*UPDATE: Femmephobia?*

The question has me kind of stumped.
I’m stumped.

I know I advertise myself as ‘Brazen,’ but it’s more something I want to live up to than something I feel I embody. Hubby likes to give me pointers on cooking and cleaning, he’s trying to be helpful but it always comes across as condescending. Part of this is because he’s a programmer who’s never put a premium on his own tact, but he drew my attention recently to what he called my “adversarial” attitude in these moments.

Looking at it as objectively as possible, I had to give it to him – I never claim to be an expert in these matters, far from it, and if anyone else close to me were to offer advice I would gladly accept it. I regularly do research and thereby take advice from complete strangers. But Husband is not supposed to tell Wife how to keep house.

Don't you dare help me! Can't you see I got this??
Don’t you dare help me! Can’t you see I got this??

….

It’s funny how honest reflection can come up with some really awful, embarrassing things. I guess it’s no wonder so many people don’t do it. Because I don’t really believe any of that biological-determinist stuff, so why am I feeling this way? Of course I went to the Internet first, and was surprised by what I found.

Googling the phrase “Insecure Femininity” brings right up an essay entitled The Case Against Female Self-Esteem. “Insecurity is integral to femininity….” I admit to not reading this thoroughly because, despite its obvious relation, I don’t see it as relevant to my present line of inquiry.

But this is the first result. There are a few other things like this, as well as things raising issues of women of color’s insecurity in society. The only academic writing on the subject implied that a compulsion to stick to strict gender roles is a symptom of an insecure attachment style. That sounds reasonable enough, but the article was behind a paywall.

I couldn’t seem to find any decent discussion about women insecure in their feminine role. Well, not without a lot of mentions of Jesus, anyway. It seems a lot of Christian women are pretty insecure. (Weird….) There were nine sites of this kind in the first three pages of my search.

The next largest result group was random keyword hits in articles and books. These pieces used the words ‘insecure’ and ‘feminine’ but were actually dealing with some tangential topic, often female adolescent development. Apparently adult women are all very secure in their womanhood?

I did find six decent, small essays on the subject, all of which had the issue that put me off blogging for the longest time – It felt like reading a high-schooler’s diary. The thesis is solid enough, some interesting points are raised, then it just sort of drops off without actually going anywhere. As if it’s off the top of their heads. This has always irrationally enraged me, because isn’t that why we write things down, to develop them? Why go to the trouble of articulating something if you’re not going to investigate it?

But I digress.

Amazed, I flipped through page after page and find almost nothing. No mention that modern women may have no idea what we’re doing. Only men seem to be talking about this, and those who are seem fine with it.  I found a couple things discussing the insecurity of trans women in their new identities. There was an elaborate sales-pitch which claimed to have the secrets to being a ‘high-value’ woman, but each page was just a teaser for some book or pamplet. Or you could get all of it for the low price of $247.95. So, they will baldly prey on my insecurities, but actual discussion of this topic seems to be nonexistant.

img_0181
Fine, I’ll get this thing started myself!

There’s an entire movement devoted to discussing men’s insecurities. They have conventions. I don’t think this is because men are more insecure (A look at Congress and the Fortune 500 CEO list makes this hard to swallow) because we are all suffering from different forms of the same issue.

Sixty years ago, there were obvious expectations of both genders. Many of these were wrong-minded, and it’s oppressive to anyone to have to live a certain way or face being ostracized; It’s great to have options. But telling kids they can be anything they want seems to have backfired. Most kids want to know, at least at the beginning, what those around them want them to be. Then you rebel against that later, and eventually settle on something as your own persona. But lacking this starting point, a basic beginning framework, it’s difficult to tell which information is important. In my own experience, lacking guidance I found myself following my gut to figure out what I was supposed to do in life.

…Suddenly I’m seeing the religious connection a little clearer… But devoting myself to some fairy tale idea of life isn’t going to cut it. I need to figure out this whole woman thing, and soon.

Lemme set my baggage down for a mo and pull myself together.
Lemme set my baggage down for a mo and pull myself together.

I’m ashamed to admit that I gleaned a lot of my ideas about what women are from movies and TV. Unconsciously, of course, but I’ve always felt a bit deficient because I don’t look like Daryl Hannah. I spent hours and hours watching men, men I adored – Dan Akroyd, Tom Hanks – falling all over themselves for women like that. But I could never be that.  And anyway, most of the people doing the interesting things were boys! I was recently telling my son about The Neverending Story, and came to the uncomfortable realization that the only girl in the whole movie is the Empress, who has almost no part in the adventure whatsoever. (Actually, there’s one more female in there. Can you remember her?) Labyrinth is a perennial favorite, partly because Sarah is a girl. The gang in Goonies is more even. But how many others we grew up with feature boys having adventures, with girls as set-dressing, if present at all? Off the top of my head –

Explorers

E.T.

Back To The Future

The Karate Kid

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

An American Tale

Ghostbusters

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

The Flight of the Navigator

Time Bandits (I love this film, but it’s especially bad. All over time and somehow almost no women with speaking roles! Weird.)

There’s Ally Sheedy in Wargames, but it isn’t her game. No reason it couldn’t have been, they could have written those roles reversed. But it probably didn’t occur to anyone. There’s Robin Wright in The Princess Bride…. Funny movie but, again, the boys get all the action. Even the people reading the story are both male, for no discernible reason. (Not touching the genre of teenage films from this era, I didn’t see them till I was older, thank goodness!) Then there’s Beetlegeus, which is oddly awesome by this measure. Here we get Winona Ryder, Geena Davis and Catherina O’Hara, all strong performances of women with depth and their own agenda. So the 80s weren’t a total wash, but overall the message I received was clear: Boys have more fun.

