I #ChooseToChallenge Femininity

Being ‘feminine’ is something that we so casually associate with being a woman (I did at least). It’s so deeply embedded in everyday life that it almost felt like femininity wasn’t a choice. It felt like it was innate — like it was just something that women do and something that girls would eventually learn to do.

But wait, women are feminine and men are masculine — what are you talking about?

Let’s just say that there is not much else in this world that is ‘innate’ besides genes (and most things that manifest from genetic codes) — which means that what’s innately different about the sexes on planet Earth is that one of these sexes has a Y chromosome (those whom we typically refer to as ‘male’) and the other has two copies of the X chromosome (those whom we refer to as ‘female’). That’s it — that’s the base line. Every other gendered label and quality that we plaster on these sexes are the products of socialisation.

…which means that the qualities of femininity and masculinity are social constructs and the belief that women should be feminine and men should be masculine are social rules.

Photo by Tony Pham on Unsplash

These rules are the product of time, place and culture — that in turn, influenced the people living within these contexts, in the way they think, feel and behave. As a matter of fact, femininity has unsuspectingly taken various shapes and forms over the centuries. But how…?

If you’re a woman, what standards do you set for yourself as a woman?
If you’re a man, how would you typically expect a ‘good wife’ to be?

Accounting for people’s differences in opinions (obviously, not everyone feels the same about everything), I’d suspect that if people were asked these in present times, the general answer wouldn’t be far from the scope of appearance (whether this is directly to do with wanting to look a certain way (eg. thin) or not having to look a certain way (eg. I don’t care about looking thin)— because the spotlight is still on appearance). If you asked the same question to anyone from, say, the 18th century, you might find that people tended to associate femininity with (legitimate) childbirth [1]; ask anyone in the 1950s, you might find people associating femininity with domesticity [2].

Photo from Angela Chang in Little Things

Author Naomi Wolf [3] even goes as far as saying that women have always been ‘caged’ — whether this cage takes the form of marriage (that legitimises childbirth) in the 18th century, the form of a home (within which women performs domesticity) in the 50s, or the form of their own bodies (the site where improvements are perpetually necessary) in present times.

What’s even more interesting is that the idea of femininity only really gained traction in the 18th century through writing [4], where it’s emergence represented a specific category of women — women who are White and heterosexual. Women who were pure, demure and restraint. Women who looked a certain way and behaved in a certain way. Women who were ‘ladies’. Women who were respectable.

Femininity, thus, became a construct afforded only by middle-class women.

Because historically, working-class women aren’t pure, demure and restraint. Working-class women were associated with hardiness, robustness and pathology [5].

Working-class women were […] involved in forms of labour that prevented femininity (appearance and characteristics) from ever being a possibility. Thus, for working-class women, femininity was never a given. [6]

I wish I could now go on and say that this outdated idea of class and femininity was a thing of the past — but unfortunately, it is one that stayed. Throughout the years, women’s appearance have always been policed based on a set of unwritten rules that only those more ‘qualified’ than them have access to. Time and time again, we see these narratives in Hollywood films, in which the wild, uncontrollable and excessive (‘extra’) working-class girl is transformed into the delicate and discreet middle-class woman (think: “Pretty Woman”, “Working Girl” and “My Fair Lady”). The keyword here is transformation because this implies improvement.

“Yeah, but this only happens in films though…”
Does it?

There is a whole lot of judgement in reality TV made based on the differences in power between groups of people (this is also known as symbolic violence). This is not to say that these differences don’t exist — they just don’t necessarily have to equate to moral judgements. Makeover programmes (think: “What Not To Wear”, “Love, Lust or Run”) are the crux of symbolic violence. Women often get on these makeover programmes with the promise of a brand new shot at life, where more ‘qualified’ women (read: middle-class) tell them how to dress and behave.

These are all still happening today.

I #ChooseToChallenge Femininity

This may seem ironic at first — to challenge femininity on International Women’s Day — but my point is that femininity is a (social) construct. A construct that emerged from discrimination and segregation.

We don’t have to be feminine to be ‘good’ women;
And we don’t have to be ‘good’ women to be deserving humans.

Happy International Women’s Day 2021!

Note that the focus of this entry being on femininity does not mean that the notion of men having to live up to expectations of masculinity is not also highly problematic.

[1] Langevin, N. (2016). Femininity and Feminism in Courtship in Eighteenth-Century Britain.
[2]
Giles, J. (1993, May). A home of one’s own: Women and domesticity in England 1918–1950. In Women’s Studies International Forum (Vol. 16, №3, pp. 239–253). Pergamon.
[3]
Wolf, N. (2013). The beauty myth: How images of beauty are used against women. Random House.
[4]
Poovey, M. (1985). The proper lady and the woman writer: Ideology as style in the works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen. University of Chicago Press.
[5] Skeggs, B. (2001, May). The toilet paper: Femininity, class and mis-recognition. In Women’s Studies International Forum (Vol. 24, №3–4, pp. 295–307). Pergamon.
[6] Skeggs, B. (1997). Formations of class & gender: Becoming respectable. Sage.

By Jamie Chan (PhD researcher, University of Sussex; Co-organiser, TEDxUniversityofSussex)

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