Monday, January 18, 2010

What femininity is not

I should have blogged earlier today. I had time. In fact, I sat down at the computer with every intention of writing a blog post or two, and went to check some news headlines to see if there was anything I wanted to add to my "bloggable" folder.

And I got caught up looking at the dresses worn by the stars at last night's Golden Globes Awards.

I know, I know. But I can't help it. Between the graceful and glamorous and the tragically mistaken, the relatively demure or modest and the downright immodest, the dresses--and the comments left by readers--seem to be a fascinating look at our culture's idea of formal dressing. One thing I found interesting, for instance, was that the lower cut gowns, some of which were praised by the professional critics, tended to be panned by the commenters. One commenter said something to the effect that no matter how lovely or curvaceous a woman is, allowing too much cleavage to be exposed is akin to (and about as attractive as) dangling the mammary organ of a certain ruminant mammal, and about as attractive--a rather startling thing to read on a purely secular website, though I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment.

What I think the commenter was getting at was this: to be truly feminine, a woman has to have a certain amount of modesty in her dress. A dress which exposes far too much just isn't attractive, except, perhaps, to young men of a particularly susceptible age. There is more allure in a gown which exposes little than in one which puts too much on display.

And that got me thinking about the words feminine and femininity. What do we mean by these words? What qualities do we mean to express?

Plenty of people have written about what it means to be feminine, and what it means to cultivate femininity. In reading around here and there, it struck me that what I've always found troublesome about the concept is not what it really is, but how many things get equated with femininity which to me are not essentially feminine qualities at all. So rather than try to hash out my own definition of what femininity is, I'd like to discuss, in no particular order, the things I think femininity is not:

1. Femininity is not girlishness. Girls are, of course, on a path to becoming women, and they are undeniably female; but too often, I think, femininity gets equated with girlishness in a way that does neither of these concepts justice. The adjective girlish is seldom applied to actual girls (except by frustrated brothers, perhaps), just as we seldom speak of a little boy as boyish. Instead, we speak of the boyish grin or boyish charm of a grown man; we mean that there is about him something which has retained that youthfulness and those characteristics associated not with men, but with boys.

So when we speak of a woman as being girlish in some way, we mean that there is some quality about her that is more like a girl than like a grown woman. A woman's unexpected giggle may be girlish; her love for pink satin or tulle may be girlish; her mannerisms may display a sort of girlish appeal--and any of these things might be charming, tolerable, or downright annoying, depending. But true femininity is, I think, a quality of womanhood. It is neither necessary nor desirable for a woman to keep part of herself frozen in time, so to speak, in her Disney princess or ballerina years; it is not required of a feminine woman that she prefer pastels to strong colors, speak in a cutesy-baby voice, or otherwise retain child-like behaviors.

2. Femininity is not stupidity, not even faux stupidity. On one website I was perusing, the writer, who claims to wish to resurrect femininity, gave an example of the kind of thing I mean here: the notion that women's brains just aren't wired for any taxing thoughts, and that while a woman may pursue the developing of her intellect, she always loses some of her essential femininity when she resorts to too much bookishness. Men appreciate her better, we are assured, if she stays within the sphere of her true genius, such as the ability to decorate a home or to pull together a really charming outfit.

A different approach to this same idea is the encouragement women are given by various writers to seem stupid at times. Sure, you might know more than your husband about some particular topic, say the well-meaning writers. But it's absolutely fatal to let him know it! A clever woman will pretend to ignorance or an imperfect understanding rather than damage her husband's self-esteem, and will declare him to be perfectly well-informed on all matters.

Such a view of femininity truly puzzles me. Was St. Catherine of Sienna not feminine? Were other highly intelligent female saints lacking in femininity on the basis of their intelligence? Such a view of women, that to be feminine they must be or seem less intelligent than men, is lampooned here:

3. Femininity is not timidity or weakness. Are men stronger than women, physically? For the most part, yes, though a female Olympic athlete may be stronger than an out-of-shape male office worker without that generality being much diminished. But it is one thing to speak generally of men's greater physical strength, and another thing to think that there is something unfeminine or unbecoming about a woman who is strong, whether physically, emotionally, spiritually, or all three.

