Femininity, revisited

Perhaps the greatest challenge to thinking women is the challenge to move from the desire for safety and approval to the most “unfeminine” quality of all — that of intellectual arrogance, the supreme hubris which asserts to itself the right to reorder the world.

— Gerda Lerner

What we ought to see in the agonies of puberty is the result of the conditioning that maims the female personality in creating the feminine.

— Germaine Greer

On my old blog, I had a series of posts entitled “In defense of femininity.” This was my round-about way of saying that it’s not sinful or necessarily anti-feminist to express certain forms of socially defined ‘femininity.’ It’s undeniably true that the constructs of femininity as a whole are central to female oppression.  I understand that it’s painful to think about the social roles and costumes used to constrain women’s behavior and define ‘woman’ as a particular kind of social actor. It may be easier to dismiss the whole mess and declare yourself radical. But this emotional short cut is not helpful to women. Total renunciation of all feminine characteristics is an oversimplification of a very complex phenomenon. It is theoretically lazy, but moreover, it is politically ineffective because it doesn’t offer women practical, real-life instruction.

Feminism should give us analytical tools that we can apply to own lives. In order to do this, we cannot treat femininity as a monolithic concept, experience, or alleged choice. Being a ‘woman’ is the cumulative effects and embodied experience of being molded by an entire lifetime of feminine social conditioning. It saturates every aspect of life under patriarchy. Expectations of feminine behavior and appearance taint every relationship, every social interaction, every professional opportunity, every fear, and every desire of humans socialized as girls from birth. It’s in our speech patterns, our hand writing, our laughter, our mannerisms and movements. It’s emotionally difficult to unpack. But this is a challenge we cannot turn away from. The extent to which female humans are conditioned to embody and internalize various forms of ‘femininity’ is exactly how seriously we must take feminist analysis of these practices. It will require much more than dismissing women for wearing mascara and leggings or for wanting to be nice and resolve conflict. Feminism should provide women with criteria that we can use to evaluate, form judgments, and make decisions about the potential value of ‘feminine’ conduct. One of feminism’s tasks is to interrogate the unique harms and benefits flowing from each and every different manifestation of ‘femininity.’

For example, it is undeniable that high heeled shoes are both uncomfortable and the direct cause of many wearers’ physical deformities. High heels should be avoided and criticized accordingly. It is objectively provable that certain “beauty” products contain dangerous carcinogens— especially when applied directly to our skin, lips, eyes, and scalp day after day, month after month, year after year. It is appropriate to criticize and resist the social coercion placed on women to wear make-up because it comes at our great personal expense. Sheila Jeffrey’s 2005 book Beauty and Misogyny offers an incisive critique of many practices associated with the “beauty” industry, from lipstick to labioplpasty. I highly recommend it.

By comparison, the color pink is objectively harmless. It is not pink itself, but the cultural association with women and femininity, that is dangerous because it marks the wearer as weak and, therefore, as a potential target for sexual harassment or attack. Women are also pressured to identify with the color pink. We are strongly encouraged to wrap ourselves in pink with everything from our underwear to our technological devices. But it doesn’t make pink bad; it is the judgment that is incorrect. Similarly, wearing long hair is no more or less healthy than short hair, but within our deeply gendered context, long hair is associated with people who are fussy, soft, dramatic, and emotional. In other words, it is associated with women. But we should not give this specious association very much importance for we know it is unsupported by reason and because it attaches to things with alternate, objective benefits.

Women’s collective health and understanding of femininity-as-oppression requires that feminist analysis be able to differentiate between physical versus cultural harms, and inevitable harms from conditional ones.

We can make a similar evaluation of the behavioral characteristics associated with femininity. This dissection is even more complicated and difficult because so-called feminine “virtues” have been systematically leveraged against women; they have been used to guilt women into subsuming our own needs and desires in the service of others. Girls are groomed from birth to act in passive, supporting social roles as wives and mothers to men and children. Women have been shamed, manipulated, coerced, physically beaten, and even raped into feminine submission. We have been told that our capacity and willingness to comply is a direct reflection of our worth as human beings. We have been told that ‘femininity’ is as natural as our genitals; femininity is divinely ordered; it is what humans in female bodies are born to Do and Be. Hooray!

