Article by Stephanie Newman, Originally published by Writing On Glass on September 24, 2017
When I was a teenager, one of the reasons why I didn’t consider myself a feminist was that I grew up loving girly things: Barbies and unicorns, doll houses, tea parties. I’m sure my affinities were reinforced by all the pink aisles at Toys ‘R Us, but they never felt imposed on me. Over the years, my genuine excitement for socially sanctioned “girl” activities stayed the same, even as the activities themselves evolved from “My Little Pony” to fashion and interior design. These were pastimes I loved that also happened to signify femininity.
In college, I downplayed some of my interests because I was afraid people would take me less seriously. I joined a fashion magazine freshman fall, then quit that spring because I was embarrassed about affiliating with such a girly organization. I rushed a sorority and became less involved with every passing semester, wary of the cat-fighting bimbo stereotypes that were attached to it. Increasingly, I focused on “gender neutral” hobbies and co-ed extracurriculars, trying to erase my femininity in order to seem like a mature and intellectual adult.
This was internalized sexism. I didn’t recognize it as such until I started reflecting on why I had developed a repulsion for things I used to like. Why did I disavow shopping when I stopped to admire stylish outfits on window mannequins as I walked to work? Why did I decide I better not have any pink on my professional website? I still liked these things. But femininity has a connotation. It conjures up an images of a Legally Blonde-inspired, cookie-baking fests complete with facials and blowouts, a phrase that sounds frivolous and disdainful even as I type it out.
Where do these negative connotations of femininity come from?
The predominant stereotype is that frilly, pink, and high-heeled translates to vapid, materialistic, and superficial. That’s a problem. Author Julia Serano writes in her book Whipping Girl that “sexism is rooted in the presumption that femaleness and femininity are inferior to (and only exist for the sexual benefit of) maleness and masculinity.’” In The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness, lawyer Jill Filipovic gives some strong examples of where this bias comes into play:
“Culturally, ‘girly stuff’ is denigrated while men’s stuff is elevated: fashion is shallow and women’s magazines are trashy, but sports are a valuable national pastime and men read Playboy and Esquire for award-winning journalism…The same goes for clothing: ‘unisex clothes’ are traditionally men’s clothes that women can also wear. Women having taken up wearing pants en masse, but most men do not wear skirts or dresses. Women can embrace guy stuff and it’s a sign of clout and authority; men who embraces girl stuff are weak, less powerful, gay.”
It’s not only ‘girly stuff’ that gets the short end of the stick. Women who embrace these pastimes are often considered to be just as shallow as the activities themselves. To be feminine is to walk the unbearably thin line between social approval and mockery. Women who like ‘girly stuff’ are at once considered sexually desirable and unintelligent. Consider all the people (especially straight men) who roll their eyes when women talk about makeup and hair. Then read this Reddit thread about women who test makeup vs. no-makeup profile pictures on OKCupid. (Spoiler alert: the makeup photos are more successful, and the most popular woman on the dating site is a cosmetic artist.)
Sometimes, hobbies like fashion and beauty get mixed in with behaviors that we typically categorize as “feminine,” like popularity contests and cattiness. One feminist thinker who’s explored this concept is the Swedish scholar Ulrika Dahl, who writes, “Markers of femininity are sticky; they conjure up competition and popularity, sometimes also privilege…To wear pretty things is to engage in a game of ‘I want to be popular’, to not be serious, to be too much body.” Dahl also points out that these associations with femininity aren’t just the domain of men. Loads of women and self-proclaimed feminists hold grudges against the feminine for reasons of their own.
In fact, it took me a long time to feel at home more radical feminist circles, and I think my femininity was the primary reason why. At gatherings filled with women who identified more with masculinity, I’d often feel like the “square” in the room: the traditional-looking straight woman, wearing a dress and eyeliner and long hair. Even among progressive women, I was worried I would be dismissed on the grounds that I was too mainstream.
I got over it, but I can still identify with Ulrika Dahl when she points out that “the contempt for femininity is a kind of feminist sexism.” So many people think that being a feminist means acting more like a man, as if acting like a woman is inherently wrong. But in my mind, this only strengthens sexist biases. The underlying issue isn’t femininity. It’s the male-centric value system that universalizes masculine activities and traits while marginalizing feminine ones.
Now, I do think it’s important to acknowledge that non-feminine women face discrimination for not fitting into traditional gender structures. Let’s also be clear that the mass definition of femininity often excludes women of color and LGBTQ+ women. But once again, the real problem isn’t femininity. It’s the fact that the categories of “feminine” and “masculine” become prescriptive, until inanimate objects, colors, and personality traits become loaded with subtle meaning.
Feminists — myself included — can do better by not vilifying “femininity.” If I’ve learned anything from grappling with my own girliness, it’s that dismissing the feminine and embracing the masculine won’t earn women the same respect as men. But dismantling the prevailing notion that femininity is related to superficiality — that could make a dent.