But there are some who find strength to be so unfeminine a quality that the phrase "a strong woman" isn't meant to be a compliment. The idea persists here and there that a woman, to be feminine, must cultivate the appearance at least of fragility. This is not merely an appreciation of the fact that the female body on occasion does require a bit of extra care (such as during pregnancy, after childbirth, etc.), but rather a desire to create a certain illusion of helplessness, so that the men in her life will see it as their duty to shield and protect her.

Don't get me wrong: chivalry in men is a very attractive quality. But a woman appreciates it most, so to speak, when it isn't required. The recently postpartum woman with the stroller and the toddler in hand will be grateful to the man who opens a door for her; the young single woman ought to be charmed by such an action (though these days, when a woman is quite likely to be offended instead, you really can't blame the men too much for being afraid to try it). It oughtn't be necessary for the second woman to pretend she just can't manage the big old heavy door on her own--and it's not especially feminine for her to try it.

4. Femininity is not coquettishness. This is one I've run into recently and found rather disturbing: the idea that femininity requires a certain amount of flirtatious appeal in one's way of dressing, behavior, etc. There is very little difference, to me, between dressing and acting with open immodesty and dressing and acting in a sort of pseudo-demure way which is calculated to inflame the passions or desire level of the opposite sex in general. That word--calculated--is important here; there's an idea that to be really feminine a woman must know how to use her sex appeal (often described as "feminine charms" or "feminine wiles") to get what she wants.

There is, of course, a difference between this sort of idea, the idea that a woman ought to make herself attractive to the opposite sex so she can then manipulate them into the sort of behavior she wants from them, and merely wanting to dress or look nice. But I've seen the blurring of the line from time to time, when women will describe, say, a vintage-inspired look as "sassy" or "flirty," or sigh over a time when "feminine" women got what they wanted with a careful batting of the eyelashes and a slowly-curving, red-lipsticked smile. To be fair, I'm not sure there ever really was such a time; the woman in that pleasant daydream was just as likely to be told, curtly, by her other half to quit wasting his time with her tricks and get dinner on the table--but it's the idea that it's both acceptable and essentially feminine to be a flirt that I find disturbing.

So what, then, is femininity, especially for a Christian woman? I think the best answer is simply the model of the truly feminine: the Blessed Virgin Mary. Though her appearances in the Bible don't answer all of our questions about how she lived and how she conducted herself during the hidden years of Christ's childhood, I think we can go here, to Proverbs 31: 10-31, and read the description of the worthy wife:

When one finds a worthy wife, her value is far beyond pearls.
Her husband, entrusting his heart to her, has an unfailing prize.
She brings him good, and not evil, all the days of her life.
She obtains wool and flax and makes cloth with skillful hands.
Like merchant ships, she secures her provisions from afar.
She rises while it is still night, and distributes food to her household.
She picks out a field to purchase; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
She is girt about with strength, and sturdy are her arms.
She enjoys the success of her dealings; at night her lamp is undimmed.
She puts her hands to the distaff, and her fingers ply the spindle.
She reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy.
She fears not the snow for her household; all her charges are doubly clothed.
She makes her own coverlets; fine linen and purple are her clothing.
Her husband is prominent at the city gates as he sits with the elders of the land.
She makes garments and sells them, and stocks the merchants with belts.
She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs at the days to come.
She opens her mouth in wisdom, and on her tongue is kindly counsel.
She watches the conduct of her household, and eats not her food in idleness.
Her children rise up and praise her; her husband, too, extols her:
"Many are the women of proven worth, but you have excelled them all."
Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
Give her a reward of her labors, and let her works praise her at the city gates.
These are the truly feminine qualities: industry, attention to duties, strength, care for her husband and family and the whole household, charity toward the poor, wisdom and good counsel, dignity and diligent labor. I think that this is the best description of true femininity available to us, and I have no doubt that our Lady was a model of it all.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for discussing this; reminding what is important after all. There is this feminism issue brought up by Ms. Steinem in the '60s, perhaps, then re-emerged in the last decade with such a red flag as bonnets and dress length, that I've never been able to figure out whether I'm supposedly feminist or anti-feminist (whatever THAT is!) so I just go on about my business, and do the best for my family (rather unsuccessfully) in a manner that behooves the cultural traditions of my husband as well as my own.