Indeed, this is precisely why feminism rejects gender essentialism. That gendered social roles are the primary basis of female oppression is foundational to feminist theory. Femininity is not female destiny. In the words of Robin Morgan, “Women are not inherently passive or peaceful. We’re not inherently anything but human.” At the same time, and without conceding anything to the falsification of femininity, I don’t see why feminism– radical or otherwise– requires us to reject every little thing that has been culturally coded ‘for women.’ Again, I think feminism’s task here is to carefully analyze the contextual harms versus the contextual benefits, using criteria that function as objectively as possible.

So, let’s ask precisely how and why feminine behavior serves to benefit third parties. For example, domestically care-taking a male (and his children) obviously benefits him in material, concrete ways. But what if a female is the intended beneficiary of that same ‘feminine’ nurturing and domestic care-taking? What if two women take turns caring for each other, domestically and emotionally, as partners? Does such a care-taking arrangement cease to count as ‘femininity’? Why or why not? Do all expressions of ‘femininity’ necessarily have a beneficiary? If so, are there rightful or noble beneficiaries versus fraudulent beneficiaries? And finally, what role if any does the female actor’s intent play in the execution of the so-perceived ‘feminine’ behavior?

Feminist analysis should further ask what harm is caused to women and what sacrifices are made by women who voluntarily express feminine characteristics as clocked by external observers. Do women lose time, energy, money, care, attention, respect, or something else? Are we spending limited or unlimited resources? How much is too much? Do we gain anything in return? If I sacrifice time, energy, and life force attending to other women’s problems, but seem to get nothing in return, should I stop? After how long? Should I ignore the emotional distress of other women because my desire/compulsion to attend to their feelings is–or might be– a result of my own feminine social conditioning from birth? Most importantly, what would happen to our relationships with other women if we refused to engage in any ‘feminine’ interactions with them? I shudder to think.

Women often have stronger, more fulfilling relationships with other women than they do with men– including husbands, sons, and fathers. Women have been conditioned to practice sympathetic emotionalism, sensitivity, nurturing, listening, and care-taking. I believe that women – both individually and collectively– can and do benefit from each others’ practice of certain forms of ‘femininity.’ By asserting this, I don’t intend to idealize all women or even to suggest that these feminine practices are always entirely conscious or voluntary. I am merely suggesting that some interpersonal skills coded as ‘feminine’ can and do help women build and sustain strong, mutually nourishing relationships with each other. These are relationships that we depend on for our personal survival in a patriarchal world. See Janice Raymond’s A Passion for Friends.

Further, behaviors-associated-with-women may also help us avoid the devastation of an anarchistic society where conditions are necessarily such that only the strongest survive. At the very least, some amount of care-taking– including the ability to nurture children– is critical to our survival as a species. Humans lack the claws, thick fur, and carnivorous fangs of many other mammals. Understanding this, humans must generate the skills to share resources and build community solidarity in order to sustain ourselves. This endeavor will require communication and cooperation with other humans over long periods of time (years). The social practices enabling dynamic, egalitarian communities should not be avoided or treated as less-than merely because they are associated with women, or with ‘femininity.’ We need these skills and these characteristics as much as we need some of the corresponding ‘masculine’-assigned characteristics such as independence, assertiveness, and rationality. These are human traits. We need all of them in different doses; their expression should not be restricted to certain kinds of people by virtue of  ‘gender’ or ‘sex.’ Nor should we evaluate them solely on that basis. Certain ‘feminine’ attributes– including sensitivity and diplomatic problem solving– hold value to us as humans despite our woman-hating, feminine-exploiting context.

To be both relevant and effective, feminist analysis should make a closer examination of the many diverse harms and benefits of ‘femininity.’  A deeper and more nuanced evaluation could help us better negotiate conflicts and express the full range of human emotion. And maybe we could do this without dismissing other women as weak, attention-seeking, or as capitulating to men.

Expressions of femininity are not sinful or necessarily anti-feminist if they do not result in harm to the self or others; and especially if they allow us to create stronger, more sustainable community bonds and personal connections with other women.