Monday, December 03, 2007

Performing Femininity

Definitions of "femininity"...

  • womanly: befitting or characteristic of a woman especially a mature woman; "womanly virtues of gentleness and compassion"
  • a gender that refers chiefly (but not exclusively) to females or to objects classified as female
  • the submissive character type; biological femininity refers to the female gender; psychological femininity refers to the submissive character type; also used as a noun to refer to a feminine individual. ...

Femininity is a wide and varied proposition. Women perform femininity differently throughout the world, and much closer to home, throughout the United States. "Perform" is a choice word in literary study to characterize the way people "put on" various traits. If we're being analytical, gender is performed. It is not set in stone. What is "feminine" or "masculine" varies wildly from one person to another from the divas and drama queens to the tomboys and drag queens.

What is traditionally "feminine" or "lady-like" has always been a bone of contention for me at various points in my life. For instance, my grandmother used to tell me--when I still wore a YOUNG child--to act lady-like. All the more reason to wear shorts under my dress so I could play "Thundercats" with my herd of male friends at recess.

As a teen my mom was always telling me that it was unlady-like to call boys. Instead I would wait until she went to bed and call my friend Haskel and talk for hours. She got over it later when I became connected at the hip to my best friend, K. Although, I suspect she thought he was a bit more feminine than me, and maybe that's why she didn't oppose my calling him.

Traditional femininity has often been associated with a passive approach to life. While readers might assume this expectation of passivity is associated with a nebulous time called "back then" recent events make me wonder.

Before I speak about my own life, I'll use the old go-to example. Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks and her decision to say of President George W. Bush, "We're ashamed the President is from Texas." The result was a firestorm of radio banning, CD burning and death threats. And while you all know that it irked me, the statement and the majority of the fallout aren't my concerns today. Amidst the shouting there was a theme to be heard. Many people called the Chicks "Saddam's Angels," the "Dixie Sluts" and other derogatory names aimed chiefly at their gender and at the heart of it, their femininity. Obviously because they spoke an unpopular opinion they're whores, right?

It seems to me that this easy type of cutdown, this obvious and paltry mode of attack, has been used to silence women for a very long time.

Now I'm gonna bare a little more soul than I usually do...

You may remember my post some time ago recounting in vague detail the time I was coerced into sexual acts by an older man when I was 19. He didn't rape me, thank God, but he did resort to some pretty vile vocalizations to belittle and berate me and get me to do what he wanted. Namely, he called me a tease, among other things. While I hate to think about it, I've been on the receiving end of a few "whore" comments pointed at me by angry exes and whatnot. Why? Because it's easy and it makes women feel shitty.

More than a few times I've been silenced. Made to feel like having a strong opinion was wrong; somehow unfeminine, less than lady-like, and just plain crude. Even when I was speaking about something important, political, universal, the silencing happened. Or, as I often think of it, I was "put in my place." Apparently it doesn't matter how many degrees one receives, accolades they acquire or respect they have, women especially are often silenced.

I've talked to my female friends about this particular issue over the years, and while we may ultimately blame this type of silencing on Napoleon complexes or just plain insecurity, it all amounts to the same thing. Women should just shut the hell up.

Therein lies the difficulty for me. Femininity, when I was growing up (and even moreso now, as an adult), had less to do with high heels and nail polish, and much more to do with how a woman survives in this world with her self-respect in tact. I learned from the best! I inherited my femininity from a single mom with a kickass job who took care of everything. And she has strong opinions and speaks about them. She is strong, and she is my backbone to this day when I have trouble holding myself up.

I found out a troubling fact this weekend: that a family member hurt her, and she's been silent. That brought a lot of things rushing to the surface for me. Rage, disbelief, confusion. It also makes me re-evaluate the times I've been silent. The times I've bitten my tongue instead of speaking out about something that I had a personal stake in. Somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind I guess I've learned that a steadfast woman shouldn't lose control. Shouldn't shatter the nice facade. Shouldn't be crazy with rage or passion. Although, intellectually I say that's all bullshit.

I am ultimately the only person I have to answer to. Not society, not family, not significant others. So I guess what I'm saying is that I'm going to make a more concerted effort to say what I need to say, what I want to say, and do what's best for me. Even if it hurts for a while. Femininity be damned.

I wonder how many women, every day, keep their mouths shut. What if we all spoke up?

I'm going home

Gonna load my shotgun

Wait by the door and light a cigarette

He wants a fight, well now he's got one

And he ain't seen me crazy yet

Slapped my face and he shook me like a rag doll

Don't that sound like a real man

I'm gonna show him what little girls are made of

Gunpowder and lead

-- Miranda Lambert, "Gunpowder and Lead"


  1. Interesting revelations here. As a member of the non-feminine gender, I think I prefer the stronger personality. Tomboy-ish even, but not so much so that she could kick my ass in a dark alley. I just don't understand the "need" to place women in some sort of "inferior" status. I hope I don't do it myself...

  2. Excellent post, Andi. Brave and true.

  3. What a fantastic and brave post!

    This is a much smaller problem, but my in-laws don't like me because I am not submissive. It's funny: they are all working women, but focusing on a career is completely foreign to them. Right now I am barely speaking to my in-laws because I committed a horrible crime. My husband moved for my career as opposed to the other way around.

  4. Thanks for the supportive comments! Smoochies for everyone!

  5. I agree that this is something important to speak up about, and I'm glad you did so in this post.


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