Defending the feminine

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, June 17, 2008 14:14 EDT
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I’ve seen this clip everywhere of a group of science geeks that show that nerds are hot to younger women in an effort to encourage them to join the sciences. Unfortunately, you have to link back to the article and can’t embed it. The standard issue feminist hand-wringing was issued. Example:

My confusion, though, stems from the fact that the Nerd Girls video makes it seem like sexual appeal is a necessary component to being part of their group. The cool thing is not just being interested in subjects like engineering; it’s being interested in engineering and being physically hot. Because, I mean, anyone would expect a dorky-looking girl in thick glasses and a librarian’s chain (me in middle school) to be interested in science, right? It’s the hot girl, the cheerleader, who surprises you when it turns out she spends her spare time designing race cars.

Well, yeah. I mean, they’re not exactly subverting a stereotype when they say, “Yep, that stereotype is us.”

It’s hard for me to articulate what I want to say, which is probably why I need to read Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl arguing that hostility towards feminine performance is in itself a form of misogyny, and one that good feminists fall for all the time. (Such as the insane blog war where Jill at Feministe got abused because she likes the girly arts of heels, lingerie and make-up.) I was initially skeptical of this line of attack, but then I read more about it in Jessica’s new book, it began to make more sense. But I won’t lie; it was the lame responses to the overwhelming sexism that characterized so many male critics’ responses to Sex and the City that got my wheels turning. The standard feminist response was to denounce the sexism while distancing yourself from the icky femininity of the whole project: Yes, guys, it’s really insanely stupid for women to care about clothes and shoes, but is it more stupid than men’s interest in cars and explosions? Which is a weird sort of gender stereotyping in and of itself. What about guys who like clothes and shoes? Why aren’t they insanely stupid?
I’m issuing this defense of femininity from a place of being someone with strong urges towards the fun parts of femininity, the beauty and glamor, but a general unwillingness to do much more than comb my hair. Since I bat for both teams—I’m usually tomboyish, but I clean up nice and enjoy that, too—I can say I relate to why feminists feel a strong urge to reject femininity because it’s so standardized, like doing all the housework. Not performing femininity means that people are a little disapproving of you, as we all know.

But here’s the weird thing I’ve noticed: Part of the proper performance of femininity is to be humiliated by it. It’s the classic no-win situation put on women. Like how you’re not a good woman if you don’t have kids, but you’re just a mother if you do. Or how you’re a slut if you have sex, or a prude if you don’t. If you fill social expectations by putting on a classic feminine performance, you’re generally treated like your IQ dropped 20 points. Or you’re supposed to be a little ashamed of how materialistic you are. This conundrum goes a long way to explaining why patriarchal Christian subcultures where men choose women’s clothes get schizo about it. On one hand, they want their women to be feminine and pretty, but they don’t want them to be so to the point where it gives them delight in the play aspects of it. Result: Frumpy clothes in ridiculous pastels that are both hyper-feminine and utterly humiliating.

Part of the reason, I think, “SATC” was so antagonizing to male critics was that the women were so completely unapologetic about their desires, whether it was for sex or for expensive shoes. And feminists, who are often the women who escaped the women-chattering-about-babies part of the room to go smoke cigars with the guys having real conversations, fall right into that trap of immediately being suspicious of feminine things, even if they’re presented as pleasure instead of submission.

I used to have more of an absolutist view on femininity, which is is that it’s a patriarchal institution that would, in absence of sexism, completely disappear. To be fair, I also thought this of masculinity. And do, to a degree—I think in a feminist world, masculinity and femininity will still exist and have some sort of evocative power as descriptors, but they won’t be socially loaded with ideas of submission and dominance. It’s like marriage. It’s a patriarchal institution and in a feminist world, it would be smashed to bits, right? Well, it looks like what’s going to happen is it’s going to get smashed by completely being redefined through egalitarian straight marriages and same-sex marriages. I’m okay with that as an alternative. It’s clever of people to figure out a way to redefine an institution so we get to keep the good parts and throw out the bad.

Can we do that with femininity? Can we throw out the bad and keep the good? I define the bad as gender exclusivity (only women should be feminine) and submission. But there’s good—it’s playful and beautiful. It can add erotic fissure, even in absence of eroticizing dominance and submission. Straight men actually do well to adopt some qualities considered “feminine”, particularly dressing in form-flattering ways and embracing the more playful aspects of clothes. Or the satisfaction in learning domestic arts like cooking, gardening, or crafting.

As for the Nerd Girls, I just can’t muster up the energy to be critical of them, when they’re doing such a bang-up job of smashing a stereotype and having fun with it. It’s the same thing with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. Sure, it would have been a million times better if the Scooby Gang had shown some physical diversity instead of having everyone be conventionally attractive. But if you make Buffy herself anything less than the hyper-feminine woman invoked by her name, you’re fucking up the joke. Which is that feminine women are supposed to be weak, and their job in horror movies is to be killed by the monster, giving the audience every flavor of misogyny they want in one scene. She’s not supposed to turn around and kick your ass, high heels and all. That’s the basic premise of the show.

I get that things like this aren’t inclusive to women who don’t fit this particular category of being very feminine and wanting respect anyway. Demanding that a small project like this carry that burden and many others in the spirit of inclusiveness worries me, though. No one can be all things to all people. They saw a problem—young women starting college are shying away from the sciences because they think it’s at odds with their desires to perform femininity—and they’re tackling that problem. I feel bad that they’re getting people saying, “No, you need to do this. Or this!” I’m sympathetic because as a blogger, I get a thousand requests a year that verge on that kind of hostility—”Why are you writing about X when I think you should be writing about Y?” Makes me wish there was a secular version of the Christian belief that someone is “called” to do something.

Further reading: Ellen Willis, “Women and the Myth of Consumerism”. A quote:

Consumerism as applied to women is blatantly sexist. The pervasive image of the empty-headed female consumer constantly trying her husband’s patience with her extravagant purchases contributes to the myth of male superiority: we are incapable of spending money rationally: all we need to make us happy is a new hat now and then. (There is an analogous racial stereotype—the black with his Cadillac and magenta shirts.) Furthermore, the consumerism line allows Movement men to avoid recognizing that they exploit women by attributing women’s oppression solely to capitalism. It fits neatly into already existing radical theory and concerns, saving the Movement the trouble of tackling the real problems of women’s liberation. And it retards the struggle against male supremacy by dividing women. Just as in the male movement, the belief in consumerism encourages radical women to patronize and put down other women for trying to survive as best they can, and maintains individualist illusions.

I’d go a step further than Willis and suggest that as women who have the means to survive on our own still often embrace femininity to the degree that it’s fun, but often short of the degree that it’s painful (there’s a reason that corsets and pointy bras have fallen out of fashion, and that clunky shoes have become an acceptable mode of feminine dress), we’re seeing reason to believe femininity might be more than a way to survive at the whims of men, but also a pleasure in and of itself.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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