We Need to Talk About Femmephobia

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Over the last several months, I’ve increasingly noticed discussions about gender and gender oppression happening without reference to femmephobia. I’m sure my attention to the problem is the only part of this that’s new, but the situation is still frustrating. There are too many topics where all we can do is talk past each other if we don’t address femmephobia directly.

Before we can do that, of course, we have to understand what femmephobia is. For a succinct answer, I still like this one from Ozy Franz:

Femmephobia is the devaluation, fear and hatred of the feminine: of softness, nurturance, dependence, emotions, passivity, sensitivity, grace, innocence and the color pink.

There’s more to femmephobia than those examples–love of adornment goes far beyond preference for one color, for example–but the basic definition holds.

Like any of the so-called phobias that come out of bias and feed into oppression, this is significantly more complex than an irrational fear. Hatred is part of the mix, as femmephobia a specialized form of misogyny. Devaluation to the point of denigration is perhaps femmephobia’s most common form. But the fear is there too, though not everyone may fear the same things. Some people may fear the “otherness” of femininity in a world where the masculine is default, while others may fear being “tainted” by femininity.

Photo of a travel package of Dude Wipes. Black with highly stylized gray lettering.
Sometimes femmephobia is easy to spot. This is never more true than in marketing, where producers are falling all over themselves to reassure potential consumers that no, nope, no way, there’s nothing remotely feminine about their products. Yes, Dude Wipes are the current ridiculous thing, but there’s also Dude Stick lip balm (not alone in this market), the diet soda with “10 manly calories”, and the chocolate bar for anxious masculinity. If marketers won’t do it for them, men will masculinize their tastes on their own, as evidenced by the terms murse, manscaping, and bromance.

Whatever these guys are doing, they need to rename and redefine it to remove any possible hint of femininity. Nor does that stop when these men are selling to women. That’s why Nicholas Sparks, author of The Notebook and A Walk to Remember, dedicates the first question on his website’s FAQ to the supposed difference between love stories and romance as a genre.

Though both have romantic elements, the sub-genres have different requirements. Love stories must use universal characters and settings. Romance novels are not bound by this requirement and characters can be rich, famous, or people who lived centuries ago, and the settings can be exotic. Love stories can differ in theme, romance novels have a general theme—”the taming of a man.” And finally, romance novels usually have happy endings while love stories are not bound by this requirement. Love stories usually end tragically or, at best, on a bittersweet note.

Well, no. Don’t take Nicholas Sparks as your authority on what makes a romance. Ask some romance authors, reviewers, and publishers for that, or those readers of romance whose reading includes Nicholas Sparks. Still, it doesn’t matter to him what he says about romance. What is important is that he be able to say he doesn’t touch the stuff.

Photo of cooties toy from the game with long eyelashes and a bow on its head.
“Cootie” by Mike Schmid, CC BY-SA 2.0

Much of the time, however, femmephobia is more slippery than that. It isn’t just about a bunch of guys afraid to touch girl stuff because it might damage their brand. All too often, it’s a side effect of women having to work so hard for the opportunity to not be feminine all the time. When we set gatekeepers on women’s anger but not their compassion, their anger can take on greater value by virtue of its cost. Compassion, on the other hand, is more easily obtained and its value, thus, more easily overlooked.

It is even harder not to internalize femmephobia when gatekeeping is specifically predicated on femininity. Why didn’t you give the women in your company promotions and equal pay? Oh, they didn’t ask directly? Their voices weren’t authoritative enough? They weren’t forceful enough in meetings? They showed an emotional reaction to stress? Goodness, femininity must be a terrible thing, a burden that keeps them from being everything they could be as a worker.

Or, you know, businesses could be full of people with biases who externalize the causes of their undesirable actions, just like everywhere else. Still, all those justifications carry a message about the worth of feminine traits and the people who have them, and they come from far more than just the workplaces we try to enter as adults. We’re fed the message of feminine inferiority all our lives. It’s little wonder when even feminists absorb those messages.

As feminists, however, we have to learn to see femmephobia, and we have to learn to undo those messages. They have consequences that should be unacceptable to us.

