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The problem with reclaiming femininity

Content warning: misogynistic slurs

Today’s neoliberal, watered-down brand of feminism has imposed a blanket ban on critical thinking. From violent pornography, to misogynistic slurs like ‘slut’ and ‘bitch’, to self-optimisation and having a few more ‘girlboss’ women among the uber-rich, the solution to patriarchy, according to mainstream feminism, is simple: rebrand everything as ‘empowering’. 

Lately – and to me, most disturbingly – there has been a move by mainstream feminism to ‘reclaim’ femininity. Lipstick feminism maintains that performing femininity and embracing patriarchal beauty standards is empowering; that it is femininity that is oppressed, rather than women. The rise of hyperfeminine ‘bimbo’ culture on platforms like Tiktok has branded itself as an act of resistance against the patriarchy. Instagram is rife with aggressively pink infographics proclaiming that dismantling the patriarchy is better done when conforming to normative gender stereotypes. 

Reclaiming femininity is deeply myopic, for a multitude of reasons. Redefining femininity as the centre of women’s identity makes liberation infinitely more difficult, and effectively allies the modern feminist movement with the very mechanisms of women’s oppression. 

To deconstruct the argument to reclaim and embrace femininity, however, we must first examine what femininity really is. 

Gender is not innate. It is a socially constructed class system in which the class of man benefits from the systematic oppression of the class of woman (when talking about gender abolition it is always imperative to make clear that the class of woman absolutely includes trans women). Gender describes arbitrary behaviours, attitudes, and roles assigned to biological sex characteristics. We gender biological sex (which itself, incidentally, is closer to a biological spectrum than a binary) just as we gender toys, clothing, or colours. There is nothing inherently feminine about the colour pink, for example — yet as we have a concept of gender, we assign cultural significance to that colour. Similarly, we assign arbitrary roles to biological sex. Gender is performative, and reproduced through constant repetition of gendered behaviour. 

Indeed, as second-wave feminist Andrea Dworkin wrote of gender and sex in her 1974 book Woman Hating: “The discovery is, of course, that ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are fictions, caricatures, cultural constructs. As models they are reductive, totalitarian, inappropriate to human becoming. As roles they are static, demeaning to the female, dead-ended for male and female both. The discovery is inescapable: We are, clearly, a multisexed species which has its sexuality spread along a vast continuum where the elements called male and female are not discrete.”

Femininity is imposed upon people assigned female at birth. It is mandated and enforced. And it is largely fiction; almost every trait we think of as feminine is culturally constructed. What do the lipstick feminists mean when they talk about embracing femininity? Do they mean embracing (self-sacrificing) passivity, submission, and weakness? Or perhaps embracing makeup, lipstick, and the colour pink? 

This is not to say that some sex-based differences don’t exist outside of socialisation – but rather, that these differences are patterns at best, and resist dimorphic categorisation. 

By restabilising femininity as the locus of womanhood, we affirm the gender binary that Andrea Dworkin cited as the root cause of sexual oppression. ‘Empowering femininity’ does nothing to liberate women from male supremacy; rather, it affirms patriarchal social scripts and celebrates the success of the patriarchy in defining and constraining women. It embraces sexist stereotypes and institutional socialisation and rebrands them as an individual choice. 

The solution to patriarchy cannot be reclaiming femininity. It must, I believe, be the opposite: gender abolition. The dissolution of gender roles and associated cultural norms. Ceasing to socialise people into arbitrary roles based on biological sex. Eliminating the social classes of man and woman. 

This is not to say that people should not be feminine – just that it shouldn’t be enforced, or be used to reinforce structures of power. Gender abolition, as an idea, would not prevent people from engaging with masculinity and femininity, and from constructing their identities around those concepts. Rather, these traits would arise from within; no one would be prescribed a role or identity by society, nor forced into a rigid binary.

Enforcing femininity is a grim vision of feminism for those of us who conceive of feminism as liberation from patriarchy, rather than equality under a patriarchal society.