On Saturday, I sat on a panel in the American Sci-fi Classics track at Dragon Con, talking about female heroes in classic sci-fi. One question from the audience stuck out to me as being insufficiently addressed in the time we had available, so: Young woman in the front row, stage left, ’bout three seats from the end, if you’ve followed me here (which is totally cool and appreciated), here’s the answer you deserve.
Question: Seeing as how “femininity” is really just a social construct, don’t we need to see more heroines who eschew traditional signifiers of femininity?
Short answer: Kind of, and yes, and both, and also.
To begin with, the extent to which gender as a whole is socially constructed, and the extent to which it’s biological in nature, has been and will be debated until what we know as humanity has evolved into a uniformly neutral gender that can only be described using German words. The general, although certainly not universal, consensus seems to be that it’s a little bit of both, although how much of each is yet another subject debated. On top of that is femininity, generally accompanying but by no means inherent to the female gender, and certainly the way it’s performed is heavily socially influenced, particularly where things like fashion and beauty trends come into it — but then there’s also the urge to perform that femininity (whether or not you actually identify with the female gender), and then there’s societal pressure to “act like a lady” or “look like a lady” whether you want to or not, and then there’s the matter of accepting a woman’s agency in choosing (or not choosing) femininity for herself even in that environment of pressure, all of which adds up to a solid “Kind of, and yet also kind of not.” (Let me know if I can vague that up for you some more.)
All in all, society tends to be both extremely insistent upon and extremely hostile to expressions of femininity. On the one hand, there’s definitely pressure to embrace it — starting as early as preschool, the conventionally pretty girls and the ones in dresses and pigtails receive preferential treatment to that of the “tomboys” and less-pretty ones. In some fields, skirts, heels, and/or makeup are still seen as necessary parts of a professional wardrobe for women, and going without is viewed as an outright protest rather than an appeal to practicality. Last year, the cosmetics industry in the U.S. was pushing $60 billion in gross revenues. (Also, the Lingerie Football League is still a thing.)
On the other hand, though, society is also terribly derisive of those exact displays of femininity. Case in point: the popularity of the “no-makeup” makeup look, wherein women are expected to wear enough makeup to look appropriately youthful and pretty, but not enough that you can tell that we’re wearing it, because actually following the beauty standards that are pushed on us is seen as shallow. Cupcakes, handcrafts, and pink stuff are pushed on us, and then immediately derided as “girly shit.” Toddlers are placed in tiaras, because cute! and then laughed at, because stupid! Industries that started in the home and are generally performed by women only really gain prestige when they’re performed by men — cooking for your family just makes you a housewife, but cooking for other people makes you a chef, a position so esteemed and so male-dominated that women struggle to break into it.
On a very serious hand, consider, for instance, the impact that these kinds of expectations can have on LGBTQ people: that a lesbian who eschews the trappings of femininity is frequently criticized for it by society at large, but one who embraces it is frequently dismissed as a surface-level lesbian who could easily be “converted” if she just found the right man, and a feminine-looking bisexual woman practically has to carry around a notarized statement from a female partner to be respected as such, and not just as a straight woman with adventurous tastes. And God help a trans woman who does perform femininity, but not to some subjective societal standard, or who performs it to the point that she’s accused of trying to “trick people,” or who chooses not to perform it and has to face people who deny her womanhood entirely. Sometimes, there’s just no approach to the performance of femininity that insulates women from criticism or worse.
It’s a big old mess, is my point. (Which I made at greater length than I’d really intended to.)
So with all of that in mind, it definitely is important to see heroines who don’t go the traditionally feminine route. We need to see displays of female strength that are accepted as valid despite not being accompanied by performances of femininity. We need to see that it’s acceptable to be strong — whatever your definition of “strength,” in this case, and we certainly discussed a number of different definitions on Saturday — without also putting on lipstick and heels to show that it’s okay, we’re not so strong that we’ve forgotten our place. A lot of what we’ve been exposed to in popular culture does follow that strength-plus-lipstick model — comic-book superheroines in ridiculous costumes and heels to make sure they’re still sexy even when they’re saving the world, tough female TV cops who go home at the end of a long day to cry and eat ice cream in pink pajamas to show that they still have a feminine side and that there’s still a woman under that stiff uniform.
So however one feels about Mad Max‘s Imperator Furiosa, she can definitely be seen as a character who is allowed to be extremely strong without the trappings of traditional femininity. And as a fan of Person of Interest, I always appreciated that Taraji P. Henson’s Joss Carter got to do her job in trousers and flat shoes — not that she wasn’t attractive and feminine, but that she wasn’t forced into high heels and smoky eye makeup to make up for being smart, assertive, physically capable, and effective at her job. (Of course, that also brings up a discussion of popular media’s attitudes toward the femininity of strong WOC, which is enough for its own entire post.) Whether they’re women who fully skew toward traditional concepts of masculinity or ones who simply choose not to perform femininity at some level or another, heroines like that are important to see.
But we also have to remember how often strength and femininity are seen as mutually exclusive, and how often a woman is expected to shrug off any femininity in order to be respected and seen as strong. With that in mind, the Peggy Carters of the world, and the Buffy Summerses, and the Olivia Popes, are also important to see. Young women who choose, or feel obliged, to perform that kind of femininity need to see figures who are still perceived as strong even without shedding their feminine qualities. They, just as much as young women who don’t perform femininity, need to see reinforcement that they are capable of strength exactly as they are, without abandoning parts of themselves that they either see as essential to their sense of self or, frankly, required for their protection in a hostile society.
On top of all of that, of course, we also have to look at different kinds of behavior, and different aspects of strength, as they’re associated with masculinity and femininity — seeing physical strength (and, yes, even a capacity for violence) as something that women are still capable of having, but also seeing non-physical aspects (more frequently associated with femininity) like intelligence, reasoning, and empathy as equally valid forms of strength, even if they’re generally associated with kicking metaphorical, rather than literal, ass. The Jadzia Daxes, Tasha Yars, and Beverly Crushers* of the world, if you will, and the Deanna Trois and Nyota Uhuras.
Tl;dr: Society’s idea of femininity — and the way(s) it’s performed — arises from a number of different sources. And the way each of us performs (or doesn’t perform) femininity arises from a number of different motivations, some voluntary and welcomed, some enforced, unwelcome, and fought against. So it’s important to see “smart” and “competent” and “independent” and “sympathetic” and “assertive” and “dignified” (and all of the other qualities we discussed as aspects of “strong”) represented across a range of different types/levels/performances of femininity — not just for the women who need to see themselves represented, but also for society in general to be exposed to the great diversity there really is in that area.
And it’s also important that we recognize end-of-the-day ice cream as a gender-neutral universal positive, regardless of the color of your jammies.
Hope that helps, YWITFRSL’BTSFTE. Thanks for coming to the panel.
*Name-dropped here because they were discussed on the panel: Beverly Crusher inspired one of the other panelists to a career in science; Tasha Yar was my first platonicrush and inspired me to one really unflattering haircut; and Terry Farrell was actually there on the panel, and yet I was able to make complete sentences.