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.
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.
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.
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 –
Back To The Future
The Karate Kid
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
An American Tale
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.
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?
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.
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.]