Society’s problem with femininity

Opinion: In a masculine-dominated society, masculinisation pays big dividends. Ciara Cremin explains why she thinks this has its origins in a psychological disorder.

Whether it’s frowning on dressing little girls in pretty dresses or taking a dim view of boys and men displaying ‘effeminate’ characteristics, society has a problem with femininity.

Some in the queer community regard trans women like me, who dress in overtly feminine styles, to be simply reinforcing the division of humans into either one gender or another. American writer, performer and activist Julia Serano describes this disapproval as ‘transmisogyny’.

But is there something inherently misogynistic in our attitudes towards femininity?

Take for example, the earnest, if in my view, misguided, attempts of parents, schools and fashion brands to promote gender-neutral clothing. These are clothes purged of any overt signifier of femininity and therefore perfectly amenable to boys and men. Trousers are ‘gender neutral’, dresses are not. As the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu put it, it still seems that dressing as a woman is the worst form of humiliation to be inflicted on a man.

Think for instance of a performance of the Rocky Horror Show or at a stag night when, in a staged act of humiliation, inebriated young men don dresses, or make others do so. There seems to be a time and a place for wearing feminine garb, beyond which it’s not acceptable.

Women, on the other hand, are not so restricted that such alibis are needed. But whether glamming up for a girls’ night out or justifying dressing up their daughter as a ‘girly girl’, an act that, as Guardian columnist Chitra Ranaswamy says risks the ire of friends and relatives, alibis are often nonetheless still required.

I don’t pass as a cis woman, defined as someone who identifies with the gender given at birth. When I’m in a dress and makeup, wherever I go, people look and stare. I get the same reaction even if the only deviation from the standardised masculine style is red painted fingernails, as was the case the other day. A woman in the queue at a department store literally recoiled at the sight of me.

An overwhelming majority of men never deviate in any meaningful way from the strictly ‘masculine’ in how they dress. They have an issue with femininity.

This runs deeper than style, of course, which is merely a symptom of what American author and feminist bell hooks described as the ‘psychic self-mutilation’ that patriarchy demands of boys and men. What's essentially being mutilated or repressed to a large degree are traits like caring for others, tenderness, empathy, sensuality and revealing one's frailties - all associated with femininity.

And even if we don’t include types of overtly aggressive men (and sometimes women behaving in these so-called masculine ways) often labelled ‘toxic’, masculinity begins to look like a psychological disorder that afflicts us all.

Not exactly known as a critic of patriarchy, even Freud late in life saw what he referred to as a ‘repudiation of femininity’ in both men and women to be the single greatest obstacle in the successful completion of therapy.

And as long as masculinity signifies strength and femininity weakness, women will develop a deeply ingrained inferiority complex. And by way of compensation, desire strong, one could even say ‘psychically damaged’, men. It’s not only men, but also women who become unconsciously invested in patriarchy.

If those with masculine physiques who wear feminine things are the exception to the rule, the extreme are those who make headlines for killing their classmates and gunning down people practising a faith other than their own.

That these perpetrators of mass violence are overwhelmingly men is not because males are naturally predisposed to violence but because they’re socialised to expect respect and subservience. As US killer Elliot Rodger, who murdered four and injured 14, declared in his manifesto of misogynistic hate, "I’ll show to you all that I’m the true alpha male".

And then there is also fantasy. Pitched primarily to men, the story arcs of so many Hollywood movies and video games begins with the protagonist being deprived of something, but through a heroic quest that ends in triumph, recovering his dignity.

In the 1975 epic Jaws, Brody kills the shark that had menaced holidaymakers deprived of their summertime pleasures. In Schindler’s List, Schindler outsmarts the Nazis to rescue many Jews from a grim fate. In the Super Mario series, Bowser deprives Mario of his love object Princess Peach. While developing the skills to ultimately defeat Bowser, the emasculated Mario recovers his phallus by proving himself the stronger. These Oedipal narratives play to the frustrated little man inside who can’t have in life what he gains in fantasy.

Finally, there is the economy. In a society that pits us against one another in competition for jobs, and primed from an early age to be competitive, it is the male who has an advantage; women are always playing catch-up.

As public intellectual Jessa Crispin noted, to “win in this world, women exhibit the characteristics the patriarchal world values and discard what it does not”. So displaying tenderness, kindness and care - all qualities a conscientious parent wants to nurture in their child - ironically places them at a competitive disadvantage.

Parents and caregivers who fail to ‘mutilate the male psyche’ can be sure that relatives, peers, popular culture and schools will do it on their behalf. In a masculine-dominated society, masculinisation pays big dividends. Even with my job as university lecturer, the more we cultivate those ‘get ahead of the game’ skills, the better for our careers.

A healthy society would see us all fully reconciled with what is considered ‘feminine’. To do so however, will require the complete transformation of all of the institutions that encourage and reward what I believe is truly a psychological disorder.

Dr Cremin’s book 'The Future is Feminine: Capitalism and the Masculine Disorder' is published by Bloomsbury (2021)

Dr Ciara Cremin is a senior lecturer in the School of Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom Society’s problem with femininity 11 July 2021.

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