Femininity, Susan Brownmiller

Brownmiller’s startling book is divided into 8 somewhat arbitrary but useful subcategories from which to analyze the effect of femininity on the lives of women: body, hair, clothes, voice, skin, movement, emotion, and ambition. This division results in a satisfying compartmentalization of beauty standards and behavioral codes. However, Brownmiller’s deconstruction and explicit critique of femininity find voice in each section, with certain themes ever-present and emphasized.

One thing this book does expertly (and it does many things expertly)  is to define the elusive term of its title. “Femininity, in essence,” writes Brownmiller, “is a romantic sentiment, a nostalgic tradition of imposed limitations” (14). Its main goal is “to mystify or minimize the functional aspects of a woman’s mind and body that are indistinguishable from a man’s” (84). Femininity is “a matter of containment” (142), for “to be truly feminine is to accept the handicap of restraint and restriction, and to come to adore it” (86). Understandably grim at times, Brownmiller’s book is enlightening and honest, fleshing out and discussing notions of femininity with ease. She explains in the epilogue that femininity is burdened with three main archetypes of eras past, which women are somehow supposed to combine into a successful final product:  “woman as symbolic aristocrat, woman as humble servant, and woman as glamorous plaything” (235). Much of the contradictions inherent in femininity, Brownmiller postulates, originate in the conflicting implications and demands of these three archetypal figures.

One extremely powerful message in Brownmiller’s text is that the idea of a woman born imperfect and tainted is an inevitable byproduct of a society’s idealized, limited notion of femininity. Perhaps a fairly simple and obvious concept, it can have devastating implications. Just as “a woman of the nineteenth century believed she was born with a clumsy waist” (36), Chinese footbinding “instilled in every woman a deep sense of insecurity born of the conviction that some natural part of her was profoundly ugly” (34). Using insecurity as its foundation, rules of feminine decorum preached and reinforced the notion that women’s bodies were inherently ugly, unclean, and unnatural. On her own compulsive eradication of body hair growing up, Brownmiller asks, “Why did I need to lock myself in an esthetic convention that denied my physical reality?” (142).

This idea compels a new perspective on feminine grooming rituals that seem harmless at first glance, but appear oppressive when scrutinized. Brownmiller navigates a fine line throughout her book, not wanting to cast blame on women who conform to feminine beauty standards, while simultaneously critiquing these standards. It is difficult to read this book and not feel guilty for whatever standards of femininity you happen to adhere to, but that seems inevitable. Brownmiller’s purpose is not to point fingers at women for following the guidelines, but to begin a discussion of these guidelines and a subsequent analysis of their potential harm. She emphasizes that while the extremes of masculinity like wife beating or warfare can be harmful to others, “the extremes of femininity are harmful only–only!– to women themselves in the form of a self-imposed masochism” (236).

Brownmiller’s account of “compensatory femininity,” or making up for a lack of femininity in one area by emphasizing or enlarging one’s dedication in another area, is particularly compelling. When I cut my hair short, the compulsion to wear eye makeup or large earrings or “feminine” clothes was almost unconscious and uncontrollable. The mentality was (and sometimes still is): Sure, I’m fine with having short hair, but let me just put on some mascara to show that I still care about my appearance. Brownmiller exposes this compensation brilliantly:

“Compensatory femininity extracts its due in the form of fancy embellishments to modify the suspect masculine model. This is known in the trade as ‘the softening effect’—an interesting phrase, since there is nothing soft about spiked heels and long red fingernails, except that they reduce functionalism, hint as masochism and alter the natural, normal motion of the sophisticated lady in pants. ‘Heterosexualizing effect’ would be a more accurate description, and what a sad commentary it makes on the tenuous relationship between the sexes that a woman must resort to a string of intricate deceptions in order to prove her heterosexual good will.” (95)

Brownmiller’s critique of femininity fleshed out another idea that I’d not been able to articulate previously: traditional feminine clothing was meant to exaggerate and create differences between the sexes so as to increase dependence on–and exaggerate difference from–men. If women’s attire jeopardized their capacity to walk, run, ride horses, climb stairs, drive cars, and generally move freely, their subservience to men would only increase, reinforcing the notion that they were incapable of independence and thus desperately reliant on strong, generous men. Brownmiller’s analysis cleverly shifts the focus from women’s behavior to the demands and fantasies of men to which these behaviors cater. In demanding such constant homage to their imagined strength, rationality, and overall superiority, men seem pathetically desperate for reassurance of their difference. Brownmiller writes,

“Men are known to be highly appreciative when a woman has taken the trouble to create an entire human being who looks and acts and smells so different from them…a male is a male because a female dresses and looks and acts like another sort of creature.” (79)

This concept is very interesting: is the feminine game about creating beauty and perfection so as to dazzle or is it about emphasizing sex difference to soothe men’s insecurities? Brownmiller asks rhetorically, “how can we know who we are unless we are fairly certain who is the other?” (82). Nasha posed a similar question in her blog post on Tina Fey’s Bossypants. How do we know we are women except from men revealing our nature to us through “nasty” acts? Similarly, how do men know they are men if women do not create and emphasize a highly different other against which to gauge their masculinity?

In a play on language but also a statement on the restriction of feminine standards of behavior, Brownmiller writes, “A man may keep his nose to the grindstone, but a woman had better stop now and again to powder hers” (228). Applying this clever concept to a real-world scenario, Brownmiller points out that “at the critical moment in adolescence when the young boy revels in his developing musculature, the girl may appear at school with a note that excuses her from gym” (195). Thus, the transition from girl to woman is fraught with a sense of obligatory containment, forbearance, and restriction concerning the body and mind that is not similarly associated with the transition from boyhood to manhood.

Brownmiller’s rejection of the societal obsession with knowing, polarizing, and policing gender is insightful as well as humorous. In response to the anxiety over what will happen to standardized dress codes when women enter the male-dominated workplace, Brownmiller writes:

“How should a woman dress for her job in a symphony orchestra where the men perform in regulation black tuxedos? At one concert I attended, the flutist wore a floor-length black skirt, the violinist wore a knee-length black skirt, and the cellist opted for black trousers. They managed to play harmoniously, and that was important” (101)

I am very, very glad that I read this book. I look forward to reading Brownmiller’s more famous book, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, when I’m back in the states.

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About Madeleine Gyory

Madeleine is a social media butterfly who tweets (and does some other things) for the Women's Media Center, a media advocacy non-profit based in NY. She loves reading, particularly stories by and about women. She graduated from Barnard College, and has spent time teaching English in Ecuador. Her favorite writers are Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
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