Femininity and feminine values refer to the qualities of appearance, behavior and practices conventionally attributed to women. Feminist thinking strongly endorses the view that these qualities are not innate, but exist as ideological constructs, defined in opposition to masculinity and masculine values. The superiority ascribed to masculinity in patriarchal thinking devalues the “feminine,” despite assigning it some positive characteristics. As ideological constructs, femininity and feminine values are differently inflected in diverse cultures. White Anglo American definitions and perspectives have predominated in western writing but are being increasingly challenged by postcolonial feminist thinking.
Histories Of Femininity
Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, first published 1949, provided an early critique of the construction of the feminine woman, defining her as “an artificial product” manufactured by society’s expectations and norms (1972, 428). This view gained popular dissemination with the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1992). Friedan argued that women, denied equal education and social opportunities to men, were stereotyped as passively content to perform housewifely duties. Her attention to the role of media images in seducing women into entrapment within the home marked the beginning of feminist enquiry into the power of media depictions in reproducing ideologies of femininity. Friedan’s views were later challenged for perpetuating a myth of femininity that was based on white, middle-class norms.
Recognizing that “being, becoming, practising, and doing femininity are very different things for women of different classes, ‘races,’ ages, and nations,” Beverley Skeggs (2001, 297) has focused on the intersections especially between class and gender (1997; 2001). She traces the exclusion of working-class women from the development of normative ideas of femininity and feminine qualities, but notes how, for women of this class, performing femininity offered a route to social acceptability. Post-colonial criticism emphasizes how white femininity was constructed in opposition to the colonial derogation of the black female body and its sexualized associations. When bell hooks (1981) re-posed the question attributed to the black nineteenth-century slave, Sojourner Truth – “Ain’t I a woman?” – she was stressing the need to take account of ways of being female that had been edited out of the dominant script of femininity. Other ethnic identities are equally excluded. Assumptions about the relationship between Muslim women’s modesty in dress and their sexual reticence are, for example, read through Western discourses in ways that ignore Islamic thinking.
The qualities attributed to women under the rubric of femininity or feminine values include a mix of positive and negative characteristics. While attributions of passivity, weakness, fickleness, or guile identify traits that have pejorative connotations, and are linked to the inexpressibility by women of overt sexual desire, other attributions ostensibly credit femininity with positive value. Femininity is also associated with nurturing, and demonstrating empathy and sensitivity to others. Yet within the context of male domination, these feminine values perform the dual function of associating femininity primarily with the private rather than the public sphere, and ensuring that responsibility for caring, whether within the family or within work contexts, falls principally on women. In this sense, feminists observe that discourses of femininity have operated to “keep women in their place” while off-loading on to women central responsibility for the social well-being of their communities. As one commentator observes, women consequently “become a kind of dumping ground for all the values society wants off its back but must be perceived to cherish” (Williamson 1986, 106). In Western cities, Victorian statues of female bodies are used to symbolize positive qualities such as “love,” “justice,” and “liberty,” but the women doing this representational work remain anonymous and depersonalized. Male statues, more typically, represent identifiable individuals who have acquired official status and recognition in the public sphere (Warner 1987).
Policing And Celebrating The Feminine
Conventional ideas of femininity and feminine values have been powerful agents in policing female behavior. Forms of conduct or appearance that diverge from feminine norms are judged to be aberrant, deviant or unruly. These judgments apply with especial stringency in relation to the female body and female sexuality. While passivity and reticence have been historically applauded, the open display of sexual or other forms of desire attracts disquiet or censure. Women have, as a consequence, incurred blame for provoking male violence through their own style of dress or non-verbal behavior.
In contrast to the containment that typifies femininity, loudness, occupation of space and large female body size are all perceived as signs of “unruliness” (Rowe 1995). Continuing dilemmas confront young women who wish to participate in sporting activities that are still perceived as “masculine”: whether to resist the pressures of gender conformity, or risk the danger of being identified as unfeminine or as “tomboys” (Cockburn & Clarke 2002). Women who achieve prominence in occupations formerly associated primarily with men (such as professional sport, business or the military) frequently have their achievements belittled, either through a process of sexualization or through being labeled as surrogate men (Woodward & Winter 2003). While the advent of “girl power” in the 1990s was ambivalently regarded as self-indulgent youthful exuberance or as an empowering tribute to feminism, the phenomenon of the “ladette,” as a binge-drinking, loud-mouthed young woman, offered a more direct challenge to established conventions of acceptable feminine conduct.
At the same time, the inferior status granted to femininity has led some feminist theorists to argue for an instatement and celebration of feminine values that have been suppressed by hegemonic masculinity. While these critics have been accused of adopting an essentialist approach to femininity, their primary aim is to emphasize the silencing of particular kinds of voice rather than to endorse, even in inverted form, the structure of a binary divide between masculinity and femininity. Within French feminist theory, Hélène Cixous (1981) argues for improved status for écriture féminine as a less linear, more exploratory style of writing than that privileged within the rational logicality favoured since the Enlightenment and typified in dominant forms of the written word. Her labeling of the suppressed style as “feminine” (or “female,” as the French “féminine” covers both) marks its excluded status without claiming that all originators of this type of writing will be women. Similar arguments have been advanced in relation to masculine/ feminine ethics. Carol Gilligan (1982) suggests that morality based on sensitivity to interpersonal relationships is dubbed “feminine” and devalued relative to “masculine” forms of morality based on rule-governed systems.
