Recently, a bunch of people on my facebook timeline started sharing a buzzfeed video titled, ‘Daughters Recreate Their Mothers’ Wedding Photos’. Emotional instrumental music in the background, a few shots of daughters talking to their mothers about what it means to be a woman, and a whole lot of glorification of the institution of marriage – the video was not particularly creative in its support of the patriarchy. What irked me the most however, were the reactions of the people sharing the video; reactions like “Aaaargh I’m crying”, lots of teary-faced emojis, tagging one’s mothers, and so on. Add to that the recent conversation around films like Veere Di Wedding, and other portrayals of female friendships like this other buzzfeed video– and it soon started to feel like mainstream media cannot fully wrap its head around the fact that women can have fulfilling relationships with one another outside of the rituals of femininity that they are forced to follow. Even when sprinkled with a few feel-good moments of ‘girl power’ assertion, where one woman asks a man to stop interrupting her friend, eventually, ritualized femininity always rears its ugly head.
Honestly, on some level, I get it. It is exhausting to have to constantly compete with one another for the validation of men, to constantly battle stereotypes about women in order to assert your own personality, and to be part of a culture which ensures that men are everywhere, dominating every space. A lot of young feminists, then, find an easy solution. The only space that men usually have nothing to do with is a space that revolves around femininity – make-up tips websites, blogger events set up by beauty brands, a communal dressing room where a bunch of women are getting ready together before a party, shopping outings, and so on. Taking part in these rituals of femininity then, is framed as some kind of vaguely feminist act that even the politically conscious, ’empowered’ woman is willing to get behind. But not only is it convenient for neo-liberalism that so many “feminist” acts now revolve around the act of ‘choosing’ the right thing to buy and consume, but it is also convenient for the patriarchy, since now ‘girl power’ or ‘women’s solidarity’ comes with no real challenge to sexist norms.
Thus both of these oppressive mechanisms, neoliberalism and patriarchy, with the aid of liberal feminism, work as a well-oiled machine. We begin to see femininity and masculinity as categories that are completely politically neutral, where anyone can choose where to fall based on their personality- never mind that choosing to reject femininity comes with social ramifications. Thus, not only does conforming to femininity become an expression of freedom and choice, it also becomes a revolutionary act of feminism, when we believe, like this popular tumblr post, that femininity is what is degraded in our society.
Imagine two people – a man and a woman working at the exact same position with (suppose) the exact same salary, but with a dress code that requires the woman to wear a dress, make up, and heels. This means that the woman needs at least an hour more than her male colleague just to get ready for work, meaning she has to wake up earlier, and is thus likely to be more tired. As if that isn’t enough, she also has to travel and work in shoes that are likely to cause her constant pain, and has to constantly be restricted in her mobility and comfort as a result. She has a completely separate set of expenses which her male colleague will never have to account for with the same salary. The sheer amount of time, money, and energy that the woman will have to spend on conforming to femininity, means that she will never be equal to a man working the same job. This is not to say that women become less competent, but that norms of femininity force them to work harder, and for lesser returns. Now, if the compulsory dress codes were taken away, and femininity was performed purely by choice, would it take away from all the ways in which it harms women? Surely not.
Thus what we see is not that feminity is just a phenomenon that exists, and that our society happens to hate – but that it is specifically designed to make women inferior to men. It is designed to make us preoccupied with superfluous qualities, lose our mobility, be physically restricted and take up less space, and spend our time and energy on things that are of no real value to our lives. What are the implications of the fact that half of the world is tip-toeing around the rest because it is unacceptable for us to wear shoes that let us walk like them?
However, when we get this the other way round, when we see femininity as a natural expression of our personalities – we see the rejection of it, as the rejection of the women who choose it. We are all familiar with the adolescent girl who says she is ‘is not like other girls’ because she is not interested in makeup or doesn’t like wearing dresses, and this statement has rightly been criticized by people such as Ellie Lee, one of the founders of the ‘I am like other girls’ project. She says,
“The fact is that phrases like this are so normalised in the society that we don’t even realise the damage it’s doing. Think about how much hate for your gender you must have been taught growing up to cast it away like that?”
However, what that statement also arises from is a very real discomfort with being thrust into one’s gender roles – a discomfort that is soon swallowed when femininity emerges as the only way to form bonds of solidarity with other women. Mainstream feminism, instead of helping young women fight against that, glorifies and promotes the reclamation of femininity. When an instagram art project aiming to reject internalised misogyny makes a post saying ‘I love makeup and I am like other girls’, what it is essentially telling us is that being a woman inherently has something to do with femininity. That is, perhaps, one of the most misogynist notions feminism has ever embraced.
So no, the peak of my relationship with my mother is not going to be the moment when I wear the same dress that caused her a lifetime of giving up her autonomy. The peak of my relationship with my female friend is not going to be the moment when I help her hide her bra strap so that she can avoid lecherous looks on the street. I might still compliment my female friends on their makeup after they’ve spent hours getting ready but my relationship with them will not rely on me taking part in that ritual with them, because I won’t. My solidarity with women will always be about learning together, growing together, and healing together – not about doing our eyeliner together. And frankly, the notion that this belief, that we are more than femininity allows us to be, is internalized misogyny; and that helping each other conform to standards of femininity is ‘looking out for each other’ – it is a notion that is not just problematic, but profoundly insulting to feminism. Perhaps as women looking for an escape from male-dominated spaces, we should stop looking for the easy cop-out of ‘feminine’ spaces and start creating female-dominated spaces instead. Women’s spaces are hard to create, and have the potential of being one of the biggest threats to those in power. If multi-billion dollar beauty companies are creating the only ones we know of, then perhaps our feminism is not so threatening to them after all, or perhaps those spaces have nothing to do with feminism in the first place. Women getting together and realizing that ALL of us hate plucking hair out of our bodies, getting blisters on our feet, feeling cold in our clothes, and colouring our faces, and encouraging each other to stop doing all of it altogether – now that, is scary. That is feminist solidarity.