Why is fashion mocked but not sport, where the goal is, for example, to put a ball on the grass behind a line?
Why are girls at a pop concert thought of as stupid but not men screaming, crying and fighting at a football match?
Why are romance novels scoffed at but not ghostwritten crime thrillers?
Why do romantic comedies elicit eye rolls but not formulaic Bond films?
Why is pink a frivolous colour but not blue?
Why are girls allowed to play with trucks but boys aren’t allowed to play with dolls?
Why is it okay for girls to enjoy soccer but not okay for boys to enjoy ballet?
Why so much attention on about girls playing with pink toys but not boys playing with guns, swords, all kinds of military apparatus?
Why is it shameful to enjoy Britney’s music but not AC/DC’s? (After all, the musical value is the same)
Why is knitting foolish but not playing pool at the pub?
Why is a love of handbags laughable but not a fixation on accessories for a car?
Why is celebrity gossip shallow but (male) sports gossip, which fills TV news, newspapers and programmes like “The Footy Show,” a worthy use of time?
Why does “man up” mean “stop being weak”?
Why do women read novels by men but very few men read novels by women?
These questions all have the same answer.
It may seem that the easiest way to achieve gender equality is to do away with femininity, with the idea that women should reshape their bodies, decorate themselves, spend hours turning themselves into people that “look like women.”
But this privileges masculinity. This buys into the very idea that the patriarchy has propagated: masculinity means strength, rationality, aggression, and power. Femininity means passivity, emotion, artifice and frivolity.
If we want to break down all patriarchal concepts of gender, that the category of man is synonymous with masculinity and the category of woman with femininity, and are mutually exclusive (that is, that you can’t be a “real man” and be feminine and vice versa), we have to rethink femininity all together. We have to construct it in a new way, make it powerful. I use the word construct deliberately. It needs to be conscious. We are still too deep in patriarchal concepts of femininity to use femininity without consequence. Everywhere objectification and sexualisation and women and girls bombards us. How can we reconstruct femininity in a way that isn’t patriarchal?
First of all I want to say that femininity should not be associated with women. But this is a complicated idea because of patriarchy’s centuries-old construction of femininity to assist its oppression of women. Those traits I mentioned earlier – passivity, emotion, artifice, frivolity (and you could name thousands more) – are negative. Masculine traits are positive. And here is the crux: they are only positive when men possess them. So we get the typical insults applied to women who are seen to transgress femininity (and how easy to overstep the mark): “shrill” for women who speak their mind and out of turn, “bitch” for the same thing, “bossy” for women who show leadership, “slut” for women who claim sexual agency rather than passivity, and how long could we go on for? Femininity is ultimately supposed to be about attracting men. That’s why feminists are called “man haters.” Because they fundamentally oppose the idea that their existence needs male validation. That’s the scariest idea patriarchy can hear.
By the same token, insults applied to men police masculinity just as effectively. As Jessica Valenti writes:
“What’s the worst possible thing you can call a woman? Don’t hold back, now.
You’re probably thinking of words like slut, whore, bitch, cunt (I told you not to hold back!), skank.
Okay, now, what are the worst things you can call a guy? Fag, girl, bitch, pussy. I’ve even heard the term “mangina.”
Notice anything? The worst thing you can call a girl is a girl. The worst thing you can call a guy is a girl. Being a woman is the ultimate insult. Now tell me that’s not royally fucked up.”
Policing masculinity works through denigrating femininity and therefore women. It works through misogyny.
““Femininity is depicted as weakness, the sapping of strength, yet masculinity is so fragile that apparently even the slightest brush with the feminine destroys it.” – Gwen Sharp
Our binary gender system means that men who express “feminine” traits, say by crying or enjoying “feminine” things such as arranging flowers, are not “real men.” You can’t be masculine and feminine at the same time. In fact, masculinity is defined by an avoidance of femininity. How about if we de-sexed and de-gendered femininity? This means that “feminine” wouldn’t be attached to genitals, chromosomes, even bodies – however we define gender. Basically the term “femininity” wouldn’t be suitable for the kind of body-performance I suggest but since I’m working in a patriarchal symbolic I will use the word. I also use the term because I recognise the denigration of femininity has been synonymous with the denigration of women, is the basis of misogyny, and reclaiming it is a way of freeing women from being the objects the patriarchy wants them to be, to become true subjects with human agency.
