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Performing Femininity and Feminism

(110 Posts)
OneFlewOverTheDodosNest Tue 24-Nov-15 18:20:42

I've been wondering about the performance of femininity lately, how naturally it comes to some people versus others, and how it has shaped my attitude towards feminism.

For me, performing femininity has never come naturally - I can consciously mirror the actions but it's putting on an act that can be beneficial in certain situations and nothing sticks when I go back to being me, IYSWIM?

I know I've consciously chosen a more feminine appearance at work because the image of a successful businesswoman in my company means highly polished rather than just neat and professional. I'm careful to moderate my natural behaviour in meetings because assertiveness is seen as bolshiness in women. I feel like I'm playing a game without being 100% sure of the rules.

I think this pretence is, in part, why I've been drawn to feminism - because for me everything gender based is an act I'd be happy to be rid of. I'm sure some women find it comes naturally and would probably think this is strange, but is anyone else consciously playing along? And am I somehow doing feminism a disservice for my own benefit?

I've got a lot of thoughts jumped in my head about this that I'm trying to make sense of, but I'd love to hear others thoughts.

almondpudding Tue 24-Nov-15 18:50:26

I think this is a fairly complicated question.

The first part of it would be to clarify what you mean by femininity. There are many different aspects to it: character traits, appearance, interests.

Even within that, often we are then talking about stereotypes of femininity set up and defined by men, rather than actual social differences between men and women. Can we say the culture of women, which is nuanced as any culture is, is different to the culture of men, and if so, should we call that femininity?

The next part would be when we talk about whether or not we are feminine, are we inventing a set of past events to justify who we are in the present. Because I would say that I am comfortable with femininity in myself, but then if I am more honest, I can remember hating it as a teenager, and feeling that even wearing anything feminine was inseparable in my mind from sexual harassment. I never wore a bra until I was in my mid twenties because of those feelings.

And mostly I think more and more that the very act of dividing things up into masculine and feminine, even just in your own mind, and trying to see how you relate to either of those categories is actually quite damaging. Because they actually say pretty much nothing about anyone's personality, anyone's way of relating to the world, or anything about you are as a human being.

I've changed my mind on this recently because my sister said to me recently that there are people who don't define themselves by any kind of gender, and then there are arseholes. And she's not some kind of gender politics person of any particular ideology. She has no particular axe to grind.

I think the whole masculinity/femininity thing is like an incredibly toxic and damaging version of defining yourself by the alleged character traits of your star sign.

almondpudding Tue 24-Nov-15 18:57:19

Oh, I will just add, my stance prior to my sister's perspective was that as most positive human character traits - compassion, co-operation, nurturing etc are 'feminine' traits, femininity is to be aspired to for everyone, whether you are 'naturally' that way or have to work at it. And that has been my approach with my kids.

But that is generally my response to people claiming the benefits of gender fluid parenting.

There is a difference between saying it is okay for anyone to be masculine or feminine or a blend of the two, and saying we should stop labeling interests and attributes as masculine or feminine at all. I am leaning towards the latter now.

OneFlewOverTheDodosNest Tue 24-Nov-15 19:23:15

Almond I think we're coming from the same point of view - when I say feminine traits I don't mean the natural behaviour of females, but the culturally expected behaviour that is seen as feminine.

Most people would think that sitting with legs crossed is a naturally female trait, but as someone who would much rather splay I know that I personally was trained into it by years of being told to sit in a ladylike way. I imagine some women naturally sit like this, and some were quicker to adjust to expectations but I still have to remind myself not to sit "like a man".

I think I see feminine behaviour as a social construct, but one that may come more naturally to some women than it does to me!

And I agree with your sister that the ideal would be to get rid of the gendering of behaviour, but I feel there is still social consternation or something when you don't adapt to the expected norms - particularly within a work environment. Am I making any sense?

OneFlewOverTheDodosNest Tue 24-Nov-15 19:28:04

I'd also say that I think this social reaction can be even more extreme for men who don't perform masculinity successfully. So I don't think this is an issue that is exclusive to women, but it's definitely tied up with feminism in my mind.