Transmisogyny

Transmisogyny exists at the intersection of transphobia and femmephobia. Julia Serrano is credited with coining the term in Whipping Girl to describe the particular challenges of trans women and other trans-feminine people. As she describes it:

Trans-misogyny is steeped in the assumption that femaleness and femininity are inferior to, and exist primarily for the benefit of, maleness and masculinity. This phenomenon manifests itself in numerous ways:

  • Studies have shown that feminine boys are viewed far more negatively, and brought in for psychotherapy far more often, than masculine girls.
  • Psychiatric diagnoses directed against the transgender population often either focus solely on trans female/feminine individuals, or are written in such a way that trans female/feminine people are more easily and frequently pathologized than their trans male/masculine counterparts.
  • The majority of violence committed against gender-variant individuals targets individuals on the trans female/feminine spectrum.
  • In the media, jokes and demeaning depictions of gender-variant people primarily focus on trans female/feminine spectrum people. Often in these cases, it is their desire to be female and/or feminine that is especially ridiculed. While trans male/masculine individuals are often subjects of derision, their desire to be male and/or masculine is generally not ridiculed—to do so would bring the supposed supremacy of maleness/masculinity into question.

When feminists fail to recognize femmephobia, either in others or in ourselves, we can’t effectively dismantle these forms of oppression. We may even find ourselves contributing to them.

I’ve written before about the grossly unfair burden we place on trans women when we use their public appearances as a chance to talk about our own gender anxieties. Some of this behavior is based in resistance to the idea of gender identity that bleeds over from resistance to prescribed gender roles–and misapprehensions of the wide variety of ways in which trans people experience gender–but some of it is also based in femmephobia.

When we don’t recognize expressions of femininity as valid or valuable, we view people who choose to express themselves in feminine ways with suspicion. The extent to which we can reasonably refer to trans feminine people as acting strictly from choice is a complicated question. However, the fact remains that when we see someone adopt feminine expression where they didn’t before, we tend to view this as a choice. And as it appears to us to be a poor choice, resulting in lower status, we distrust it.

This distrust plays out in various ways. We see feminists accuse trans feminine people of being “parodies” of women. They can’t validly want to wear makeup, so when they’re seen to do so, they are instead making a derisive comment on the womanhood of cis women. More insidiously, trans women have been said to express femininity to co-opt oppression or in order to gain access to lesbians in order to rape them.

The links in that last paragraph don’t go to quotes from right-wingers. These are feminists denying the validity of feminine expression. These are feminists saying that someone willingly adopting feminine expression must have ulterior motives. And feminists will continue to behave this way until we confront our femmephobia.

How do we know? Because we almost never see these same accusations directed at trans men. It is only the decision to express femininity that is distrusted this way.

Only Some Choices

Trans feminine people make easy targets for the exercise of our femmephobia, with little power to object to our characterizations of them. It’s not surprising to find femmephobia in this feminist discourse. However, trans issues are hardly the only places in feminist discussions where we see it.

I avoid most arguments against “choice feminism” as either being simplified to the point of strawmanning or not usefully aimed at the circles in which I travel. It’s hard to tell the difference when people complain without specifics, and I don’t usually find it worth my time to figure out which I’m dealing with. When a site with the reach of Everyday Feminism weighs in on the topic, however, I pay attention. More so when people I respect share the post, a cartoon in this case.

Its message? It’s okay to wear makeup if you understand you’re pressured to do so, and it’s cool to wear it in arty ways, but support women who don’t just go along with the tide too.

Ahem.

Look, I understand that the broad, overt embrace of feminine expression as more than camouflage among white, non-queer feminists is a relatively recent event. I understand that it’s not widely theorized yet, as it’s a tradition that isn’t well represented in academic feminism. But the subversive potential of unabashed feminine expression in public life really should be something we can infer from existing feminist knowledge.

It is not new information that femininity is coded as passive, immature, and incompetent. We have plenty of studies manipulating femininity that back this up. Yes, we have some studies that tie cosmetics use to higher estimates of pay and competence, but these are both contradicted by results in other studies and generally designed to be studies of facial attractiveness, with other gender cues carefully removed. (This is all before we get into the fact that participants in these studies are generally not people responsible for hiring or setting the pay of others.)

It also appears that feminine expression has a complicated relationship with the gender coding of various professions. In politics, for instance, femininity may be a drawback for an otherwise competent female candidate. Nor is that the only male-coded profession in which femininity is treated as a reason to reject interested women.