Feminine values have also acquired positive connotations in contexts where masculine values have been thought to exert undue authority. In the spheres of sport, business, journalism, and politics, for example, the historical primacy of masculine values of competitiveness, conflict, and blindness to the interests and achievements of women or other marginalized groups has been increasingly questioned. In journalism, the constructed dichotomy between “hard” (masculine) and “soft” (feminine) news has appeared to evaporate as news selection has become more responsive to the interests of women, and news presentational styles have become increasingly personalized.
Critics such as Liesbet van Zoonen (1998) have commented on the double bind of regarding such changes as a “feminization” of news. Applauded, on the one hand, for wider inclusivity, the notion of “feminization” can also devalue and ghettoize the changes that are taking place. In other areas, the incorporation into mainstream areas of the media of material once deemed to be only of feminine interest produces cosmetic, rather than radical, shifts of direction. The re-labeling of “women’s pages” as “lifestyle” or “style” pages or supplements, or the introduction of fashion or grooming features into men’s magazines, masks the extent to which gender binaries are still maintained, with adventurous sporting activities, for example, or the most up-to-date technologies, continuing to be associated with men rather than women.
Within sociolinguistics, debate has also revolved around the degree to which feminine and masculine language and interactional styles are either inherently different, or differently valued in terms of a gender hierarchy. Early claims that women’s speech was more polite and conservative than men’s, less given to interrupting others and more hesitant in articulating strong opinion, have been increasingly reviewed. Critics argue that these expectations of difference ignore the degree to which language use varies with social context and with relative positioning within the social hierarchy. As more women engage in forms of work or leisure pursuits formerly deemed “masculine,” styles of speech and communicative interaction display greater diversity and synergy with masculine modes. Through the influence of post-structuralist theory, many linguists reject the notion that we speak out of a masculine or feminine subject position, and prefer to argue that language is one of the practices through which we fashion our own identities (Talbot 1998).
One of the questions frequently raised about femininity and feminine values is how these concepts can have continuing discursive validity, given the radical changes in women’s and men’s social roles in the latter part of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries. In line with the concept of “hegemony” advanced by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, consent has to be continually renegotiated and won against other competing versions of what it means to be a woman. The longevity of femininity as a dominant ideology has been achieved through its continuing ability to appeal to female desires, especially in its association with an idealized, if changing, bodily appearance. The long-established synergy between “femininity” and “consumerism” has been especially productive in sustaining women’s own complicity in versions of femininity that remain associated with consumption-oriented pleasures and aspirations.
Femininity invites constant re-performing of its consumer rituals, and consumption forms a significant part of young women’s identity-forming practices. Young women are socialized into feminine values through education, the media, family life and peer pressure, and their performance of femininity wins them acceptance in a variety of social contexts. Early constructions of masculinity and femininity through binary characteristics of “male” and “female” toys, and styles of teen and sub-teen dress, lay the foundations that invite adoption of contrasting masculine and feminine identities. Feminine values have no specific age connotations, but femininity, in its bodily inscription, is associated especially with youth. The women’s magazine press, in its dependence on advertising, embodies particularly youth-oriented models of femininity, and these are further endorsed within the beauty and fashion industries and within celebrity culture.
Modes of “performing” femininity have undergone change in line with the evolving social roles of women. The notion of femininity as “performance” took particular form in the concept of the “masquerade” advanced by film critics. Appropriated from psychoanalysis, this concept suggests that performing femininity to excess (as in the screen roles of Marilyn Monroe, for example) draws attention to its fabricated and artificial nature, and invites the viewer to be critical of normative assumptions. In the wake of feminism, femininity is regarded as being performed with knowing irony, leading to an undermining of its power to circumscribe female identities.
Post-feminism acknowledges the changing roles of women, and the greater opportunities for equality in education, employment, relationships, and lifestyle experienced by contemporary women. Post-feminists argue that the struggles of feminism have been won, and that acknowledgement of feminism’s achievements is inscribed in contemporary representations of femininity. A number of critics writing especially about television programmes such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sex and the City, or the rise of “chick-lit,” claim that central female characters exhibit traditional characteristics of femininity alongside feminist-inspired self-confidence and ambition. This mixing of femininity with feminism has been welcomed by some (Moseley & Read 2002), but it has also sparked less optimistic readings (Tincknell et al. 2003). Angela McRobbie, who had in the 1990s seen the alliance between feminism and femininity as offering space for feminist development, later retreats from this position, arguing that what is being offered to young women is “female individualization and the new meritocracy at the expense of feminist politics” (2004, 258).
Post-structuralist anxieties that the concepts of femininity and feminine values connote essentialist categories inimical to social change co-exist with recognition that they continue to inform thinking about women’s identities and social roles. The growing instability within these concepts derives in part from their interaction with feminism and in part from the need to respond to a culturally diverse world.
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