What is femininity as a cultural construct?
Femininity is a construct influenced by cultural attitudes and shaped by historical and ideological forces. However, unlike masculinity, in which boys become detached from their mothers and feminine influences and learn to be men, femininity results from both nature and nurture, as little girls usually derive their first feminine ideas from their mothers. Patriarchal social structure has been dominant throughout history, with specific places and times adhering to different ideas of femininity. Despite the fact that some countries have been deemed more feminine than others, the dominant male power structure is usually in effect. Women’s ideas about their own femininity develop within and in response to a system of male dominance.
While feminism seeks the social, economic, and political equality of women and men, femininity describes qualities associated with being female. Traditionally, these qualities have been viewed as weakness, passivity, and submissiveness. Research indicates that from the earliest societies into the twentieth century, feminine gender roles were specifically different from masculine roles, with the weight of that tradition increasing year by year. A clear influence on American ideas of femininity in the twentieth century was the nineteenth-century Victorian distinction between the public and private spheres. The domain for most women at that time was the home; the love and devotion with which they ministered their duties to husband and family constituted a feminine ideal. Women were praised for the gentle and refined manner in which they nurtured and guided their families, thus becoming “angels” in their homes.
However, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the New Woman began to undertake activities in the public sphere, including education, jobs, and the freedom to pursue, even in the face of condemnation, her idea of femininity. In the 1920s, women called flappers continued an assault on society’s conservative feminine ideal by wearing shorter skirts, bobbing their hair, wearing makeup, and participating in somewhat scandalous activities. With the passage of time, ideas of femininity became even more contradictory. Feminine icons in the 1930s films, playing to a mostly female audience, depicted a silky, slender sexuality that represented a shift in ideal femininity. Moreover, during World War II, with men fighting abroad, the picture of Rosie the Riveter cheerfully assured citizens of the United States that women’s femininity would not prevent them from doing a man’s job. In the twenty-first-century United States, historical gender roles continue to influence society even as many women defy them and seek to define what femininity means to them as individuals.
Further complicating the feminine ideal for women is the bombardment of images in advertising, films, popular music, the fashion industry, books, television, and magazines. Each one imparts to women the femininity required to attract men or to be a superb mother. Also, feminine stereotypes of extreme dimensions of body height and thinness—largely unattainable—strongly influence women, often having a dramatic effect on a woman's body image and causing some women to diet rigorously and even develop serious eating disorders. Beauty products have presumed a connection with femininity and, along with the fashion industry, have redefined the concept. Cosmetics and the latest fashion advertisements assure women that using such products will make them beautiful, stylish, and ultrafeminine. Tanning lotions and beds, piercings, implants, cosmetic surgeries, and feminine hygiene products are all proclaimed as necessities for an ideal femininity. These products cost women hefty sums of money and present health risks from infections, chemical reactions, botched surgeries, and cancer.
In considering the effects of femininity on feminism or vice versa, some women claim feminism, which includes struggling desperately to be successful in the business world, has been detrimental. Some argue that women with families, determined to “do it all,” or at least prove their worth to the world, who put in long hours at work and even longer hours at home after work experience burnout and a hardness that keeps any desire for femininity at bay. Some women, perhaps with less invested in feminism, see no contradiction between feminism and femininity, insisting that femininity is actually a form of empowerment. Others, however, including author Laura Kipnis, view the two as incompatible. She reasons that as the radical, strident devotees of the women’s movement of the 1970s moved into the 1980s, the movement began to lose steam and fall away from the mainstream. Feminists retreated to academic settings and publishing, leaving the remainder of women susceptible to the appeals of advertising. While feminism is an attempt to gain equality with men, femininity seeks an advantage for women by relying on their “ideal” female qualities to attract and influence men. In other words, feminism remained less important to most women than their own femininity.
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