Feminine: To be, or not to be
To engage in aesthetic of the self, or deny the patriarchal past it’s pleasure
Even mentioning the term “femininity” in the wrong group of like-minded feminists has the potential to create a whirlwind of mixed ideologies and a varying vortexes of sharp tongues. Whether to decide in avoiding past patriarchal oppression or to support the freedoms of women to express themselves however they feel lies on the individual it seems. Yet still droves of female academics fall to either side to represent not what may seem right, but what may seem of which they feel best to support. With so much I’m right, you’re wrong, go to Hell engagements in the topic, often it is important to take a step back.
We shall not decide in this essay the “correct” viewpoint to take, we shall instead review two important women who have provided much to their respective fields on either side. Both of our authors, Susan Brownmiller and Camille Paglia, have provided extensive literature in the topic, and while we shall only focus on a very small portion of each of their pieces it shall be in the vain to create a more compact analysis of either side.
Susan Brownmiller’s 1984 excerpt “Femininity” introduces the concept of gender roles and sex expectations as a social construct of our own design. She remarks on the role of femininity, and satirically claims that “biological femaleness is not enough.” The main stance taken by Brownmiller is that men and women function mainly in synchronization, though the social implement of differing gender concepts has corrupted this view. Camille Paglia however, another vocal feminist and author of the article “Rape: A Bigger Danger Than Feminists Know,” mainly puts forth in her piece that men and women are competing in the same space and inherently separate.
Paglia states, “the sexes are at war” and that men are fighting for the admiration and bodies of women, while women are fighting for both their safety and dignity. Each of these positions are important in detailing the relationships with the topics of femininity we have to review, and describing the nature of how femininity has been created to uphold certain powers and ideals.
Brownmiller remarks and reminds in her essay that “femininity… must constantly reassure its audience” by creating visual and mental queues for men to judge by. She attempts here to expose the individuals who believe that just being a woman is not enough and though she speaks tongue-in-cheek, it does flesh out an interesting point. The notions of how women should act stems from the minds of men, and are used by men to devalue women. These notions being the oppressive expectations women are expected to live by. Though simultaneously, this idea of men asserting their power over women is an especially fond stance to take for Paglia, as she notes the obvious that “college men… are dangerous” and that women should be “armed with resolute alertness” in even just their presence.
Both Brownmiller and Paglia would agree that men play too large a part in deciding the identity of women and deciding their worth. In our American society for women “to be insufficiently feminine is viewed as a failure” though, as previously mentioned, a man is only one who can impose this ruling. Brownmiller’s excerpt, though only a small part of a much larger book, further defines her section of ideals in the split of contemporary feminist identity. Noting gender roles as social constructs may have been an unsettling concept for Brownmiller’s audience at the time, though it seems that now it has become quite a fashionable impression to younger feminists.
When focusing on Paglia and Brownmiller’s individual philosophies it is important to understand the distinction between genetic femaleness (e.g. perceived softer attitudes, lower body mass, etc.) and femininity as defined by these two women. Briefly, let us define a short distinction between each of their individual preferred terms used in each of their pieces; While Brownmiller sticks to the word “femininity” when speaking and Paglia uses “feminism” though it seems they both mean to say the same thing, however we will be using the term “femininity” for clarity. Important to Paglia’s work however, is to note that her critiques of feminism are plentiful. Both of our authors recognize that there is a difference between masculinity and femininity, even men and women in general, saying “the masculine principle is… superiority designed [for]… confident success, while the feminine principle is composed of vulnerability”.
Brownmiller specifically finds these differences to be founded not in biology but in the social constructs our society has put together, over decades or centuries, though that is not to say many other cultures do not face these same problems, or even worse. In her opinion, it is the unfortunate reality that femininity has to be approved though men to be valid, rather than just through genetic femaleness to be enough. It is not satisfactory for a women to just be herself, for femininity must be granted after being earned through a series of learned actions of “how to be a women.” In this view, to chose or be incapable to do such things it to damn yourself to the judgment of men and to have your femininity striped from you, through threats of patriarchal violence.
On the topic of masculinity however, Paglia would be better suited for this narrative in defining how it is viewed in contrast. Paglia states, “men become masculine only when other men say they are” which is not too unsimilar to the opinions Brownmiller holds towards femininity. Though men have the privilege of reviewing themselves alongside their peers, while women must be granted validity by their supposed enemy (39). This ignoble power dynamic gifts men the social ability to create communities of violence and ignorance whom of which tilt their gun toward the minds of uppity women. It is the belief of Paglia that for men “aggression and eroticism [are]… biologically programmed. [Though] generation after generation, men [can] be educated, refined, and ethically persuaded” (54). The distinction between femininity and masculinity it seems, is that femininity is taught and forced upon women, while the entrapping of masculinity are a deeply ingrained occurrence of nature.
Many opinions and views on feminism, femininity, and the American sex culture have drastically changed since these works were written, back in the late 1980’s, and these authors and their activism must be thanked for the role they played in this evolution of thought. However, even with these advances in social dialogue in the past thirty years I would argue that a majority of what was said is still relevant to today. A few beliefs have obviously aged, for I do not believe many people now think that men are born inherently violent or sexually deviant, no people of which I would associate myself with anyways, yet certain topics of women not conforming to social feminine standards are still alive and well.
Competitive events like football, chess, and even simple games of Dungeons & Dragons still feel entirely too focused on a boys only club ideology, only further fostering such opinions as women not being strong enough, smart enough, or passionate enough to compete. Again, we fall back to women being viewed as never enough for men, especially when it comes to direct competition. Unfortunately, masculinity could never begin to deal with losing against a girl. It is to be noted that these notions of weakness have been held onto for so long only to hold women back, keeping men from mixed competitions, yet still women continue to attain the highest levels of success. One could say this restriction was made to protect women, yet another might decide to argue the inverse.
As a society, we have continuously been improving our conversations on difficult topics as movements and activism have engulfed America throughout the last 100 years, yet we must never forget to stop improving ourselves and our understanding of the things around us. Through the use of media and other creative outlets, including the wonderful advent of the internet, we have rapidly expedited our social understanding of each other. Women in particular have been given both the outlet and encouragements to tell their story, providing people of previous ignorance the hindsight and information they need to see the transgressions they may have inflicted.
The ideas that still are held together by sticks and glue of gender appropriateness have only ever worked to hold both women and men back. Giving a short, personal note: As a trans woman I hold femininity quite close to myself. It is the belief of many feminists, such as myself, that eventually we will break out of the barriers inflicted by social femininity and women and men will come together alike to strive without these shackles of gender stereotyping. Even beyond these established disagreements, these feelings of discontentment and anger will continue to fuel the revolutionary strives for equality, and while these disagreements must be noted and faced we as a people must inversely understand that beyond all, we are all feminists.
Brownmiller, Susan. Femininity. Grafton Books, 1986.
Paglia, Camille. Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism. Canongate, 2018.