FEMMEbruary Update: Definitions and Digging Deep

“I’m bummed that your list of things-ladies-do-to-be-ladyish is solely about looks.”

My first reaction to my friend Amber’s comment about this month’s experiment was defensiveness. I quickly shot back that I would accept other suggestions but that I think I already do a lot of the activities that we code as “feminine” so that focusing on things I don’t do often that are pretty visible (ex. wearing lipstick and heels) would be more of a challenge.

It’s been sitting in the back of my mind, though. I’m sure it will shock all of you to hear that I didn’t exhaustively plan this month’s challenge. In fact, other than watching some Marilyn Monroe and coming up with a catchy name, I didn’t really prepare at all. That’s why my previous post reads problematically–what am I trying to say? What is “traditional femininity” anyway? Which tradition and for which women? What has been expected over the last 50 years from women of color is different than what has been expected of upper-middle-class white women, and there are substantial differences within each sub-group across decades.

I have a definitional problem here. I think that not wanting to engage with the actual complexities of historically-prescribed female identity led me to eagerly cling to the first practical, visible suggestions. As a jumping-off point, I don’t really have a problem with that, but I think it would be questionable if I just stuck with, “Femininity! Yup, defined by heels and red lipstick, the end” for the entire 28 days.

You might have noticed that I started being uncomfortable saying “femininity” in the last entry and started using “femme” instead. My discomfort came from knowing just how hard the first term is to define; however, I don’t think I solved the problem by using “femme,” which is most often employed as a way to differentiate gay women who present as “feminine.” As a bi woman, I kiiind of sort of can get away with this, but honestly, I’m not much more comfortable claiming this term or using it with impunity for my silly self-imposed experiment.

I was thinking yesterday, as I walked through the snow in fashionable boots that bled icy water into my socks, just why I’m focusing on appearances with this experiment. The number one reason is this:

I don’t really believe in “femininity” as an inherent character trait divorced from appearance.

Maybe I should. I know female brains are structurally different than male brains, and that we have different amounts of different hormones and neurotransmitters swimming through us. I know that women are typically more in tune with communication than men, are considered more emotionally intuitive and nurturing and less confrontational. I just have such trouble distinguishing anything having to do with personality in women between their “native faculties” and socialization that I really don’t like to deem one kind of character trait or activity “feminine” and another “masculine.” I guess my good old “traditional” label could fit in here, but I feel like that really easily becomes “embracing what the kyriarchy* limited women to” and being complicit in that whole thing makes me feel gross, even though there is nothing wrong with those tasks and activities inherently.

How can I better drive at this? The idea behind this entire month’s challenge is for me to embrace the parts of being a woman that I have shied away from because for ages I thought that being a feminist or being equal meant behaving “like a man.” (Which again, is super difficult to define if you sit down and think about it, and is terribly artificial in many ways.) When it comes to the things that I do, I’m already doing pretty well at that, because I do the things that I want to do, that I like doing, that I’m interested in. I’m interested in learning to code websites, so I’m doing that. I’m also interested in tailoring clothing, so sometimes I do that.

When it comes to behavior, essentially I think that I am already being feminine because I am a woman and by default, me doing the things I like to do is me being feminine.

I’m not interested in softening my voice or deflecting to other people in order to save their face because that was, in 1950s America, “feminine.” I’m not interested in cleaning more than I already clean just because a preoccupation with a spotless home is supposed to be “feminine.” I’m not preoccupied with it, and I have better things to do with my time, and once again, I am a woman, ergo me sitting on my couch writing this blog entry instead is also “feminine.”

Men today go crazy baking, crocheting, gardening, cooking, cleaning, and caring for kids. The only reason that 60 years ago they weren’t doing those things to the same degree is that they weren’t supposed to. Honestly, a lot of it goes back to WWII and the media campaign to convince women to spend their time, energy, and money on the home once the men came back from war and all the jobs women had taken on fired them. If I’m exploring femininity, I want to explore it to whatever degree that it is more timeless than that.

But then again, here I waffle, because what does red lipstick and heels and a skirt immediately make me think of? The 1940s. At least today, though, women still often wear lipstick, skirts, and heels…on their way to their C-Suite jobs.

So that’s the real reason that I chose outer markers of “femininity” for my experiment. I don’t so much believe in inherent femininity other than the fact that women can bear children and have more estrogen and men have more testosterone and slightly different body and brain structures. I think to a large degree, femininity and masculinity are both performances, and I’m socially interested in whether or not my change in presentation has an effect on how I am treated.

And, okay, fine, I also wanted an excuse to force myself to learn how to wear lipstick without looking like a deranged clown.

*whassup Alex and Fran

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1 Comment

Filed under Challenge

One response to “FEMMEbruary Update: Definitions and Digging Deep

  1. I think it makes a lot of sense to focus on the outer appearance of ” “traditional femininity” because, like you say, femininity as we know it is largely a performance. The clothes we wear, the way we style our hair, the perceivable effort we make to match up with patriarchal standards—these are what I think of as the markers of “traditional” femininity. After all, doesn’t the qualifier of traditional make it less about how we WANT to be feminine (or not) and more about how we are EXPECTED to be feminine?

    I think this is why what you’re doing is so interesting to me: there are so many different readings of the intent and execution. If I were to do FEMMEbruary, I would probably challenge myself to meet those patriarchal standards, not because I like them, but because it might be interesting to speak to that experience. Others might do it differently.

    I don’t know, I JUST REALLY LIKE WHAT YOU’RE DOING.

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