Femininity can’t be that bad

Lisa at Sociological Images:

Most of us are clear on the idea that patriarchies are defined by sexism… In our American patriarchy, however, this is …perhaps even superseded by something called androcentrism: the valuing of all-things-masculine over all-things-feminine.  We know we live in an androcentric society because masculinized things (playing sports, being a doctor, being self-sufficient) are imagined to be good for everyone (we encourage both our sons and daughters to do these things), but feminized things (playing with dolls, being a nurse, and staying at home to raise children) are considered to be good only for women.

I’ll admit I hadn’t really noticed the extent of this until she pointed it out. It’s not immediately clear though why this would be unfair toward women, rather than men. She explains elsewhere:

Comparably, women have got it good. We’re allowed to knit and play soccer, be a mom and be a lawyer, take dance and karate, wear skirts and pants!…How do we make sense of this? Crash course: Femininity is just for chicks. When men do feminine things, they are debasing themselves. Masculinity is awesome and for everyone. When women do masculine things, they’re awesome. This is sexism: Masculinity rules, femininity drools. Men are encouraged to stay away from femininity, so their individual choices are constrained, but they also are staying away from something debasing. In contrast, women are required to do a least some femininity, so women are required to debase themselves, at least a little bit, even as they are given more options.

Another possibility is that femininity is debasing for men, and awesome for women. Otherwise, how can one account for women doing so much femininity? So eagerly, so expensively? According to the above, they are required to do at least some, but shouldn’t women be consistently pushing this supposed boundary to do as little as possible? I don’t see this at all.

Consistent with this, and not with Lisa’s view, this vast majority of women who are actively unnecessarily feminine do not appear to be at any popularity disadvantage relative to their more tomboy counterparts. In fact they appear roughly to be more well liked as they display more feminine characteristics. Can Lisa’s view account for these observations? If not, it seems that men are the ones who lose out here, just like women lose out in cultures where dressing or acting like a man is considered disgusting for them.

Victoria Baker

Is this woman just ignorant of the superiority of manliness? Image via Wikipedia

15 responses to “Femininity can’t be that bad

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  2. is this view consistent with the rising acceptance of metrosexuals? I’m not sure that it is.

  3. Some initial thoughts …  

    1. It’s a fact that feminity is inherently a valuable characteriatic to have and many people (women especially) do seem to perceive it as such.

    2. The capitalistic marketplace puts a high value on excellence in feminity.

    3. A majority of corporations devalue their feminine employees. 

    4. Although men value excellence in feminity in women and desire such women sexually, the value and sexual desire doesn’t necessarily constitute respect.  Since respect is potentially missing, such women’s effective authority is less.

    5. As you say, a large proportion of both women and men do not value feminity in males.  I suspect that a typical female feminist who discovered her male lover in the act of crossdressing (i.e. expressing femininity outwardly) might become highly displeased.

    6. I think that gender identity factors into this.  Although gender identity is a bit fluid in some rare cases, it’s locked in place most of the time.  Even if a feminine woman decided that masculine clothes and masculine behavior would get her lots of kudos from others, she’d not be able to feel entirely comfortable with doing so forever.  Femininity isn’t just a quality that she’s “decided” to have, but something she has a built in propensity towards.  Importantly, not every woman has the same degree of propensity towards feminity.       

    7. Unfortunately, there’s a message in a lot of western literature (especially older texts) that masculinity is a characteristic of important people whereas feminity is considered as mostly just vane, frivolous, wasteful, and stupid.

    PS: This post of yours has been very thought provoking.  It’s interesting how femininity can be so highly valued in some ways and yet utterly devalued in others ways, becoming an indication of low intelligence, or vanity, or even moral depravity (as with the predominate opinion towards men who crossdress on occassion)

  4. Or maybe we’re sexist against men because they’re only allowed to be masculine, whereas women can be masculine or feminine.

