Femininity is a multifaceted concept. We use this word often without always talking about what we mean by it, and sometimes this leads to misunderstandings. You can say the same thing about masculinity too, but here I’m going to explore the multiple meanings of femininity.
Female: In a literal context, a word which refers to an individual who possesses a particular set of biological characteristics, including the ability to give birth. It is this to be differentiated from ‘femininity,’ which describes a socially-constructed image of femaleness.
Femininity: One of Simone de Beauvoir’s most famous aphorisms is ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’ (The Second Sex.) It is an apt summary of the feminist claim that, while femaleness is a consequence of biology, femininity originates from within societal structures. Femininity is thus a set of rules governing female behavior and appearance, the ultimate aim of which is to make women conform to a male ideal of sexual attractiveness. Masquerading as ‘natural’ womanhood, it is actually something imposed upon the female subject, in spite of the fact that the pressure to conform to the culturally dominant feminine ideal is internalized to the extent that women effectively tailor themselves to fit it—hence the existence of an immensely profitable fashion and beauty industry.
Feminists also identify femininity as a set of behaviors that result from women’s oppression by men and that sometimes overlap with PTSD symptoms:
“Masculinity is simply a conglomeration of the personality traits necessary for the patriarchal soldier-rapist: physically strong, emotionally cauterized, rational, domineering, cruel. All of this is supposed to add up to “handsome” as well. Likewise femininity is ultimately a description of the personality that results from trauma and powerlessness: weak, passive, yielding, emotional, hyper-vigilant to the needs of the dominators and desperate for the dominator’s attention.” —Lierre Keith
If we look in the regular dictionary, we find more definitions, such as:
- The quality or condition of being feminine.
- A characteristic or trait traditionally held to be female.
- The sum of all attributes that convey (or are perceived to convey) womanhood.
- The quality or nature of the female sex; womanliness.
- The trait of behaving in ways considered typical for women
The regular dictionary identifies that femininity can be socially constructed (“ways considered typical for women”) but also leaves room for femininity to mean traits that are intrinsic to females (“the quality or nature of the female sex”).
The ‘quality or nature of the female sex’ could be interpreted to mean such physical features as breasts and vaginas, things that women truly do have, in addition to cultural ideas about what women are like, which may be incorrect. According to this definition, we could call things like menstruation or XX chromosomes feminine. This isn’t the way that feminists use the word, but it is possible for an English speaker to use it this way.
Where femininity does mean socially-constructed ideas, what those ideas are can vary widely according to who is constructing them. Here I propose several different ideas of femininity constructed by different sources, and this is by no means an exhaustive list:
Femininity is motherhood and obedience to a husband, nurturing of children, soft-spoken, caring, and sensitive.
Femininity is an obsession with shoes, purses, and makeup, a love for inane conversation or gossip, being overly excited about silly things, being primarily concerned with physical appearance and being beautiful to men.
Femininity is sexual submission, a love for being degraded and abused, a desire to be constantly used as a receptacle, and appearance-wise, is a set of physical attributes such as long hair, large breasts, a youthful appearance, no body hair and minimal labia.
Marketing/consumer products geared to youth:
Femininity is a love for all things cute and sparkly, the color pink, gentle and cooperative activities, dresses, bows, ribbons, princesses, and dolls.
Femininity is women being too weak, timid, and emotional to do serious jobs, being only suited for home and family life, being naturally better at taking care of children and doing housework, and existing to serve men in sexual and domestic duties.
The above are cultural ideas that were deliberately invented and promoted for specific purposes. For example, the idea that women are all obsessed with shoes and makeup is deliberately constructed by advertisers to sell shoes and makeup. The idea that women are too weak and emotional to work outside the home is deliberately constructed by men to keep women out of the workplace and financially dependent on men. But there are also aspects of femininity that are real human personality traits. These are the traits that have become associated with femininity because all women are assumed to have them and men are assumed not to have them. Personality traits such as gentleness, empathy, sensitivity, compassion, softness, and nurturing are assumed to be feminine traits. Truly, men and women could both have these traits, but boys are discouraged from displaying them while girls are encouraged to.
I have said before that I am not completely social constructionist; although I mostly am. There may be some truth to the idea that women are more likely to be caring and nurturing because we are the ones who give birth to babies. However, even if that is true, that doesn’t mean that all women are caring and nurturing and it doesn’t mean that men can’t be. Even if there is a high correlation between being one particular sex and having particular personality traits, that doesn’t mean we can generalize those traits across all people of that sex, and it doesn’t mean we should force them to act that way if they aren’t.