So I became unconsciously uncomfortable about femininity, because to me it meant being relegated to the sidelines while the boys ride dragons and meet aliens and save the world. Over time this aggregated and condensed into me feeling very masculine, internalizing the male gaze and, at one point, considering abandoning my female identity altogether.

Nah, something about this just isn't right.
Nah, something about this just isn’t right either.

From talks with friends, I know I’m not the only one who struggles with this. So why no public discussion?

Could it be it stems from a large number of women feeling unconsciously as I do? There is a dread of girly things, and showing too much interest in them can feel almost like a defeat. I can be anything! So admitting to feeling urges toward the roles women were forced into for so long feels like a betrayal. Choosing to be a homemaker feels like a cop-out. Forget admitting you’re not really sure about it all, you ought to get a real job, anyway (and still keep house).

Any discussion of the typically feminine role is myopic, circumventing the elephant in the room by focusing our anxiety on scheduling, or nursing, or nutrition, or relationship worries. But I can’t quite focus on any of these because I still feel like the tomboy who borrowed Mommy’s pumps – Except my mother never wore pumps, and as I look around me I find a dearth of role models for how to be a whole person and a woman at the same time.

I see two main options for a woman who wants agency in this life: Either use your sexuality to manipulate people, playing up your looks at the expense of your brains (which is still reliant on a hetero-male power structure) or join the boys’ club of the working world and do your best to go unnoticed as a woman, playing up your brains at the expense of your looks. But who manages to utilize both?

See? Skirts are wicked useful!
I need a third arm!

Strangely, the one place I have encountered anything along these lines was when Chris Hayes recently touched on this issue from the masculine side, phrasing it quite well when he said, “The old models have been taken away, and the new models are… still forming.” I encourage you to watch the segment, everything they say applies to women as well. All this implies a big opportunity for our generation, to redraw the lines of gender. It seems we are willing to rise to the occasion, with LGBTQ rights at the forefront of politics, the toxicity of macho culture finally being discussed, women of color making their presence felt in media and politics, there’s a lot of reason to be optimistic.

So I want to add my perspective to the mix, as I try to find a way to mend my deeply-ingrained stereotypes about my own gender while still dealing with these messages on a regular basis. To find a way to be feminine, (by which I simply mean unmistakably female) to play up my curves, paint my nails and indulge in some typically feminine passtimes without being perceived as a caricature of myself. This is going to require boldness, practice and, I suppose, some cooperation from the outside world.

You might say, I have an axe to grind
You might say I have an axe to grind

So what do you say, guys?  (Still skeptical that male is the default gender? There ya go.) Will you help me figure this out? What does being a woman mean to you? How would the world look different if there were true gender equality? Will I be able to find a way to redefine and reintegrate my own womanhood? Can we have a public discussion about it without resorting to giggling and namecalling? (Well, maybe a little giggling is okay.)

I want to be feminine and strong, as I wish. Hell, I want boys to have the same opportunity; As long as a woman in pants is a politician and a man in a dress is a joke, we still have more work to do. In my own little way, I blaze a trail for all. And I encourage anyone reading this to do the same. Examine your own assumptions about your gender, what that means to you about what you’re supposed to do and be in this life. Challenge these beliefs to be coherent and useful, or change. Let’s give those who come after us more of a starting point than we had.

[In case anyone’s wondering, I did searches with other keywords, synonyms and similar phrases, with similar results.]

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1 Comment

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more about the movies thing. I know a lot of people think that that sort of thing doesn’t REALLY matter–I mean, they’re only movies, for fuck’s sake.

    But really. Even into adulthood, it’s always refreshing to see WOMEN in the lead roles, portraying characters who have depth to them, and get to go on the adventures. I found something on Netflix the other day, actually, released in 2004 and simply called “Frankenstein“, that, while maybe not the BEST movie in the world, had a really enjoyable female lead character. Every time I expected her male partner (they’re cops) to be the one to take the initiative and run off on some tangent directed by gut instinct, she did it instead. It was nice to see the female cop being the brash, instinctual, maybe slightly bats, character for once ; )

    Though on a related note, if you’ve not yet read “I Hate Strong Female Characters” by Sophia McDougall, I can highly recommend it.

    Also, this topic has made me realize that it shouldn’t be any surprise that one of my favorite movies as a child was “The Last Unicorn”, and one of my favorite movies as a teenager was “Alien”.

    As far as what being a woman means to me…

    I think that it all boils down to gender identity, in an, “I think, therefore I am” sort of way; I consider myself a woman, and therefore, I am one. Others’ definitions of what a woman is don’t matter to me, because I know how *I* define “woman”, and that’s all that really matters to me at the end of the day. Anyone who looks at my gender identity and expression and tells me that I’m Doing It Wrong isn’t worth my time and effort to be around. There are many, many, MANY legitimate ways to woman. So if one considers oneself a woman and is living in a way that feels natural to them, then that’s what matters.

    Ah, but what if one considers oneself a woman and ISN’T living in a way that feels naturally to them? I can almost hear you asking that question through the intarwebz ;P That person is still a woman. They’re just going through that thing we call “self-discovery” and trying to figure out how they like to navigate through the world. Doing Action A or Action B while on that journey of discovery doesn’t make that person any less of a woman if a woman is what they consider themselves to be.

    So it’s not about physical/assigned gender, or expressed gender, or how long one’s hair is, or how current one is on the latest make-up or fashion trends, or whether or not one is covered as hell in bruises from playing some rough sport three days ago. At least not to me. To me, it’s about what one feels inside. If you feel that you’re a woman, whatever that may mean to YOU, then that’s what matters.

    Like

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