The influence of Race, Ethnicity, Class and Sexual Politics on Lesbians’ Body Image” (Journal of Homosexuality, 2000: 40,2) and what caught my eye was her discussion on “passing” among the lesbians in her study. In her study, she came across a number of women who raised concerns with regards to their ability or inability to pass as White, as heterosexual, or as both as strategies for quotidian survival. In one particular vignette, Pitman highlights the experience of a young white college student who had categorized her anorexia as her “last attempt at heterosexuality” (54). Pitman suggests that the particular student’s issue with her body image may be linked to the fear of claiming a lesbian identity. Pitman elaborates: “by constructing her appearance based on mainstream standards of female beauty, she was able to protect herself from the opinions, assumptions,and prejudices of others, and potentially from anti-lesbian violence. The consequence of this protection, unfortunately, was a serious eating disorder that lasted for several years” (54).

While conducting my research among femmes (feminine presented women who desire female-bodied persons at some point/s of their lives) in Singapore, I too noted a fear toward claiming a lesbian identity. In this country, gays and lesbians are tolerated as part of the state’s neoliberal project to promote diversity in order to invite foreign investment. The liberalization toward gay and lesbian fulfills economic agendas without being accompanied by legal human right changes such as repelling the sodomy law of 377A that makes vulnerable a population of MSMs in the country, or given equal rights in terms of housing subsidies. In this context, gays and lesbians are tolerated only to be exploited to provide the appearance of sexual diversity. How has this political ambivalence toward sexual minorities affect the way a queer female Singapore identify and embody herself?

I met for instance, some Singaporean femmes who styled their bodies according to the latest global consumer trends by following fashion blogs, magazines, shopping at international brands such as Zara, Forever 21, Topshop, etc. By paying attention to mainstream beauty ideals, these women stated also their desire to be cosmopolitan- “ambitious and worldly” where being sexually “open-minded” and fashionable validates their cosmopolitan aspirations. At the same time, while their beauty regime presents the image of lesbian-chic and signals their desirability among other women, some of these femmes see their beauty as a strategy of passing. Looking beautiful was one of the ways in which these femmes attempt to pass off as heterosexual which may also reveal the fear of claiming a lesbian identity. One of the stylish femmes in my study identifies as “Pure Lesbian”–a label describing a feminine woman who sexually desires another feminine woman- but  articulated being afraid to be discovered a lesbian by her family and close friends. I found her narrative fascinatingly ironic because while she dresses in the latest accessory and trends to attract feminine women, the lesbian-chic aesthetic that she subscribes to (she talks about The L Word quite a lot) is also utilized as a strategy to look “straight”.

The lesbian chic aesthetic in Singapore has also produced the sentiment that butch-presentation- masculine females wearing baggy clothing- is a fashion faux pas, and an embarrassment. Further having a butch looking partner, does not further a femme’s aim to pass as straight. Some of these femmes have resorted to androfying their partners to not only fulfill the lesbian chic image but also using their partners bodies to manage their passing strategies. It is easier to bring home an androgynous female as your best friend to conservative mom and dad than to bring home an overtly looking masculine butch- the latter would definitely raise suspicion toward being a lesbian- a confrontation that a lot of my femme interlocutors fear.

The lesbian chic aesthetic is possibly about managing the fear from being read as lesbian.  My observations highlight how the “lesbian chic” physical ideal in Singapore is about looking less “lesbian” (by presenting a gender normative image of femininity) and more chic. It seems that among this crowd in Singapore, what is particularly “lesbian” about lesbian chic, is about trying to not look like one–yes, the “fashion faux pas”one.

“Perhaps … I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am a woman, because I am Black, because I am a lesbian, because I am myself — a Black woman warrior poet doing my work — come to ask you, are you doing yours?”