I'm trying to say something about gender stereotypes and patriarchy but can't quite phrase it - but essentially, by not conforming you're threatening the patriarchal order and are socially punished. But that sounds too official and I think it's more subconscious and insidious than that

BuffytheScaryFeministBOO Tue 24-Nov-15 19:39:55

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

BuffytheScaryFeministBOO Tue 24-Nov-15 19:40:57

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

almondpudding Tue 24-Nov-15 19:49:41

Yes, I don't want to get all flippant about how we can just ignore all of this gender stuff, when you still have to go into work and act in an 'acceptable' way according to the rules of gender.

To speculate...

If we consider there to be different kinds of femininity, there are going to be difficulties in performing different ones. So younger women are more likely to be cast as object of desire, which many are very uncomfortable with. When you're older, it can be easier to take on elements of femininity, because the elements then are around 'Mummy' which has some positive connotations.

The problem then is that in certain kind of work places, any hint of mummyness is seen as a really bad, unprofessional thing, and requires a wholly different kind of femininity.

And that whole thing of putting on a suit and looking really groomed looks like a performance to me anyway, from men and women. And it is a kind of performance that doesn't really sit well with femininity. It always looks kind of awkward. I mean, who does do that well? Are there any famous women- politicians, journalists, business leaders, who do that feminine suit thing and it look good? Personally, I can only handle a suit on anyone if it involves tweed and elbow patches, or you're wearing it because someone has just died.

There is just something odd and sharp and pointy about the mix of femininity and business clothes. It evokes something strange.

almondpudding Tue 24-Nov-15 19:54:41

Yes, I think if you have some tiny elfin face you probably have to worry less about performing femininity but have to worry more about people being surprised when you are not actually going to act like a fantastical mythical creature, and are instead assertive, or just in a bad mood today.

almondpudding Tue 24-Nov-15 19:55:35

Sorry, my first reply was to dodo and my second to Buffy.

EDisFunny Tue 24-Nov-15 20:19:12

I am aware of the fact that I like projecting a traditional feminine appearance. I have long hair, I like going for a mani/pedi, and I like pretty clothes. I used to worry about reconciling that with my feminism but I don't anymore.

My POV is that not doing something I like doesn't advance the lot of females; denial & self flagellation just make me grumpy.

I can accept that I am a product of the society in which I was brought up and in which I live but I can look at it critically.

I am not a choicey-choice feminist, a woman's actions can be unfeminist if they harm other women but I don't think that means I need to cut my hair and dress in trousers and collar shirts.

It's a really interesting topic and I'm curious to see what others think.

OneFlewOverTheDodosNest Tue 24-Nov-15 20:40:14

I am not a choicey-choice feminist, a woman's actions can be unfeminist if they harm other women but I don't think that means I need to cut my hair and dress in trousers and collar shirts.**

See I think my issue is the opposite to yours ED. I know that I definitely do not enjoy the hair, make up, outfit performance that is traditional femininity, but I do them because they are expected. And it's that deception, rather than the clothes etc that sits badly with me.

Personally I'd be happy with short hair, wearing a plain suit with a different shirt each day and flat sensible shoes but I don't do that because I know it's detrimental to my career to do so. And I can get away with the occasional behavioural slip because, like Buffy, I am petite and attractive.

But I feel like the dishonesty could be harmful in some way. Like I should be making a point of being myself and proving that I'm good at my job regardless but I'm taking the easy way out...

almondpudding Tue 24-Nov-15 20:55:59

Dodo and ED, did you grow up in a family where the women were feminine?

EDisFunny Tue 24-Nov-15 21:07:30

I grew up as a tomboy myself and my sisters were all quite feminine in a way I wasn't or didn't care to be at that time.

I was quite hippy dippy through my latter schooling and found my feminine side in my 20s.

My mum never tried to influence me one way or the other, never told me my choices were wrong. I think I've had the luxury of finding the right mix for me at my different stages of life.

