What You Want Your Gender Presentation To Say About You Versus What It Really Says — To Men Anyway…

Val Jandl & Taylor Harrison

We know that this title is generalizing. We get it. Not all men. But, the epidemic of sexual violence perpetrated against women by men seems to be getting more and more out of control, and we have some things to say about it. When first choosing a research topic, we knew that we wanted to discuss the issue of sexual violence against women in the United States, but we were extremely unsure of where to start. However, the topic of femininity, and exactly what it is this term means, is something that Valerie and I soon decided to make a point to investigate throughout our research, because determining the trigger points for those who perpetuate this violence we felt was imperative. In this investigation, we decided to conduct a series of anonymous interviews with both men and women, inquiring about their thoughts and personal experiences regarding masculinity, femininity, varying gender expression, and the relations of each of these to sexualized violence. Our interviews consisted of 24 individuals of varying backgrounds. Most of our participants were college students; however, we also conducted interviews with people who are not currently in college, or who are significantly older. We feel that gathering a wide range of experiences helped us in drawing conclusions as to why sexualized violence takes place against such an expansive demographic of women. Focusing on one particular demographic would most likely hinder our study, for we wanted to receive the most inclusive information that we could. Our main goal for conducting these interviews was to understand what common denominators, if any, could provide us with more insight with regard to the relationship between gender expression and sexual violence. Though we conducted 24 interviews, we will not be discussing each separately — similar qualitative data will be grouped together, but there are a few anomalies.

We began with questions about femininity and masculinity, the first being that we were curious about the terms that individuals associate with each notion. As for masculinity, the answers we received were all quite similar; both men and women associate masculinity with strength, assertion, and confidence. When prompted about who they felt were accurate representations, or embodiments, of these traits, we received answers such as superheroes, athletes, and famous white male actors like Ryan Gosling. Ideas associated with femininity, on the other hand, were not so straightforward. The adjectives that were thrown out when asked about femininity were all over the map, and there were also many more terms provided than for masculinity — a few of these included nurturing, caring, girly, independent, emotional, passionate, and feminist. In telling us about who they believe is representative of these traits, figures such as Mother Theresa were thought of. Another common example of an embodiment of femininity was the character Jess, from “New Girl.” For those who have not seen this TV series, Jess is a teacher of young children. She is “girly,” wearing lots of loud, printed dresses and always looking well put-together, and she is also quite emotional. The first episode of the series features her sitting on the couch watching “Dirty Dancing” and crying uncontrollably for a straight week due to her recent break-up. Of course, these features of femininity are not necessarily bad — what is considered bad, in our opinions, are the harmful effects that this common representation of femininity has on others who identify as women but do not conform to the girly, nurturing, and emotional societal standard of womanhood.

Judith Butler discusses the issue of representation for women (1999). She states that feminist theory assumes an existing identity understood through the category of womanhood (p. 145), meaning that there is supposedly some common feature of being a woman that places them within the category of womanhood, or femininity. However, the feedback that Valerie and I received when asking about femininity demonstrates otherwise, and Butler expands on the controversial issues of representation of the category of women. An important observation she makes is as such: “On the one hand, representation serves as the operative term within a political process that seeks to extend visibility and legitimacy to women as political subjects; on the other hand, representation is the normative function of a language which is said either to reveal or distort what is assumed to be true about the category of women” (p. 145). The main issue that she seems to point out here is that of language. A language needs to be developed that can provide a comprehensive and accurate account of what it means to be a woman, for clearly our current language cannot capture womanhood, as we partially see in our interviews. But how can a language be developed to capture what it means to be a woman if aspects of womanhood are so abstract? This suggestion implies that women should be placed into a monolithic category if we are to cultivate a language that will adequately describe them all. However, this is unjust and unfair in the society that we currently live in — women cannot, and should not be subjected to a monolithic category because this ignores the myriad struggles that women face due to varying socioeconomic backgrounds, races, sexualities, abilities, etc. Butler touches on this, asserting that the very subject of women is no longer understood in stable terms (p. 145). But, just because some women are white and wealthy and some women are brown and poor does not take away from the fact that they are all women, and are all susceptible to sexual violence.

