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Femininity is commonly understood to refer to a collection of qualities or attributes associated with women in distinction from men, whose own qualities are signified by the antonym masculinity. Yet precisely what qualities qualify as feminine (or masculine) is subject to discussion and contention, as is whether such qualities should be considered innate essences or cultural norms. Passivity, submissiveness, and compassionate, caring, nurturing behavior toward others, especially infants, are widely considered feminine traits in comparison to masculine assertiveness and competitiveness. Their prevalence has lent credence to the belief that they are rooted in female biology and anatomy, whether by divine design or Darwinian natural selection. In the latter case, theory postulates higher rates of reproduction for passive women, who could most easily be sexually subdued, and higher survival rates for babies born to nurturing women. However, even the most widely shared so-called feminine traits are not universal, whether the comparison considers different cultures, different groups or individuals within a given society, or different periods of history. Since Margaret Mead’s (1901–1978) groundbreaking anthropological study in 1936 first demonstrated cultural variability in behavior and temperament for both sexes, thus challenging previous presumptions about a universal feminine (or masculine) essential nature, much scholarly attention has been paid to how norms of gender may be socially and culturally constructed (Tarrant 2006).
Women come to participate in upholding standards culturally deemed feminine for behavior and appearance through mechanisms of socialization that are multiple and not always obvious. Enforcement is the most obvious. Over the last few millennia of known human history, broadly influential cultural systems, such as the religions Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism and the Confucian code of conduct, have explicitly directed that women’s primary social duty is to be obedient wives and devoted mothers. Legal and paralegal structures derived from such religious and moral traditions have enforced these directives using punishments ranging from mild to extreme in severity depending on specific social and historical circumstances. Under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan at the beginning of the twenty-first century, for example, punishment for noncompliance with brutally extreme restrictions on women’s appearance and behavior included public flogging and execution. Compulsion, however, is not the only or even necessarily the most effective means for encouraging women to subscribe to femininity norms. Social rewards and personal satisfaction are also motivators. Piety is its own reward for a woman of any faith who believes she is behaving in accordance with divine will. Depending on how she interprets her faith, a contemporary Muslim woman may thus signal her femininity and her piety by choosing to wear the veil whether she lives under a theocratic or a secular political system. Her choice to veil may be reinforced by additional rewards, such as greater respect and personal autonomy accorded to her by her family and the local Muslim community (Hoodfar 2003).
Marriage, in most cultures, has been the principal reward for successful displays of femininity. Under economic conditions in which family well-being is heavily dependent on women’s domestic production, wifely assets tend to reside primarily in a woman’s skill in the feminine activities of domestic labor. When a wife’s domestic productivity is not essential, whether due to class privilege or to postindustrial economic structures that shift production away from the home, her feminine assets come to be measured instead through her appearance and character. Patriarchal cultural conditions prevalent in most, but not all, societies determine ideal feminine appearance and character traits to be those that make a woman sexually attractive to a man, most suitable to represent his social status, and most trustworthy to mother his children. Thus physical beauty, both natural and artificial, balanced by character traits of sexual modesty, nurturing kindness, and a strong sense of duty to family have become widespread hallmarks of ideal femininity. But although women can derive personal satisfaction in meeting such measures, the accompanying price has often been problematic. Ironically, the sufferings of many upper-class women most palpably illustrate the point. Beauty norms that emerged in stratified societies to simultaneously signal high social status sometimes entailed not just delicacy, refinement, and taste in adornment but actual physical fragility, frailty, even incapacity as symbols of the socioeconomic status of the husband, proving his wealth sufficient to support a wife whose physical labor was not necessary. The former practices of Chinese foot binding and European waist cinching illustrate the debilitating operations of such eliteclass norms of feminine beauty. Although they were believed to enhance a woman’s erotic appeal (while simultaneously symbolizing her sexual restraint), they also hobbled or otherwise constrained her physical capacity, not to mention causing her discomfort and pain.
Less self-evident forms of harm, whether through conformity to feminine ideals or through disqualification from femininity by social status, sexual orientation, or race, among other factors, as well as more nuanced sociological interpretations of incentives for feminine performances, are topics that have generated considerable theorizing across scholarly disciplines (Brownmiller 1984; Bartky 1990; Martin 1996; Skeggs 1998; Lee 2000; Burns-Ardolino 2003; Taylor 2003; Bathla 2004). The philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) is often quoted for her ideas about how the sense of self that conformity to ideals of femininity creates in women is a sense of self as “Other,” existing only in secondary relation to the primary “Self,” the fully human self that in patriarchal traditions can only be claimed by men.
