Posted by: alphafemme | March 14, 2009

On Femininity

A discussion over at LesbianDad these past few days has gotten me thinking, again, about femme identity, feminism, and queer politics. (And I should add that this post is in no way a negative reaction to that discussion; rather, I’m very grateful to LD for inspiring this post and for the commenters there who gave me food for thought. What I write here is actually somewhat tangential to LD’s original post.)

It took me some time to come to terms with my femininity. (An aside: I hesitate to use the word feminine to describe myself, mostly because I don’t think it quite captures the whole picture. Femme-inine allows for a bit more movement, a bit more subversiveness, a bit more, well, queerness. Though of course, the distinction is purely written. But for the sake of clarity, I’ll stick to femininity here.) When I first came out early in college, I went through what I saw as a mandatory transformation. I cut off my long hair, I packed my skirts and girly tees away in the back of the closet, I discarded my jewelry and make-up, I adopted a swagger, and I wore sports bras and Timberlands. I was under the impression, see, that in order to be truly gay, as a woman, I had to be gender non-conforming. This was in the context of a women’s college, where the rugby players were ersatz frat boys and where the “straight” girls who swooned over them were deemed “lugs” — lesbians until graduation (when, presumably, they would once again revert to a hetero life). “Lug,” you have to understand, is not a desirable moniker. Everyone was constantly straining to prove their authenticity.

So, I went through a vaguely uncomfortable and intensely self-conscious androgynous dyke phase. It didn’t feel right. But I wanted so badly for it to feel right, because I thought that otherwise, I would never be accepted by the queer community. But I would never belong to the straight world either. I would be in some sort of gender and sexuality purgatory.

Now, of course, I’ve come back to myself. A lot of that has to do with time passing, girlfriends coming and going, and general introspection. Everything that I realized I was not could help me figure out who and what I was. Here I am in my 20s, still not with a full picture, but at least with a more whole sense of self and a body I feel I own.

But a lot of it also has to do with reading and processing, feminism in particular. I’ve come to be able to articulate what I see as a central dilemma in feminism today: how can we both value and strengthen femininity as a valid realization of self and undermine it as an arbitrary set of patriarchal standards for women?

See, feminists in the 2nd wave (and forgive my gross oversimplification) accomplished a lot — they realized that a society in which men dominated women set the standards for how women were supposed to be. And the brave women of the 1960s and 1970s struggled to break free from those standards, to say, look, we can do and be all these other things. We don’t have to follow your prescriptions for how we’re supposed to look — we can let our body hair grow. We don’t have to act how you expect us to act — we can be assertive and aggressive and stalwart. We don’t have to be limited by what you think we should be — we can be professors and athletes and construction workers and business people. In a nutshell, “look at all these things we can be! We can be everything you can be, and more.”

The problem with that is that it makes femininity unenlightened. It reduces feminine women to women who haven’t yet liberated themselves from the confines of patriarchal standards. And it judges those women, too. It’s complicated, of course, because I’m sure there are many women who don’t have so-called “enlightened” visions of their gender presentation. I, too, have a slight discomfort with heterosexual women who seem to buy into the ultimate heteronormative notion of Family (dad works, mom stays home and watches the kids; dad talks politics and finance, mom talks interior decorating and child-rearing; etc.). It does seem to me that many of these women aren’t making much of a conscious choice about their gender roles; they’re not really challenging (either personally or socially) the rigid structure they’ve been socialized in. And I do think it is important to work on this, to figure out: how can we undermine patriarchy, and enable women to make decisions about their lives, their bodies, their desires, their families?

But the thing is, we need to do it in a way that doesn’t preclude femininity from also being a part of the solution. A feminism that relegates femininity to the lowest rung of self-expression, that says “but you can be MORE, you can be BETTER!”, that assumes that femininity is just a first step for women — this kind of feminism is complicit with patriarchy. It continues to buy into the notion that masculinity is better. Femininity is still undesirable.

We need — I need — a feminism that instead emphasizes the value in all expressions. A feminism in which weak and passive are okay, because they are just companion traits to strong and assertive. Chattiness and bared legs and emotions and sensitivity and make-up are okay. A feminism that calls for self-discovery, empowerment, and finding the way to true expression of the self, a feminism raises up femininity, celebrates femininity, enables femininity in all humans is a feminism that is for me.

But how do we do this? How do we strike the subtle balance between empowering women to be ourselves and celebrating femininity where we see it? How can we say, “you don’t have to be this way, you’re not limited to this expression of your identity” without implying, “you need to move on, break free, leave this antiquated self behind”? How do we recognize unempowered femininity and aim to empower it, while also strengthening and supporting those women who are purposefully and intentionally feminine? How can we do any of this without messy judgments and hurt feelings and alienation?

I don’t know. I’ll get back to you on that one. In the meantime, if YOU have any idea, please do tell.



