Some Thoughts on Gender, Part 4: Femininity and Asymmetric Oppression

This is the fourth post in a series discussing and offering a resolution of some inconsistencies that people had alleged among ideas about gender I accept. They are loosely a development of this previous post, which sharply criticised some ideas about gender associated with so-called ‘gender-critical feminism’. The first post was about membership criteria – who counts as what gender? The second post was about the balancing the social and individual aspects of gender identity. The third post was about the relationship of gender to sexual attraction.

In this post I’m going to talk about ‘femininity’, and a tension between two feminist attitutdes to it. We live in a society that imposes something called ‘femininity’ on women, and which also denigrates femininity and thereby women. Because there are these two distinct planks, we can distinguish two ways to challenge our society’s gender codes.

One way is to celebrate women who reject femininity, either embracing this other thing masculinity or going for some sort of third style of being. A different way is to celebrate femininity itself as serious and valuable and worthy of respect. The risk is that either one of these strategies, done badly, could potentially veer into reinforcing the other plank: celebrating masculinity in women can veer into re-affirming the denigration of femininity as frivolous or servile, but celebrating femininity can veer into reinforcing the expectation that women should be feminine. I think you can see this issue playing out in feminist debates about a lot of things, from careers and motherhood to makeup and media representation.

I support both ways of challenging the system, and when done well they don’t have to be in conflict. But since I’m not a very practical person, my interest here is not so much in how practically to do both harmoniously, but in the theoretical reflection of this issue. Roughly speaking, the theoretical tension is between, two sorts of attitude:

  • On the one hand, we could see ‘femininity’ as something that is in itself just as valuable as masculinity, and only contingently denigrated under patriarchy;
  • On the other hand, we could see ‘femininity’ as simply a word for the norms of submission imposed on women by patriarchy, and thus as something essentially oppressive.

This issue is, obviously, much broader than just being about trans rights, but it does connect: on an extreme version of the second, ‘femininity is a prison’-type view, an AMAB person’s active desire to become a woman and take on (some version of) femininity could seem strangely masochistic, like a fetishisation of oppression. Conversely, on such a view, an AFAB person’s active desire to become a man and ‘shed’ femininity could seem almost trivial, like of course you’d want to do that, it’s nothing special or unusual, it’s just like wanting to vote or leave the house unaccompanied or otherwise assert your autonomy. The fact that these construals of the desire to transition are so at odds with the lived reality of so many trans people’s experiences is, I think, one good reason to reject extreme versions of ‘femininity is a prison’.

We can draw out this tension also by thinking about men under patriarchy, who are in various ways excluded from femininity and punished for displaying it. Is this a major loss of themselves, an amputation of their natural ‘feminine side’? Or is this something they should be grateful for – freedom from the painful, humiliating contortions of performing femininity?

I think this tension is a difficult one to resolve in part because there’s something right in both attitudes. I want to say that femininity is just as valuable as masculinity, and that the opposite view – that masculinity is superior, such that to deserve respect one should eschew anything feminine – is the ‘toxic’ source of a lot of bad things. Patriarchal gender roles stunt and imprison both men and women. But I also don’t want to say that they do so symmetrically – that being compelled to be only feminine, never masculine, and being compelled to be only masculine, never feminine – are equal and opposite harms. Patriarchal gender roles may harm men too, but it’s still clear which gender is subordinate and which one is dominant, and I don’t think this asymmetry is unrelated to the actual content of what ‘femininity’ means.

Here’s how I would try to square this circle. I’d say: the virtues associated with masculinity are mostly those which involve asserting oneself and one’s own power against others or against the environment. The virtues associated with femininity are mostly those associated with building up, recognising, or yielding to the power of others. Both these sets are genuine virtues: it’s good for people to assert themselves and to yield to others, and systematically denigrating or avoiding either is usually unhealthy. But, it should be clear that a system where one group can only assert and another can only yield is not a symmetrical situation. It may be limiting or unhealthy for both groups, but not in the same way or to the same degree.

These claims demand a little explanation, especially the notion of certain virtues being associated with femininity or masculinity. Moreover, I still haven’t really said what I take femininity and masculinity to be! Clearly they have something to do with gender, but their conceptual structure is very different from manhood or womanhood, which are categories, not gradable adjectives – someone is a woman or is not, but is more or less feminine in different respects.

