My performance of femininity and why it isn't all about me.

Look. I’m going to let you in on a little secret unbeknownst to anyone but my closest 455 Facebook friends, my real-life friends (somewhere between 4-70, I’d guess), every single person who sees me out and about, and now, everyone who reads this.  So DON’T tell anyone.

…I wear eyeliner. Almost every day.

Why? While the reasons may be more complicated than: ‘Because I feel like it’, the simple answers remain squarely located in boring-town: I feel more presentable when wearing eyeliner. I’ve become addicted to the ritual that is ‘putting on my face’.  I’m very pale and I look sickly without blush. Yeah. Excuses, excuses. The real-life story is that I have learned both a) that my appearance matters, and b) how to perform femininity.

Though I am very much committed to hiding my under-eye circles, I am simultaneously critical of extreme performances of femininity, particularly those that are dangerous or cause pain: stilettos and breast implants, for example. I don’t paint my toenails because I feel that it may poison my brain (yes, I believe that is the correct medical terminology) and because it feels like a huge waste of time. I really could care less what my toes look like. Feet are for walking on.

But let’s get back to my eyeliner. I do not believe, not for one second, that my eyeliner has anything at all to do with my nature. Even though I ‘like’ putting it on my eyes. I don’t wear eyeliner because I came out of the womb with a deep desire to make my eyes ‘pop’. I also don’t wear eyeliner because I am a woman. Or rather, there is nothing about my biological sex that has led me towards a make-up regimen. The eyeliner does not make the woman, you might say. Rather, it is because I was born a woman in a culture that that teaches women to value their appearances above all else, that I was taught that eyeliner makes me look more beautiful. AND, not only that, but I should aim to be more beautiful. I should work at it.

I learned femininity.

I was taught how to act and how to look because I am a woman, but learning it did not make me a women, I am not more womanly because of my eyeliner, though, perhaps, I am perceived as being more ‘feminine’.

There are many other things women are taught in our culture – they are taught to be polite, to be passive, to take up as little space as possible. They are taught that they will be treated better if they do a good job of performing femininity. They are taught that they will be successful at ‘womanly’ things like husband-getting and that they will be rewarded for being physically attractive above all else.

Now, just because we are taught these things, it does not mean we must abide, nor does it mean we all follow these rules. Nope. I know all sorts of ladies who leave the house with naked eyes on a regular basis. Most of all, though, what it does not mean is that femininity is natural. Or that femininity has anything to do with you as an individual. There is no eyeliner gene. Nail polish isn’t an expression of your nature. Though it does communicate to the world that you have learned the skills required to properly perform femininity.

So when I read some responses this week to Julie Bindel’s genius piece in The Guardian called ‘The end of feminism, or, how I learned to stop worrying and wear lipstick’, arguing that Bindel is ‘anti-feminine’ or that ‘I’m feminine because that’s who I am…My gender expression is about me, not anyone else’, my reaction was somewhere along the lines of: ‘who are you and what have you done with feminism?’

Bindel’s piece was written with tongue firmly planted in cheek, joking about how she was giving up that old ‘femininity is nothing but a social construct’ angle in favour of making an the effort to better perform femininity in the hopes that this is what, for once and for all will force men to ‘be nicer to us’. While some readers missed the point entirely, cheering Bindle on for, at long last giving up on all this feminism nonsense and celebrating lipstick and passivity, others responded with anger at what was seen as an attack on femininity. So along with all the other labels that come along with being critical of gender binaries, pornography, prostitution, etc, that plant a feminist firmly in the no-fun camp, being critical of ‘femininity’ now, apparently, makes you ‘anti-feminine’, whatever that means. The trouble with the ‘anti-feminine’ label is, of course, that femininity isn’t a real thing. It’s something that has been invented and imposed on women. Just as the myth of masculinity has been imposed on men. Unfortunately all those qualities like ‘respect’ and ‘power’ and rationality’ were doled out to the masculine, while those who were taught femininity got stuck with ‘weak’, ‘irrational’, and, generally, superfluous.