Most essential to me is making femininity about subjectivity. Femininity under patriarchy is about making our bodies amenable to men. Is there a way to reclaim femininity for ourselves, as fluid and changeable, so that one day we can feel like curling our hair and wearing heels and the next wear trackpants and no bra, without feeling that we are abandoning our duty, without feeling that we aren’t “real women” today, without worrying we won’t be treated with respect, without feeling we are missing any advantages by not complying with patriarchy, without feeling guilty, without the world curling its lip or heaping slurs on us?
Traditionally femininity has been about objectification. Yes, turning ourselves into objects. Looking at ourselves as objects. Decorating our bodies by inhabiting the male gaze. The way women have internalised the male gaze is scary.
As Simone de Beauvoir said back in 1949 “Woman…is even required by society to make herself an erotic object. The purpose of the fashions to which she is enslaved is not to reveal her as an independent individual, but rather to offer her as prey to male desires.” So skirts, heels, frills, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, decorative hats, unwieldy coloured fingernails are not designed for free bodily movement and in fact often hinder it. Men’s clothing needs to be practical: shirts without lace or frills, plain pants (it’s forbidden for men to wear skirts), flat shoes, and on special occasions suit and tie. It is not supposed to draw attention to men’s body but allow him to express himself, allow his personality and opinions to shine through. On the other hand, women in positions of power are constantly criticised or evaluated on their choice of clothing, hairstyles, bodily comportment. Women in movies and TV shows are shown fretting over what to wear – this would be unacceptable in a male character. Why? Because women’s bodies are viewed as objects, something to be adorned, and women in sexist pop culture view their own bodies as objects, to be adorned for the male gaze. To be shaped to be amenable to patriarchy.
To reclaim femininity we have to understand these origins. Yes, it has been utilised for patriarchal purposes. Maybe we can say that femininity can be feminist, but it can be (and certainly has been for centuries) anti-feminist. To use Foucault’s analysis, femininity has been used to create docile bodies, though Foucault of course was bad with gender, so we have to apply his very good concept of (male) bodies being manipulated into soldiers, prisoners, students. If only he had picked up on the incredible differences in the ways female bodies are produced.
Sandra Lee Bartky’s analysis of the way female bodies are produced as objects is pretty much the best thing ever. She knows that “[t]he strategy of much beauty-related advertising is to suggest to women that their bodies are deficient” so that femininity is based on a “pervasive sense of bodily deficiency.” Shame is used to make us discipline our bodies in often crazy ways. You shouldn’t have hair there. You shouldn’t have fat there. You should have a gap there, and a curve there, and a visible bone there. This is because “[w]oman lives her body as seen by another, by an anonymous patriarchal Other” as Bartky says. This is reinforced at every turn. On billboards. In “women’s” magazines (often working against women rather than for/with them). On the street when a man thinks he has a right to comment on her appearance. In her home when a relative calls her pretty.
This is the message women get from everywhere: the most important thing is how you look. Then they are laughed at for accepting the message. Girls are told they should be pretty, they should like pop music, they should like pink, and then they are mocked for it. Girls are caught in a double-bind. Why can’t we stop telling them that being a girl is essentially weak, without giving them any alternatives?
This is also why girls claim to be “not like other girls” or to take it as a compliment when someone (usually a boy) tells them they are “not like other girls.”
When femininity is trivialised, women are trivialised. When masculinity goes unquestioned, patriarchy goes unquestioned.
So, do undo all this historical and cultural work we have to be aware of it. One way to do this is by acknowledging that all gender is artifice. Femininity has been intimately linked with artifice, superficiality, “faking it,” while masculinity has been linked with solidity, truth, natural, pragmatic, down-to-earth. “Feminine” gestures are unnecessary and foolish, such as the stereotypical hair flick, movement of the hips, limp wrist. Drag performances show up this “constructed” femininity clearly. We also get this idea through the common assumption that queer men who “act feminine” are “flamboyant” or somehow faking their speech patterns, body movements and gestures.
Heterosexual masculinity is the only form of gender expression that is “stripped back” and “natural.” Surprise surprise.
