Feminism & Femininity

One of Julia Serano’s main arguments in Whipping Girl is that feminists have assumed a belittling view of femininity and degraded people with feminine gender expressions. She claims that well-known feminists, such as Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer, “have forwarded the idea that femininity is artificial and incompatible with feminism” (320). Liberal feminists in particular have portrayed femininity as a “man-made ploy designed to hold women back from reaching their full potential” (331). They have singled out feminine beauty practices, effusive ways of expressing oneself, and certain feminine gender norms (such as having men open doors for women) for especially vitriolic criticism: since femininity pushes women to focus on their appearance and families rather than their careers, and to speak in a softer and more emotive manner, it contributes to keeping women subordinate to men. The following passage sums up the crux of Serano’s argument about the relationship between femininity and feminism:

“[Feminists] share the belief that (1) femininity is not a natural form of expression, but rather one that is socially imposed; (2) most women are ‘duped’ into believing that their femininity arises intrinsically rather than due to extrinsic forces such as socialization or social constructs; (3) people who are ‘in the know’ recognize that gender expression is artificial and easily malleable, and thus they can purposefully adopt a more radical, antisexist gender expression (e.g., androgyny, drag, etc.); and (4) because feminine women choose not to adopt these supposedly radical, antisexist gender expressions, they may be seen as enabling sexism and thus collaborating in their own oppression.” (337)

While the above passage does provide a somewhat caricatured view of the feminist position on femininity, it rightly points to a tension between feminism and feminine gender expression that is yet to be resolved. Serano suggests that feminists need to change their view of femininity by embracing and empowering it. She claims that, “the anti-femininity tendency may represent the feminist movement’s single greatest tactical error” because it puts off and excludes feminine and heterosexual women from feminism (320). It is also a moral mistake because, by critiquing other women’s genders, feminists engage in exactly the kind of gender regulation and policing that they are supposed to be fighting against.

Defining Femininity

Serano’s argument is enabled by her specific definition of femininity. She critiques both social constructionist feminists and gender essentialists for providing “monolithic” depictions of the term (321). The latter “artificialize femininity [by] characteriz[ing] it as though it were a unified social program designed to shape women’s personalities and sexualities via a combination of social norms, constructs and conditioning. The former “describe feminine traits as though they were bundled in a single biological program initiated only in genetic females” (321). Serano attacks these definitions by pointing out that they are one-sided: they view femininity as a unified system that is imposed on women, either socially or biologically. In response, she offers her own, allegedly more complex, conceptualization of femininity: “the behaviors, mannerisms, interests, and ways of presenting oneself that are typically associated with those who are female” (320). She qualifies the definition by noting that these characteristics may also appear among male-bodied people and that they are separable: a person can have some feminine characteristics, but not others. For instance, some women may have effusive voices, but may not dress very femininely. Femininity is not a single, unified set of characteristics that necessarily follow each other: each individual can have some feminine and some non-feminine traits.

While Serano portrays her definition of femininity as complex and multifaceted, it is actually just as monolithic as the social constructionist and gender essentialist definitions that she criticizes. By portraying femininity as “a set of traits,” Serano provides the most benign interpretation of it and totally discredits the view that it is also a set of norms that women are supposed to adhere to, a normative structure that recommends appropriate behavior for women. Femininity is both descriptive of women’s identities and behaviors and prescriptive of them. A truly multifaceted definition of the term has to consider both of these dimensions. By positing femininity in a mostly descriptive manner, Serano shields it from any criticism. Feminist critiques of femininity do indeed sound patronizing and intolerant if we accept Serano’s view that feminine behaviors, mannerisms and interests emerge mostly intrinsically and are simply natural characteristics of feminine people. There would indeed be no reason for critique if femininity was solely a set of traits that people “just have” by virtue of their nature.

Changing Feminism, Changing Femininity?

But if we recognize that femininity also has a social and normative dimension, which can regulate and construct women’s identities and behavior, the critical feminist approach to it does not seem so unnecessary. In fact, examining what constitutes femininity, the kinds of actions that one needs to take in order to be recognized as feminine in society, can shed much light on the pressures that women are under and the social expectations that they are pushed to meet. Serano seems to seriously underplay this aspect of femininity, which leads to a rather uncritical attitude, as evidenced by her blithe comment that “femininity and thinness have become almost synonymous in contemporary Western culture” (322). She does not pause to think about the problems that the symbiosis of femininity and thinness causes for modern women, or about the rampant eating disorders that are affecting young women in the United States and Europe. She seems to simply accept thinness and body regulation as constitutive elements of femininity today and does not provide much criticism of them. Moreover, she does not consider whether the regulation of women’s bodies that modern Western femininity seems to require means that there might be a serious problem with femininity itself and that femininity could be just as damaging to women as it could be fulfilling and empowering.

If being exceptionally thin and hyper-regulating one’s body is indeed intrinsic to Western femininity today, then feminists do have good reasons to maintain a critical distance from it. While Serano believes that feminists should change by accepting and empowering femininity, the real question might be to what extent femininity needs to change in order for it to become acceptable to feminism. While Serano is highly critical of feminism, she does not extend the same critical gaze to femininity.

Feminist Critiques of Masculinity

Perhaps this is because Serano views femininity as the victim of what she calls “traditional sexism,” or the belief that everything that is female and feminine is artificial and inferior to all that is male and masculine. While this is an accurate portrayal of the relationship between femininity and masculinity in society, Serano mistakenly accuses feminists of reinforcing “traditional sexism” with their critiques of femininity. For example, she writes that “the lion’s share of feminist attention, deconstruction, and denigration has been directed squarely at femininity…those feminists who single out women’s dress shoes, clothing, and hairstyles to artificialize necessarily leave unchallenged the notion that their masculine counterparts are natural and practical” (339).

Much feminist criticism has indeed been directed at femininity, but Serano writes as if feminists have tacitly supported masculinity and taken a wholly uncritical attitude to it. This is simply untrue. For example, Germaine Greer writes that, “masculinity requires the creation of dangerous situations” (The Whole Woman, 376). Her critique of masculinity is focused on its propensity towards violence and domination: “any man who is not good at ‘killing in war’ is less of a man” (376). Furthermore, the central concept of feminist theory – patriarchy – exposes how masculine gender practices and norms serve to maintain a hierarchical society in which women are second-class citizens. While some liberal feminists may have tacitly glorified masculinity by basing their activism on women’s access to allegedly masculine professions (politics, law, business), feminists have generally provided strong critiques of both femininity and masculinity. Thus, Serano’s criticism that feminists are reinforcing “traditional sexism” rings hollow.

Overall, the argument about femininity put forward in Whipping Girl raises the following questions: (1) Has the relationship between feminism and femininity been strained? Should feminist ideology be reconfigured to accept and empower femininity or does femininity need to change in order to become acceptable to feminism? (2) To what extent is femininity a set of intrinsically derived characteristics of certain people and to what extent is it an extrinsic normative structure, aimed at constructing identities and regulating behavior? We can discuss these questions in the comment box below. The next post in this series, coming in two weeks’ time, will address Serano’s criticisms of queer theory and social constructionist conceptions of gender.

***For More Information***
You can find out more about Julia Serano on www.juliaserano.com and here is a whole page about Whipping Girl that has a collection of reviews, a preview of the first chapter, and a useful glossary of some of the new terminology that Serano introduces in the book. For more information on the feminism/femininity dilemma see Hollows, Feminism, Femininity and Popular Culture. Serano’s work has also been addressed in the following Below the Belt post by bookmonkey and these two posts by askfannie: "Observations on Trans Sexuality" and "Sexist Feminists."

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