OneFlewOverTheDodosNest Tue 24-Nov-15 21:35:50

Not from a dress sense particularly, I more or less lived in old army stuff until I was 13 and my younger sister was the same. My mum did place importance on dressing up for special occasions but was happy for that to be smart jeans & a nice top.

I think there was an emphasis on stereotypical feminine roles and expectations though and I definitely feel the pressure from that even now. I'd say the 2 places I conform to expectations is at work and at my parents' house!

PassiveAgressiveQueen Wed 25-Nov-15 10:03:52

Whereas i am 5'10" and quite large, and am in no way elfin, more bruiser, so people expect me to be less girly

tribpot Wed 25-Nov-15 10:27:05

The discussion reminded me of this story, of an art director who has worn the same outfit to work every day for 3 years (NB she has more than one of each item, she hasn't worn literally the same clothes all that time!). I do wonder how much people would notice if you wore the same suit, OneFlew. Even without going to the extreme of the exact same outfit, you could have the same blouse in three or four colours to give the impression of variety (which is as much as any guy I know does when dressing formally for the office) and see if anyone comments. Likewise shoes (my personal bug bear as I hate high heels). Or do the heels fulfil a dual role of bringing you closer to the same height as male colleagues? (I am also v short but having worked in Sweden and the Netherlands in the past, literally could not wear heels that would give me enough height even if I could walk in them - maybe some of those Gaga-style gigantic platforms?).

SomeDyke Wed 25-Nov-15 13:24:56

"Personally I'd be happy with short hair, wearing a plain suit with a different shirt each day and flat sensible shoes but I don't do that because I know it's detrimental to my career to do so."
But whilst so many women do continue to adhere to these restrictions, it's certainly still detrimental to those of us who aren't gender-conforming (like many lesbians of my age).

Because if it is okay for a MAN to wear it (like flat shoes), WHY isn't it okay for a woman to wear it? Because as soon as you accept that women are supposed to look NICE, and ATTRACTIVE (whereas men can look like the back end of a bus as long as they have on a clean shirt and an unrumpled suit etc), then the game is LOST. Women being judged by their FEMININE appearance, and your career suffers if you don't conform. And then I think we haven't come ALL that far over the past 40 years.

Unless women are prepared to challenge this, and challenge it as OVERT sexism when it does occur, then femininity will continue to be enforced.

OneFlewOverTheDodosNest Wed 25-Nov-15 14:23:01

SomeDyke - I think you've nailed why it makes me uncomfortable.

Frustratingly my workplace is pretty archaic in terms of clothing expectations - I've had comments of "you like that outfit, don't you?" when I've got into a habit of wearing the same rotation of clothes. I used to wear flats to the office when I started until someone expressed surprise at the fact I have a boyfriend and, when pushed, mentioned my brogues as a possible indicator. (It's Yorkshire, not the 50s but feels close at times)

It's annoying and wearing but I love the actual job and it pays very well for our part of the world! I'm also not massively keen on calling out my superiors on sexism - I'm already seeing less capable men being promoted ahead of me because I happen to be 28 and apparently fertile, I don't want to scupper my chances further by being flagged as "one of those feminist types"

I imagine there are more women who feel like I do too, but how can we change it as individuals? I feel like we need group action to challenge things on a collective scale, but when I look at all the other shit women put up with even just in the UK, it feels a bit daft to focus on clothes as a call to arms...

tribpot Wed 25-Nov-15 14:42:06

Clothes .. call to arms - good one Dodo grin

I'm not trying to minimise your experience but you've mentioned two comments 'you like that outfit don't you?' to which the answer is 'yes thanks' and 'you've got a boyfriend? Despite wearing brogues?' to which the answer is 'yes thanks'. What do you think would have happened if you'd blithely ignored the subtext of both questions and just carried on regardless?

