Separate but Equal: The Feminine Mystique
“As for my girls, I’ll raise them to think they breathe fire.” -Jessica Kirkland
Let’s talk about our girls.
As a Black woman, I consider myself a double minority, and therefore have had, throughout the course of 23 years, my entire life and perception shaped by my particular demographic. I can say with complete certainty, however, that being Black has never affected me as much as being a woman has.
Sexism and misogyny are much older and stronger than racism, and in many ways more insidious. Archaic ideas of what it means to be a woman — air-headed, domestic, less educated, passive and submissive — have assaulted me my entire life, just like stereotypical ideas of what it means to be Black have. The difference? Racism nowadays is looked at as dirty, wrong, and deplorable, whereas sexism is still the accepted, and often overlooked norm.
I feel that women and girls are grossly misunderstood the world over, and this is in large part due to the objectification, disenfranchisement and sexualisation of women and girls (I was 13 when grown men began ogling me like they would any woman their own age). The more men see us as nothing more than objects for their ogling, pleasure and comfort, the less they see us as complex and equal human beings. And if they don’t see us as complex and equal human beings, why would they ever be interested in understanding us?
One of the overarching characteristics of a patriarchal society is its tendency for male-dominated narcissism: in a man’s world, everything is for and about the man, even the existence and prevailing idea of the woman, which reflects the man’s way of thinking. For example, in countless movies and television shows, women are often represented as hyper-feminine caricatures: emotionally unstable, overly-sensitive and thus quick to over-react, weak, catty, submissive, childish and confusing, which is rooted in allegedly not being able to articulate her thoughts as clearly as a man does. And any woman who is presented as being the exact opposite of all of those things — emotionally stable or rigid, insensitive, strong, mature or above childish antics, dominant, un-amused and straight-forward — or in other words, any woman who presents the characteristics of a man, is accused of being cold or a bitch, or both.
Ironically, the vast majority of Hollywood directors, writers and producers are male. The power of media representation lies not in the hands of the minority. This stereotypical vantage point leads to women, who are grossly misunderstood, being defined by the very ones who choose to misunderstand them. There is danger in that, because when you take away one’s ability to self-identify in society, you take away one’s power.
I believe that one main reason men fail to understand women is because of narcissism and privilege. Historically, rather than males and females coexisting on a horizontal plane, there was set in place a long time ago a vertical plane, or hierarchy, wherein men got the top spots, pushing women to the very bottom, with slight variances based on race and class and religion, but at the bottom nonetheless. This hierarchy has led to women being systematically excluded from positions of power, including the power to self-define. They attempt to view us through the lens of a man rather than allowing us to exist separately, in the realm of the woman. Separate, but equal.
Feminine and masculine energy are two separate entities that exist in the minds of all, and any healthy person has a good mix of both, although some lean to one side more than the other, which is fine. The problem, however, is that masculine energy or characteristics have always been overvalued as strength and feminine energy or characteristics undervalued as weakness. This is a major source of frustration for me, because, aside from what men think, I don’t see women themselves understanding just how powerful, valuable and beautifully different they are.
My whole life, I’ve watched women strive for greatness by trying to be better than men at being men. I’ve seen them reject what makes them feminine and overcompensate the masculine traits in themselves — loudness, aggressiveness, rigidity, lack of emotion — in an attempt to be identical to, and therefore equal to their male counterparts. I’ve seen women turn their noses up to “girly things” like dresses and lipstick and makeup and smooth, shaven skin in an attempt to silently scream at men “We can be men, too!” Meaning we can be powerful and valued, too.
I’ve watched those same women get angry and offended at trivial matters such as gender differences in language (waiter vs. waitress, actor vs. actress), as if different means less than. As if the French term une journaliste is somehow unequal to un journalist, simply because one is feminine and one is masculine. They wholeheartedly believe, in rejecting gender differences, they’re fighting sexism when, in reality, they’re being insidiously controlled by it.
