Femininity, what is it? Let’s go back to our dear books. If I believe the various dictionaries I have referred to, femininity is not defined by itself but by its attributes.
According to French dictionaries, femininity will be defined as “1. Female character. 2. Set of stereotyped characters corresponding to the traditional social image of women (opposite virility).” (Le Robert) or even as “1. Set of anatomical and physiological characteristics specific to women. 2. Set of psychological traits considered feminine. 3. Proportion of women in an economic activity: Femininity rate.” (The Larousse).
It is not more explicit on the side of English dictionaries. The word “femininity” is defined as “the fact or quality of having characteristics that are traditionally thought to be typical of or suitable for a woman” (Cambridge Dictionary) or “the quality or nature of the female sex: the quality, state, or degree of being feminine or womanly” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).
The definition of “woman” is hardly more explicit: “the female adult” according to French Larousse and Robert dictionaries and “an adult female human” according to Oxford dictionary.
Is it important to define femininity and the feminine? I think that the exercise is vital – especially if you ask yourself if you are a feminist – and especially in what way you are a feminist.
One of the big debates today is whether feminist movements should include trans people – and the question of including them obviously sheds light on the question of feminine and femininity. TERFs (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists), who are most often radical and essentialist feminists, exclude trans women from feminist fights because they believe that trans women have a male biology, have received male socialization, possess male privileges and threaten the safety of other women. In all these respects, trans women are not women, according to TERFs.
I remain puzzled: the trans woman loses her masculine socialization and her masculine privileges as soon as she feels she is a woman (which rarely happens at age 50) or when she engages in a process of transition (which causes her to lose, in the case of a transsexual woman, her purely masculine biology). Finally, one has rarely heard, in statistical terms, of violence against women by trans people.
I am a fervent believer in the inclusion in feminist movements of anyone suffering from oppression because of their sex or their sexuality because I remain firmly convinced that we are mistaken in the enemy: the enemy is patriarchy (to quote Emmanuel Beaubatie, in “Feminism and transphobia”) which weighs in different ways and according to differents intensities on women, men, trans people and all people whose gender and sexual orientation are not heteronormal (in short, LGBTQIA+).
In my humble opinion, it is rather the term “feminism” (whose root is the word “femme” in French or “femininity” in English) that I find too narrow today because one can realize that the oppressions born of patriarchy affect women, but not only.
Beyond feminism, the current fragmentation of types of femininity, lifestyles, gender identities (belonging to a group defined by one’s gender) and sexual orientations (belonging to a group defined by one’s sexual preferences) forces us to ask ourselves the question of femininity, masculinity and all that is between or outside.
Let’s admit that the lines of gender identity and sexual orientation have moved a lot lately (and I thank social media and the many academic studies that have been published on those subjects these past few years).
If I go back to the different definitions offered by our dear dictionaries, I understand that there is a outer femininity and an inner femininity: an outer femininity with attributes and stereotypes traditionally attached to women – an inner femininity with specific sexual attributes.
The outer femininity is played out at the collective and social level, the inner femininity is played out at the personal and intimate level.
The outer femininity is only defined by its attributes and the social norms that apply to it. We are not born a woman, we become one, as our dear Simone de Beauvoir said in “The Second Sex”. These attributes and social norms relate as much to the appearance of women as to the functions assigned to them by society.
But these attributes and social norms vary. The standards of beauty differ according to times and places and the same goes for the sexual division of labor, which has not always seen the woman in the cave and the man outside, hunting (Alain Testart). The same goes for sexual orientation: homosexuality was accepted in Ancient Greece, this pseudo-ideal that our societies regard as the cradle of democracy (a very relative democratic cradle, only men had the right to vote and the fate of women and slaves was not enviable).
In our contemporary societies, who has not heard “you become a woman with your period”, “blue is for boys” or “you have to be an alpha male”. Today, we are fortunately no longer waiting for the arrival of the first period to make sure that the young girl is nubile or not – that is to say of age to be married or not. Pink was for a long time the color dedicated to boys and blue – the color of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, dedicated to girls. And I’m not even talking about the red heels worn by King Louis XIV who wanted to enhance a size he considered too small or the kilts worn by Scottish warriors. Finally, the alpha male theory is erroneous since it is built on the observation of a pack of wolves in captivity which finds no duplication in packs of wolves in the wild.
Those are obviously only a few poor examples among thousands that govern male and female behavior in order to standardize them from a societal point of view – and this from early childhood. I do not even speak, for women, of the impossibility of having children, of the refusal of having children which make them abnormal since our societies burn all the bridges between femininity and non-maternity.
Fortunately, societies are moving, slowly but surely. Turbulent little girls, who climb trees, who have short hair and who are greeted by shopkeepers with a “hello young man” (I am thinking of my 9-year-old daughter) will be less and less confronted with the ultra-normativity endured by our mothers and by ourselves in the years to come.