A main take-away that we had from this portion of the interview process is that womanhood as well as manhood are socially constructed concepts. Simone de Beauvoir, in her introduction to “The Second Sex,” posits this as well, saying that the social and biological sciences no longer admit the existence of unchangeably fixed entities that determine given characteristics (p. 27). Thus, she is rejecting gender essentialism here, which is the notion that the categories of male and female are determined by features such as the dichotomy of emotion and rationality, as well as being determined by their genitalia. Gender essentialism is problematic because it does not take varying aspects of identity into account; for example, intersexed individuals. It also posits characteristics as inherent and fixated, which is just wrong. Beauvoir supports this point when she defines a characteristic as a reaction that is, in part, dependent on a given situation (p. 27). Though characteristics do seem to be this way, why do people commonly associate certain characteristics with the different sexes? Because language is socially constructed, people! And who gets to construct this language? Those with the privilege to do so. And who has had the privilege to do so since day one? White men. For some reason, a man became the neutral setting, and women were constructed as man’s inferior counterpart, or the “other,” as Beauvoir asserts (p. 28). This is something that was implied in our interviews as well — when individuals correlate masculinity with traits such as confidence but not femininity, it is implied that women are not confident, which leads us to the question of whether there a normative component to this.

Beauvoir asks the question of how the world came to belong to men in the first place. Religion may have had something to do with it, for it reflects a wish for domination; as men became more dominant, they began to view women as a dangerous competitor (p. 31), thus forcing them into the inferior position in virtue of biology, theology, psychology, etc. When a suppressive rhetoric has been cultivated through various disciplines over hundreds of years, women’s internalization of misogynistic thinking begins. This is why we believe that both men and women with numerous intersecting identities gave similar responses to our questioning of their associations with femininity and masculinity. Women are susceptible to cohering to gender essentialism because the suppressive rhetoric has become so insidious that certain women no longer realize they are the inferior sex, or they believe that since things have been this way for so long, it must be for good reason. One Black Marquette woman that we interviewed stood out in my mind because of this — she expressed that women should be at home with the kids, cooking, cleaning, etc., and that men should be the breadwinner of the family because they are more competent with that type of thing.

With this information, we would now like to migrate into the territory of sexual assault, and examine why it takes place against so many differently situated women. We began this portion of the interview process by inquiring about gender presentation. The majority of the women that we interviewed were compliant with patriarchal gender norms, meaning that they participated in the typical expressions of femininity that Sandra Bartky teaches us about in “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power.” These expressions are referred to as disciplinary practices by Bartky, and she posits three main ones that produce bodies that are recognizably feminine — the aim to produce bodies of a certain size, a specific repertoire of gestures, postures, etc., and the display of the body as an ornamented surface (p. 27). When we prompted these women to discuss how they expressed their femininity, almost all of them at first said they did nothing to express their gender identity. This took us by surprise. It simply did not make sense to us that they would consciously let us know they put zero effort into expressing gender identity while when we were interviewing them we could see the make-up on their faces, their shaved legs, their poised postures — why didn’t they notice? One white woman in particular stood out to me; she told us she did nothing to express femininity, while almost in the same breath told me that when another woman expressed interest towards her in a bar, she “should have known” not to do so because our interviewee was “clearly” not queer. So, I nudged her a little… “You do put thought into your gender expression, then?” She replied, “Well, yeah, I guess.” Many of the women we interviewed were reluctant to admit that they complied to patriarchal gender norms, and we think to some extent that they do not want to comply. However, because heteropatriarchal institutions are so influential, escaping these confines is an extremely difficult task, posing a multitude of risks to those who find ways to deviate. Those we interviewed were also well-aware of these risks, acknowledging the intense social backlash and harm that is warranted by gender deviation. Thus, we concluded from this section that many of the women that would never think twice about deviating from their typical expressions of femininity do so out of convenience, because it is simply easier to fit into the social norms, as well as out of fear. Some women are more fearful than others; one Black Marquette student told us that, for instance, my deviance from the gender norms is not looked at in the same light as her deviance would because she is a Black woman, and thus more subject to sexualized violence.