So, just to recap: women are not weak, irrational, superficial, or naturally inclined towards lipstick and nail polish, but rather women are taught how to perform femininity, which involves a myriad of less respected practices and characteristics than the ones taught to men.

If I learned nothing else from the last 10 years I spent in the Women’s Studies department, and at least as many years neck-deep in feminist analysis, I learned that socialization is real. That we do not exist in a cultural vaccum and that we learn what it means to ‘be a boy’ (i.e. perform masculinity) and what it means to ‘be a girl’ (i.e. perform femininity). I learned that there is absolutely nothing that is ‘all about me’ and that my performance of femininity has absolutely nothing to do with my biological makeup.

Some of the greatest work feminists did was to show us that that which we once thought was ‘natural’, for example female weakness and male strength, women as passive and men as aggressive, women as cooperative and men as competitive, was not at all natural and that rather these were qualities that were learned or, at very least, had little to do with the sex we were born into. Rather than, as one author implies, gender expression being about individuals: “My gender expression is about me, not anyone else”, it is very much about social conditioning.

Not only that, but have we all completely forgotten the role that consumerism plays in this femininity dance? Makeup, stilettos, push-up bras, nail polish. These are all things we buy and these are all things that we are taught, as women, we must buy in order to be the best women we can be.

Femininity is ‘an artifice’, so is masculinity. It isn’t nail polish, or eyeliner, or high heels that make a woman, just like it isn’t facial hair, or aggressiveness, or comfortable underwear that make a man a man. Where have we gone with this movement when we are arguing that gender expression is simply about individuals, that “My gender expression is about me, not anyone else” or that femininity is something either accidental or innate? Or when we are meant to celebrate something that is not real in order to avoid getting slapped with the ‘anti’ label?

Being a woman is work, particularly being a woman who performs femininity in appropriate ways. It may be work that we have learned to enjoy at times, but it is work. And it is not ‘natural’. I did not come out of the womb wearing eyeliner, I had to learn how to put that shit on my eyes.

Performing femininity is not a sign of weakness, but rather but it is a sign that we live in a consumerist culture which works very hard to teach us what it means to ‘be a man’ and what it means to ‘be a woman’. It is not that we are ‘weak’ for falling prey to femininity, we are, after all, taught from the day we are born, in various ways, what our performance should entail, but this knowledge should not, either, lead us towards blind celebration of that which has been sold to us as ‘feminine’ or to pretend that we are making these choices outside of social context. Let’s be real. Wearing lipstick isn’t empowering. It isn’t some kind of feminist statement. And while there are, within these responses that call Bindel ‘anti-feminine’, these acknowledgements that we don’t exist in a cultural vacuum and neither do our choices, the ‘this is all about me as an individual’ / ‘this is just who I am’ argument seems to contradict that.

Bindel doesn’t argue that masculinity is ‘better’ than femininity, she is simply wary of embracing ‘femininity’ as empowering. So what’s with this ‘Julie Bindel is anti-feminine’? What does that even mean? I’m pretty positive she is ‘anti-masculine’, if that were a thing, as well and I think that if we’re framing femininity as anything other than a social (and, at this point, a capitalist) construction that has absolutely nothing to do ME, we aren’t doing our jobs as feminists.

It feels like we’re using ‘critique’ as an excuse to tack yet another ‘anti-‘ onto feminists in that ‘Shhhhh – we’re ignoring all this stuff over here’ kind of way.

Not only does this ‘this (‘this’, in these circumstances, being femininity) is about me’ approach lack a feminist analysis, but it lacks honesty. We may sleep better at night when we stop at ‘this is just me and that’s all there is’, I would certainly feel less conflicted about my lipstick were I to pretend that ‘hey, I was just born with a lipstick kinda personality, whatcanyado?”, but it wouldn’t be honest. My performance of femininity has very much to do with the world around me, the world I grew up in, and you know what? It is work. And telling the world that femininity isn’t work, that it’s all just about individual women having fun and being themselves tells the world that femininity is just something that happens to women. And that criticizing femininity is akin to criticizing women.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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