Societal ideas around femininity come with their own pressures.
Thankfully, there are a lot of conversations around toxic masculinity right now. It’s embedded within our society. A lesser problem certainly, but a problem all the same are the pressures that also come with femininity. The binary traits of masculinity and femininity, and what we assign to them, has created a system of anxiety and isolation. Femininity comes with its own pitfalls.
Femininity is often mocked and ridiculed in society, which has firmly established itself in favour of masculinity. Many of the problems that arise from being feminine are the result of the emphasis placed on masculinity. This is why women struggle to be taken seriously, particularly in the workplace, if they appear feminine. It is a notion that has risen to such prominence that HRC’s trademark pantsuit has been adopted as an icon for powerful women.
However, femininity also has its own unique problems that go beyond masculinity. We also need to clear up one thing – femininity doesn’t mean womanhood and masculinity doesn’t mean manhood. They’re presentations, manifestations and not about intrinsic gender. Although, men will grow up with an expectation of masculinity and of toxic masculinity sometimes working in their favour. Elements of gender identity and presentation can overlap. For instance, a feminine presenting man may experience oppression for not conforming to gender expectations by his appearance. Women too can partake in toxic masculinity. For instance, in workplace cultures dominated by men, women may act more ‘laddish’ to fit in, or when there is talk in queer communities of ‘gold star lesbians’ that is inherently misogynistic and embodies toxic masculinity.
“We also need to clear up one thing – femininity doesn’t mean womanhood and masculinity doesn’t mean manhood”
Men, women and non-binary people may experience discrimination, abuse and microaggressions for their femininity. The concept of femininity is actively withheld from certain people and weaponised against them. Plus sized women, trans women and women of colour are routinely told that they aren’t feminine enough. In the case of trans women, if they aren’t deemed feminine enough then their very womanhood is denied. Skinny women too can be told similarly, if they don’t have breasts that draw stares than they’re read as masculine or even androgynous. There’s also a strange conflation with sexuality and romanticism, and so asexual, aromantic, bi and gay women are often thought of as masculine or in an incredibly neutral way. Their femininity is denied because of their sexual or romantic orientations.
The gatekeeping of femininity is no accident. Certain people are smeared in different ways, and their fuller identities ignored so as to tar one aspect of a person and enforce a stereotype. The stereotypes that gay men must be feminine and gay women must be butch, for example, is used to cause division and shame.
Femininity is also policed by behaviour. Feminine presenting people are often told how nice they are, because femininity is associated with being nice but also with being passive. The result is that feminine people often aren’t listened to if they raise objections, that their autonomy is ignored, that their voices are effectively lost. Feminine people are expected to remain quiet, and to just please everyone else. If there is any straying from that role then there are accusations of being “bitchy”. If the role is adhered to, then that often means that one must go silent and ignored, with people rarely checking in. Masculinity gets to assert its frustrations and anger, femininity must conceal it. Feminine people can cry, but they’re not afforded anger.
People are also rarely allowed to stray outside of the one box they’re assigned to. There’s an expectation that if someone is feminine then they must always be that way, and their entire gender can be questioned if they don’t conform to what everyone has come to expect. There is a fragility around the expectations around femininity, because people like to put it in a small box and control who is assigned it. Yet, it is a weapon wielded against many, particularly marginalised women. We need to talk about the pressures to appear feminine for plus sized people, trans women, marginalised women and ugly women too. Women who are viewed as culturally ugly aren’t allowed to be feminine either. There are huge expectations that come with femininity but masculine and feminine are assigned traits by us. They are social constructs. It’s up to us to deconstruct the narrow boxes and work towards becoming more accepting.