I’m labeling this as an “interlude” because the constructs of femininity I’m about to address don’t all directly intersect with the beauty myth, but the way that they interact with femininity as a whole is a topic that I feel needs to be addressed. I’ve been sitting on this one ever since Shannon over at Egotistical Whining wrote a commentary on the second part of this series.
In life, and especially in male-dominated areas, femininity gets a bad rap. It’s seen as frivolous, as emotional, as irrational, as naive… the list goes on an on. It’s not, however, seen as desirable to possess because it’s somehow lesser than masculine traits.
I’ve tried to dispel that false dichotomy in my series thus far, but it’s hard to see the bigger picture when the topic at hand is the beauty myth, a cultural paradigm that relies on ruthlessly exploiting the negative aspects of femininity in order to maintain the connection between women and sex. So I’m going to try here again to illustrate why, exactly, despite its flaws it’s not in our best interest to throw femininity into the same trash bin as the beauty myth itself.
I. Femininity beyond objectification
I’m not seeing the downside to rejecting the feminine, which in esscence is denying yourself to become only the sum of your looks instead of what you do.[From Thursday, November 30, 2006 by Shannon]
What Shannon is addressing here is women as the sex class, but I don’t see it as something that defines, or even springs from, femininity but rather that it’s one of the influences that shapes modern femininity. It’s important to note, however, that I think that the “women as the sex class” paradigm influences much more than femininity, and indeed is a trope that women cannot get away from no matter how unfeminine we try to make ourselves.
We’ve already established that femininity does engage with looks, and on this level it engages directly with the beauty myth especially in areas such as makeup and clothing. But what else is it, and why is it so damn important not to ridicule it?
One aspect relevant to the realm of geekery is the association between femininity and emotions. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard women being derided for being emotional, while the geeky men compare themselves to emotionless machines. The impression that I’ve been given over the years is that hardcore geeks aspire to perfection in the form of machinery: cold, rational beings who can crunch numbers like nobody’s business but turn their nose up at common social graces and shared warmth.
II. The relation between women and femininity
So guy geeks are always talking about how you can connect to more people and form more networks with people you never met. And my research tells me womenâ€™s brains are just more interested in face reading and voice reading and reading all the messages you get beneath the words. Guys tend to concentrate more on the abstract ideas behind the words.[From Why Chicks Donâ€™t Dig The Singularity, quote from Joe Quirk]
Men, being seen as creatures of masculinity, have some wiggle room. Their irrational behaviour — and you’d better bet that I categorize an attempt to rid oneself of all emotions as pretty damn irrational — is excused on some premise or another. They are allowed to display a certain amount of emotion because, well, they are men and not given to emotional displays so a lapse here and there means nothing. And, really, because their fitness to be a geek is assumed they aren’t exactly under intense scrutiny.
Women, however, women have to “win” our right to be in the clubhouse. Like masculinity is an assumed default for men, so is femininity an assumed default for women. With the partial exception of looks, no hint of femininity is allowed to be present unless the woman is willing to defend herself or allow herself to be put into the Girly-Girl (ie. “not as geeky as thou”) box. And that’s it, really. The moment we fail to defend an expression of emotion that the men don’t like, or we come off as attractive to them, we’re demoted from Second Class Geek to Third.
Don’t think it’s only men keeping this hierarchy in place. I’m going to be talking in the next part of this series more about the woman on woman hatred, but I’ve got to say that some of the most virulent detractors to display of geeky femininity have come from women. I think we’re harsher on our own gender both because those who have “fallen” are a reminder that our own tenuous position in male-dominated social circles is gifted by men, and can be as easily taken away, as well as us buying into the same idea that the men have: masculine good, feminine bad.
III. Why does it matter?
Not only does it hurt young women who develop those traits (and the gender-based doubt to go with them), but it encourages that horrible sort of pride some women get from misogyny. These are the character traits they admire. These character traits are normally closed to women, but not to men in their eyes. A woman who recognizes â€œmasculineâ€ traits in herself and is trained to see them as â€œunfeminineâ€ starts to see herself as an exception. A â€œspecial snowflakeâ€ who thinks â€œlike a man.â€[From This hit one of my peeves, bear with me. by Ragnell]
Why does it matter? Simply put: masculine good, feminine bad is very often seen as men good, women bad. Especially when you throw a little gender essentialism in the mix. Many women think that by throwing their lot in with the men — essentially becoming “like a man” — that they will become the rare exception to the “no girls allowed” sign. And, to a certain extent, they do.
But being an “honorary man”, being “like one of the boys” is far from being actually one of them. And the little differences — everything from how seriously we are treated being inversely proportional to how attractive they think we are to little niggling remarks reminding us that we are “The Girl” — will always Other us.
The solution isn’t to buy into the existing hierarchy. It’s not to point fingers at the traits that make up the construct of femininity and say, “You! You’re the culprit!” And especially we shouldn’t point fingers at the women who embrace said construct, even some of the more harmful aspects, and blame them for this.
Femininity, like masculinity, is a flawed concept. It’s socially constructed, the specifics of which differ from society to society, and the reality is that most of the traits ascribed to it are no more likely to be found in women than in men. But the crux of the issue here is that femininity is intrinsically tied to womanhood in the minds of most people.
To outright deny or deride it is to support the structure that allows men to outright deny and deride women who try to enter what they see as “their” clubhouse. It’s to encourage the same systems that tell women that no matter what we are, we’re first and foremost spectacles for male consumption.
In essence, when you blame femininity (or feminine women) for your problems as a geeky woman, you’re doing your part to ensure that the geeks who come after you will have those same problems, if not worse.
Critique femininity. Call for the deconstruction of the false dichotomy of masculine/feminine. Challenge women who equate their own self-worth with their looks. Regardless of your gender, take what you feel to be the good parts ascribed to both masculinity and femininity.
But never, ever forget that to be a woman is to be feminine in the eyes of society. Ultimately I believe that the concept of femininity will eventually become archaic (or, at the very least, cease to include traits that aren’t actually related to gender), but in the meantime it’s up to us to determine whether or not we’re going to allow the label to continue to be a stigma or if we’re going to reclaim the concept and turn it into something that is a strength rather than a weakness.