If you want to see just one example of the subtle ways our culture devalues femininity, all you have to do is Google a few things. First, search for “define masculinity,” and look at how it’s used in the example sentence. It says, “Handsome, muscled, and driven, he's a prime example of masculinity." Now Google “define femininity.” That sentence reads, “She celebrates her femininity by wearing makeup and high heels.” I was going to try to make some point about how “Wooow, look at the stark difference between how men and women are viewed wooow,” and maybe there’s something there about women being valued for how they look and men being valued for what they do. But my gut reaction to high heels and makeup being "bad?" That's exactly what I'm talking about. Our culture devalues femininity in all kinds of ways, and so much of the time, we don't even notice it's happening.
Despite the 56 percent of males who’d like to wish it so, sexism is far from over. In the same way that having a black president didn’t end racism, things like Hillary Clinton being the first woman nominee of a major party didn't end sexism. Racism and sexism and other -isms like them exist and persist based on who has historically been in power and what continues to be valued as powerful. The way we think about women is deeply embedded into our culture. Although all of these things are important and notable and needed and good, it will take more than one presidential candidate, one successful movie, one Beyoncé performance for society to view women (and characteristics associated with women) as equal and as important as men.
Blatant sexism is getting easier to call out and acknowledge. This isn’t to say that blatant sexism doesn’t still exist, as evidenced by these facts on sexism from Mic. However, people arguably have an easier time understanding why violence and harassment against women is bad than, say, why calling something “girly” shouldn’t be an insult. This in no way is meant to compare those two examples as equally harmful; they aren’t. But the subtle way we talk about women, the nuanced ways we view attributes associated with women, become ingrained in us individually and as a culture. The less we value characteristics attached to women, the easier it is to justify devaluing women as a whole.
Here are just a few ways our culture devalues femininity. So, the next time you hear or see them, you can call them out for what they truly are: sexist garbage.
1. Viewing Kindness as Weakness
Being kind and gentle are traditionally associated with femininity. (Something something "sugar and spice.") But according to what our culture teaches us, being too nice or too kind is connotative of being a pushover or a someone people can walk over. That paired with the idea that "masculine = strong; masculine = opposite of feminine; therefore, feminine = opposite of strong" gives people the notion that kindness = weakness.
This article from Psychology Today examines kindness and whether or not it is a weakness. (Spoiler: It's not.) Here's a quote from author Ilana Simons Ph.D on why it isn't:
Kindness is one of the highest modalities of human behavior, because it means moving from an infant's idealism, on to a young person's defensiveness, on to a wiser willingness for vulnerability.
2. Perceiving Feminine Men As Weak
Fun fact: Human beings do not exist in mutually exclusive binaries. You can be masculine and still identify as female. You can have traditionally feminine characteristics and a penis at the same time. You do not have to ascribe to either characteristics we code as "male" or ones we code as "female." Gender is not binary.
And yet, our culture often insists that it is, and moreover, it insists that never the twain shall meet. This video by Laci Green discusses in detail the sexist ways society views men and femininity. As Green points out, men taking on traditionally feminine roles and characteristics is seen as men lowering themselves. However, ascribing traditionally masculine things to women is not automatically seen as an insult. The example she uses in the video is a woman in a pantsuit versus a man in a dress.
That is, in a word, BS.
3. Using “Girly” as an Insult
Why does doing something "like a girl" mean you aren't doing it well? Can you think of a female equivalent to “acting manly”? Acting “lady-like” definitely doesn’t imply the sort of strength that “man up” does. I know it seems like I'm arguing about semantics, but words do matter. Like I said earlier, the way we talk about women and femininity shapes how we treat and view women — and gender — as a whole. What do you think the impact of consistently hearing "girly" as an insult has on the perceptions of kids of all genders of being female? How are we teaching girls to think about themselves when we equate women to objects or use their gender as an insult?
4. Thinking Things Written or Created by Women are Only for Women
Looking specifically at comedy, women need to prove time and time again that yes, women can be funny. This, in part, stems from the notion that if something was written by a women, it must only be for women. Work created by a woman is seen as "niche" while work created by a man is presumed to be applicable to everyone. If you want to do another Google search exercise, look up "famous comedians" or "famous authors" or "famous writers." You're gonna get a lot of white dudes. Assuming "male" is the default and "female" is the specific devalues the importance of women's work in these field — and also erases the work of anyone of any other gender entirely.
5. Assuming Femininity Undercuts Feminism
I'm going to hand it over to Laci Green again for this one. In the video above she asks, "Is makeup inherently sexist?" There is benefit in intentionally try to buck the system and the expectations society has for women. Question whether or not you want to wear makeup, not need to wear makeup. Ask yourself who you are shaving your body for. There is no right way to be a feminist, and there is no right way to be a woman. People who choose to wear high heels and lipstick aren't automatically oppressed. Embracing your femininity doesn't negate your feminism.
6. Assuming A Woman Needs To Act Masculine to Be Successful
The idea that in order for a woman to be successful, she needs to “act like a man” assumes that a feminine woman (and, again, someone of literally any gender other than male) cannot be successful. Women who are strong and tough are praised on their leadership qualities. However, women are cautioned that being emotional or too sensitive will prevent them from succeeding. This piece on why we need to stop devaluing femininity says it perfectly:
“Little girls are, for the most part, taught that women can be anything. ... However, what they aren't taught is that people who dress, think or act in a traditionally feminine manner can be anything.
7. Arguing that “Feminism” Shouldn’t Have The Word “Female” In It
A question and critique about feminism that consistently arrises is about the word "feminism" itself. The general notion is that if feminism is supposed to be inclusive of all, why does the name of the movement only refer to females? There are plenty of reasons both historical and symbolic why we keep the "fem" in the word "feminism." The word "feminism" isn't dirty and neither is the word "female."
There are plenty of words prescribed to people, regardless of their gender, that have "men" or "male" at the root. So c'mon, you guys. Next time someone argues we should call ourself "equalists" just be like, "Dude. Lighten up. All men were created equal or whatever."
The point will make itself.