watch hari nef’s searing ted talk on femme aesthetics and trans survival

'Men are scary pigs and patriarchy is real,' Nef reminds us a powerful TED talk.

by Hannah Ongley
12 May 2016, 9:25pm

In a deeply honest essay last year, Hari Nef dissected the prevailing misconceptions about transgender women. "Most trans women struggle to shape/frame their bodies in accordance with patriarchal beauty standards — not because these standards are good or valid, but because they preserve dignity and even save lives," she wrote. The actress and IMG model has now expanded on these thoughts in a searing TED Talk that name-checks everyone from Caitlyn Jenner and Lana Del Rey to radical second wave feminists like Eleanor Burkett, all in the space of just 12 minutes. Titled #FreeTheFemme, Nef's talk is a powerful lesson in the dangers of shaming femme "aesthetics of survival." For the record, though Nef has a lot to say on Jenner's "conservative politics and bumpy advocacy," she's not here for criticism of the reality star's fashion choices. 

"What if Caitlyn had appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair in a pantsuit," she asks, "no makeup, her hair pulled back, arms crossed — yeah, I think she would have looked really cool, but would we all have accepted her so readily as a woman? Would she had appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair to begin with?"

She cites a particularly divisive 1979 book by radical feminist activist Janice Raymond called The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male (yuck), in which the author argues that a trans woman is not breaking any boundaries by modeling herself as a "caricature of much that feminists have rejected about man-made femininity." Nef welcomes Raymond to 2016 by questioning why it is trans women that cop the blame for this when the patriarchy hasn't just created these ideals but enforces them very strongly — and often very physically. "I believe that Raymond's call for women to break real gender boundaries is a call we should answer," she says. "But do we have to answer with our bodies? Is it our fault if the dominant, manmade beauty ideals exclude the bodies that most of us were born with? And is it bad if we want to do something about that? Make a couple of changes? Because men are scary pigs and patriarchy is real." Amen.

It's not just trans women who are criticized for clothing themselves in lipstick and high heels. Nef also points to an article by Sarah Nicole Prickett about the portrayal of Lana Del Rey as a gender deserter for rejecting upwardly mobile feminism in favor of passive glamor. But she goes in particularly hard when addressing why femme aesthetics are so important to women not protected by cis, race, or class privilege. "It is so hard to gain access to hormones, to jump through all the medical hoops," she says. "It is so expensive to buy cosmetics, new clothes, healthy food, any number of means towards body feminization. Even if a trans woman does manage to look or seem femme, her race, her class, or her citizenship can place further targets on her back. When it comes to trans women with limited resources, their femme can be the difference between life and death. So I gotta ask — why are we shamed for our femme?"

It's worth watching more than once. It's also video proof that Hari Nef hosting Fashion Police would be absolutely the most brilliant thing ever. 


Text Hannah Ongley
Photography Alasdair McLellan

TED talks
Hari Nef