Daddio said...

Great post. I happen like my girl in "buttons & bows", but I love her for the truly feminine qualities that you described.

Charlotte said...

I agree 100% with everything you wrote here.

nutmeg said...

I agree as well.

And I, too, browsed the golden globe pictures... noticing that the older women who showed more skin looked horrific.

While those who covered up were generally stunning.

Great post.:)

Anonymous said...

I wish you could have posted this over at Faith & Family Live last week during the "modesty vs only skirt wearers" skirmish. It would have been illuminating to some.
I agree with what you say here. We can be feminine, modest and dress fashionably - a perfect trifecta. It's of no use to glorify the past, especially on purely fashion terms.

Lindsay said...

I also like to look at the Marian virtues as guidance in what Femininity is. The adjective is the challenge there, to not merely be modest but Resplendently modest and to not be simply sweet but be Angelically sweet.

I do think that some confusion lies in the fact that embracing femininity in the manner described in Proverbs and by Our Lady can have the result desired by those using coquettishness and flirtation as a means of manipulation. That men, or anyone else for that matter, would be drawn into greater love and service themselves when confronted with the love and service offered in the manner of Our Lady is logical. Silence offered in humility, mortification or patience could be confused with faux stupidity by an onlooker, but the motivations are vastly different. Perhaps those who embrace the false femininity you describe misunderstand. Likewise, as much as what you describe bothers me, too, I suppose I must admit I could be misunderstanding their motivations as well. I try to remind myself of the story of St. Therese not volunteering to help with apple picking (maybe?) because she loved it so much, she didn't want to take the place of others, and in turn, many of her fellow sisters thought her lazy. (Of course, this is harder when a person has actually formed into words such ideas as you express).

Kristen Laurence said...

A great post, and well said. The only exception, I think, is that flirting and coquettishness (in dress and behavior) with one's husband is not only acceptable, but feminine.

I love this quote from St. Thomas. It's more about modesty than femininity, but I think it applies here:

[As regards the adornment of women, we must bear in mind the general statements made above (Article 1) concerning outward apparel, and also something special, namely that a woman's apparel may incite men to lust, according to Proverbs 7:10, "Behold a woman meeteth him in harlot's attire, prepared to deceive souls."

Nevertheless a woman may use means to please her husband, lest through despising her he fall into adultery. Hence it is written (1 Corinthians 7:34) that the woman "that is married thinketh on the things of the world, how she may please her husband." Wherefore if a married woman adorn herself in order to please her husband she can do this without sin.] (ST Q. 169 Art. 2.)


Siarlys Jenkins said...

The variant of Protestants who want women to be "barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen" like to quote this chapter of Proverbs, but they seem to miss that this woman "more precious than rubies" has independent discretion to spend family finances, is expected to be knowledgeable in buying and selling real estate, and her husband seems to have little to do but sit in the gates, talking to the elders, accepting praise for what a good provider his wife is. I know that's not precisely your point, there is a lot more to being feminine, but it shows that there is more in each chapter of the Bible than a casual partisan reading will bring to light. You've done a good job here.

Charlotte (Matilda) said...


I would disagree slightly. A coquette is specifically defined as a woman who endeavors without sincere affection to gain the attention and admiration of a man which wouldn't have a place in a Christian marriage.

Flirting and being playful with your husband because he finds it attractive and alluring is fine, but doing it to manipulate him is not. Sadly, many women wrongfully believe that manipulating their husband is their job and the only way they will "get what they want".

Baron Korf said...

Women would be surprised at what power real femininity has over men and what they can bring out in us.