Sometimes when feminists talk about rejecting or abolishing femininity, other women feel insulted, confused or attacked because they believe we are trying to abolish their personalities or prevent them from wearing the clothes they want to wear. I think this is coming from a misunderstanding of what we mean by femininity. Feminists want to abolish harmful stereotypes, such as women being obsessed with shoes and makeup and being too emotional to work outside the home. We want to abolish the idea that some personality traits are only for women or for men. We also identify that the behaviors that result from being traumatized, as in the Lierre Keith quote above, will be gone when women are liberated from oppression. This does not mean that we want to forbid women from expressing their natural personality traits or to forbid women from wearing anything that is pink.
On this blog I have written many times about not being feminine and rejecting femininity, and I have been struggling to reconcile this against a growing certainty that I am a femme lesbian. What I finally figured out is that my natural personality traits are those traits considered feminine, and what I reject is the silly stereotypes about women that are presented in sit-coms and advertising. That is, I am caring and sensitive by nature, but I don’t obsess over my appearance or squeal over shoe sales.
I was just reading a post on Big Boo Butch asking whether it’s possible to be butch and gender critical. (She says yes—so do I.) I think the reason this is a question is that some gender critical feminists assume that butch is another “gender” or identity label belonging to identity politics and that it’s something along the same lines as calling yourself non-binary or genderqueer. This is why I think it’s different.
The idea of labelling yourself non-binary and getting people to call you “they” is rooted in a belief that your feelings about yourself, your personality, and your appearance make you inherently not female. However, females can have any sort of personality or appearance or feelings; any feelings felt by a woman are female feelings. The idea that certain personalities or appearances do not belong to women is not true and it’s sexism. In identity politics, the purpose of a gender identity is to deny biological sex and label the self as the opposite sex or neither sex based on internal feelings, personality, or appearance. I don’t agree with doing that, because it’s a denial of the reality of the body, but that doesn’t mean I disagree with identifying our personalities. People are welcome to label their personalities, using words such as masculine, feminine, or genderqueer; or other words such as introvert/extrovert, outgoing, shy, analytical, creative, or any number of things. These are just some of the things people say to describe who they are, and I’m certainly not trying to outlaw describing ourselves.
Where I disagree with the identity politics crowd is that they want other people to recognize and validate their chosen personality labels and use special language to refer to them. This is entirely unnecessary and can be downright narcissistic. I don’t care whether complete strangers feel that they are masculine or feminine any more than I care whether they feel they are analytical or creative. However, if I interact with someone on a regular basis, I will be able to tell what their personality is like, and if they are extroverted or genderqueer that will be obvious. There is no need for anyone to validate your personality—your personality is real and it comes through to people who interact with you, and they’ll be able to tell who you are even in the absence of a label. It’s not the label that’s important.
The reason I say I’m a femme lesbian is because I have the personality traits that are considered feminine, and I also have a particular fondness for butches—they have effects on me that other women, even other lesbians, don’t have. I think this is perfectly obvious (at least to other lesbians) and I don’t need anyone to validate it. If you know me then you know that I am compassionate and sensitive, and that I swoon over lesbians who are strong women and who don’t look or feel right in a dress. I don’t give a shit if people call me a femme or not, it’s not the label that is important, and there is no reason why complete strangers or even casual acquaintances need to know this or call me this.
Butch and femme are not ‘genders’ in the sense of labels meant to replace the person’s biological sex, they are just personality types. Both of these personality types belong to women, and we should just be referred to as women.
I think it’s wrong to deliberately perform a personality, behavior, or appearance that is not natural to you, which is why I don’t think women should try to adhere to stereotypes about women by performing artificial aspects of femininity. This goes both ways—women shouldn’t feel forced to perform aspects of femininity that don’t feel natural to them, and they also shouldn’t be forced to deliberately become more masculine through transition in an attempt to legitimate the masculine parts of their personalities. Either way they are not being themselves. Women should be able to express their personality traits and wear the clothing they like no matter where that happens to fall on the femininity–masculinity continuum, without having to call themselves anything other than women.
Sometimes I read complaints that I shouldn’t call women ‘masculine.’ If we define femininity as the ‘quality or nature of the female sex’ then anything a woman does is ‘feminine.’ So if a woman wears short hair and likes fixing cars, then that is feminine. I understand this line of thinking, because I too believe that anything a woman is interested in is a female interest and anything a woman wears is women’s clothing, and any feeling a woman has is a female feeling. However I think people who make this particular complaint are being pedantic, because it’s obvious that when I call a woman feminine or masculine I am situating her personality in relation to what society expects from women, and it’s obvious why I’m doing that—because my primary concern in writing this blog is to explore the differences between who women are and how women are treated and viewed by society. If I define femininity as anything any woman does, then I lose the language to talk about the difference between reality versus expectations when it comes to female appearance, behavior and mannerisms.
When I use the word femininity, you can usually assume that I’m talking about a set of cultural expectations placed on women that do not reflect the reality of who women are. If I am talking about real human personality traits that are considered feminine, I will specify that. If I call a woman masculine it’s not because I think her personality traits belong to men, it’s because that’s what society thinks, and it’s in our interest to point this out.