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Sunday, 13 January 2013

Binary Bullshit: The "Feminine" and Feminism

By: Liberate Zealot

A continuation of Femmephobia is Everywhere 

A lot of the time, I hear people discuss gender roles and characteristics, and the culture at large, as some sort of immutable absolute. "This is the way it is, and has been, world without end (amen)".  Which is such bullshit.  Culture undergoes plenty of changes, some vast, some minute, some incredibly quickly, some at a glacial pace.  And just as culture changes so does our understanding of men and women, masculine and feminine and gender roles, characteristics and binaries.

The (Euro-Western Centric) modern gender Binary sets up characteristics as:
Men                                                     Women
Strong                                                   Weak
Active/Aggressive                                   Passive/Submissive
Logical                                                   Emotional
Analytic                                                  Intuitive
Sexual                                                   Chaste
Decisive                                                 Flaky
Genuine                                                 Back-stabbing

And while some of these are very similar to the ideas of previous centuries and various cultures, some of the binary characteristics are the complete opposite of previous centuries.

From the time of the ancient Greeks through the Renaissance women were seen as more "fleshy" and sexual than men.  Women were temptresses  and men needed to stand firm to their lusty ways.  Similarly this was one reason why women needed to be under the control of men, women weren't seen to be able to control themselves or their "baser" impulses. Now of course over the 1700s this began to change, and by the Victorian era there has been a complete reversal, women were the chaste/non-sexual ones who needed to be protected from base men who couldn't control their lust (and thus male relatives needed to protect their women from other men).
In the course of 200 years the European view of sexuality, morality, and self-control of (middle and upper class) white men and women made a complete about face.  Women went from being "fleshy", lusty, of a simpler morality, and in need of outside control to chaste/non-sexual, the moral centers of the family/society, and in charge of not only controlling their own desires and impulsiveness, but those of men as well.  Meanwhile men went from being the more moral and in control of their desires to having almost uncontrollable lusts that women needed to both control and be protected from.

During this same time period the cultural understanding of emotion and logic underwent vast changes. Again from the time of the Greeks through the Renaissance emotion and logic were not seen as binaries, and both were the domain of men. Deep emotion and the purest and deepest of relationships and love were between men.  At times this was considered especially true of warriors (Japan has also had this interpretation of emotion, relationships, and warrior men).  It wasn't until the Enlightenment Period that emotion and logic became fully divorced and binary traits, and the more "undesirable" one, emotion, became a feminine/womanly trait. And when it comes to male friendships and the societal view of their closeness and expression, these underwent a dramatic shift in barely a decade (the trials of Oscar Wilde and increasing awareness of homosexuality and the stigma against same sex relationships had a lot to do with this).

And this doesn't get into the more tangible signifiers of men/women or "masculine" and "feminine". The blue and pink and their gender alignment shift is perhaps one of the better known examples.  Make-up, high heeled shoes, and long hair have by turns been strongly aligned with with different genders (at different times) or been seen as gender neutral.  During times of gender neutrality these things were often related more to class (make-up and high heels for example).  And the Euro/US/Western idea of math as a male discipline and humanities as a female one is decidedly different than the Japanese understanding of gender, math, and literature.

Furthermore the gendering of roles breaks down as soon as the role becomes associated with profit or recognition.  Cooking for the family is considered women's work, but once it comes to a profession chefs are (mostly) men. The becomes even more true when the chef is "high class" and celebrated.  Fashion, especially the buying of it, is seen as a feminine thing, yet the majority of established and recognized designers and photographers are men.

Basically as traits/roles/characteristics gain or lose their societal worth or value they shift between men and women or being "masculine" and "feminine".  The roles, characteristics, and traits are certainly not immutable.  Neither do they (for the most part, exceptions can be made for weak, back-stabbing etc) have any intrinsic value and for the most part were not created FOR or BY the Patriarchy.  Rather the Patriarchy has created the binary and classification of these characteristics, traits, roles.  Patriarchy says women are of less value and so the things the culture values less become "feminine" or the domain of women. And the way to combat this is not through eschewing or dismissing the things that are considered "feminine".  To disdain or look down on things that are "feminine" is simply the continuation of the Patriarchy. This is not to say that women have to take on anything that is considered "feminine" or that women doing "feminine" things is a necessary part of feminism.  Rather, our feminism must include valuing many of the things seen as traditionally "feminine" or for women, even as we seek to dismantle gender roles and the Binary. It's impossible to value women if we do not value any of the things that are seen as belonging to women.

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