[Academic Excursions] : Re / Envisioning The Feminine For All

When we think of the terms “masculine” and “feminine,” traits readily come to mind that we often believe to be “true”--true meaning here that one is born this way and that such traits are biologically ordained. From before birth, we are inundated with the idea that people born with penises are inherently masculine and those born with a vagina, feminine. To name but just a few of the “truths” that go along with such a worldview: Men (in all their tremendous masculinity) are said to be more logical, less emotional, better at math and science, poor communicators, and more sexual (due to the need to “spread their biological seed"). Womxn (in all their lilting femininity) are more emotional, less logical and analytical (due to their exorbitant emotions), more nurturing, more creative, and less overtly sexual than their male counterparts.

These “truths” are believed to be immutable, and those traits identified as feminine are typically denigrated and seen as inferior to those identified as masculine. This is evidenced in frequently heard statements such as, “She’s just being emotional and not logical” as if emotion and logic were mutually exclusive and the latter certainly better than the former. Such misguided biological essentialism will always render womxn inferior given a prevailing neoliberal ideology that both requires and legitimizes so-called "masculine" traits.  Of course, much has been written on gender fluidity challenging such essentialism, and we can easily look to other cultures that do not operate on a strict man/womxn gender dichotomy to see that the American way of doing things is not universal. Many cultures recognize multiple genders and do not link the male/penis with masculine and the female/vagina with feminine. This linking of genitalia with personality traits is an odd one when examined further, yet our culture persists in its belief that men and womxn are born with standard, undeniable traits. Despite an incredible amount of evidence to the contrary, we continue to culturally reproduce these falsehoods that make it far better to be a male in our culture than a female. One only need look at the responses to 45’s pre-election “locker room” talk to see just how steeped we remain as a culture in an antiquated worldview that suggests males are biologically “programmed” to talk in such a manner (and, therefore, excused from such behaviors).

“Oh, that’s just how men talk. You know, they are overly-sexualized.”

This statement was not just made by men defending 45, it was made by womxn seemingly unaware they were speaking against their own interests. One wonders how such demeaning talk can be reduced to biology, and why womxn would willingly accept such talk and implicate themselves as objects deserving of such “locker room banter.” Furthermore, why would men accept and want to be associated with such a prescribed definition of what it means to "be a man"—by this account, a seemingly neolithic creature unable to control his mouth and hands due to biology? We must be willing to openly engage with these questions if we are to grow together as a people and enact radical social change.

Far from pitting male against female in a way that many often identify with the feminist movement, examining the ways we have all been (mis)identified under the biological paradigm allows us to see how we all suffer under such ill-advised notions and further permits us to properly identify the socioeconomic systems perpetuating such oppression.

Such a critical examination allows us to recognize how implicit capitalist patriarchal structure is to both our being and our language. We have lived under such a system for so long, it isn’t quite clear what “the feminine” would be outside of the discourse from which its present colloquial definition derives. If we remove the cultural stereotypes of the terms “masculine” and “feminine” that have been falsely identified as biological traits of men and womxn, we can instead explore what such terms refer to on a more symbolic level; in other words, let’s suspend our beliefs that masculine means male and feminine means female and look at these descriptors instead as representative of differing types of attributes that do not have any direct correspondence to genitalia.

On a broader scale, masculine attributes or qualities are often associated with doing, productivity, logic/rational thinking, extroversion, competition (power over), materialism, and certainty. Feminine attributes are often thought of as the complementary opposite to masculine: being, passivity/receptivity, irrationality and feeling, affiliation and cooperation, spirituality, intuition, and mystery/the unknown. (There is, of course, already a problem here with archetypal explanations assuming masculine and feminine to be distinct opposites.) It is evident when glancing at this list why masculine traits are more highly valued in a neoliberal meritocracy, and thus why womxn (as the "biological" feminine) will always be oppressed under such ideologies. Womxn are thus not born biologically inferior but rather are made out to be so as a result of prevailing social relations. 