We can find narratives in many tech-related professions and avocations, for example. The (ahistorical and poorly thought out) argument for the illegitimacy of cosplay is built around the idea that women in very feminine outfits are interlopers in male spaces, ignoring the men who also cosplay. sailor mercury gave several examples recently of how this plays out in the tech industry.

I met Liz Rush, a new programmer who graduated from the Ada Developers Academy, at Rubyconf last year. In her year of giving talks about tagging civic data with her project partner, also an Ada Developers Academy graduate, she talked about how her most frequent feedback was statements like “nice outfit”, and “you’re so pretty” instead of comments on the actual content of her presentation. One person started asking her a technical question after a presentation & then changed their mind, saying, actually let me ask your partner about this instead, I think she might have more to contribute. Liz’s project partner is a woman who doesn’t present as feminine, while Liz does. These experiences have made Liz decide that she doesn’t want to give any conference talks this year, and only speak at female-centered & diversity-focused meetups.

Women in games journalism who prefer feminine expression have had to navigate these waters, as have femmes on the tech side of industries that otherwise welcome women. Feminine people in male-dominated spaces spend an inordinate amount of time asserting and defending the idea that being feminine doesn’t mean being infantile and incompetent. They actively dismantle our society’s gender expectations.

What’s not feminist about that?

What’s not feminist about expressing femininity while engaging in analytical work at all? While setting and enforcing boundaries for the behavior you will tolerate around you? While asserting your own sexual desires or their lack? While saying that, no, this skirt isn’t asking for a damned thing because it doesn’t have a mouth? While running an organization? While making the case for your pay raise? While being mouthy and refusing to bow to intimidation and harassment?

For that matter, what’s not feminist about expressing femininity while merely being as mediocre an adult as the guy sitting next to you and refusing to apologize for taking up the space? When society views femininity as lesser, as passive and ineffectual, any work that decouples those associations is feminist work. Those choices are feminist choices, and they remain feminist choices even if the people who make them don’t articulate them perfectly, or at all, because most feminists aren’t theorists.

There are non-feminist choices, but those choices have to do with who we exploit and whose gender expression we require to conform to narrow, arbitrary standards. Too much of the discourse around “choice feminism” skirts this arbitrary gender prescriptivism–and some leaps right over the line. Much of this behavior I can only chalk up to internalized femmephobia, because it comes from people who otherwise work incredibly hard fighting prescriptivism.

There are other areas in which femmephobia hampers our ability to work together to end gender-based oppression. I haven’t even touched on the way that femmephobia narrows the possibility of gender expression for men and feeds their idea that women are taking the world away from them–or how it largely keeps feminism from effectively addressing those issues. I don’t have the background to discuss how femmephobia exacerbates the conflicts in our dialogue around sex work. I certainly don’t have the background to do more than nod to its place in complicating the dialogue around the intersection of race and gender.

Femmephobia still affects all those issues and more, though. For a healthier feminist movement, we need to learn to see it and we need to learn how to dismantle it. The sooner the better.

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We Need to Talk About Femmephobia
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12 thoughts on “We Need to Talk About Femmephobia

  1. 2

    @ starskeptic: I *think* it’s the other way round: see the line about femmephobia being a specialised form of misogyny, a subset of it rather than the larger issue surrounding it.

    “the devaluation, fear and hatred of […] softness, nurturance, dependence, emotions, passivity, sensitivity, grace, innocence and the color pink”

    This is one of the most thought-provoking pieces I’ve read in a long time. It’s like one of those optical illusions where two conflicting interpretations of the same image flip back and forth in your perception, vase/faces, young/old woman, duck/rabbit and so on.

    Does society devalue, fear and hate women, because they are identified with softness, etc? Or are softness etc. devalued because they are identified with women?

    Every time I think I’m tending towards one answer, the justification for the opposite suggests itself. Either option is regressive, in that its justifications are (or should be) obsolete in a civilised society.

  2. 3

    I see it – I disagree with it.
    We might use different terms for it, but there’s something more fundamental than misogyny; it’s a very dark side of human nature – an abhorrence of not just women but what women are seen to represent: a reflection of the weakness many men see in themselves.

  3. 4

    re: #2 sonofrojblake — I’m almost certain that it’s the case that softness, etc is devalues because it’s associated with women in our culture, not the other way around.