Psychologists have explored how the expectation to nurture others has led legions of women to psychologically unhealthy degrees of self-sacrifice, labeled a “negative feminine trait” in the literature. Many scholars have written about how women effectively create themselves as objects, rather than subjects, in their pursuit of feminine beauty norms yet are bound not only to fail in this pursuit but also to be reminded of their failure incessantly and distracted repeatedly by promises for new ways to succeed. Pervasive modern mass media and capitalist commerce promulgate a beauty regime that harshly judges the femininity of women whose age, skin color, hair texture, physique type, or fashion sense do not match the dominant cultural ideal, then exploits feelings of inadequacy to sell beauty products and services from lipstick to skin lightener to liposuction and breast augmentation in order to turn a profit at their expense. This beauty regime thoroughly ensnares as well. Fashion is ever changing, but whatever the fashion, every detail of the body demands proper attention. Each minutiae of how a woman’s body looks, feels, and smells, how it is clothed, coiffed, enhanced with makeup and other adornment, even how it speaks and moves or rests combines to express normative femininity successfully or not. Enormous ceaseless efforts of self-surveillance and self-discipline are required from an early age to produce the modern feminine body. A selfpolicing gendered identity also develops through this process. This form of feminine subjectivity is interpreted by some theorists as being more completely subjected to modern versions of patriarchal power than is possible under crude enforcement or injurious restraint which, albeit brutal techniques of control, are less thoroughly invasive of the whole being.
Critics of the physical, psychological, economic, and political harms resulting from socialization processes aimed at patriarchal ideals of femininity draw encouragement from the historic appearance of alternate ideals and socialization opportunities available to girls following the women’s movements of the modern era. Competitive assertiveness, physical strength, and even muscularity are developed in the characters and bodies of girls and women who engage in amateur and professional sports, for example (Boyle 2005; Koca and Asci 2005; Kindlon 2006). Furthermore the representation of these athletes in mass media amplifies the scope of qualities that femininity is seen to signify culturally, stretching the meaning to incorporate qualities previously considered exclusively masculine (Carty 2005). Some critics of patriarchal femininity see reason to hope that social developments blurring traditional gender roles, such as women in sports, or politics, or the military, will help move common understanding of femininity beyond the still dominant, but demonstrably deleterious, dualistic framework in which femininity and masculinity are conceived as mutually exclusive opposites.
- Bartky, Sandra Lee. 1990. Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power. In Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression, 63–82. New York: Routledge.
- Bathla, Sonia. 2004. Gender Construction in the Media: A Study of Two Indian Women Politicians. Asian Journal of Women’s Studies 10 (3): 7–34.
- Boyle, Lex. 2005. Flexing the Tensions of Female Muscularity: How Female Bodybuilders Negotiate Normative Femininity in Competitive Bodybuilding. Women’s Studies Quarterly 33 (1–2): 134–149.
- Brownmiller, Susan. 1984. Femininity. New York: Fawcett Columbine.
- Burns-Ardolino, Wendy A. 2003. Reading Woman: Displacing the Foundations of Femininity. Hypatia 18 (3): 42–59.
- Carty, Victoria. 2005. Textual Portrayals of Female Athletes: Liberation or Nuanced Forms of Patriarchy? Frontiers 26 (2): 132–155.
- Hoodfar, Homa. 2003. More Than Clothing: Veiling as an Adaptive Strategy. In The Muslim Veil in North America: Issues and Debates, ed. Sajida Sultana Alvi, Homa Hoodfar, and Sheila McDonough, 3–40. Toronto: Women’s Press.
- Kindlon, Dan. 2006. Alpha Girls: Understanding the New American Girl and How She Is Changing the World. Emmaus, PA: Rodale.
- Koca, Canan, and F. Hulya Asci. 2005. Gender Role Orientation in Turkish Female Athletes and Non-Athletes. Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal 14 (1): 86–94.
- Lee, Young-ja. 2000. Consumer Culture and Gender Identity in South Korea. Asian Journal of Women’s Studies 6 (4): 11–38.
- Martin, Biddy. 1996. Sexualities without Genders and Other Queer Utopias. In Femininity Played Straight: The Significance of Being Lesbian, 71–94. New York: Routledge.
- Skeggs, Beverley. 1998. Formations of Class and Gender: Becoming Respectable. London: Sage.
- Tarrant, Shira. 2006. When Sex Became Gender. New York: Routledge.
- Taylor, Anthea. 2003. What’s New about “the New Femininity”? Feminism, Femininity, and the Discourse of the New. Hecate 29 (2): 182–197.
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