If we detach biological signifiers from masculine and feminine, we might take a different philosophical route and say that the masculine roughly lines up with the yang qualities of Eastern philosophy, while the feminine describes the yin, where a continual ebb and flow, give and take occurs. Again, here, it is important to note that our ideas of masculine, feminine, yin, yang, and so on are socially constructed and symbolically-mediated; however, at least now, we are removed from the imaginary conflation of anatomy with sexual identity. Masculine and feminine are simply descriptors rather than intrinsic biological traits. The issue endemic to both approaches, however, is that both assume there to be a direct, complementary other that, when combined, make a whole. When we operate from such a standpoint, there is no room for that which is surplus. There is only this or that, male or female, masculine or feminine, yin or yang. We are trapped in a world of false dichotomies and limited by the language with which we are forced to use to describe the current state of affairs. (We are both freed by and prisoners of language.)  

Acknowledging these limitations, if we follow the route of masculine/feminine as archetypal descriptors, we can see how we have been and remain in the firm grasp of the masculine. As a culture, we value doing over being, activity over receptivity, thinking over feeling (going so far as to deem feeling as “irrational” as if both feeling and irrationality are negatives), logic over intuition, competition over cooperation, and certainty, mastery and control over wonder and mystery. We can also see how the qualities of the feminine have been culturally bastardized and relegated to the bin of inferiority.

Such observations necessarily require us then to radically question why people scoff at feelings, prioritize productivity over community, and choose instrumental reason over intuition. We must ponder what we mean by the term "irrational,” critically inquire into the source of its negative connotations, and then ask who decides? It is likely that such questions seem silly in and of themselves. What does she mean “what’s wrong with irrationality?” (And sure, we are certainly witnessing the darker side of "irrationality" at present.) My point, however, is that we have been so conditioned to believe certain things, we have stopped questioning their truth value. If we are willing to step outside of our comfort zones though, we can perhaps see that, in and of themselves, all of the above are vital and part of the complexity of human nature; however, because masculine energies have been dominant for so long—and because our culture has irresponsibly equated masculine with male and feminine with female—we are left with a society that devalues the feminine, leaving everyone to suffer the consequences. If, however, we remove the judgments and shake up our normative perspectives, what happens when we redress the imbalance? If provided greater access to those qualities currently deemed insignificant—how would our social systems change? How would our social systems change us?

At both the level of the individual and of society, how does femininity reveal itself outside of patriarchal discourse--as the surplus? If the script of what it means to be a womxn has heretofore been written by men, then it is time to step outside of that discourse and create and explore the feminine. This has deep implications for all, as it involves a checking of preconceived “identities” passed on to us all and issues a challenge to re / envision ourselves without such constricted and ill- fitting constructions. This requires a critical questioning of our most tightly-held beliefs about who we are as people. It requires openness, courage, and a desire to evolve as individuals and as a society.

Creating the feminine is about disconnecting from roles determined by others and calling into question a social order that operates via oppression so as to create a more inclusive, creative, and just society. It is about being open and receptive to an intuitive nature that has been denigrated for far too long in favor of such things as control and intellectualization. It is about reconnecting to something larger, something not easily quantifiable (if at all), but nevertheless, quite real. The feminine is mystery, the unknown, uncharted territory.

It is the “X” in “womxn.”

The tendency is to push away that which feels unfamiliar, but in doing so, we have lost our capacity for wonder, the sublime, and for greater connection. It is through our connection to others and our recognition that we are stronger together that we find the ability to face truths head on and expand and change our worlds. To create, explore, and amplify the feminine is to enlarge one’s emotional and creative world. It is past due and necessary, so very necessary for everyone who suffers under such a restrictive and constrictive half-life. It is to risk defying sedimented stereotypes so as to transform oneself and a social order that seeks, through its very mechanisms, to divide us. This is the act of creation, of beauty, of resistance.

We must aim at a different way of thinking and living—one that exposes the capitalist patriarchal myth and recognizes the profound experiences possible when the feminine is no longer something to be feared. Seen from this perspective, we are all suffering under the repression of the feminine. To evolve and effect change then, requires not just the emancipation of womxn, but the emancipation of the feminine.