I’d suggest something like this: to call someone a woman (or man) is to express gender-perceiving them a certain way, as falling under a certain category. That category brings with it a whole lot of associated traits, which then serve as standards, baselines, or ideals, for the perception of the individual. Femininity (or masculinity) is something like the property of possessing those associated traits – fully, or to a high degree, or with great coherence among them.

In Part 2 I noted that part of living in a gender system is that certain concrete traits (beards, breasts, dresses, certain styles of walking or standing, etc.) are seen as ‘going together well’ and other combinations are felt as ‘not fitting’. So this is part of where the traits associated with the genders come from. But although the aesthetics of concrete bodily and sartorial presentation are obviously important to gender, there’s also a much more abstract side, where genders are associated with intangible things like ‘nurturance’ or ‘courage’. Indeed, I think there’s a whole lot in between too – manhood in my society is associated with concrete things like moustaches, short hair, and adam’s apples; abstract things like assertiveness and protection; and also everything in the middle, like (to pick some deliberately cliche examples) ‘preferring beer over fruity drinks’, or ‘making more money than one’s partner’.

I think the abstract traits, like the concrete traits, are included in a fundamentally aesthetic way. When I say that manhood in my society is associated with, say, physical fighting, I don’t just mean that people believe that ‘men’ are more likely to fight, or that people endorse fighting as more appropriate or acceptable for ‘men’: I also mean that fighting is in a sense ‘symbolised’ by the concrete signifiers of manhood – that seeing-someone-as-a-man involves seeing the prospect of physical fighting somehow latent in their body, and seeing the concrete signifiers of manhood in terms of that prospect.

I think this, in part, because of seeing a number of well-meaning conversations about ‘how to build a new, feminist, non-toxic masculinity’ run aground in certain predictable ways. Someone suggests something positive, like ‘being strong in order to protect the weak’, someone else asks ‘hang on, can’t women also do that? And can’t they do it while wearing jewelery and dresses?’, and then there’s no very good answer. Either the first person says ‘no, they can’t’, or ‘they can, but they shouldn’t’, or ‘they can if they want to, but it shouldn’t be an expectation of them like it should be for men’, in which case we’ve gone back to embracing sexism, or else they say ‘yes, women can be just as masculine as men, and it’s just as appropriate, and I don’t want to suggest any special link between masculinity and men or maleness’ – in which case it becomes unclear why this thing we’re talking about is usefully called ‘masculinity’, or has anything to do with gender.

I think this dilemma arises from thinking too much in terms of principles and beliefs and endorsements – asking can women or men do X? Should they? Must they?, and neglecting the fact that ‘masculinity’ is in large part about aesthetically embodying these values – about a way of symbolically blending ‘strength’ and ‘protection’ into a style of movement, a style of body, a style of dress, and (not insignificantly) making that symbolic blend sexually attractive to the right people.

So suppose I’m right that with each gender, there is a web of associated traits, ranging from the very concrete to the very abstract, all connected by a vaguely aesthetic sense of ‘fitting together’ or ‘seeing-in’. By focusing in on particular sections of this web, we can extract particular versions of ‘femininity’ or ‘masculinity’ – we can, for example, focus on clothing and then talk about more or less feminine styles of dress, but we can also focus on work and talk about more or less feminine occupations. There might, in fact, be multiple sub-clusterings of traits within the web, even concerning the same subject-matter, giving rise to multiple incompatible versions of ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ in a given context – e.g. in my society a suit and tie is seen as a classically masculine outfit, but it is masculine in a very different way from a rugged, practical, lumberjack’s outfit. Combining the two would be liable to look very weird, but they both count as ‘masculine’ because they are both seen as naturally going with the other elements of the larger ‘man’ web.

We can also form more or less idealised versions of ‘masculinity’ or ‘femininity’, by focusing on only the positive traits in the web. Not all the traits are positive – e.g. in my culture manhood is fairly strongly associated with dirtiness and poor hygiene – not in that those are seen as good in a man, but in that they are seen as ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ sorts of failings for a man, as ‘typical’ of men rather than of women. But by isolating the positive ones we can draw out ‘gender-ideals’.

Of particular interest here is the sense of ‘masculinity’ or ‘femininity’ which is most abstract and most idealised: which holds up positive traits that aren’t tied to any concrete physical appearance or specific social arrangement. These are what I meant to be referring to as ‘the virtues associated with’ femininity or masculinity. I might now alternatively call them ‘the virtues constitutive of one form of’ femininity or masculinity, namely the most abstract and idealised form, but the linguistic choice between constitution and association is not especially important.

