There is a tendency within some circles of feminism for members to distance themselves from ‘those girls,’ the ones who perform femininity, the dress-wearers, makeup-appliers, femme-leaning. The antifeminity within feminism is a serious hindrance to the movement as a whole, revealing telling attitudes about how some members think about gender and performances of gender. Just as they decry hyperfeminised presentation as being forced and the result of centuries of oppression, they set up a new, and narrow, set of guidelines for how to be a woman, particularly a feminist woman, correctly.
‘Those girls’ are just as complex and varied as the people who criticise them, and are feminine for any number of reasons. And some of those reasons may be a lot more than meets the eye, speaking to things going on in their own lives that the people who want to shut them out of the movement do not understand and do not seem to care to work on understanding. It is hard to wrestle with identity issues when you’re reminded at every turn that you’re a betrayer of the movement, and that the very way you present yourself is wrong. The idea that behaving ‘like a girl’ is ‘wrong’ is, of course, deeply misogynist, and it’s disturbing to see so much energy invested in telling women this, with women presenting themselves as better than ‘those girls’ and in the process falling deep into the trap society has created for them.
Navigating experiences of womanhood can be a quagmire, and one where every turn can turn into a potentially fatal misstep. One thing is for certain; each woman experiences that quagmire slightly differently. And she has a choice between walking it alone, or finding a sister to join hands with, but that sister sometimes seems just as likely to slap an outstretched hand as to grab it and offer support. That a movement focused on gender equality should so often berate its members in such gendered terms says a lot about it.
Mainstream iterations of feminism tend to focus on the experiences of specific kinds of women and assume they can be overmapped onto the lives of other women, despite the fact that this is patently not true. Thus, for women in positions of power within the movement, it may be difficult to grasp that femininity can feel very different for a woman of colour, for a woman with disabilities, for a trans woman, for a fat woman, for other women living on the margins, and that for these women, a simplistic attitude of ‘this is wrong’ is especially dangerous, and culturally loaded.
Social attitudes about minority women often include specific ideas about their sexuality and gender that can interplay profoundly with gender presentation. A Black woman who dresses femme, for example, is engaging directly with attitudes about Black women’s sexuality, attitudes that stem from centuries of commodifying the bodies of Black women. To censure Black women for being femme without acknowledging this history is to miss a critical cultural context, especially when that language is coming from white women. There’s a strong stench of the Jezebel stereotype there, furthered by the idea that Black women are ‘the wrong colour’ to be feminine. This attitude is found within society in general; it’s notable, for example, that there’s resistance to Black women in the goth community, where racist attitudes play a key role in who looks the part, and who does not. In this case, feminism actively replicates larger social oppression because it refuses to be intersectional.
For women with disabilities, the assumption is that disability confers a state of nonsexuality, that being a disabled woman means you have no interest in sex and are not sexually appealing. In fact, you are not a woman at all, because you are viewed as a disability first and a person second, let alone a female person. Dressing femme can conflict with social expectations about how you are supposed to behave; how dare a wheelchair user wear a revealing and dramatic gown? Or designer shoes? How dare a woman with cognitive disabilities love My Little Pony, or adore romance novels? To see a cane user wearing Alexander McQueen is a very different thing from a nondisabled woman wearing designer fashion, and for some disabled women, femininity through fashion and other means can be an act of profound defiance and an assertion of personhood and identity for femme women who are tired of being degendered and desexualised.
That doesn’t mean that being feminine is the only way to reclaim humanity for disabled women, but it is one way, and it is a legitimate way. For some disabled woman, being feminine can be a statement. Not a capitulation to society and patriarchal values. Because they live in a society that tells them to remain hidden and quiet because their bodies and minds are scary and wrong.
For some trans women, femininity may be part of self-exploration as well as self-expression, and it may be a very important aspect of their transition. It takes tremendous courage to dress femme with the knowledge that people will make crude comments about you on the bus, will whisper behind you in class, will make it clear that you’re not a ‘real’ woman. The first time you wear a skirt or don a dress can be simultaneously terrifying and freeing. We can talk about how that’s a reflection of cultural values about what women ‘should’ look like, but it runs deeper than that, and to argue that being feminine is wrong is a slap in the face of women who are attempting to assert their identities.
For fat women, too, there is an air of defiance in femininity, in a society that tells them to be ashamed of themselves and demands that they compress themselves down to be as small as possible in order to avoid taking up space. Being feminine can take up space, especially in a large, assertive, confident body. Some fat women like floofy frocks and croquet and tea sandwiches. That doesn’t mean they aren’t just as committed to women’s rights as fat butches who prefer rugby and a burger.
And what of feminine men? Where do they fit on this continuum? Do we not talk about them because they’re not ladies so they can’t be counted as being among ‘those girls’? Or is it because feminine men defy the attitude that femininity is restricted to women only, and thus performances of femininity are to be considered outdated relics of a sexist society? Do they make this issue more complex by existing?
Gender expression is only one facet of identity, and it disturbs me to see a movement focusing on identity-based oppression perpetuating some oppression of its own, by arguing that some expressions of identity are not acceptable.