It gets lonesome being a feminist in America today, if you do not bow nightly before a shrine to Beyoncé, if you can’t accept pornography or the prostitution of women as harmless fun for the whole family, and especially if you’re so gauche as to conceptualize “femininity” in terms of inequality rather than identity. No one will save you a seat at the Feminist Manicure Jamboree; you’ll just have to go home and brood over strategies for taking down the patriarchy on your own, like every other night. Meanwhile, Cool Girl Feminists have important work to do: it’s called “empowerment,” and tonight they’ll be asserting their agency by giving one another bikini waxes.
Another way the unfeminine feminist-in-exile could pass her long evenings at home with the cats might be to settle in for a documentary or two about the olden days of the second wave, when feminists came to recognize and resent “femininity” as a contrivance of traits and behaviours imposed upon women by male supremacist culture. Somehow, in those dark days, feminists considered femininity a patriarchal tool which served to convert females into sex objects and domestic servants (imagine!). Platform heels, girdles, and pandering to conventions of fuckability were out, so too the proclivity for wilting delicately in polite silence. Women in the second wave considered ditching femininity key in charting the course to women’s liberation.
Fast-forward to the so-called feminism of today, which does not concern itself so much with women’s liberation as did the feminism of females now too old to take seriously. We’ve worked out a thrilling new spin on femininity: Today, critical analysis of femininity is derided as simple-minded or trivial — “basic.” It is more complex (and more fun, duh) to do what men wanted us to do all along.
Contemporary feminism revolves around reclaiming femininity, particularly those super, extra fun self-objectifying bits, like the terms “slut” and “bitch” and the ability to walk about in six-inch heels. If men want to show their solidarity with women, they, too, can try out traipsing in heels, in order to experience the full, lived reality of being female in a patriarchy. Even taking a selfie is now a feminist act! By restabilizing “femininity” as the center of “female identity” — what it is to be a female — women’s solidarity has mutated into proud, public displays of allegiance to the symbols and mechanisms of female oppression.
The theory underlying the reclamation of femininity proposes that the crux of women’s oppression has little to do with male-supremacist hatred of females per se. Actually, contemporary feminists argue, hatred of females is merely the product of a vast cultural conspiracy to suppress femininity. It is femininity that is oppressed, not females. Females are simply targeted more often for oppression because their essence tends to be more feminine.
Call me hopelessly pragmatic, but for those of us still interested in liberation, this is a tough pill to swallow. To be “female” means different things in different cultural and situational contexts, with one of the few consistencies being that if you’ve got a vagina, you’re more likely to be subject to men’s sexual violence, to be poor, and to be bought and sold as a commodity to people whose desire is to debase you.
The “Free Femininity!” corps argue, conversely, that we live in a society that loathes the feminine, which is, of course, nothing more than a collection of neutral, apolitical traits some humans (usually females) happen to have. So, persons with feminine characteristics (mostly females) have been led to internalize the permeating anti-femininity attitude and hate their own native femininity. These feminine people (let’s call them “women”), then, commence to hate themselves. This is, apparently, a core problem for femininity-filled persons in the world today.
So, the contemporary feminist solution — and a necessary focus of our solidarity efforts — is to uplift femininity. Go ahead. Develop a feminist beauty routine! Max out your credit cards on a feminist lingerie shopping spree! Support your friend by telling her how sexy she’s looking tonight. Maybe even surprise her with a catcall if you drive past her on the street!
The fatal flaw of this femininity-centric approach to solidarity is that it is not true that patriarchy’s objective in oppressing women is to squelch our “femininity,” as if men in power just can’t stand the colour pink or reruns of Sex and the City. Patriarchy does not, in fact, inhibit females from blossoming into the full glamour of their femininity; femininity is not verboten and it is no one’s “essence” — for women femininity is mandated, and then it is punished.
The reason that femininity is held in contempt is because it was engineered to make females seem contemptible, justifying male dominance. As Sheila Jeffreys said, “femininity is the behavior of female subordination,” and it is impossible to be both subordinate and in power simultaneously. When we embrace femininity, we play with sexist stereotypes — only this time, it’s for ourselves! By embracing femininity we affirm the concept of gender polarity, that fiction Andrea Dworkin named the root cause of sexual oppression. And so we sabotage ourselves.
When women celebrate femininity, feminists suffer two fatal losses: First, we forego getting to know one another as women by keeping the costume of femininity tightly stitched into our skin. Second, we glorify (and reinforce) the social architectures that constrain women to cycles of self-loathing, shame, violence, and dependency. To “empower femininity” does not subvert men’s power to colonize women, psychically and physically. It is a celebration of patriarchy’s success in defining what women are, what women can be, and how women can exist in this world.
While being a feminist does not necessarily preclude wearing eyeliner or lace or even dipping your whole goddamn head in pink glitter, cuddling up to femininity as if it were a special treasure to prize and preserve is counter to the goals of feminism.
Marilyn Frye wrote: “One needs space to practice an erect posture; one cannot just will it to happen. To retrain one’s body one needs physical freedom from what are physical forces misshaping it to the contours of the subordinate.” If we continue to celebrate femininity, we will remain bound — decoratively stooping, in the cage, daubing on lip gloss, taking a selfie. In solidarity with femininity, we stand with the oppressor. Or, more precisely, we’re sitting at his feet.
Aurora Linnea is a writer, artist, and reclusive dog lover adrift in the American South. She is responsible for the chapbook This Mutilated Woman’s Head, among other works of feminist dissidence.