  5. The ‘popularity disadvantage’ you refer to doesn’t encapsulate the full disadvantage to hyper-femininity – social popularity is rarely the end-game. Rather, the disadvantage in hyper-femininity manifests in many different ways for women. including that:
    1. a dispassionate approach to work, often considered a masculine trait, is the expected norm. Displays of unnecessary femininity in the workplace are discouraged and often tacitly punished, for example, in terms of ‘good work’ or promotional opportunities. This may give rise to a tangible cost in terms of earnings;
    2. in reasoning and argument, stereotypically feminine approaches such as emotional or intuitive responses are dismissed as of limited merit, for example, it was not so long ago that we used a legal standard of ‘the reasonable man’ rather than the ‘reasonable person’;
    3. women are expected to display stereotypically masculine traits in professional interactions and switch to stereotypically feminine traits in social interactions. There are difficulties and costs in doing this;
    4. women are constantly encouraged to compete with each other in the femininity space, leading to a costly race to hyper-femininity. Sometimes, the costs of racing are other women or the respect or friendship of other women. The value of popularity isn’t limited to sexual popularity with men (which likely has a self life); and
    5. hyper-femininity, despite the extent to which it is popular, is deemed to an exercise in frivolousness and indulgence with limited currency for most people. People generally want self-actualisation and meaning in their lives, and the repeated reinforcement of the idea of one’s triviality impedes this.

    • I agree femininity has disadvantages (as does any behavioural style), but if many people are willingly doing it more than they have to, it must overall benefit them over the alternatives.

      Another alternative is that masculinity is even worse for women than femininity, but both are worse than masculinity is for men, and better than femininity is for men. That would be consistent with women being worse off, while they have more options and actively engage in a worse on average behavioural style.

  6. It probably does overall benefit them, but it is only in limited contexts where this thrives. This can account for the fact of the hyper-femininity, without drawing the conclusion that hyper-femininity is rewarded across the board. It would seem that masculinity better rewards women in broader contexts. (I guess there is a question there about why certain contexts attract a hyper-feminine approach, but that’s not the focus of this post.)

    The margin is often populated by men – they certainly seem to lose out by engaging in overtly ‘feminine’ behaviour, though some (secret? implicit?) behaviour traditionally thought of as feminine does also benefit men, for example, ‘manscaping’ or being ‘sensitive’.

    I would say that overall, femininity is worse for women than masculinity, but both are worse than masculinity is for men, and better than femininity is for men.

  7. Maybe femininity is partially for getting sex? The world’s most powerful women aren’t very feminine.

    By the same token, many men may act the most masculine for sex, and care less about it otherwise. Playing video games when girls aren’t looking, football when they are.

  8. Nithya, I think you missed the memo, but actually, yes social popularity IS the end game. Most people know this.

    Also, I’ll point out that very high status men are expected to cultivate extreme masculinity OR, somewhat preferably, a mix of highly cultivated masculinity AND femininity. The highest status men can cultivate masculinity (Arnold) femininity (David Bowie), both (Clinton) or neither (Gates). For the most part, when I think of truly generally impressive men (say, Oppenheimer) they are strikingly feminine relative to average men, though also fairly masculine. In general, I see the trend of society as towards suppressing both masculinity and femininity out of discomfort with both, and towards infantilization.

  9. Pingback: Links « Rhymes With Cars & Girls

  10. Pingback: Food for Thought: Who’s being sexist NOW? « Ms Karen Au

  11. Hi Katja, I replied to your post here:

    Food for Thought: Who’s Being Sexist NOW?

    Enjoy! :)

  12. Pingback: Why can’t a man be more like a woman? | Meteuphoric

  13. zachK:

    is this view consistent with the rising acceptance of metrosexuals? I’m not sure that it is.

    Metrosexuals would be a problem for this view if they actually wore dresses or skirts. But somehow, that’s still “girly”. I’d say that most “male femininity” is of a rather mild nature.

    Anyway I’m a man who agrees that we are missing something here, options-wise. Not that we ultimately “lose”, though; it’s still preferable to be male than female in our patriarchy.

  14. I think as a society we see “the feminine” as being weak and “the masculine” as being strong, this is evident in languages. However as a rather feminine man, I really don’t understand why this should be, there are many advantages associated with being feminine such as better communication skills and organization.

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