In this one aspect I can recommend a career in IT, the most extreme comment about my appearance I've ever had is "you've had your hair cut". Literally this observation, not 'and I hate it' or 'that looks fabulous' just no more than 'I observe your hair is shorter than it was yesterday'. But I digress. (I have suffered much more from being too outspoken and, as Rebecca West said, for "express[ing] sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.")

It's the usual Catch 22 because it needs the women in seniority to be pushing for change, not when you're low down in the pecking order - you have more to lose.

But I would start by nudging forward. Wear your clothes on rotation if you want, put those flats back on.

VestalVirgin Wed 25-Nov-15 14:51:19

There are different parts of "femininity". I feel like I get less hate for not performing femininity via high heels, make-up, etc. because I am small-ish and slender and have a "elfin face", so to speak.

I am also naturally shy, which also fits into the stereotype.

I would like to not be so shy. But whenever I am more outspoken, I get negative reactions.

One would have to disentangle actual virtues (kindness, etc) from submissive behaviour, as far as this is possible, and then decide what to keep and what to throw away.

SomeDyke Wed 25-Nov-15 15:24:24

"I imagine there are more women who feel like I do too, but how can we change it as individuals?"
Thinks have ALREADY changed, by individual women just doing their own little things. It's hard for me to comment, being in academia and always having been a very out dyke, who rarely wears anything feminine. So I'm a little sheltered in that respect. But one thing I do know, from when I worked in the 'real world' -- that even when I was the obvious out scary dyke (as opposed to those who were in stealth mode and didn't talk to me in case anyone suspected they were as well!), just ONE woman being there can at least encourage others.

We don't necessarily have to totally scupper our careers and all promotion prospects by being outed as a scary feminist, but let's face it, we SHOULD be intelligent enough to out-smart these sexist insecure idiots! Let's be SNEAKY! :-)
So, if you want to wear flats, for example, why not just invent an annoying (and preferably with a long latin name) embarrassing foot condition that means you HAVE to wear them for medical reasons?

TheXxed Wed 25-Nov-15 15:30:05

I am young, slim, have big boobs, have long hair (which I straighten) and I would say I was fairly attractive. People respond positively towards me.

I don't think I have feminine characteristics, I am abrasive, short tempered, I feel comfortable putting my interest above others and I can be self involved.
I have been thinking about what femininity means alot recently, I have joined an online lesbian dating site and the bios usually have something like soft butch looking for a femme, I have been reliably informed that I am definitely a femme despite my characteristics.

I worry that I am complicit in reproducing misogyny. In the same breath I like that I get a positive response from appearance.

SomeDyke Wed 25-Nov-15 16:48:35

" I have been reliably informed that I am definitely a femme despite my characteristics." I think in terms of butch/femme it can sometimes be more to do with do you DO femininity in terms of obvious appearance or not? Rather than anything explicitly to do with characteristics or interests or anything substantive. When I was dating, the issue seemed to more about femmes being able to pass as straight, whereas butches usually didn't/couldn't, hence sometimes women wouldn't necessarily want to date a butch because then people would KNOW you were a dyke. And I guess the whole lipstick lesbian thing passed me by!

I always felt for lesbians, whatever you superficially LOOKED like wasn't necessarily the issue, the point was didn't have to fall into stereotypical male/female, masculine/feminine, dominant/submissive patterns of relationships because you were two women. Just because you're both female doesn't mean either of you have to perform femininity! And just because you're NOT performing femininity doesn't make either of you masculine or more like a man. Even if that is how the narrow-minded straight world insists on seeing you...............

TheXxed Wed 25-Nov-15 17:08:29

When I was dating, the issue seemed to more about femmes being able to pass as straight, whereas butches usually didn't/couldn't,

Yes, I had a conversation about this recently, so much of who we are is shaped by how others perceive us. When you go through the world as something it determines many of your outcomes, for instance if you go through the world as a butch lesbian you deal with isolation from your family, corrective rape threats, discrimination etc. I don't have those shared experiences. I am indifferent to clothes and make up but I do make an effort because I like the social capital that I receive when I look a certain way.

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