  1. […] Funny — I just noticed that last week, Zoe at BlogHer linked to my post, “On Femininity” in her post “Femme Identity.” I haven’t paid any attention to my stats for […]

  2. I LOVE THIS! I had a similar experience in college, coming out, exploring new expressions of my identity, wanting to be accepted. (You didn’t happen to go to Smith, did you? That rugby anecdote sounds toooo familiar! :) )

    I also struggle with feminism’s rejection of femininity. Male supremacist definitions of “womanhood,” which of course are the basis for our oppression, are also the WAY in which we know each other as women. If not for these constructions (even to some small extent), what then, is the basis for our solidarity as women and as lesbians? WHAT is that we claim to LOVE *about* women, if not something having to do with our gendered conditioning?? (You know, the female form is gorgeous, but I love MUCH more about women than their physicality!) I’ve been more than a little upset about this apparent catch-22 and not even the most radical feminists have offered a proper answer. We can NOT know what “women” as a biological category would BE LIKE in the absence of patriarchal conditioning–we’re so saturated with it that it’s quite simply not possible.

    The only semi-solution I’ve been able to come up with is exactly what you said: WE NEED a feminism that instead emphasizes the value in ALL expressions of WOMAN. There are certainly aspects of male-defined “femininity” that I believe ARE inherently harmful to women. But NOT all of them.

    Behaviors like nurturing, listening, and care-taking are most detrimental to women when operating under the guise of PATRIARCHY. When we express these values amongst ourselves, to the benefit of other WOMEN, this alternate context CHANGES the effect. Suddenly, these feminine characteristics don’t seem quite so self-sacrificing! I believe VERY strongly that women are capable of creating a BALANCE between the (subjectively) positive aspects of both “male” and “female” to the benefit of women as a whole. We do not have any other choice!!

    That’s my take. Thank you for writing this.

    • Wow, for whatever reason, I just found this comment!! I guess I must’ve been overwhelmed and really busy a few weeks ago when you actually wrote it…

      Thanks for commenting!! And yes, totally, I agree with everything you said. I especially like this: “when we express these values amongst ourselves, to the benefit of other women, this alternate context changes the effect.” YES. And YES. I would add, “and to the benefit of ourselves” after your “to the benefit of other women,” because I think the MOST important thing is that we all express ourselves in a way that *feels right.* Ultimately, each of us is the only true authority on our own identity. And honestly, performing femininity for a butch female lover can be oppressive too (though the context certainly is different from performing femininity for a cisgendered male lover) if it’s not really a “skin” you feel comfortable in and/or you feel expected to conform to certain gendered expectations by your lover.

      What I’m working on right now in my life is constantly checking in with myself around what FEELS right to me, what feels most like me (and not what pleases mi’lady… or what makes me look desirable to other people… because I still haven’t quite learned how to let go of those things as factors in my decisions of how to present myself). What’s most oppressive about the patriarchy and its demands for female femininity, I think, is that it socializes ALL girls and women, from birth on up, to think that we exist for the pleasure of others (men). The way we look is for the benefit of men. The way we act is for the benefit of men. And even once we’ve gotten rid of the “men” bit (as I most definitely have, ha), having been socialized in that way means that really, at its core, I never learned how to exist *by and for myself.*

      Hmmm. I think I feel another post about this coming. Hopefully one that’s better articulated than this comment. Stay tuned. And thanks for the food for thought!!!

  3. Hi alphafemme!

    I really DO like this post! I must say, I never feel quite as free to explore my mind and open up to new ideas as I do with other queer ladies, femmes, or… people. Hate the assumptions my language nearly inevitably makes…

    Your post, combined with many other bombardments (helpful ones!) are re-wiring my brain structure that formerly activated my disdain for femininity. I’m reading Whipping Girl by Julia Serano right now, don’t know if you’ve read it before, but it’s bringing up very similar issues regarding the nearly universal scapegoating of fem(me)ininity.

    I just read your About Me part and it sounds like you had the same desires for community that I do… after spending 4 years at my college where people like me have our tiny community, I’d really like to move somewhere where I’m less the weirdo.

    My brain’s fried right now and I’m not going to write anymore, but thank you for stopping by our blog! Nice to have people to keep me honest and always thinking.

  4. having been socialized in that way means that really, at its core, I never learned how to exist *by and for myself

    I like that! I think that’s worth exploring in terms of how we conceive of ourselves and how women can become more self-identified–and woman-identified!

    I COMPLETELY agree that performing femininity for the butch gaze can be reminiscent of the male gaze. The context is different, but it can be similarly objectifying. In dating a butch, I felt a community-based expectation to be more feminine than I felt at the time. There is definitely pressure on feminine people to exaggerate their presentation and go all High Femme!

    I love this conversation! Irene, I think you’re in the Pioneer Valley? Move to Boston. :)

  5. […] or, worse, hurting feminism. I’ve pretty much gotten over that now (see my post on femininity for a discussion of that), thank goodness, and am now fiercely, comfortably, and even subversively […]

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