In defense of femininity
I’d heard really great things about Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, particularly in the way the book incisively criticizes feminists for not seeing how hostility to femininity itself is a kind of misogyny. Things that made me especially eager to get more insight into this idea were the Snickers ad that played like shooting at a man for the high crime of doing something feminine was cute instead of a celebration of gay-bashing, and the ugliness that greeted the film version of “Sex and the City”. The latter in particular seems to be a textbook example of what Serano fairly describes as a feminist distancing from hostility to femininity even as women themselves are defended.
The traditional, standard feminist belief about femininity is that it’s an artifice constructed to subjugate women to men. But Serano’s experience throws a monkey wrench in that—as a MTF transgendered woman, she feels empowered by femininity, because it’s an expression of femaleness she didn’t have for much of her life. She points out that many people who have not only had the opportunity to reject feminine behaviors and have even been strongly encouraged to—transsexual women, effeminate men, and I’d add some boring old straight feminists—feel happier acting in feminine ways instead of in the masculine ways they’ve been encouraged to adopt. In addition, a lot of feminine traits are just generally good traits that are nonetheless disdained and hated in our culture because they’re seen as feminine. For Serano, the greater emotional expressiveness that gets labeled “feminine” is a big one. Being able to cry when you feel like it—or, as she learned during her transition, not being able to stop crying once you start—is a good thing, but in our culture, it’s treated like a horrible thing, because it’s feminine. I’d add that on the flip side, you see a lot of destructive behaviors get rewarded and congratulated in our culture because they’re coded masculine—violence and a condescending disdain for the feelings of others come to mind. The sheepish pride men who do things like forget their wives’ birthday should be disgusting, but for huge percentages of people in this culture, that’s cute and thank god boys will be boys.
Other traits should be neutral, but aren’t treated that way, especially when feminine traits are adopted by men, like wearing bright colors or even articles of clothing that are associated with women. And even though women are expected to wear women’s clothes and be conscientious about being appealing to the eyes of others, we’re still condemned for being frivolous for it. Again, I think about the ugly reaction to the “Sex and the City” movie, with condemnations of the characters for being the worst sorts of human beings because they’re fans of high fashion. But really, what’s so wrong with that? That it’s fun? That it’s novel? That it’s about beauty and color? Oh yeah, that it’s feminine. You can hide behind the word “materialism”, but the truth of the matter is that the brunt of materialism criticisms are aimed at women for performing behaviors that upset people more because they’re so feminine. Expensive cars in movies don’t get that sort of vitriol. The fact of the matter is that if you’re a woman who wants to be taken seriously, you feel a strong amount of pressure to, while looking good of course, distance yourself from seeming to care about “frivolous” feminine things. Or, all people, really. Serano criticizes this while admitting that she’s not exactly the most feminine of women in this area, preferring to wear tomboyish clothes and no make-up. But she makes a great case about how privileging the masculine over the feminine in situations like this has a ripple effect that discredits women and men that have traits considered feminine.
I was convinced in a lot of ways, and will be more careful now about watching how femininity is used to discredit people for no good reason at all. That said, I have a couple of criticisms of her ideas. One is that she dwells too much on her idea that the diversity of expression on the masculine/feminine spectrum is biological in origin. Unlike gender essentialists who use this argument, though, Serano claims that having inborn tendencies towards this side or that isn’t some fence to divide men and women and call them opposites—that some young men feel feminine even when they’re scolded for it is evidence, in her eyes, that “feminine” is partly natural but that it spreads out over different people. I think the claims got a little overblown when there’s not a whole lot of evidence there for this theory, and that Serano’s position as a working biologist could confuse some readers into thinking there’s more evidence for this idea than there is. If feminine is fine, then why do we have to qualify it by saying it’s inborn anyway?
My other concern was that Serano didn’t spend enough time distinguishing between the kinds of mandatory femininities imposed on women that have no value outside of making us subordinate to men. She does spend some time arguing that we should strive for a femininity that’s not defined as helpless, dependent, stupid, etc., but still, I think there’s a lot of room for confusion between the femininity that she’s defending and the indefensible stuff. I’m on board with the idea that I shouldn’t feel weird or guilty because I like wearing skirts, but I can’t help but think of feminine behaviors like waiting on people, apologizing for everything even if it’s someone else’s fault, and deferring to others to the extent that you have to prove your love for your husband by naming yourself after him. The book could have used a chapter about this problem, because the old school feminist view of femininity as a trap isn’t all that wrong.
This review only handles the parts of the book that deal directly with this conundrum; there’s a lot in the book that’s fascinating about queer and transgender politics. It was really educational, and I highly recommend everyone reading the book for those parts. One thing I’ve learned is that the bulk of writing about transgendered people silences their voices, so I’m going to defer to saying, “Read this book and others by transgendered people,” instead of spouting off about stuff that’s outside my experience.