Keywords: Emphasized, hyper, resistant, hybrid, and alternative femininities
Construction of all types of femininity takes place in the context of the global subordination of women to men. Femininities are constructed differently from masculinities; they do not grant cultural power and are incapable of securing patriarchy. Instead, they are formed as an array of antitheses of masculinities. The reason is that femininity and masculinity not only are constructed in relation to each other, but also have dualistic relations in which femininity is negated as being subordinate instead of the two being equal. More precisely, femininity is synonymous with lack of masculinity, lack of the power ingrained in all masculinities. (1)
In Raewyn Connell’s view, while hegemonic masculinity exists among men, we cannot speak of dominant / hegemonic femininity at all. “No femininity is hegemonic.” (2) No social institution of a male-dominated society expects a woman to be dominant nor admires such a trait in women.The reasons for such asymmetry are: I) the accumulation of power in the hands of men does not allow women to exercise institutionalized power over other women; and II) in the social construction of femininities, the construction of a hegemony based on domination over the other sex does not exist. In other words, a dominant femininity cannot exist, as being in a dominant position is tantamount to being in a position of power or being able to create a world where one’s power is accepted as something normal.
Some femininities welcome the interests of men, others adopt strategies of resistance, refusal or combinations of the two. The fact that all femininities are created in relation to the global subordination of women, means that:
1. there is not much room for institutionalized power relationships between women, which is underlined by the existence of much less violence among women, and
2. there is no domination over the other sex, which signifies that there is no talk on authority, power, aggression, and technology among femininities and there is less pressure on women to accommodate a special kind of femininity. That’s why there is more diversity among femininities than among masculinities.
While more diverse kinds of femininity appear and disappear on a large social scale, the basic kinds of femininity remain as follows:
1. Emphasized femininities
Emphasized, normative or traditional femininities are those that comply with men’s domination and women’s subordination by satisfying the desires and interests of men. In this type of femininity, the most important behavior is compliance. Also, as Connell puts it,
"Central to the maintenance of emphasized femininity is practice that prevents other models of femininity gaining cultural articulation." (3)
Normative femininities include characteristics, such as being nice, concerned with appearance, a good wife and mother, emotional, sociable, tactful, relationship-oriented, beauty-oriented, kind and affectionate, understanding and compassionate, helpful, fair, and devoted to others.(4)
Hyper-femininity or femininity as super-girly, is the most extreme form of negation of masculinity or the mirror image of hyper-masculinity. It is an emphasized form of femininity to the point of self harm such as eating disorders, absence of body-mind connection, and cutting. Its other side effects are: desperate need for external approbation, and mistrust of other women.
Edith Butler gives the example of drag queens who could “do femininity much better than I ever could, ever wanted to, ever would…Femininity, which I understood never to have belonged to me anyway, was clearly belonging elsewhere” (5). It is a type of theatrical and dazzling femininity that has no connection either with women’s traditional household activities and caring for children, nor with their paid jobs and careers. Hyper-femininity is therefore a frivolous or at best an affluent form of femininity, a helpless state.
3. Resistant femininities
Resistant femininities are forms of femininity that resist male domination or do not comply with it. They include characteristics that frame women as assertive or independent. Examples of this type of femininity are nuns, lesbians, nerds, and androgynous females. According to Raewyn Connell, “What is hidden from [conventional historiography] is the experience of spinsters, lesbians, unionists, prostitutes, madwomen, rebels and maiden aunts, manual workers, midwives, and witches. And what is involved in radical sexual politics, in one of its dimensions, is precisely a reassertion and recovery of marginalized forms of femininity in the experience of groups like these.”(6)
4. Hybrid femininities
Hybrid femininities are intricate and calculated blends of compliance, resistance, and cooperation. Jennifer Coates (1999) shows how women challenge the emphasized femininity through “backstage” talk. While many women perform the compliant characteristics of niceness in public or “frontstage,” in “backstage” spontaneous exchanges with close friends they would challenge this, admitting to aggressive, even violent traits.
In backstage talk, women disclose a desire to behave in a different manner than they do in public; to act more self-indulgently and more assertively. They feel able and free to accept their frustration and anger with the femininity they have to perform “frontstage.”