The reinvestment of the body and strength by women is underway, whether on the American soccer field (Megan Rapinoe), on the legislative field (Megan Rapinoe, again) or on the internet (go watch the American campaign “Throwing like a girl”, it is edifying). Certain issues purely related to the sexual and reproductive organs of women are beginning to be taken into account by the public authorities: I am thinking in particular of menstruation, premenstrual dysphoric disorders and endometriosis. I am also thinking of the belated honesty of tampon manufacturers who finally abandoned the unreal hygienism that made them see menstruation as a transparent blue liquid in their ads. It is time to do the same for purely male issues, I am thinking of andropause or prostate cancer.
A general reinvestment is underway, and we can thank, as detonators, MeToo and social media.
It is indisputable that femininity is a social construction, the contours of which vary according to times and places. But even if femininity is a social construction and it is easy (or at least easier) as adults to understand the ins and outs of it and to take a sane distance from the norms that have imposed themselves on us as children, this normative “outer femininity” comes to impact the intimate and sexual “inner femininity” specific to each one.
At an emotional level, psychoanalysis considers identity as singular. It is about the famous ipseity which represents the irreducible part, the singularity of each one and which makes each one unique. Everyone’s identity, this “inside” is constructed in a personal way, but it is nevertheless constantly confronted with the gaze of the others and in this sense, there is all the same an intersubjectivity – an “outside”.
When it comes to femininity, psychoanalysis considers that the two main gazes that determine the construction of the feminine are that of the mother (we talked about it here) and that of the lovers (and again this is extremely heteronormative). The mother’s gaze has a normative function and if the mother is stuck in a hyper-normed idea of femininity (“young, thin and sexy”), the child will find it difficult to build a personal and less normalized femininity. The lovers, who in this hypothesis participate in a hetero-normative scheme, are both the censors and the providers: they have the power to say what is feminine or not, according to collective norms applicable to them too, but are also the partners who allow or not access to pleasure.
In a less academic approach than psychoanalysts, personal development professionals – with or without a diploma, moreover – blithely surf on the needs of certain women who have gone in search of their femininity. I fully understand that some women need to invest or reinvest their femininity, especially since, to paraphrase French searcher Camille Froidevaux-Metterie, it is within the intimate domain of sexuality where the oppression remains. But we must pay attention to the words used and the intention implemented on both sides.
The trendy terms “sacred feminine”, “goddess” and “witch” which are supposed to inhabit each of us are taking over Instagram. I’ll be honest, I vomit the overuse of these three terms. All the personal development websites that I have consulted for this article evoke the same words: “sacred feminine”, “feminine energy”, “yin and yang”, “witch”, “goddess”. (I won’t name the sites, because I’m not here to tear anyone down).
“Your intuition, your creativity, your ability to listen and welcome (others but also your own emotions). Letting go … It is also sensitivity, calm … these soft and lunar energies, in opposition to the vibrant and solar energies of the sacred masculine (action, decision-making, strength …)”.
(I want to scream at the perpetuation of binary clichés) “The SACRED FEMININE is our POWER TO BE”.(Help. Are men, gays and trans people eligible too?)
“This power is buried very deeply in us, in our inner cup, our uterus, the chalice of love, receptacle of wealth, of the greatest power: the welcoming of a child”.
(Help again, what’s left for trans women, women who can’t or don’t want to give birth?)
“But the power of the womb is not only that of childbirth. Inside our womb lies our greatest power, that of being us, and of succeeding. The WITCHES, who were burned in another era, understood this well. And men were afraid of them, because they had power and they used it.”
(I’m still screaming inside. The power of the witch is that of the healer, who lives away from the village and whom said village fears because she knows how to provide care to the villagers or not. I absolutely do not deny the hunt to witches, but there were also male healers. Besides, one out of hundreds of women was a witch, this certainly did not apply to all women.)
Do I need to mention that all those websites that promote the sacred feminine are there to sell something? Capitalism, capitalism…
I fully understand the serious people who offer yoga classes focused on fertility for the benefit of women who want to procreate or classes focused on respecting the cycles of creation and destruction (activity/rest) that are the menstrual cycles (and besides, those people do not necessarily speak of sacred femininity). I agree 8000% with women who have gone to the Amazon, have experienced shamanism, have lived with the tribes and brought back a science of plants that they apply to cosmetics.
Conversely, I vomit these profane sites that promise women who have gone in search of themselves a connection to their goddess, their priestess, their inner witch or their sacred feminine.
The terms are overused. We now know enough to understand that a goddess does not exist, that a priestess is one woman out of thousands and that moreover, all of this is very mythological and therefore questionable. We now know enough to understand that a witch is a woman who masters the power of plants, that she is a healer, that she lives far from the village and that she is one woman out of hundreds.
As for Yin and Yang, supposed to be an opposition between man and woman, this is a very Western simplification. Yin and Yang evoke unity and multiple, opposition, complementarity, balance. The Yin carries in germ the Yang and vice versa. Yin is only conceived because Yang exists and vice versa. We are well beyond the male/female binary.