    I think this because in other patriarchal cultures which code femininity in different ways, it’s the aspect in that particular culture associated with women that are devalued. The specifics shift around, but the middle – women – remains the same. Or even in our culture, notions change over time. High sex drive use to be feminine, then it was sex-adverse. Now we live with the legacy of both — (but it does seem that it has to be one or the other..

    The blurry part is how hard it is to tell, even in your own head, whether this is a social pressure-derived desire, or an authentic desire. As a fem-presenting transwoman, this is a near constant thought process for me… and the difference is not at all clear. The pressures are so persistent, and have been so ever present… systemic.

    Sure, if someone is overtly telling me I need to do something, it’s easy to flag and resist. But the systemic stuff? I grew up in this culture and I internalized all the same things everyone else did. What I try to do, since this is on my mind a lot, is to 1) not judge the presentations of other people and 2) try and make sure that what I’m doing is either 2a) an authentic expression of myself or 2b) necessary for my safety and well-being.

    The comic linked is spot-on.

  4. 5

    “When we don’t recognize expressions of femininity as valid or valuable,”

    This is where I always get lost. I thought femininity was the expression. But then this sounds like you’re saying femininity is a thing that is then expressed with pink or dresses etc. But if that’s the case then I have no idea what femininity is.

  5. 6

    @5 rilian

    I thought femininity was the expression. But then this sounds like you’re saying femininity is a thing that is then expressed with pink or dresses etc.

    The point is that the things we’ve labeled as feminine shouldn’t be derided because they are perfectly VALID ways of expressing oneself. It’s the value we place on them that’s the problem.

    When you see a person doing something and you categorize it as ‘feminine’, you’re probably falling into the patriarchal way of thinking. Feminism is a living process. When the patriarchy is strictly enforced, direct confrontation is the only thing that can improve things: agitating for the vote, burning bras, intentionally taking on masculine roles, etc. We have to violate that line to move the conversation.

    But we can’t mistake the intentional political act of violating social norms as a rule that being on the other side of that norm is ‘right’. If we make that mistake, we’ve accepted the patriarchy and accept that some ways of being are better and that we just all want to be considered men. Which would be bullshit.

    We violate the norms so that people who have been forcibly placed on either side have the freedom to find their own place. They might find that they don’t have to move all that much (yay cis people!) others might find they have to move a long long way to find an authentic place. So be it!

  6. 7

    So what does one call it that these characteristics ( as brief as the examples are, variable across individuals and cultures) are ascribed to the feminine in the first place?

    And possibly not important, but it comes to mind: Are these characteristics derided in (or demanded from) women because the are seen as lesser first, then thrust as defining traits upon women, or do we find women as lesser beings first, then heap upon them our totes-not-masculine traits? Maybe that falls under “which is a subset of the other”, and i’m sure it is a circular process, but i wonder if there is a case for one or the other mechanism being primary. — Maybe i wonder about this in part because we are enforcing the definition of these things as particularly feminine in the very term femmephobia itself. I’ll have to read up more on this, the separation of these concepts into their own category is sort of new to me.

  7. 8

    What’s not feminist about that?

    I think the counter-argument goes something like:

    “Something something womyn performer something something gender is complex something washrooms something PATRIARCHY!!”

    In other words, I don’t know. I’m not entirely sure I can disentangle femmephobia when presented with it, because it just seems so unfathomably hypocritical to claim to be in support of women’s equality whilst attaching caveats to that like “as long as you’re performing your gender in a certain way because other people, but DEFINITELY NOT ME, devalue femininity.” I don’t have a desk hard enough to withstand my forehead.

  8. 9

    sonofrojblake & besomyka
    It may be a chicken-and-egg type of argument with good evidence on either end.
    But I see a disdain of weakness itself that has nothing to do with gender – women are just easily identifiable manifestations off it (As are all those who can singled out as “other” relatively easily).

  9. 10

    “Femmephobia” to me suggests fear of the “femme” persona observed in various persons & genders.

    Or maybe fear of Frenchwomen.

    Wouldn’t “femiphobia” better suit as a prefix for the wider meaning of “feminine” used here?

  10. 12

    […] We need to talk about femmephobia: “When we set gatekeepers on women’s anger but not their compassion, their anger can take on greater value by virtue of its cost. Compassion, on the other hand, is more easily obtained and its value, thus, more easily overlooked.” […]

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