Why essentialists make me want to throw things

Another day, another cisgender femme arguing that women who “want to look like men” are inherently sexist because in rejecting certain aspects of a narrow definition of femininity, they’re rejecting women. I have neither heads nor desks enough to express my feelings on this. Words will have to suffice, I suppose.

First of all, the short version: Anyone who says she is a woman, regardless of how her body is configured, whether she has or want children, or how she dresses and adorns herself, is a woman. Period. A woman in her default physical state, with natural body hair, no makeup or jewelry, and in comfortable, functional clothes is not a man nor is she trying to be one. Likewise a woman who doesn’t want to be a parent, or who doesn’t wish to breastfeed or be a sole or primary caregiver. It is not necessary to do the things one’s culture defines as feminine in order to be a woman. Additionally, everyone who doesn’t meet the ideal of being a masculine, cisgender, heterosexual male is, for the purposes of sexism, considered enough of a woman to be subjugated and therefore has a stake in feminism. This is why, even though I identify as masculine-spectrum genderqueer on a personal level, on a political level I identify as female. The world is going to consider me that regardless of what feels right to me, and I believe in standing with everyone else considered so as a matter of solidarity.

That need for solidarity, and strength in numbers, is why the policing of who is and isn’t a woman, whether it’s a woman who isn’t “femme” enough, or a woman who was assigned male at birth, is actually supporting the goals of sexism, not feminism. (See my previous post on authenticity policing for more on that.)

Beyond that, however, the essentializing of artificial femininity is overt sexism in itself, not just in denying women their identities, but in reinforcing the capitalism-fueled social structures that form a huge part of the cage that women are kept in.

I haven’t seen much from it lately, but for a while, there was a “this is what a feminist looks like” campaign, wherein a lot of people, primarily young cis femmes, identified as feminist to (theoretically) broaden the public notion of who feminists are and thereby legitimize the cause. While I think the people behind the campaign were well-meaning, there was a rather nasty undercurrent to it: many of these people seemed to be asserting that they’re not “that kind” of feminist, meaning, in the usual shorthand, fat, hairy-legged, man-hating lesbians. It smelled, in other words, like the “straight-acting” gay folks who try to distance themselves from the butches and fairies as if the existence of those people is what really fuels homophobia and not, y’know, homophobes being awful people. The unspoken message was that the reason feminism wasn’t being taken seriously is because the people who fit the stereotype aren’t inherently worth being taken seriously. I understand the impulse, to a degree. It’s hard to see a group of people getting enormous amounts of shit and worry that one is going to get lumped in with them and therefore face the same abuse. Distancing oneself from the people getting the brunt of oppression seems like a useful survival strategy. Unfortunately, all it does is make the underlying problem worse: It sends the message that injustice is wrong only when it’s applied to certain people.

One of the unfortunate, and long-lasting, effects of the Backlash is that millions of people, particularly those who grew up under the manufactured “girl power” flavor of commercialized feminism that had a heyday in the ’80s and early ’90s, have essentialized a commodified, artificially created version of femininity. They were told that being a “real” woman meant grooming and adorning oneself in a particular way, primarily using commercial products that maintained an image of womanhood that met the ideals of sexist het dudes: physically small and weak, young or at least looking like it, with bodies displayed in a way that’s culturally coded to signal sexual availability. The people making the products necessary to achieve this ideal, from weight loss pills to cosmetics to shoes, sold the ideal as empowerment. They sold the lie that as long as a woman could make sexist het dudes want to fuck her, then she had power. Nevermind getting any actual economic or political power: the power to give those dudes a boner was framed as the ultimate, and something every woman needed if she wanted to survive. They also pushed the idea that a woman who did have economic or political power was somehow required to mitigate that by at least making herself properly decorative, and that women were still required, no matter how healthy their careers, to be full-time parents and housekeepers, too. Asking men to do the dishes or change diapers would be emasculating them, doncha know.

Additionally, they sold young women on the idea that not meeting the femininity standard was inherently anti-sex. In order to get laid, the messages said, a woman had to turn herself into Barbie, and any women who didn’t or couldn’t do that were clearly just being frigid prudes trying to harsh everyone else’s sex life. Ignoring the reality that billions of people who don’t look like models have wonderful sex every day, and a whole lot of people don’t actually want to have sex anyway, they pushed the idea that if a woman doesn’t at least try to look and carry herself like a swimsuit model, she’s never going to get laid. When you’re young and horny, the threat of not getting a regular roll in the hay is almost a fate worse than death. So one may as well gussy up the way the world tells you is necessary to make that happen (even if it primarily attracts partners who are utterly lousy in bed, because they don’t see beyond whether someone meets a physical ideal.) And if one wants a long-term partner or spouse? Well, not only must one meet minimum fuckability standards, but also be willing to give up financial self-sufficiency so as to be enough of a domestic servant.

