on femininity as liberation

Sometimes, like I did back in August, I write about the sociopolitical elements of fashion. Bear with me: it’s the price y’all pay for getting pretty pictures all the time. 😉

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Feminism has done some pretty sweet things for the female-identified. I’m writing this in an armchair I bought with my own money ($15 at ReSource, not bad), in an apartment I share with four other single women, on a campus I have as much right to as any male student. Earlier today, I went to a doctor’s appointment I didn’t need my father’s or boyfriend’s permission to make. Last month I voted in my first federal election. Considering the state of things a few generations ago, all of that is pretty staggering.

That said, though, I think many of these gains have come at the expense of traditional femininity. Now, hear me out: I’m not going to yell at you to get back in the kitchen or suggest that I don’t have the right to be paid as much as a man. But my idea of feminism isn’t forcing women into masculine roles and doing away entirely with feminine ones. It’s un-gendering roles, period, and leaving everyone to pursue whichever ones they want. Call me naive, but I don’t politicize happiness. I don’t think it’s my feminist duty to avoid traditionally feminine things I happen to enjoy, just to make a statement. Go there, and you’re right back to women subordinating their desires to societal norms, which was the whole problem with the old patriarchal system. (I swear, this point will arrive at fashion eventually. I’m getting there.)

A lot of guys (particularly late teens/early 20s guys – the demographic I date) seem to want girls they can “relate to”. I’m not trying to deride this universally human desire, but rather to examine what “a girl I can relate to” often means. It means more than just a girl whose mind and values and personality align with yours – in my experience, it connotes a girl who’s interested in traditionally masculine things. Gamer girls. Geeky girls. Or, my personal favorite, “natural girls”. “Don’t worry, ladies! You can wipe off that makeup. We prefer you without it, anyway.” It’s an ostensibly sweet message, but it boils down to two flawed tenets: 1) that women should dress for men and not for themselves and 2) that the masculine gender role is the arbiter of all that is “natural” in the world.

Fashion is art. Makeup is art. It’s more than just a petty distraction for girls too insecure to let their natural – i.e. masculine – selves be known. There’s this absurd notion in our culture that there are Issues and there are Women’s Issues. Women who confine themselves to Women’s Issues like fashion and makeup and childcare – don’t they realize how sad and silly they are? They’re merely segregating themselves from the world of Real Issues like hunting and guitar and science fiction. “Real women”, “natural women”, women who can knock back a beer with the best of ’em, are somehow more liberated for having shed the artifice. Femininity is necessarily piddling, artificial, and materialistic, while masculinity is strong and lasting. Women’s interests are for Women, but men’s interests are for People.

A commenter on one of my favorite blogs summed it up really well:

Feminism means valuing the (current culturally-defined) feminine equal to the (currently culturally-defined) masculine. … It means valuing women, it means valuing _feminine_ women, it means valuing the abstract feminine, it means men wearing nifty colored nail polish because the feminine isn’t ‘lesser’.

The last bit of that is especially important to me. Because when certain guys say they want girls they can relate to, they mean girls who will do traditionally masculine things with them. Gods forbid they partake in something feminine, because femininity, after all, is gross and outdated and soon everyone will default to their true state of playing video games and reading science fiction. I happen to be dating a guy with a legitimate interest in costumery. I love that I can discuss the finer points of corset construction with him, but in my experience, he’s kind of an anomaly.

Fashion and costumes bring me more joy than just about anything else in life (save for perhaps ghost stories, classical music, and big cities at night). And in my lifetime, I’d like to see the discipline bridge the social no-man’s-land between Women’s Art and Actual Art. (Maybe shortly thereafter I’ll stop seeing “women’s interest” sections in newspapers and “women’s health” brochures in clinics. But I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. Right now, I’d settle for artistic legitimacy.)