Femininity and Feminism: A Ramble
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.
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.
"...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