I’ve been thinking a lot about femininity lately. Particularly how femininity is perceived in various circles of society, namely the feminist community. As a feminist who participates in “traditional” presentations of femininity, I’ve experienced a lot of backlash from some feminist circles for “internalizing patriarchal gender norms.” Assumptions about what a feminist looks like, or how an individual must look in order to not promote patriarchal gender norms are problematic, because they devalue anyone who deviates from those ‘feminist norms’ and they infringe upon an individuals agency.
I’ll try to break this up into manageable pieces. Some feminist communities love to give their opinions on how people dress – which I find incredibly ironic. They don’t do it in a fashion-forward sense, but more in a “does this promote or subvert gender norms” kind of way. To illustrate this, I’ll just go ahead and bring up Miley Cyrus because the controversy around Miley Cyrus is emblematic of contradicting feminist standards. I’ve noticed that on one hand, the feminist community promotes the idea that women should dress however they want, and they should be allowed to express their sexuality however fits them best. This is where Cyrus becomes ironic. On the other hand, some parts of the feminist community also love to criticize Cyrus for promoting this or that, or not being a good role model, or for conforming to patriarchal standards of women in the media.
Now, I’m not going to get into a debate over whether Cyrus is a feminist or not, and we can take a moment to acknowledge the problematic nature of her cultural appropriation, but that’s not why I brought her up. I feel that she has value when evaluating femininity in feminist circles. Perhaps if she were more androgynous she would get more love from us. Perhaps if she wore less makeup she would be okay. Regardless, in that awkward moment when I walk into a feminist space wearing heels, I can empathize with her and the shit that gets thrown on her because of her femininity. Upon entering those circles of ‘progressive people’, I get the sense that I’m going to have to whip out some fem/queer theory in order to legitimize my voice because apparently my shoe choice negates my intellectual capacity.
Another way that this is often conceptualized is when feminists talk about high heels. Typical buzzwords associated with high heels are ‘tool of the patriarch,’ ‘immobilizing,’ or ‘physically unhealthy.’ I feel that affiliating an object with such strong implications devalues the people who choose to wear high heels. While the shoes might be physically limiting or unhealthy to wear, that is not enough reason to stigmatize the people who wear them. There are plenty of practices and clothing options that are equally as unhealthy that are also considered to be perfectly acceptable within the feminist community (ie. Cigarettes or binders). By devaluing this one feminine item, while assigning praise to more masculine items, reinforces a hierarchal dichotomy that places femininity as lesser than masculinity. It’s also just purely inaccurate to assume that women who wear high heels are doing so only so they will be seen as attractive in the male gaze. Many women, myself included, feel empowered by wearing traditionally feminine things, such as dope wedges.
And while I think that it’s totally possible that some women feel as though they are pressured to present their gender in a traditionally feminine way because of internalized oppression, I also think that’s a bullshit assumption to make in general. By aligning feminism and the destruction of the patriarchy with androgyny, or not wearing makeup, it places femininity and masculinity on a hierarchy where masculinity is at the top. By claiming that traditional femininity is an internalized oppression is saying that it is inferior to masculinity. This serves only to promote masculinity as the ideal gender presentation, and it limits and devalues those who choose to present their gender through the means of traditional femininity. It is no different than the patriarchy dictating how women should dress and behave.
Feminism, for me, is supposed to be about empowering women to act and dress however the fuck they want. Instead, I feel that a lot of feminists devalue feminine feminists because they’re presenting in a traditionally gendered way, or they’re ‘dressing for the male gaze.’ It serves only to further dictate to women how they should be, and it’s limiting and damaging. It promotes masculinity as the only gender presentation to be desired, when in reality all gender presentations should be equally valued and celebrated.
While this is not inclusive of the entire feminist community, and there are a ton of us who love all gender presentations, it is a very active stream of thought that I feel is incredibly damaging. I would like to see feminism start walking the walk. Most of us already verbalize our support of people dressing however they please, but then we jump to criticizing when a feminine individual is calling herself a feminist. I should not have to fight to legitimize my voice because I am more comfortable in skirts than I am in jeans. It’s absurd that we’re still having conversations about the clothes an individual chooses to wear when the individual is so much more than their outward presentation. I suppose what I’m trying to get at is pretty simplistic: I’ll smash the patriarchy in stilettos if I damn well feel like it.