Pink Sugar–an ode to queer femininity

I recently bought a Pink Sugar perfume dupe online. The bottle has a white label with looping writing across its front, nauseatingly pink cotton candy liquid sloshing inside. I wear it almost every day, as some return to my 10-year-old self: bright red hair extensions, shimmery lips from dollar-store lip gloss, Hello Kitty keychain dangling from my scooter. When I was younger, I had an unwavering desire for the feminine, the pink-and-blue bubblegum spectacle of it all. My magpie gaze, instead of scrolling through Depop dresses and antique-store trinkets, was drawn to the tacky gleam of a plastic eyeshadow kit, a gaudy printed cushion, a music box with gilt fairies roaming its surface. There was no cool-girl self-awareness, the kind that makes you pull back and like everything in a suitably measured way. My tiny hands played the piano and painted hideous smudges of glitter in scrapbooks with equal tenderness.

Like most teenage girls surrounded by niche aesthetics, I’ve had different fashion phases throughout my life. There was the emo phase, with its ripped jeans and black sweaters. There was the twee phase, with its long dangling jewellery and skater dresses. There was the dreaded pin-up phase, which had me spending an hour at the mirror before school every morning, painting on red lipstick and pulling on petticoats. I don’t stay with one aesthetic anymore. Instead I pick and choose elements I like from each, put together messily like a ramshackle antique store. 

Through each aesthetic, I’ve sought that one thing so elusive to teenagers: to be cool. Different. Unique. There’s a lot of negativity towards having a ‘not like other girls’ attitude, and rightfully so, when its underbelly is brewing with internalised misogyny and hatred towards other women. But when you probe that underbelly just a little deeper, you’ll find that lonely desire to feel seen as a woman, not as some mist of perfume and sweetness. The ‘other girls’ are constructed, Frankensteined beauty queens emerging from 2000s rom-coms, vanishing into the mist.

Yet sometimes, being seen is as much of a danger as being disregarded. The first time I got told I ‘wasn’t like other girls’ was when I was 16 years old, on the Number 3 bus taking me home from school. The man beside me was slurping a beer from a wet six-pack he carried on his knees, scraggly beard glinting grey in the dim light. Noticing that I was reading, he sparked up a conversation, recommending every dead white poet under the sun. He told me he loved ‘exotic’ Chinese girls. He told me that it was rare to see good women like me these days. And lastly, he gestured to my outfit – a white embroidered blouse with a long pleated skirt – and told me that he liked my dress.

When I got off the bus five stops early, waiting for my mum to pick me up in the rain, I didn’t know why I felt so scared. He was being nice, wasn’t he? Yet there was something in the way he looked at me, the way he phrased his questions, his interest that didn’t waver when I told him I was sixteen. I never wore that outfit again. I suddenly hated that good-girl costume, my makeup, my neatly polished Mary Janes. I hated that this femininity, which I desired only for myself, undeniably appealed to men.

The ‘female gaze’ is a way to present yourself femininely without it being catered towards men. But how can one truly present oneself in such a way, totally free from the centuries of men’s impact on women? Isn’t the idea of ‘womanhood’ so often tied to gender norms, entwined with women’s subservience throughout history? 

An aesthetic that presents a solution is cottage-core, made popular in recent years through Tumblr and TikTok. The aesthetic favours long dresses, lace, antiques, and greenery. It’s an idealistic approximation of rural life, represented through activities like foraging, going on picnics, baking bread, painting, and growing plants. It’s worth emphasising that this is very much an aesthetic, not a practice ‒ it consists of pretty things to gaze upon, not take part in. The cottage-core aesthetic has gained traction in the queer community, particularly with queer women. It’s seen as a way for queer women to not only reclaim, but subvert traditional femininity, especially when they have felt exiled from it for so long. Scrolling through lesbian Tinder, you see countless bios filled with love hearts and flowers, asking about picnic dates and love letters and houseplants. Still, I wonder if cottage-core is truly as freeing as it seems. I don’t mean to belittle the love for it, because it brings comfort and joy to many people. But I wonder if it dulls queer desire down, makes it into something pretty and lacy, garnished with pearls. Is this really a reclaiming of femininity, or just another way to remove the ‘ugly’ parts of sapphic desire, making it soft, safe, and acceptably ‘womanly’? Queer women’s desires are so often not taken seriously, and I wonder if cottage-core is leaning into stereotypes rather than breaking out of them.

