By Darcy Doran-Myers
Comedy has a way of pointing out the pervasive ideologies of our culture. This clip from the show Community is a cultural critique of the performance of femininity to appease the patriarchal system. Both characters mock the other’s “strategy” to accomplish their goals in a male-dominated society with pervasive male ideals. Britta makes fun Annie’s extreme feminine personality by playing dumb, using baby language, and emphasizing her emotions. Apparently, this has been an effective strategy for Annie thus far in life. Annie, in turn, mocks Britta’s aggression and air of intellectual superiority, understood as “male” traits; it is implied that this strategy will not get men on your side. At the end of the clip, both forget their differences in personality and attack each other for the same thing: their feminine appearance. They speak as though they both know that their obsessions with thinness, cheeriness, and overall fitting the idealized version of femininity are not innate parts of their identity. Their emphasis on feminine traits is a way to get what they want in a male-dominated world, a way to adapt to the idealized world of men—in other words, they are both putting on a performance.
The feminist movement of the 60’s and 70’s has come and gone and women have undergone a dramatic change in status throughout the United States. We have women in political office, journalism, business, and more. And yet, while women have used this newfound freedom to expand their horizons intellectually, financially, and socially, they appear to be stuck physically. Women with extremely varying personalities and life goals are accepted in the patriarchal system and desired by many men. No longer do we have to conform to the old norm of a submissive, motherly, housewife-y woman to be desirable or powerful. Just using Community as an example, we can see that both Britta (aggressive) and Annie (submissive) are sexualized equally and, sure enough, both desired by the central male in the show. Women of all types can be desired as partners; sometimes, the more aggressive female is more desired. But her physical femininity must always be retained (for proof, look at any female superhero or Schmidt’s various girlfriends in New Girl). Physical conformity to the male ideal, then, is still strictly enforced no matter your other traits. In order to fit into the system, women are expected to “produc[e] themselves as desirable heterosexual subjects” and greatly enhance their femininity (Gill).
So what is this feminine ideal? What do women have to look like to be seen as having worth in a patriarchal society? The answer, bluntly, is young, light-skinned, thin, upper-middle-class, dainty. Just check out the female cast of the top three TV shows geared towards teens.
#2, The Vampire Diaries
And #3, Pretty Little Liars
All three feature a young, thin, white, heterosexual, usually well-dressed female lead armed with one shallow blonde friend and one or two light-skinned, relaxed-haired, racially ambiguous side characters. There is no room for curves, dark skin, or non-dainty features. The male ideal of femininity is strictly enforced in these shows aimed at young girls. Personalities may differentiate from one another but the physical must remain essentially the same; it is as though the most popular shows follow a formula to reinforce beauty ideals.
And what if a woman does not fit these specific criteria? For example, what if she is not white or very light-skinned? How can she then fit into a society that insists on one particular beauty ideal? The answer, as the blogger for blackfemininity.com asserts, is that she cannot. Femininity has already been defined by white women’s bodies. “Femininity,” the blogger writes, “is dismissed as unimportant and not for us.” Black women are instead stereotyped as having an “aggressive, exotic, devilish sensuality.” Black women are thus effectively blocked from the idealized femininity by the cultural ideology that they cannot and will not conform the ideal. To be desirable, you must flaunt a decidedly white femininity. Those women of color who try to conform, to be accepted into the “ideal” world created by men, are at best shunted to the role of faithful sidekick—as seen in the top teen TV dramas listed above. I can’t think of one TV show where a black woman is the main character… can you?
Femininity is not only defined by race. The ideal feminine woman must also be available to the heterosexual male, if not sexually then at least visually. Lesbians and other women who are not attracted to heterosexual men are often unjustly divided into two categories: femme and butch. In other words, there are two kinds of lesbians—those that are of use to the patriarchy and those that not only are “useless” but may be a threat. The hate-filled comments and actions against more masculine lesbians (for example, hate crimes against lesbians) reflect the anger some men feel when patriarchal ideologies are not followed by women. Feminine lesbians, at least, allow themselves to be observed and gazed upon from a sexual male viewpoint. They conform to the femininity ideal and therefore to the physical expectations of men. A Google search for “lesbian” brings up an overwhelming amount of lesbian porn, clearly geared toward a male audience. The women portrayed are largely white, young, and thin—their sexual preferences go against the expectation for a female but their welcoming gaze and physical femininity make them “useful” to the patriarchy. There is much less hate for “femme” lesbians than for their “butch” counterparts. In the media, there are very few lesbians portrayed. The L Word, a popular and currently running TV show, has dedicated itself to rectifying the underrepresentation of lesbian culture. I have not seen the show, and for good reason. Whenever it pops up as a suggested TV show on Netflix, this is what I see:
When I see this image I do not see a TV show marketed toward women, even lesbian women. These actors are still rigidly adhering to the femininity norm: they are mostly white or light-skinned (although they are darker than the teen TV shows’ women of color), relatively young, very thin, and above all, highly sexualized. I do not see a masculine lesbian among them—just a cluster of nude, airbrushed, feminine women. When I saw this TV show advertised I recognized that it was targeted toward men and had no desire to click on it. And I am not the only woman who has a problem with it–it has been criticized from a feminine lens before. Men, who run much of popular media, have decided which factions of society are represented (Dreamworlds 3). Butch lesbians do not make the list. Lesbians, like women of color, must do their best to adhere to the femininity ideal in order to even be recognized as a person of value, worthy of representation in the patriarchy.
With such varying expressions of personality and assertiveness seen as attractive in women, from Annie’s reversion to pre-feminist movement submissiveness to Britta’s take-no-prisoners man-hating aggressiveness, it is no surprise that women feel more empowered in society today than at any time before. We are able to climb social ladders, make money for ourselves, express our sexuality, and more without negative consequences. But we are still not there, and we know it. One look at popular media tells us one of the reasons why: while our minds have been freed our bodies have not. No matter what a woman’s beliefs, goals, or personality, she must adhere to the feminine ideal in order to rise in society, be seen as worthy, and often just to avoid criticism. Feminine and sexualized power is the only type of female power that “men will embrace” (Douglas). That is why we see TV shows with strong female leads still dressed in tight skirts to do everything from running a business to fighting off vampires. Even as women’s minds are recognized as powerful, their bodies remain weak and submissive to patriarchy (Engstrom). Ideals such as these do not stay on the TV screen but transfer out into the minds of real-world people. Journalists see it as important to inform the public of Sonia Sotomayor’s and other female politicians’ poor, non-feminine dress choices while ignoring the males’ dress sense—it is very important that even high-status women attempt to adhere to the male ideal. With all this pressure, women have turned to tanning, botox, collagen, anti-aging creams, hair dye, lipstick, push-up bras, supplements, hair removal, hair relaxers, skin lighteners, and much, much more to alter their appearance. These “self-disciplining” actions waste time, money, and promote self-hate (Gill). How can women ever become truly equal in society with all of those distractions from their goals and beliefs?
The insistence on physical femininity from the patriarchy is just as degrading and unfair as the pre-1970’s insistence on submissiveness to men. Women know that they do not all share the same sense of style or beauty just as they do not share the same personality. Claims that women want to “look good” because it makes them “feel good” disregard that a woman’s idea of looking good happens to be the exact same as the dominant male perspective of what a woman “should” look like (Gill). It is time to realize that femininity is not who we all are; it is a performance, created by each one of us to adapt to the overarching patriarchal control. Women are beautiful no matter their race or body size, and valuable no matter their sexuality or gender expression. We as women recognize this in each other; now we just need to pass the message along to the men and the media.
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