One reason to be interested in these high-level ideals is that I suspect – though this is perhaps an over-bold speculation – that they are among the elements of gender that are most consistent across cultures. That is, I suspect that different cultures that have genders recognisably matching ours will tend to agree in bundling together 1) the concrete physical traits associated with biological sex, and 2) the high-level ideals. By contrast, there’s probably a lot more variation in sartorial matters, and in the middle region of not-fully-concrete-not-fully-abstract traits.

For instance, at different points in European history men wore many, wildly different, sorts of clothing (high heels, tights, robes, etc.), that at other times became more associated with women, and likewise the specific social roles associated with being a man inevitably changed as the broader social structure changed. But it is, nevertheless, easy to see certain things remaining the same – manhood always meant the bodily traits typical of maleness, and it also always meant power, authority, self-assertion, the capacity for violence, and so on.

Ok, so the final element of my account here is to make a claim about what the actual virtues in question are. I don’t particularly want to start laying down a list of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ virtues, and I don’t want to presume that doing so is even possible, with any degree of detail. But I think even a cursory consideration of a few obvious examples suggests a theme – the virtues associated with masculinity (e.g. courage, strength, independence, disregard for luxury and comfort) are connected by the theme of exerting power over others or the environment, or of resisting the exertion of power on oneself. The virtues associated with femininity (e.g. nurturance, gentleness, delicacy, empathy) are connected by the theme of supporting others, either by responding to their exertions of power without resistance or struggle, or by building up and reinforcing their power.

I think the association of femininity with beauty and self-adornment, and of masculinity with the disregard for self-adornment, fits this pattern too. It fits insofar as self-adornment is understood as a way of making oneself appear pleasant to others – the reverse pattern, seen in some places and times, of masculine self-adornment and feminine modesty and plainness, also fits the pattern insofar as self-adornment is understood as a way of over-awing others with one’s power and wealth, and modesty is understood as a response to being vulnerable to the gaze of others. So even when seemingly opposite virtues are associated with the same gender (e.g. rational objectivity and impetuous passion are both sometimes seen as masculine), this tends to coincide with different conceptions of what is the fullest and best form of control or dominance.

I don’t think I can say it much better than it’s put in this tumblr post:

On the one hand you have action, aggression (needed for protection/defense/hunting), largeness (intimidation), explosive strength, hardness (aka defensive, impregnability), fixedness and grasping/attaining (which can become brittleness or all manners of stubbornness but is praised as goal-oriented, ‘won’t take no for an answer), things like that. These are all *survival* based, i.e. self-preserving traits for the most part which is why there’s so much of a relationship between toxic masculinity and selfishness that is praised as ‘success’ or power.

On the other hand you’ve got softness (receptivity, impregnability, construed as weakness), caring, nurturing- basically ‘tends to others’ and so on, flow or lack of fixedness (i.e. high adaptability), openness, giving, gentleness and so on. These concepts are highly ‘other’-centric. The feminine is that which embraces, relates to, and becomes what was the ‘other’…

Femininity without masculinity (an All Passive, entirely other-oriented being praised only for nurturing, pregnability, etc) and masculinity without femininity (An All-Active, entirely self-centered being concerned mainly with strength, possession of and defense from others) are the dysfunctional truth behind the concept of binary gender…

Or, even more succintly:

…gender roles tell children that they can either be respected (male) or loved (female). Then they grow up to find that respect was just fear and love was only desire.

Supposing all of this is true, I think it becomes easier to reconcile the germs of truth in both the attitudes to femininity I’ve been discussing. We should recognise that forcing women to be ‘feminine’ means forcing them into a subordinate position, not just a constricted position, while also recognising that the many different forms of ‘femininity’ itself are awesome and worth celebrating. Giving (power, space, care, attention) to others is good! But to be required to be always giving to others is a much more serious limitation than to be required to be always taking from them.


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3 Responses to Some Thoughts on Gender, Part 4: Femininity and Asymmetric Oppression

  1. Pingback: Some Thoughts on Gender, Part 5: Gender Abolition and Gender Anarchy | Majestic Equality

  2. Pingback: Some Thoughts on Gender, Part 1: Social Construction and First-Person Authority | Majestic Equality

  3. Pingback: Some Thoughts on Being Nonbinary | Majestic Equality

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