Monday, February 4, 2013

Femininity For Everyone

 "A Rally" by Sir John Lavery, Irish artist (1885), via Wikimedia Commons.
I have mixed feelings about femininity.  I guess that's not a bold and wild statement.  Probably most people who've ever thought about it have some kind of ambivalence.

But overall I think femininity gets a worse rap than it deserves.  What I mean is, there's nothing basic and essential to femininity that makes it problematic.  Sure, it's a problem when it's mandatory or compulsory and you can't opt out.  It's a problem when meeting its demands gets in the way of other things.  But outside of those problems, I think instead of always trying to change femininity to suit the world, we might do more to make the world suit femininity. 

One of the main knocks on feminine clothing, physicality, and general style is that they're impractical.  So my first question is, impractical for what?

Sure, they can be impractical for certain kinds of physical work and certain kinds of fun physical activities.  But for other kinds of work and fun they're just fine.  If your job involves mostly using your mind, and reading writing talking and figuring stuff out, feminine clothing, physicality, and general style aren't really a problem.

There's a hilarious Mindy Kaling essay in The New Yorker where she talks about the strangeness of the way women are depicted in movies. One of the things she talks about is how working women are portrayed:
"I regularly work sixteen hours a day. Yet, like most people I know who are similarly busy, I’m a pleasant, pretty normal person. But that’s not how working women are depicted in movies. I’m not always barking orders into my hands-free phone device and yelling, 'I have no time for this!' Often, a script calls for this uptight career woman to 'relearn' how to seduce a man, and she has to do all sorts of crazy degrading crap, like eat a hot dog in a sexy way or something. And since when does holding a job necessitate that a woman pull her hair back in a severe, tight bun? Do screenwriters think that loose hair makes it hard to concentrate?"
Yeah, news flash:  many contemporary jobs are compatible with femininity and even loose hairstyles. 

Yes, you may not have one of those jobs.  If you don't, and you want one -- well, that's what I mean about making the world suit femininity rather than the other way around.  The problem there isn't the femininity, it's the kind of socio-economic world we happen to live in.  If you don't have one of those jobs and you don't want one -- great!  That is what I mean about the importance of femininity not being mandatory or compulsory. 

Closely related to the impracticality thing is the fighting back thing.  Feminine clothing makes it harder to fight physically, and so makes women vulnerable.

This is true, and it's important.  But again, isn't this a case where the world should change, not femininity?  It would obviously be better if no one had to fight physically in order to protect their safety. 

I mean, I get it that there's a problem, that a violence-free world is not in our near future, and that therefore it's a problem that femininity leads to vulnerability.  I just think it's important to remember the real problem is with the way the world is and is not something to do essentially with femininity itself. 

Finally, though it's a real pain that femininity gets put on women the way it does, I think the answer isn't to get rid of it but rather to expand and mix it up a little -- to make it so that men get to experience the pleasures of femininity.

These days masculinity is pretty out of control.  It seems harder than ever for a guy to do what we think of as girly things without the gender police cracking down hard. 

But femininity can be fun.  Most basically, as I wrote about in this previous post on Being Vs. Doing, some of the pleasure of femininity are the pleasures of Being instead of Doing:  pleasures that have to do more with the way others respond to you than to something you're doing or achieving, some effect you're having on the world.  The pleasure of beautiful and delicate clothes:  everyone should have it. 

But I would go further than this, and say that even the vulnerability of femininity is something positive, something men would enjoy, something they ought to get to enjoy once in a while.

We usually think of vulnerability in really negative terms, in contexts in which something or someone poses a threat to you and you could get hurt.  But if no one is posing a threat and you're not going to get hurt, vulnerability is just a kind of openness to things happening to you that you don't have to initiate and control. 

Maybe "vulnerable" isn't the right word for that since it has such negative connotations.  It's more like a "susceptibility."  Having things happen to you, instead of always making them happen.  Whatever you call it, it's an aspect of femininity that, in a hostile world, can be a real problem, but that in itself, can be a delightful and fun thing.  Like femininity itself.

Now that you're done listening to me pontificate, reward yourself by going and reading Mindy Kaling's essay about the movies.  It is funny and great, and it is not behind the New Yorker paywall!

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