Femininity and feminism are not mutually exclusive.
Let me first allay any fears that you have upon reading the title of my post. This is not about becoming an anachronism or letting go of equality. This is not about a return to Jane Austen and Downton Abbey-style gender roles, but maybe it’s time to talk about why so many of us find them attractive.
Recently, I have noticed the following:
1. I have noticed an absence of a discussion of the definition of femininity among educated American women.
While there is a never-ending stream of articles about how women think men should behave or what we enjoy about masculinity, any man that tries to celebrate or discuss what he enjoys about women is nearly drawn and quartered. There is a cultural reluctance to define what it means to be feminine, offset by an ever-growing list of demands for men.
Why the dichotomy, friends? Are we still seeking equality, or something else? If we take time to appreciate or discuss masculinity, why does it ruffle feathers when the reverse happens? I would agree that it helps no one if we cling to gender stereotypes or restrictive, outdated roles. But if we throw all of it out, we throw out some valuable truths about being women.
2. Our vibrant third-wave of feminism has continued to challenge the notion that nudity on screen and across our pages is something that should be glossy and flawless.
In the past, the feminist reaction to the female nude in popular culture was to cry “exploitation!” There are those who still take that stance, but many more are simply challenging the Photoshopped ideal and applauding women who represent the full spectrum of female beauty.
Recently, Lena Dunham has taken a lot of flak in the press for her nude scenes in Girls, with the press calling her “frumpy,” or worse. Several writers have responded, most notably, Kate Spencer:
“Something very obvious hit me, and I haven’t been able to shake it: Lena Dunham is really the first woman I’ve ever seen on-screen who looks like me. But not only that—she’s comfortable in her skin, in her nakedness, in her sexuality and as herself.”
We have stopped accepting the “women should only come in one variety” message of the media. “Real women” are soft and small or tall and muscular. Some are curvy, others muscular. There are many ways for women to be beautiful. As we have this discussion, maybe we grow closer to embracing the French ideal of bien dans sa peau, or finally, truly being content in our own skin. And yet, while the discourse on the female body is full of celebration, many are less accepting of other feminine attributes.
The yin parts of us are the parts that are yielding—vulnerable—and this is part of what it means to be feminine. Why reject it?
3. While in our business and social worlds, many women strive to be seen as the same as their male counterparts, our popular culture is reflecting different desires.
Look at the popularity of Downton Abbey and the resurgence of all things Jane Austen. These influences are carrying over into the fashion world as well. It isn’t that we want an equality throw-back to another era. Certainly, we all want to see equal pay for equal work and the same choices available to men and women. But the allure of these strong, feminine characters didn’t come about in a vacuum. There is a longing to reconnect with a part of femininity that has been neglected.
Yet, this idea raises eyebrows. We were taught that women can, and should, be everything men can be. We were taught that in order to be successful in life, it meant we had to put those things aside. We were told that femininity was the realm of the past—or of ultra-conservatives who would keep women barefoot and pregnant.
We seem to have accepted the idea that if women are feminine, they are somehow less powerful, less intelligent or less equal to men.
There is not one way to be feminine, any more that there is one way to be masculine. In fact, I’d go as far to say as this craving to re-embrace the feminine goes beyond gender. What we are talking about here is something that resurfaces over and over in these pages. As a civilization, we were fed the line for several generations that “only the strong survive” and that we need to be bigger, better, faster and more in order to get ahead. We have been fed the idea that all of us—male and female—need to tough it out, rather than admit where we are tender.
What if it wasn’t true?
What if the only thing that could really save us, truly improve our lives was reconnecting with our vulnerability?
In Shambhala: the Path of the Warrior, Chogyam Trungpa talks about where we find our fearlessness:
“Real fearlessness is the product of tenderness.
You are willing to open up, without resistance or shyness, and face the world.”
Everywhere we turn, people are crying out for authenticity, for genuine connections, for renewed empathy. As we move forward, we need to take this step away from lives propelled by aggression and step into true fearlessness, which is a product of our raw, tender hearts.
If in this new era we are truly going to move forward as human beings, it will not be through strength or force. Strength of force is no match for the boundless strength of surrender. If, as has been implied by the Dalai Lama and other leaders, that women will save Western Civilization, it will not be through intellect, nor ambition, nor any overt power.
It won’t be because we are perfect. It will be because we are vulnerable.
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