There is, of course, some reality to all this, in a vicious-circle sort of way. Sexist gender ideals are so deeply entrenched that people who meet them actually do have more power and privilege. Women who are conventionally attractive and compliant with the rules of adornment and behavior are given more attention, better jobs, better pay. Women who can pass as a centerfold do get laid more (even if the sex isn’t great.) Women who are willing to be entirely financially dependent on someone else in the service of raising children and keeping house do find spouses more easily. This is not to say that these women don’t experience sexism–all women do. To some degree, they also get more harassment and other unwanted sexual attention because of the cultural coding that women who dress and look a certain way are advertising sexual availability.*

However, women who don’t meet those ideals ALSO get harassed and attacked, and additionally suffer from the more subtle, but equally damaging forms of sexism that prevent them from ever having genuine economic and political power even on par with women who pass as feminine enough. Could a fat butch ever be a powerful CEO? President? Unlikely. Fat women have a poverty rate well outside the average because even getting a job is more difficult. Butch women have a miserable time finding office-acceptable clothing that isn’t ill-fitting or in some way feminine.

Making this all worse, the women who don’t toe the line in being feminine enough by cultural standards are attacked and abused by other women, including their mothers and other women they’re supposed to be able to trust. How many women pass on body hatred and eating disorders to their daughters? How many “mean girls” attack other girls for what they look like? How many female relatives pester women who haven’t yet married or had a lot of kids? How many female friends, neighbors, etc. judge a woman if her housekeeping standards are anything less than magazine quality? Much is made of sisterhood and female solidarity, but women who don’t meet the ideals aren’t welcome in that club. Fighting the sexism you experience is so, so much harder when you don’t even have the support of other women because they don’t think you qualify as one of them (and this is all to say nothing of the exclusion of Trans women, women of color, working-class women and anyone else who doesn’t match up with the “right” demographics.) Obviously, the men at the top of the privilege heap are the ones who benefit from and orchestrate this, but let’s face it: their job is made considerably easier when so many girls and women readily act as willing foot soldiers in their war on women’s independence.  Until women stop enforcing sexism’s rules on other women, we’re never going to have enough strength in numbers to override the massively disproportionate power held by those who require our subjugation to maintain their position.

I hope it’s clear that I’m not calling here for all women to suddenly up and dump the trappings of artificial femininity overnight. There are millions of reasons why women shape themselves this way, and though virtually all of those reasons are based at least somewhat in sexism, every woman’s experience of and motivations for how she presents her gender identity are different. We learn gender the same way we learn other aspects of cultural identity, and it’s therefore impossible to entirely unlearn those things. I do believe femme identities are authentic as much as, say, one’s religious identity, even if elements of those things can contribute to harm. Moreover, I also have no problem with stereotypical femininity done as performance art. If you’re doing the “girly” thing as drag–and everyone knows it’s drag–have fun. Pile that pink beehive as high as it will go.

What I am calling for, however, is for people to drop the essentialism argument, and to stop trying to enforce a very narrow definition of femininity as if that’s the only way for “real” women to be. Additionally, I’m calling for people to work on dropping the most harmful aspects of culturally constructed femininity just as I call for people who identify as, say, Catholic to reject the church’s teachings on LGBT folks and abortion rights. There is nothing about identifying as femme that requires demanding that other women shave, wear skirts or breastfeed their children (or even have kids at all) any more than there is something about Christianity that requires forcing non-believers to follow your religion’s rules.

And in a way, gender is sort of like a religion. It’s deeply held, usually shaped in childhood and something critically important to a person’s overall identity. But it’s not universal nor uniform, and acknowledging the vast spectrum of both religious and gender identities is key to eliminating identity-based oppression. There are people like me who are gender atheists, so to speak, and we deserve as much right to our identities as those devoted to a given theology. There is so, so much more to being a woman than constructed, sexist ideals of appearance and domestic duty that insisting someone isn’t feminist or even isn’t a woman if they don’t adhere to those ideals is shooting the entire movement in the foot. It’s not just non-“feminine” women being hurt by essentialism, it’s all of us.

*Those who do these bad acts are of course responsible for their behavior, but it’s also important to acknowledge that the emotional reactions they have that trigger these behaviors are the result of cultural conditioning. Expecting them to modify their behavior is reasonable; expecting them to instantly unlearn a lifetime of brainwashing and modify how they feel? Not so much. We still have a lot of work to do there.


About Shawna (A Mediated Life)

Writer, singer, parent, fan, media maven, and general ne'er-do-well. Fierce protector of the rights of the disadvantaged and endless pontificator on subjects both ridiculous and sublime.
This entry was posted in Feminism, LGBTQ, Politics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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