To make every woman believe that she is a goddess, a priestess, a witch is at best false advertising, at worst an outright scam.
Also, the sacred feminine in question may be intended to be ancestral and therefore beyond any time and any place, but it must be admitted that the terms used (the “creative force, which allows it to illuminate others, and itself even, by its inner beauty, love, compassion, sensitivity, sensuality, gentleness, the power to heal, to heal oneself”) reflect social constructions that are ultimately very patriarchal. The woman has a creative capacity, is soft, sensitive, sensual, full of compassion and heals others and herself. What a BS.
Finally, some sites or books do not forget to also talk about the sacred masculine and thereby reinforce the binarity that governs our current societies.
(I’m starting to rage. Why is it so complicated or problematic to recognize sexual and sexual fluidity? How is it complicated to understand that everyone, whoever they are, has a sacred part, that has nothing to do with gender, sex or sexual orientation?)
Let’s get back to more serious things and go further into the “inside”.
At a biological level and when it comes to specific sexual attributes, all researchers, professors and experts in biology, evolutionary biology, sociobiology and anthropology recognize sexual dimorphism – the morphological difference between males and females – as one of the principles governing our species and many others for that matter.
The origin of such differences can be explained by sexual selection, sexual conflict and parental investment, in short, reasons entirely related to the survival and perpetuation of the species. As a species – the human species – there are indeed females (women) and males (men) who participate together in human perpetuation because of this difference in sexual organs (I will intentionally not evoke Anne Fausto-Sterling’s works on intersexuality and the absence of absolute dimorphism – even if I agree with her – because I am talking here on the species level).
From a biological, sociobiological and/or anthropological perspective, it would therefore be quite simple to reduce women (and what goes with it, femininity and the feminine) to the rank of females in a process of reproduction.
But we are fortunately no longer there in terms of society (and we come back to the “outside”). Because defining the feminine and a woman by her female reproductive organs leaves aside the women who cannot give birth, the women who do not want to give birth and the trans women who cannot give birth.
Reducing the feminine and the woman to her feminine organs also reinforces a man/woman, feminine/masculine, femininity/virility opposition that has been and still is toxic and limiting for everyone.
Such binarity is now outdated, whether we like it or not, sexual and sexual fluidity being more and more recognized – a fluidity that has existed for a very long time in certain societies – and we come back again to the intrication of the inner and outer femininity.
Some Native societies knew three, four, even five genders (the Navajo in particular): female, male, female two-spirits, male two-spirits and transgender). Two-spirited people combined a dual identity, both male and female, and were immensely respected by the tribe because the ability to see with the eyes of both sexes was a divine blessing. The existence of two-spirits has been documented in 130 tribes of North America.
In Oceania, the leitis are men who have adopted the codes of femininity. They are present under the name of mahus in Tahiti or Bora Bora and are already mentioned by travelers in the 18th century.
The hijras of India or Pakistan have also adopted the codes of femininity and are regarded with respect and fear.
Hindu societies recognize five to eleven genders. Not simple, not simple at all. The “inside” is intimately linked to the “outside” and vice versa.
The “outside” invades the “inside” and it is complex in this cacophony to hear one’s little inner voice. Our present is being invaded by new kinds of norms – digitality, reality shows and influence. The infamous Kardashian family is the best example of this: women are honored through their bodies because therein lies the influence and the financial windfall that comes with it. This is a new digital prostitution where women are put forward, whether they are adults (Kim Kardashian and her sisters – brother Rob is left behind) or children (North West for Kim Kardashian, Stormi for Kylie Kardashian and True for Khloé Kardashian who are already ultra-mediatized, unlike boys who do not appear in the media). And if they are publicized, it is obviously often through their bodies, their femininity (once again, the notion is to be defined) and in any case, their desirability. The women of the Kardashian clan are about to change the new standards of beauty to impose a cartoonishly callypige ideal.
As you will have understood, femininity or masculinity are only social constructions. There is no essentialist definition of femininity or masculinity. The “outside” has a huge impact on the “inside” but the sum of all the vocal, different, non-standard “insides” will necessarily change the societal lines.
However, we are social animals. We must therefore accept that certain contemporary definitions apply to each of us. I quite like the definition of the Cambridge dictionary which defines the word “woman” as “an adult female human being” but also as “an adult who lives and identifies as female though they may have been said to have a different sex at birth”.
Beyond femininity or masculinity, it seems to me that the claims carried by the fluidity wave is that of the search for personal identity and the will to exist according to one’s own rules. I like the idea that everyone dives honestly into their intimate and emotional depths to seek and find this famous ipseity, this famous singularity. It’s more rewarding.
I may be a lawyer, but I hate small boxes and standards – hear clichés – applicable to everyone. I like fluidity and personal choices.
(And to illustrate this long text, here I am in my glorious femininity, because well, I am wearing a dress and heels, LOL).
January 27, 2023
Valentino dress and belt – Fendi coat – Gucci heels – Bvlgari purse – Monoprix sunglasses