But masculinity is just as much faked and performed. Do men really need to sit with their legs so far apart? Do they need to drape their arms over nearby pieces of furniture? Do they need to swig from a glass with their elbows at a ninety-degree angle? Do they need to clap each other on the back?
Nope. Artifice. Of course, we can’t avoid Judith Butler here: gender is “a stylised repetition of acts [so that] the appearance of substance is precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief.” Basically, gender is “real only to the extent that it is performed.”
If we recognise that gender is a performance, we can detach it from arbitrary markers of genitals and chromosomes. Why would we want to reclaim femininity? It has been used to objectify us, distract us, trivialise us. All that time we spend putting on makeup could be spent reading good books. All that time spent criticising a woman politician’s outfit could be spent examining her policies. But femininity isn’t inherently any worse than masculinity. And there are some things typified as “feminine” that we need a whole lot more of: emotion, affection, kindness, carefulness, even frivolous fun. I think we can reclaim femininity by dissociating it from objectification and shame.
Shame is really hard to get through. As women we feel obligated to shave our legs, our armpits, shape our eyebrows. We are obligated to make ourselves objects. If we can come to a different, more liberating understanding of our bodies we can spend hours looking for a nice dress or putting on makeup if we feel like it, but if we would rather sleep in or read a book we won’t think anything of it. Above all there should be no requirement for women to shape their bodies and faces as if they were deficient, just as there is no requirement for men. If a woman never shaves, plucks, dyes, whatever other regimes that get thrown at women as compulsory, why should we care? Her body isn’t there for us to look at. Rather than looking at our bodies we can experience them, how they move fast, sweat, beat, let us feel pleasure, let us feel pain, the thrill and exhaustion of running or scoring a goal or lifting weights, how they show what we’re feeling, tears or embarrassment or laughter. If we feel all this, if we know our bodies in this way, shame takes up less space. This is body positivity – knowing all the things our bodies can do rather than all the ways that they don’t look. Let’s not leave Riot Grrrl in the 90s. Femininity can be feminist – if we don’t view our bodies with the male gaze, but experience them as our own, as our connection with the world and all its sensations and joys and tragedies.
45 years ago Germaine Greer wrote: “Whenever we treat women’s bodies as aesthetic objects without function we deform them and their owners. Whether the curves imposed are the ebullient arabesques of the tit-queen or the attenuated coils of art-nouveau they are deformations of the dynamic, individual body, and limitations of the possibilities of being female.”
The definition of strength that suits patriarchy is aggression, competition, denial of emotion and self-reliance. But when you have all this, who would suggest that tanks, guns, brawls on footy fields, hacking a path through jungle, speeding around in a loud and decorated car, swallowing back tears, looking at women’s bodies as if they had no heart, soul or mind and shuddering at the idea of drinking a “chick drink” are examples of strength? Until men stop viewing “feminine traits” as weak and seeking to avoid them at all costs, we won’t be rid of our stupid notions of gender and the damage patriarchy has wrought on women, men and the world.
We need to detach “being a woman” from objectification. A femininity that is not about attracting men. We need a feminist patriarchy-smashing femininity.
I am an I, not a she, not a her, not “my girlfriend” or “my daughter” or “my wife” or sweetheart, baby, darling. My lipstick is the colour of blood, the lifeforce. I know that flowers grow from nothing, everywhere. My hair is long and not ornamental, it catches the light and gives out its own light, it whips and warms me and drips with sweat. I cry when I feel beautiful music and I feel the beauty and spirit of the wide mountains like a kick in the guts. When I cry it is salt and water and heat and intensity. I eat pizza, read philosophy and keep my nails sharp enough to cut skin. I don’t smile in deference, I smile because I am strong enough to show kindness. I am not scared of my emotions. I don’t need to beat nature or prove my survival skills because I know I am part of it. I don’t leave a room that is filled with sadness. I touch without violence. I am not an empty space, I am filled with strength. My body moves fast, sweats, heats up. I am not pretty. I wear skirts and occupy my own space and don’t apologise for it. If you undermine me I can protect myself. I lift weights with my brothers and box with my sisters. I’m wear heels and I haven’t shaved my armpits. I wear a thousand bracelets and I am quick to anger. I cry when I see somebody crying and I shout at those who take me for decoration. I see no contradiction. My makeup is warpaint.