They implicitly feel that the feminine is weaker and, therefore, acknowledgement of it is offensive. You can’t blame them. They’ve been conditioned to believe that the masculine is a positive while the feminine is a negative. For example, if a man experiences something traumatic like heartbreak and exhibits the common emotions that are born from that, like sadness or grief, he may well be commanded to “Stop being a little bitch,” or or accused of “acting like a pussy” by his friends. However, if a man or woman does something particularly brave or bold or adventurous, the common sentiment is “Wow, you’ve got some balls.”
Concerning the LGBT community, many men don’t seem to have a problem with lesbian relationships but are extremely uncomfortable with gay male relationships. I believe this to be rooted in the fact that lesbian relations, in some odd way, fulfill a sexual fantasy for many men. Those same men, however, view gay relations as an assault to masculinity, or to what it means to be a man in general, considering so much of what it means to be a man seems to be rooted in their relationships with and views of women.
On another note, rape culture is alive and well (ode to Brock Turner) and frequently makes it a point to victim blame those who were raped or sexually abused or harassed while making excuses for the male attackers or perpetrators. Around the world, women are blamed for their own attacks simply by virtue of being a woman with common sentiments such as “She shouldn’t have been wearing that, she was asking for it” or “She shouldn’t have shown so much skin”. No wonder so many women and girls have self-worth issues: they’re brainwashed into thinking that their very being is a negative.
As stated before, a mentally healthy, well-rounded person is ideally someone who embraces both the male and female characteristics that coexist in the human brain. This historical push and pull toward masculinity and away from femininity is damaging not only to the psyche of women, but of men. The way we ask men to hide, curb or completely disregard their valid emotions leads to a lifetime of mental health struggles. These are personified in depression, anxiety, consistently failing romantic relationships in their adult lives, unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcoholism and drug abuse, and uncontrollable anger and insecurities.
Earlier, I mentioned that Hollywood has a way of stereotyping female behavior. Admittedly, many stereotypes are hyperbolas of truths. In TV shows and movies, men frequently mock women for gathering with friends or urging their partners to talk about their feelings. Perhaps this open dialogue about inner turmoil and emotional struggle is what prevents women from committing suicide at such alarming rates as men do (men die by suicide 3.5 times as much as women, with white males accounting for 7 out of 10 suicides in 2015).
Women weren’t meant to be men. There’s power and strength in the feminine energy that should be exalted. Traditionally masculine traits — independence, dominance, ambition, assertiveness, boldness, being goal-oriented and logical — are no doubt valuable to anyone pursuing a career or education. But the things defined as traditionally feminine — inherent kindness; emotional transparency; passion; a love for travel, adventure and freedom; attraction to bright colors, art, music, and culture; appreciation for fashion as an art form; emotional intelligence — play just as important a role in living a fulfilled life.
As a culture, we misunderstand what it means to be feminine. It does not mean being overly-emotional. Quite the opposite, to be in touch with oneself and emotions allows for more emotional stability. The feminine energy is the energy that allows us to grow emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, and to be strong in those aspects. The feminine is the nurturer that allows us to care for and love others, to build and maintain relationships, and to communicate effectively.
To be feminine is to empathize with and understand others. To be feminine is to be a teacher, or an educator. To be feminine is to create life where there once was none, or to turn a house into a home. Femininity is warmth, which is why is matches so well with masculine energy, which is more cold.
Femininity is complicated, strong, loving, and divine.
Feminine energy can be dominant too, but in a different way: it dominates not with aggressive demands but with loving persuasion. Femininity can be strong and aggressive, too, but in a different way. We’ve got to grow to a place where these differences can be appreciated and celebrated in both sexes. The effort to sort every person into rigid definitions of gender, or into categories of pink and blue, is harmful to the ultimate goal of human existence: unity. It has to start with the rejection of the notion that the feminine is any less than the masculine. The two energies have to be valued equally. It has to start with women looking to understand themselves as women rather than shaping their entire lives around how men see and what they believe. Unity between the sexes could carry human evolution to new heights. The Feminist Movement that began in the 1970’s set in motion a new future for young girls and women around the world, but progress is slow.
We’ve begun to build momentum. The question is, where do we go from here?