Recently, I watched a commentary video on YouTube uploaded by Mina Le, titled “explaining the hyperfemininity aesthetic,” in which she delves into the history and expansion of Barbie-core and bimbo-core across race, ethnicity, gender, political affiliations and more. These aesthetics resonate with the spray-tanned, “dumb blonde” stereotype popularized by 2000s It-girls, such as Paris Hilton and tabloids. More importantly, though, they are defined by a collective embrace of hyper-feminine fashion, consisting of Juicy Couture sweatsuits, skimpy skirts, lingerie, exposed thongs, low-rise bottoms and lots of pink.

This made me reflect on Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity, in which she describes gender as “an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts,” “the stylization of the body” and social temporality. This theory builds on Simone de Beauvoir’s idea that “woman” is a historical situation, which necessitates that in order to become a woman, one must perform as such and actualize it into reality, or, in Butler’s words, “compel the body to conform to an historical idea of ‘woman,’ to induce the body to become a cultural sign, to materialize oneself in obedience to an historically delimited possibility, and to do this as a sustained and repeated corporeal project.”

Feminists and queer people have long advocated for the destruction of the male/female binary. However, should gender be understood as fluid and should it be considered a performance, it’s worth interrogating the integrity of the cultural signs that supposedly legitimize our gender. More specifically, in the age of social media and late capitalism, performing gender through fashion — although Butler makes clear it constitutes many other behaviors — has become perversely synonymous with performing in the masculine/feminine binary as well as participating in relentless consumption. Ultimately, gender performativity needs to be unlearned in order to create a more liberatory future in line with feminist goals.

The most glaring issue with performing gender to its extreme is the risk of replicating gender in a binary frame. The ways in which we must act, talk, dress, etc. to actualize our gender under this theory are rooted in an idealized version or the expectations of said gender so that our bodies, as cultural signs, may be understood by the public. On Beauvoir’s claim, there isn’t a clear image of “woman,” for example — and there shouldn’t be — nor are there guidelines for their attributes. One might say that becoming a woman means playing into the feminine role and, certainly, that role comes with arbitrary ideals as well as a vacuum that traverses the fluidity of gender. Nevertheless, the truth is, when we partake in performance, we merely signify the archetypes of our gender, which can hardly be claimed as true representation.

This is especially true for historically limited models. Performing a certain gender varies across cultures. It may look like adopting sexist traditions and expectations, dressing in ways that don’t adhere to your personal style or having no guidelines at all. Not to mention, people of color are sexualized and thus gendered improperly in accordance with the ways in which they are fetishized much too often for no justifiable reason. As for bimbo-core, the archetype of a hyper-feminine woman was popularized by rich white women and therefore made into conventional standards of beauty.

While bimbo-core recently gained traction through social media apps such as TikTok, many people of diverse backgrounds are turning to this fashion to look the part and reclaim the aesthetic. To these people, “bimbofication” — “the transformation of an understated, normal-looking woman (or man) into a surgically enhanced, spray-tanned camp icon” — means radically embracing the hyper-feminine to counter once derogatory and misogynistic connotations attached to the bimbo figure or being unapologetically “girly,” and adopting pro-sex work, pro-gay rights and anti-capitalists beliefs.

The evolution and diversification of the bimbo figure is well-deserved. However, even in modern times, the political iconography attached to bimbo-core means little without the image, clothes, shape or performance. After all, the underlying assumption to performing gender is that it is social — that there is always an audience to ritualistically validate our bodies as such.

Physically stylizing one’s body is consistent with gender performativity theory and, while it can be radical, for the most part, necessitates consumption to participate in hyper-feminine or hyper-masculine aesthetics or performance and, thus, validates that a gender should be problematized. From rapidly expiring fashion trends to sustained gender archetypes, the reliance on feminine or masculine goods as a means to legitimize gender both wrongfully demand that gender be performed publicly as a spectacle — as opposed to embodied privately — and minimize the identities of those who do not or cannot afford to look the part.

Thus, performing gender becomes a cultural experience not devoid of historical violence that necessitated feminist discourse surrounding gender and capitalism in the first place. Consumption, itself, is politicized — heterosexual women in the domestic sphere have historically operated within “the dichotomized relationship between Mr. Breadwinner and Mrs. Consumer,” as described in a journal article by Mary Louise Roberts of Stanford University, which is to say that to be a “good woman” in the household is to consume. One problem here is that gender identity — when performed — does not dictate what or how much one consumes — it’s the other way around. By fetishizing commodities, identity is reproduced and reified, which problematically indicates that our gender identities are not our own, they are meticulously constructed by our actions.

While the term “cultural commodity” has typically been used in the context of leisure and wealth, it’s fair to say that gender has been commodified, revealing a cultural experience as our bodies become signifiers with no end in sight. In the age of public image, gender — as a performance and experience — can very easily fall down a slippery slope of bolstering the systems, such as capitalism, that supply and demand its performance when we ironically let gender be misrepresented while trying to affirm it in normative ways.

There’s no doubt that performing gender, particularly through fashion, can be a great means of self-expression, especially for trans and non-binary folks. However, it may not be a sustainable way for some to both assert and explore their gender. There is, of course, a move toward de-gendering clothing as well, but simultaneously viewing gender as performative allows the production of gender identity to be reliant on consumption and the larger fact that cultural archetypes of gender still exist to go ignored, underscoring the point of gender-less clothing. If gender should be both accessible and non-mutually exclusive with furthering normative and archetypal modes of being, we should neither rely on consumption to be comfortable in our gender nor use it as a framework for approaching the gendered identities of others.

Julie Ha is a sophomore double-majoring in English and comparative literature.