Audre Lorde in “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” 


Evelyn Blackwood wins 2011 Ruth Benedict Book Prize

P R E S S  R E L E A S E

AQA Awards the 2011 Ruth Benedict Book Prize to Evelyn Blackwood’s Falling into the Lesbi World: Desire and Difference in Indonesia

The American Anthropological Association’s Association for Queer Anthropology (AQA, formerly the Society of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists, SOLGA) is very pleased to announce that Evelyn Blackwood has been awarded the 2011 Ruth Benedict Book Prize in the category “Outstanding Monograph” for Falling into the Lesbi World: Desire and Difference in Indonesia (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2010)

The Ruth Benedict Prize is presented each year at the American Anthropological Association’s meeting to acknowledge excellence in a scholarly book written from an anthropological perspective about a topic that engages issues and theoretical perspectives relevant to LGBTQ studies.

More about the book:

In Falling into the Lesbi World, Evelyn Blackwood takes us on a vivid ethnographic voyage to West Sumatra.  Her evocative narrative allows us to experience the complex relationship between gender and sexuality in play among female-born persons whom we might be tempted to call “lesbians.”  Given the global drift of language and culture, it’s perhaps not surprising that her protagonists often call their way of life “lesbi,” designating themselves variously as “tombois” and “femmes,” and with local words for “guys” and “girls.”  She shows us, however, that it would be a grave error to assume that the lesbi world is equivalent to what we know as lesbianism, even as there are significant points where meanings and practices do intersect.

Tombois tend to discover their “maleness” when they are young, living very much as boys when they are children, and feeling masculine freedoms as embodied and authentic. But even as they can enact masculinity in their relationships with ideally compliant and domestic femmes, the path to full manhood is blocked at every turn.  Establishing independent households as couples is rarely possible for tombois, and the pull of familial obligations often can draw them back into the role of daughter.  Physical transformation is rarely imagined or desired; tombois live with their physical ambiguities, which they understand as part of who they are.

The title of the book is apt:  the reader is plunged into a world where the meanings of words constantly shift and both compliance and resistance appear as lesbi sensibilities are enacted.  Blackwood’s analysis comes from years of work in West Sumatra and reflections on her position as a femme in a previous relationship with a tomboi, an experience that first alerted her to the ways that Western lesbian and Indonesian lesbi existences merge and stray from one another.  Not unlike the stereotyped roles of sharply distinguished expectations for butches and femmes in the West, tomboi-femme couples struggle with appropriate sexual behaviors.  Only the tombois are definitively lesbi; femmes are “normal” women who are thought to really desire men.  Even so, some femmes understand their attraction to tombois as more than merely situational or transitory, and thus struggle to understand whether they are authentically lesbi.  Lesbi lives, then, while seemingly shaped by prevailing understandings of gender, with appearance, personal style, sexual preferences, and other attributes lining up, can defy the imperatives of gender, reconfiguring desire and identity.

Falling into the Lesbi World poses provocative questions about issues queer anthropology has on its front burner:  how transgender subjectivities are imagined and enacted and how global flows of information and language shape queer experience.  But Blackwood does more.  She tells us that it’s not enough to say that women’s same-sex desires and relationships are less visible than those between men, and hence less worthy of analysis.  We need to ask the right questions and fall into lesbi worlds if we are to better grasp the complexities of sex and gender across cultural divides.  Blackwood guides us into these worlds and makes them come alive.

Evelyn Blackwood is Full Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Purdue University. Her books, edited volumes, and articles include award-winning scholarship on Native American female two-spirits and tombois in Indonesia. Much of her work critiques matrilineal theory, matrifocality, and marriage through rich ethnographies of gender, kinship, and political economy, focusing on rural and urban West Sumatra.

The Ruth Benedict Book Prize will be presented to the winning authors during the AQA Business meeting on Friday 18 November at the 110th American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting in Montréal.  AQA would like to thank the Ruth Benedict Book Prize Committee for their thoughtful work, including former Benedict Prize winners Tanya Erzen and Ellen Lewin, and Graduate Student Representative, Richard Martin.  For questions or additional information, please contact the Committee Chair, Mary L. Gray, at

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