As a Classical Voice student, this phenomenon of ‘dressing up’ desire reminds me of breeches roles in opera, otherwise known as travesti roles (an Italian word meaning ‘disguised’). The roles are played by women in drag playing young men. This has been a common practice since the beginning of opera in the 1700s, and was never regarded as immoral, even in conservative eras. Breeches roles were more of a whimsical concept, something silly that only happened on the stage. The reason for the existence of these roles is thought to be because a young role favours a higher voice, which is ideal for a female singer. Yet there seems to be more to it than that. My favourite breeches role is that of Cherubino in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro: an excitable young boy who has become obsessed with women and sex. Beaumarchais, who wrote the play the opera was based on, specifically said that Cherubino could only be played by a ‘young and very lovely woman’, as young men were not ‘sufficiently developed to feel the subtleties in it’. This hints at an almost feminist idea of women somehow understanding sexual desire and love better than men ‒ that a man’s desire is cruder, less refined.

But right when this subversiveness rears its head, it is swiftly cut off by reality. Cherubino, throughout the opera, is always hiding: in boxes, under beds, in closets. He is undressed and redressed as a dandy, then a soldier, then a woman. It seems that he can never express his desire for his Countess unless he is disguised in some way. When he is finally able to talk about love freely, it is played for laughs ‒ the idea of a woman’s voice expressing the same level of sexual desire as a man’s is seen as ludicrous. In his brief moments of tenderness, of true burning wantonness, Cherubino is always in some sort of costume, always hiding some part of himself. And isn’t the role itself a costume too? The whole concept of a breeches role seeks to touch women’s desire without any of the moral implications, by tinting her with a boy’s lens.

I feel this reflects an ongoing trend throughout history ‒ that women can only portray desire when disguised in some way, whether through pretty lace dresses or gaudy men’s costumes. It’s never becoming to show the full intensity of your want. You have to dress it up, disguise it, beautify it, make it into something palatable for a viewer. If you don’t, it’s seen as crude, whereas in a man it would be seen as normal.

This need to hide can create a predatory perception of queerness, and I wonder if it’s part of the reason why many queer women today feel inherently creepy, as though they’re the weird lesbian ogling girls in the locker room. The societal expectation to disguise your desire means you feel it’s something that needs to be hidden – like there’s something wrong with it. I’ve never felt more out of place than at my ex-girlfriend’s high school prom. It was an all-girls private school, and everyone had lavish, expensive dresses. I wore a suit and tied my hair up. Nobody else, even the girls who I knew were queer, brought a girl as a date. My date wore a long purple dress and a dainty string of pearls around her neck. Next to her, I felt like an imposter, an infiltrator. At the afterparty, ‘Mr Brightside’ blaring, I took a sip of her cruiser, put my arm around her on the couch. The makeup I’d done for her was glittering on her cheeks. My fake eyelashes were falling off. My arm felt sticky and cold on the couch above her. I felt like I couldn’t do anything without suddenly feeling like the first queer girl at intermediate school, changing into my PE uniform in the toilet cubicle just in case anyone thought I was looking.

I don’t know what the solution is to these harmful perceptions of women’s desire. I don’t think there even is one, merely a series of intricacies formed from centuries of women’s repression. When so much of femininity and womanhood is to do with the concept of servitude to men, it’s hard to know what to take and what to leave in the past. Femininity in women is mocked as fussy, pointless, and vapid ‒ yet masculinity in women is shunned and rejected. Being too different is weird, yet being just different enough warrants old men on buses to praise you for being a ‘good woman’. When the things you adorn yourself in for your own desires suddenly spark someone else’s, who are the adornments for? Did you truly choose them for yourself?

Sometimes I long to return to the uninhibited joy of girlhood, skinned-knee-melted-iceblock-play-pretend freedom. When first kisses weren’t even on the horizon, and boys were just who I shared the monkey bars with. When I wasn’t afraid of snagging what I wanted, wide-eyed and eager for the scented erasers at the Scholastic Fair, the neon-pink notebooks at Smiggle. When pretty things were simply pretty.

These days I wear what I want: waistcoats some days, old bridesmaid dresses the next. An older male relative told me I don’t dress as nicely anymore. Like an art school teacher, he said, not a retro wife. No longer laced up in tight bows, good-girl Mary Janes rubbing ‒ yet still undeniably feminine. And I wear the Pink Sugar perfume, because I like it.

Cadence Chung is a poet, student, composer, and musician from Te Whanganui-a-Tara, currently studying at the New Zealand School of Music. Her debut poetry book anomalia was published in April 2022 with Tender Press, and her poetry has been published and commissioned widely by Starling, The Spinoff, Landfall, Turbine, takahē, and others. She put on her original musical In Blind Faith at BATS Theatre in August 2022, performed her Sapphic lyre compositions at Verb Festival 2022, and composed song cycles to NZ poetry for Cud-Chewing Country, an interdisciplinary concert. She takes her inspiration from dead poets and antique stores.