femininity (dis)couraged: part 1

Mary vs. Eve

Much has already been written on the polarized visions of female sexuality typified by Mary the virgin and Eve the temptress. In our efforts to make Mary less stifling and Eve less objectifying, perhaps we have abandoned our positive visions of femininity altogether.

It’s not that we are against female persons per se, culturally. We are against a particular archetype of the feminine. I tentatively offer up four dichotomies as exemplary of how we imagine the feminine-masculine contrast:

  • emotional vs. rational
  • innocent vs. worldly
  • stationary vs. mobile
  • aesthetic vs. economic

What we think of as “masculine” is celebrated in both sexes. In politics and business, a woman must naturally exhibit or learn to mimic the qualities that are thought of as typically masculine in order to gain reception as a productive, important person — square shoulders, a lower voice, short hair, unflowered language, formal forms of address, abrasiveness, crude jokes, physically distant mannerisms. Masculinity is associated with seriousness while femininity is associated with triviality.

This affects not only women but men, and more severely so. Men who display “feminine” qualities, whether physical or personal, are socially punished for being too slender, gentle, sedentary, aesthetically sensitive, emotional, relational, wordy, refined. Their sexual prowess is considered deficient or their sexual orientation is doubted. They are often relegated to the world of women, shut out from male zones and denied male approbation.

A notable development in the history of our social imagination is the move of aesthetic appreciation from association with the masculine to the feminine. Pre-industrialization, the masculine worlds of education and scholarship emphasized appreciation for the arts and poetry. Boys studied the serious business of Homer and Shakespeare while girls studied homemaking. In the pre-capitalist epoch, the arts were considered central to the human endeavor, and therefore as belonging to the realm of masculine expertise, but industrialization overturned our cultural value system. Aesthetic appreciation contributes nothing to capitalist nation-building, which in the 19th century overtook the American imagination as the new most important human project, over and above spiritual or aesthetic pursuits.

This industrialized disregard for the arts as irrelevant and therefore feminine has persisted; for easy evidence, compare the rates of males in STEM majors with the rates of females in “soft” science/literary/artistic majors. It is highly ironic that aesthetic sensitivity (e.g. attention to color, design, figurative language) is now disparagingly associated with the feminine, considering the history of male domination in the arts.

Perhaps in our cultural effort to usher women into the “important,” “masculine” worlds of economics and politics, we have ceded too much ground by agreeing a priori to the proposition that only those worlds are important. Therefore, only masculinity is important. Unfortunately, the goal seems to have become to elevate women by making them more masculine. Furthermore, this infiltration of women into male zones and masculine roles has generated a reactionary response among men which has tended to restrict the definition of what masculinity means, detrimentally affecting men or boys who fail to fit the mold.

A healthier project may be to de-trivialize femininity itself and elevate the feminine worlds of art, interpersonal relationships, emotion, and spirituality back to their rightful place at the center of human life.

The next post will look at how the Bible intersects with these issues.