“Backstage interaction fulfills a vital need in women’s lives to talk about behaving badly, whether this means recounting incidents where we behaved badly, or whether it means fantasizing about such behavior, or whether it means discussing and celebrating the unconventional behavior of other women.” (7)
Backstage talk also gives women a chance to criticize and correct themselves and others for presenting traits of emphasized femininity. Many women seem to enjoy this occasion to enact an assertive, strong and agentive gender identity.
5. Alternative femininities
An example of alternative femininities is Goth femininity. According to Judith Butler, women cannot create an alternative from thin air; they must subvert current ideologies and reshape what is accessible. (8) Participating in a subculture is one approach to be used. The subculture Goth grants space for creating alternative femininities that make a female voice be heard. Women have remade femininities by actively making use of the Goth identity in the following ways (9):
a) Goths aim at living outside of the norm, overtly rejecting common and biased expectation, and qualifying the normal as crude and dull, in order to create alternative gender identities that empower them.
b) They aim to emerge as androgynous and to discard gender based unequal power relations.
c) By eliminating the dual gender roles of feminine and masculine, Goth women free themselves from the passive female-dominant male model. The Goth woman does not define herself as wife or girl-friend and does not have the need to be rescued
d) Goths’ ideal of darkness is in opposition to the pink-nailed, tame princess.
e) Their rejection of mainstream norms includes rigid heterosexuality. Many Goths are bisexual. Women are not defined relative to their relationships to men.
f) The demonstration of emotions is not perceived as irrational as in the mainstream culture, but as a proof of profound intelligence and expression. By definition, creative and sensitive works are praised.
Furthermore, Goth women are usually highly intelligent, literate, and creative; they may even be feminist. (10)
Other femininities that are not created to serve men are called pejorative terms such as “tomboy”. If a girl likes to climb trees or build something outside home, she isn’t a girl; but a tomboy, a variation of a boy. Tomboy is another name for an active or sports oriented girl.
In most societies, women did not have the possibility of defining their own gender as it has already been defined for them. Even in present-day Western cultures where the situation has remarkably improved for women, they are still urged to have perfect bodies and make-up, and to serve as lovely companions for men as they construct the masculine world. And the benefits women with emphasized femininity receive following their competition with other similar women to reach an imaginary top is too small compared to the patriarchal advantages men with hegemonic masculinities receive.
While separating oneself from hegemonic or hyper-masculinity corresponds to abandoning real or symbolic power, separating oneself from emphasized (stereotypical) femininity equates to an assertion of power. To reject emphasized or normative femininity is to reject the powerlessness that accompanies it, whether it’s done from a feminist point of view, by athletic girls (pejoratively called tomboys), or by butch women.
1. Kessler, Suzanne J. & Wendy McKenna. 1978. Gender: an ethnomethodological approach. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
2. Connell, R.W. 1987. Gender and power: society, the person, and sexual politics. Stanford University Press, Stanford.
3. Connell, R.W. 1995. Masculinities. Polity Press, Cambridge. P.188.
4. Eagly, Alice.H., & Steffen, Valerie.J. 1987. Gender stereotypes stem from the distribution of women and men into social roles. In Alice.H. Eagly, Sex differences in social behavior: A social role interpretation
(pp. 70-95). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Hillsdale, New Jersey.
5. Butler, Edith. 2004. Undoing Gender. Routledge, New York. P.213.
6. Connell, R.W. 1987. Op.cit. P.188.
7. Coates, Jennifer. 1999. Women Behaving Badly: Female Speakers Backstage. In Journal of Sociolinguistics, Volume 3, Issue 1, P.77.
8. Salih, Sarah. 2002. Judith Butler. London: Routledge.
9. Hodkinson, P. (2002) Goth Identity, Style and Subculture. Oxford: Berg Oxford International Publishers Ltd.
10. Gunn, Cindy L. 2007. Mixed gender group projects at AUS: Creative Collaboration or Problematic Partnership? In Language teacher research in the Middle East. C. Coombe and L. Barlow (Eds.) Alexandria: TESOL (Teaching English to speakers of other languages). PP. 46 – 52.