This does not mean, however, that she is subject to risk and I am not. We are merely subject to risk in different ways, which is something that Claudia Card discusses extensively in “Rape as Terrorism.” Card states that there are two ways for women to provoke aggression in men: the first is dressing or moving provocatively, embracing their femininity (p. 110). This is something that we talked largely about while conducting some of our interviews. Even though women who conformed to gender norms were reluctant to admit that they follow the patriarchal gender norms, there was no reluctance at all in opening up about the precautions that they take in order to avoid sexual harassment on a daily basis. The precautions consisted of not looking strangers in the eyes while walking past, carrying pepper spray or mace, holding keys or other objects to be potentially used as weapons in between fingers, and not walking alone at night. We thought it was strange that they only thought about their gender presentations in this context, but it demonstrates how women who portray feminine expression still feel emotionally and physically threatened due to their gender identity. It is quite puzzling, after everything that we have studied throughout the process of this project, that women who conform to the patriarchal norms that have been thoroughly engrained in this society are punished. However, this is what Card refers to as a protection racket. A protection racket is the creation of danger for women in order to sell protection against it (Card, 1998). This protection is given to women by some men in order to protect them from others. Women are supposed to conform to gender norms, but the expression of femininity is often inferred as the communication of consent. Thus, they cannot show their feminine features too much. If they do, they are seen as “asking for it,” and therefore cannot be raped, further justifying sexual violence (Bettcher, 2007). The women we interviewed were very much aware of how easily men interpret their body language and dress; every single cisgender woman we asked about experiences with sexual violence had at least one story to tell, ranging from cat calling and objectification to rape.

The second way in which to provoke aggression in men is the “unfeminine” way — Card refers to it as the “castrating bitch” way (p. 110). The women that provoke men in this fashion are essentially rejecting femininity, refusing to dress sexy or girly in order to pronounce femaleness. Though we spoke with far more women who did not deviate from patriarchal gender norms, there were a few young Marquette women with which we spoke who shared similar stories regarding feeling physically and/or emotionally threatened by a man because of their deviating gender identities. Thus, they took the same precautions as did the women who actively express their femininity, but for different reasons. Though they did not speak on the particular reasons why they felt that men have attacked and harassed them in the past, Card discusses this extensively as well, mainly in her other article “Radicalesbianfeminist Theory.” Her main focus here is discussing the differentiation in the oppression of straight, cisgender women and that of queer, potentially non-gender conforming, lesbians. Lesbians are punished for refusing to take part in an essential aspect of femininity — heterosexism. Card posits lesbianism as a way that females may respond to the threat of male domination, but this does not make them any less at risk. For those accentuating too many of their feminine features, they face the risk of becoming public property; AKA, they risk being raped. Lesbians risk becoming socially dead and invisible (p. 208). However, lesbians and others deviating from gender norms face rape too, for Card states that some men would like to “show them their place” (Card, 2010).

What we have been able to conclude from this research project is that simply being a woman, no matter how femininity is expressed or not expressed, ALWAYS places us at risk — whether it takes place at a college campus, a dark alley, or in one’s own home. Hegemonic masculinity will always find reason as to punish women. We are constantly placed in a double-bind, which Frye states are situations in which options for women are reduced to very view as well as expose us to penalty (1983). Whether women participate in sexual activity or not, whether they are straight, lesbian, asexual, non-binary…there is always a way for us to mess up in the eyes of the patriarchy, and we will continue to pay unless a new rhetoric begins. Both men and women need to stop associating femininity and masculinity with dichotomous terms. We personally do not believe that there should even be terms to dedicate solely to each one, for this will always create divide, and someone will always be the loser.


Bartky, S. L. (1997). Foucault, femininity, and the modernization of patriarchal power (pp. 25–45). na.

Beauvoir, S. D. (1953). The Second Sex: Introduction. Feminist Theory Reader. New York: Routledge, 27–36.

Bettcher, T. M. (2007). Evil Deceivers and Make-Believers: On Transphobic Violence and the Politics of Illusion. Hypatia 22(3), 43–65. Indiana University Press. Retrieved May 12, 2017, from Project MUSE database.

Butler, J. (1999). Subjects of sex/gender/desire. na., 145–153.

Card, C. (1998). Radicalesbianfeminist theory. Hypatia, 13(1), 206–213.

Card, C. (2010). The unnatural lottery: Character and moral luck. Temple University Press, 97–117.

Frye, M. (1983). Oppression. The Politics of Reality. Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA: 84–90.