Early on in my first book Whipping Girl, while discussing the tendency within some strands of feminism to discourage women from engaging in acts and pursuits that are considered feminine, I argued that “We should instead learn to empower femininity itself.” While many people who read the entire book appreciated my stance on femininity, I have found that those who disagree often take that particular quote out of context. Admittedly, it is rather easy to twist the phrase “empower femininity” to make it sound like I was simply calling for more Barbie dolls and glitter nail polish for everyone.
Of course the reason why it is particularly easy to ridicule the idea of empowering femininity is because we (all of us, as a society) already harbor dismissive attitudes toward anything considered feminine. And the very point I was trying to make is that we should move beyond this knee-jerk tendency to dismiss and demean feminine gender expression.
So to counter those who wish to smear the notion, here is a brief outline of ideas I forward in Whipping Girl (and specifically in the chapter “Putting the Feminine Back into Feminism”) that I believe will help us empower femininity.
Recognize that feminine traits are human traits
In our culture, a trait is deemed “feminine” if it is often associated with women. Common examples include being verbal and communicative, emotive or effusive, being nurturing and having an appreciation for beautiful or aesthetically pleasing things. Similarly, other traits are deemed “masculine” solely because they are often associated with men (being competitive or aggressive, physical exertion or using brute force, being silent and stoic and being mathematically or technically oriented). What all of these traits share is the fact that they are all human traits that are found to varying degrees in all people regardless of their gender. Most of us express some combination of traits from both the feminine and masculine categories.
I would argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with feminine traits—like all human traits, they are often useful and play important roles. However, in our male- and masculine-centric culture, there are several forces that conspire to undermine feminine traits and the people who express them.
Traits that are viewed as feminine are considered to be inferior to those deemed masculine
This discrepancy is obvious in the adjectives that we commonly associate with gender expression: the assumption that masculinity is strong while femininity is weak, that masculinity is tough while femininity is fragile, that masculinity is rational while femininity is irrational, that masculinity is serious while femininity is frivolous, that masculinity is functional while femininity is ornamental, that masculinity is natural while femininity is artificial and that masculinity is sincere while femininity is manipulative.
Not coincidentally, many of these stereotypes are identical to those that people have historically projected onto men and women. Over the decades, feminists have fiercely challenged these inferior connotations when they have been used to undermine women, and we should now challenge these same connotations when they are used to undermine people who are feminine (the majority of whom also happen to be women).
Feminine traits are misconstrued as being performed for the benefit of men
We see this in the way that the quality of being nurturing (a human trait that is coded feminine) often gets distorted into the myth that it’s the woman’s job to take care of the man in heterosexual relationships. But it’s perhaps most evident in the way that people who appreciate beautiful or aesthetically pleasing things (especially with regards to their own manner of dress and self-presentation) are often presumed to be simply trying to attract or please men.
The women I know who dress femininely are also (far more often than not) generally interested in other forms of visual beauty—they often decorate their homes, compliment others on their dress and comment appreciatively when they see things that look appealing to them (whether it be a particular hue or color combination, a fashion or style, a work of art or architecture, flowers and other natural objects and so on). So it is difficult for me to see this notion—that when they express this interest with regards to their own style of dress they must be doing it to attract male attention—as anything other than highly misplaced and entirely sexist. Not to mention the fact that stereotypically masculine men often never even notice when their female partners are wearing a new outfit or have a new hairstyle. And not to mention the fact that there are women who dress femininely but who are certainly not trying to attract the attention of men (e.g., femme dykes), and men who dress femininely even though such gender-non-conforming presentation is not traditionally considered attractive to most straight women and queer men.
This myth—that feminine dress is primarily designed to attract male attention—exists for a single reason: It enables the societal-wide sexualization of women. After all, if we believe that she wore a pretty dress today because she is trying to pique men’s interests, then suddenly catcalls, sexual innuendos and ogling seem legitimate (because she was essentially “asking for” that attention). And if she says that she is not interested in a man’s sexual advances, well then she must be sending “mixed messages,” because she was clearly trying to “tempt” or “tease” him given the way she was dressed.
A huge swath of our culture is dedicated to making women feel like their self worth is inexorably tied to how attractive they are to men. While critiquing that system is legitimate, dismissing people who are feminine (under the assumption that they buy into that system) is misplaced and often invalidates their autonomy (e.g., the fact that they may have dressed that way for themselves and not for others). It also overlooks a number of sexist double standards that lead us to perceive feminine dress differently from masculine dress. When a woman gets ready for a date, we often say she gets “all dolled up” (the assumption being that it is a frivolous and artificial process), while when a man does the same we usually call it “grooming” (which sounds so practical and natural, like animals in the wild). And while some feminists may complain about how feminine fashions often “show off women’s bodies for male enjoyment,” that completely ignores the fact that a man can go completely topless and no one will assume that he is doing it for anyone else (rather, people will likely assume it is a personal choice based on the fact that he is probably overheated!).
Articles of clothing (or the lack thereof) have no inherent meaning. Any symbolism or connotations they seem to have come directly from our culture or personal assumptions. Rather than critiquing feminine styles of dress, we should instead destroy the sexist myth that feminine dress exists solely for the benefit of men.
Girls and women are encouraged, and often coerced, into being feminine
People who view femininity and masculinity as female- and male-specific traits (rather than more broadly as human traits), will often encourage “gender-appropriate” behaviors in other people. Sometimes this is done unconsciously or subtly (e.g., by simply expressing approval of gender-conforming behavior), and other times consciously and blatantly (e.g., by outright ridiculing or condemning people who are gender-nonconforming). This system has many negative ramifications, one of which is that it puts pressure on girls and women to express feminine traits but not masculine ones.
Feminists have understandably been concerned about this system, although sometimes the strategies that have been forwarded to counter it have been misguided. For instance, some have encouraged women to avoid the feminine and instead pursue masculine approaches and endeavors. But this strategy seems to presume that things that are coded feminine are inherently weak, irrational, frivolous, artificial, etc., in relation to those coded masculine. In other words, this strategy seems to accept these sexist double standards at face value rather than challenging them.
Other feminists have claimed that we must do away with all gender expression, both the masculine and the feminine. While I am all in favor of jettisoning compulsory femininity for girls/women and compulsory masculinity for boys/men, entirely doing away with all such behaviors seems unwarranted. After all, many of these behaviors (being nurturing, competitive, emotive, technically oriented, appreciating beauty or physical exertion) are simply human traits that are unnecessarily categorized as “feminine” or “masculine” by society. This approach also mistakenly assumes that people have no individual inclinations or tendencies with regard to these traits. In reality, many people find that, regardless of the gender they were assigned at birth or how they were raised, they tend to gravitate toward behaviors that are deemed feminine, masculine or some combination thereof.
Most reasonable people these days would agree that demeaning or dismissing someone solely because she is female is socially unacceptable. However, demeaning or dismissing people for expressing feminine qualities is often condoned and even encouraged. Indeed, much of the sexism faced by women today targets their femininity (or assumed femininity) rather than their femaleness. It is high time that we forcefully challenge the negative assumptions that constantly plague feminine traits and the people who express them. That is what I mean when I say we must empower femininity.
Julia Serano is the author of Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity and Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive.