Monday, May 21, 2012

Femininity and Feminism: A Ramble

My niece raises her fist against the patriarchy (possibly):
an ultrasound image of a fetus around twenty weeks.
I've known for a couple of months now that, all being well, come August, I'm going to get my very first niece. In terms of baby conversations, this is fairly significant information to have so early on. When any child is born, everyone talks endlessly about the new arrival when there's really only three pieces of information available; its assigned gender, its name and its weight. The weight is only relevant if it is especially low (concern for the baby) or especially high (sympathy for the mother). I find names fascinating, genuinely, and I think the influence of a name on a child's life is underestimated.

Most people think that assigned gender is vitally important (sometimes this is described as biological sex although that's rather inaccurate). I guarantee that, from the word go, my niece will exist in a world of pink, of flowers, frills, fairies and princesses. Then if when she can makes choices for herself, she chooses pink, flowers, frills, fairies and princesses, her parents will say that she has proven folk science correct: her femininity is innate.

And you know what? That shouldn't be a problem. Who cares if my niece decides, age three, that she wants to be princess and live in a fuschia pink plastic castle with powder pink ponies pulling a rose pink carriage for her? Pink is a lovely colour. I have pink shoes! Pink is the colour of many beautiful flowers. It is the colour of some lovely sunsets. It is the colour of some people's cheeks and lips and genitals.  It is the colour of worms, which play a vital role in keeping the soil healthy and aerated.

A fabulous pair of pink canvas Mary Jane shoes.
And three years olds are no good at planning their future careers. Alex was not so unrealistic but had wanted to belong to every emergency service all at once. Age five, he has decided he wants to be a lazy troll, and sit on the sofa all day with an iPad. When asked where he would get the money to support such a lifestyle, he said, "My wife will earn money."  I guess this may be a slightly more pragmatic version of the princess fantasy.

The trouble is that other people will judge my niece if she is overcome by the Pink Spectre, just as the photo of Alex dressed up as a fairy to attend a birthday party a few years back was considered as either a source of hilarity or concern by different family members. The world in which we live regards femininity as deeply inferior.

Femininity is a very complex thing which, being a social construct, varies from culture to culture and changes over time - the expectations of femininity placed on me through my lifetime have been quite different from those placed on my mother. But some things are always the same; femininity is a set of behaviours roughly approved of in women, but it is still what makes us inferior.

Alex as a "Fairy": A 3 year old child
with short blond hair in a pink dress.
His friend was having a "Princess Party"
and he wanted to be a fairy instead.
Sexists sometimes try to defend femininity as as different but equal kind of deal. This is usually framed by the unlikely assumption at any given time, all adults are part of a heterosexual couple who have dependent young children and where the woman is, at best, some kind of essential Lieutenant to the General Chap. This is the natural state of things, and yet laws need to be passed or kept in place to force people to behave according to their nature, as the Archbishop of York outlined this week whilst clutching at straws in the defense of marriage inequality:
"...what sort of society would we have if we came to see all family relationships primarily in terms of human rights? The family is designed to meet the different needs of its different members in different ways."
It's a weirdly common argument, given that this is a watered-down version of the one which denies girls education and women basic legal rights elsewhere in the world and in our own past. At best, femininity is seen as complementing masculinity, and of tremendous value to men, whereas men and masculinity just are. The masculine role is to be and to do, to fulfill ambitions, to use talents, to strive and succeed. The feminine role is to help take care of everybody else, which is understood to be a secondary role.

Nature overcame every attempt by the world to mold me into a feminine little girl. I wasn't massively boyish, but I was made to feel it for being good at maths and science, for wanting to run around, climb trees, play football or wander off by myself, for having no interest in baby dolls and skipping games (although frankly, that may have been my ropey co-ordination - ha ha, ropey!). Tragically, almost criminally, I even shunned books by female authors.

As a child, I hated femininity. I considered it pathetic, shallow, passive, bitchy and vane. As a small child, I imagined you could choose to be a man or a woman just as you could choose to be a doctor or a firefighter, and to me, that was a no-brainer. When I realised my mistake, I simply longed to be a boy. I even had a phase of peculiar transvestism (I say peculiar; as it involved wearing a bow-tie all the time). I hated my body when, at the age of around eight or nine, it began to sprout breasts and broad hips. When trans people describe a sense of their body's betrayal on hitting puberty, I empathise. I empathise so much that as a younger woman, I imagined that trans men were girls just like me who thought a physical change would help.

But my problem didn't involve any deep identification with masculinity, it was simply a resistance to femininity as I understood it.

I was teased for doing masculine things, but I was also respected. A tomboy isn't pretty or necessarily very nice, but she is miles above her masculine counterpart; the nancy-boy, pussy or jessie. There are no shortage of fictional and historical tomboy role models; girls who invent things, fight battles or go exploring. I don't know of any children's fiction which represents a boy who likes grows his hair long and spends his time making clothes for dolls. (In fairness, I also made clothes for my dolls - neither of my Ken dolls came with suitable outfits for outsmarting the shifty-eyed Action Man - what crime-fighting duo go around in Bermuda shorts and a pink tuxedo?)

I grew up in a culture where the hatred of femininity is endemic. Newspaper columnists and women's magazines (including those predominantly read by teenagers) inform us every day about the ways that femininity makes for false friends, jealous, back-stabbing and bitchy, that as mothers we stunt the development of our sons and envy our daughters, that as that as mother-in-laws, we hold dominion over unhappy Christmases and that as wives or girlfriends we must constantly trick our lovers into the commitment that completes us but which scares and stifles them.

Many great women boast that they are unladylike, because they dare to express opinions, cut their own hair, swear when cross, enjoy sex and other normal things. Many women assert that their women friends are the exceptions to their general experience of not liking women - I've known many men whose closest friends are women, but I've never heard one say that he doesn't like blokes. On learning he was going to have a daughter, a friend of my brother-in-law lamented the complexity of girls and how they all turn weird and bitchy when they hit adolescence.

But this doesn't make it acceptable for women to be not feminine. Studies into women at work and in academia (there are new ones at Feminist Philosophers every week), as well as the way women are treated by the media and in fiction, repeatedly demonstrate the great double-bind: feminine women are taken less seriously, seen as less intelligent, less solid, less dynamic, whereas unfeminine women are disliked and mistrusted. It is an unwinnable battle; there's no magic degree of feminine presentation, no point half-way between bimbo and bull-dyke where neither your programming, nor the people around you, have any problem with your femininity or lack thereof.

And disastrously, this penetrates feminism. Some feminists also hate femininity.

Femininity is a social construct, but the nature of this construct is that things that are not one thing are the other. So there's no escaping it. If I dressed in not-at-all feminine clothes and behaved in not-at-all feminine ways, I would be living as a odd-shaped man. It is possible to subvert gender, it is possible to identify as non-binary and demand a gender-neutral pronoun, but you're merely mixing up the masculine and feminine (not that that's not radical - it is). Gender is, sociologically, linguistically, like black and white - you simply can't throw them out of the paint box.

Feminism is concerned with power and oppression, so it's entirely right that feminism discusses the matter of performing femininity - the things that many or most women feel they simply have to do in order to be acceptable, from shaving one's armpits to marriage and motherhood. But clearly, the problem lies with obligation and coercion - there's nothing inherently negative about most feminine behaviours; there's no right or wrong about armpit hair and the rights and wrongs around motherhood rest on the individuals involved. Some of the silliest discussions in feminism (and philosophy in general) arise when a person insists that her choices are a choice when someone else's choices are an illusion. Blame Marx. Or possibly Engels. One of those two, either way it was definitely a man with a beard who harped on a lot about False Consciousness.

It is wrong to play into sexist hands by declaring that things that are regarded as feminine - given that gender is all nonsense anyway - are a problem just because they're feminine. Pretty clothes are essential. Everyone should wear pretty clothes, absolutely everyone; it makes the world look nicer! Empathy, compassion, patience and the ability to listen are absolutely vital for all human relationships as well as civilised societies. Everyone should aspire to be feminine in these ways. Everyone should also seek to be courageous, resilient and honourable. Everyone should seek to understand the world, apply reason to life's problems and wear comfortable shoes (yes, they can have a heel on if you like, but your feet are so important). Everyone should aspire to be masculine in those ways.

And I think this is why a noisy minority of feminists are so bilious about trans women (and I've never come across any anti-trans rhetoric which wasn't hateful - nobody ever starts off "trans women are people too"). It's this idea that trans women may have chosen femininity, without the programming (although obviously, as children they did get programming about what femininity is - everyone learns what it is to be a boy or a girl, regardless of their pants parts, only some of us get subjected to those horrible elastic bands with the great big plastic bobbles on them that get tangled up and pull half our hair out.)

Being trans gender isn't a choice, but (apart from unpleasant physical complications), should it matter if it were? Is femininity such an abhorrent gender that it should only be endured by those it has been foisted upon since birth? As I said, feminism is concerned with discussions of power, but it is abundantly clear whether trans women are people whose gender gives them power.

Do we have to accept the diktats of yet another man with an abundance of facial hair? When Freud said, "Anatomy is destiny," he was speaking against everything that women and queer people of all stripes have since sought to overturn. Our goal is a world in which everyone can be true to themselves in how they present themselves, how they behave and to whom and how they give their love. This is what I will tell my niece, whether or not she wants to be a princess or follow her aunt's footsteps in becoming a writer-explorer ukelele-playing superhero with pink shoes. Or indeed, if it turns out that she was a nephew after all.

See also, The F-Word:  There's Nothing Radical About Transphobia. This ramble was partly provoked by a Radical Feminist Conference in London which invited only "Women born women" (their poor mothers!) on the same day as the International Day against Transphobia & Homophobia


Matthew Smith said...

This struck a chord with me on a lot of levels. I went through a long phase of hating my own gender (in both senses of the word), as a result of being in a boarding school full of "disturbed" boys (who were allowed to run around and be thugs, while those of us who couldn't were expected to just put up with them), having come from a female-heavy extended family (my immediate family is two of each, but my Mum had four sisters and one brother and among the cousins, there were two girls and one boy, who was much younger than me, so I was very much the odd one out). There was a lot of sexual harassment (besides the rampant and public violence and the common use of foul and threatening language) and people used the word "woman" as an insult. I was recently diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome and the problems that caused were what led to my being sent to the boarding school. I also had a huge complex about being a child - I hated not being able to make decisions for myself and having to do as I was told and accept adults' (often selfish) decisions, and resisted anything that reinforced my child status.

To me, "normal" adults were female - my Mum, my aunts, most of my teachers before going away to that school; I found the company of boys and men at best uninteresting and at worst threatening. I wanted to be like the adults I most identified with. People talk about male power but to me, the power those women had over me was much more immediate than the fact that Parliament and most corporate boards are dominated by men (and most men I knew outside boarding school were not in jobs that gave them any power or political influence). There was no contradiction between femininity and power, as far as I could tell. To me, the females around me (when at home) had untroubled lives - they had friends (I didn't), the children appeared to find school easy, the adults either were in work or were at college, and none of them were being abused as I was.

I know Julie Bindel has an agenda, but she has a point about the fact that some M-F transsexuals don't really want to be female - they want not to be the sort of man they are expected to be (of course, I know many really do, and from a very young age - much younger than I did). In my late teens, offered the chance of a transition, and if I knew it would be accepted by my family, I would have taken it in a heartbeat, but it's quite possible that I would have regretted it later. I remember feeling very envious of people I read of in news stories who were brought up as boys and then were discovered to be girls due to certain genetic conditions.

About the rad-fems and transphobia, I've long noticed that their excuses for excluding trans women from all-female events they organise to be illogical and based on prejudice and generalisation (which they regard as acceptable for themselves because they are "oppressed") - for example, trans women were necessarily brought up as little princes while their sisters did all the washing-up for them, that sort of thing (not in my family), and have experience of "male privilege" (like being treated as a freak and beaten up in public with impunity), so their behaviour is likely to ruin the vibe at an all-women music festival. Someone posted a screenshot from a rad-fem forum on Twitter today which expressed the even more ridiculous view that all trans women (or SCAMs - Surgically and Chemically Altered Males) want to do is gain access to the women's "locker room" and the "harem", as if anyone would go to such lengths for that purpose? I don't know if it's really femininity they hate, or if it's the fact that they can't fathom why anyone would want to be female given that they feel so oppressed, or if it's just the "gatekeeper" mentality - they want to feel empowered and being able to exclude someone gives them that feeling.

The Goldfish said...

Hi Matthew,

Thanks for your comment and sharing your experience here.

I'm so sorry that you had such a ghastly time as a child! I've known other men who had a hard time in the company of boys as children (some small, some gay, some bookish and unsporty), but they've generally described seeing the solution as becoming *more* masculine. They felt that if only they could "man up" - grow stronger, harder and more intimidating - they'd be okay. However, I can understand how your extreme experience made you feel that it would be better simply to be a woman instead.

I imagine your experiences have put you in a very good position to understand how sexism cuts both ways!

I think that it simply must be the case that *some* people transition for the wrong reasons - just as some of the people enter into all manner of life decisions on the wrong foot. However, transition isn't necessarily a surgical thing and when it is, it takes a very long time. I think of it a little like a close friend who became a nun; there were so many stages before she became a nun proper, spanning years, and at any time the women can withdraw before taking their final vows. But even when they've been through all that, and even when (as is often the case) becoming a nun has been a vocation since childhood, some later decide it's simply not for them.

When I was younger and perhaps more radical, I had some sympathy with the argument that in some future genderless utopia, people may be able to be themselves, regardless of what's in their pants, and not be bothered all these labels. But that's not the way the world is now, and I don't believe that any movement for good is benefited by anyone being condemned to a miserable life on principle (not that trans gender people exactly get it easy when they are able to transition).

Thanks again for your comment.

Elizabeth McClung said...

Thank you for always bringing up the challenging topics.

I have always viewed that feminine would be what is within the entire mathimatical subset bracket of what females do, individually or collectively, and masculine is the same for males.

This is often rejected quite strongely by some, yet I think that the sticking point is the lack of adequate words, or enough of them.

I think, for example, that to reject the trappings of the high feminism, is a common female pre-puberty until college grad experience enough to be in essense, part of the female, the feminine experience, and not 'an odd shaped man' (still sort of trying to process breasts at age 8).

Also, even in a single society, what IS 'feminine' is considered so much up to debate, as in Wales, for lesbians, a female with shoulder length hair, jeans, men's shoes, and a t-shirt was femme, ultra feminine, while to most of the population, 'not particularly', and for many Christians and older women, 'unladylike' (while I simply don't believe that anyone who is female CAN be unladylike, and don't hand off my gender to some person writing books or articles like Emily Post to determine if I am or am not female or feminine). - at the same time, a straight male with a ponytail of long hair, and unshaved pits would be 'masculine' - even though the exact same for lesbians would be ultra feminine. Which is why I find, when so many variables like location, culture, background, family, and personal feeling determine how much on the femininity spectrum you feel yourself, who makes the rules.

For F-M transsexuals, puberty is such a significant trauma that blockers are now common in some European countries and some states for early transitioners as you describe, but is also a state for those who do not want to become 'wife' material or have to go from being (self viewed) as free to the confines of clothing, deportment and all the expectations of being a 'young lady' (BLECH!).

I personally feel that the acts of significance are individual, in some ways. The person who rarely leaves the house but wears lip gloss or make up - a self identity stand.

In reverse, when such a high percentage of men practice transvestism (around 20%) for various reasons, I am hard pressed to say, 'that is obviously feminine', but rather a type of masculinity which is on a spectrum perhaps, in the same way the 'metrosexual' of 10 years ago, with pedi and mani and clear nail polish is now seen as 'feminine' - when enough hetero movie and sports stars were acting in this way to indicate is was not at all, or that they were not they icons for femininity but masculinity.

Elizabeth McClung said...

Part II: Trans and transsexual are two groupings that seem mixed in such a way that what used to be 'bisexual until graduation' for some now seems to be 'trans until graduation' - a significant percentage (albiet still a very very small minority) which then does have say, an online persona, or who changes views or feels things are okay expressed in a different way.

As you say, the status for those who undergo medical treatment which not only takes years, and is expensive (still around $40-80,000 for F-M, the largest growing group in late teens and twenties, and about $30-50,000 for M-F) - the studies which were archived at Press for Change show the follow up studies which, after 60 years of studies held solid with 98-99% satisfaction and life improvement in 5 and 10 year follow ups, to the 1% of regrets, while those earlier on, without some of the adjustments of the protocol, have a higher percentage. Unless someone is doing research or meta-research studies of the last 10 or 20 years, I would take what they say about satisfaction with a large salt dose as you point out, the 'exit' door is posted at every turn and most of the vocal 'I changed my mind' group turn out to have skipped steps like the 6-24 months with a gender specialist counsellor or the 1-2 years of real life living (I like the nun analogy as it seems to be similar, live the life, then decide to move on).

I noticed that Lana, of the two siblings previously know as the W brothers, who made the matrix, came out under a year ago after it wall all done, and the years past, simply moving onward, not particularly notable on the femininity spectrum.

As a blogger of a gender varient child, who was then thrown out of kindergarden, the mother from Nerdy Apple, whose child went as Daphnae from Scoobie Doo, said that if her daughter went as Batman, no one would have said a word - that's not quite true, as her daughter DID go as batman the next year and the word was 'cute'. I suppose a young boy is more likely to be thought of as gay than trans if engaging in cultural cross dressing, though early studies show ALL babies grab toward the softest and shiny fabrics like velvet and silk. And with Disney pushing 9 princesses and 1 pirate, there are a lot of boy princesses and quite a few girl pirates. Neither of which has much to do with femininity or masculinity for me - but then a gay couple to me has two masculine men, not one 'wife' and one 'man' - same with lesbians couples, though one woman might like to do more plumbing and DIY home repairs than the partner.

But if you can find a definative answer, please let me know - as of yet, the only thing I have found is how useless feminism is at answering these issues, about as usefull as it was in 1976 by throwing out lesbians as 'unfemale' lest they drag down 'the movement' - if someone can define disability high femme versus low femme for me within feminism, or poverty level living high and low femme, then it might have relavence, but since my life is not like those on TV - and I don't have extra money even for leg razors or workers to shave for me, does my leg hair have anything to do with femininity? I hope not.

I liked his 'I'll play ipad' and 'the wife' will earn money - haha. Which is why I've thought this century is the century where the flexibility and actualization of desires for females becomes realized and thus eclipses the limitations masculinity self imposes on itself.

But thanks for writing a mental challenging piece.

Matthew Smith said...

Thanks for your supportive reply Goldfish. There was a discussion about transgenderism and autism a few months ago after Simon Baron Cohen released his book "Zero Degrees of Empathy" (The Science of Evil, as it's called in the USA) and I published a lengthy review (bringing in his earlier book "The Essential Difference"). Baron-Cohen emphasises the idea of autism as the "extreme male brain"; I responded that his theory overlooks various features of autism that have no real gender association, including the physical and cognitive disabilities that often come with it and the fact that it often produces a lifestyle that isn't particularly male-typical. Lisa Harney, of Questioning Transphobia, noted on her blog that gender dysphoria, in both directions, was actually commoner among people with ASDs than the general population (it's in the comments, not the main entry). To avoid link-spamming your blog, my article on SBC's book is linked off Lisa's.

In response to the "sexism cuts both ways" comment that, if I agreed with it, would sound like my agreeing with the so-called Men's Rights Activists ... I think it impacts on certain categories of men very negatively, men (and boys) with certain disabilities in particular. I also notice that any discussion of "male privilege", and the notorious "checklists" in particular, focus on the privileges enjoyed by dominant, middle-class males who are generally understood to be unencumbered by race or disability, and contrast it with the full spectrum of female experience. I am planning to write a blog post about that subject some time in the future.