Too often, feminists and non-feminists alike equate feminism with anti-femininity. The occasional devil’s advocate loves to ask how someone can identify as a feminist and still wear lipstick or jewelry. Real women don’t wear pink: \Aren’t we supposed to chop off our hair and strangle the patriarchy with our burning bras?
No, at least not this feminist. I rather like make-up and not incinerating my clothing. However, the degree to which anyone of any gender likes anything has roots in our societal norms. According to admonishing parents, boys don’t cry, girls don’t roughhouse and anyone who doesn’t fit in that binary is conveniently ignored. Swatting away these gendered mannerisms becomes easier as we grow older, but the expectations remain in the unconscious make-up of our culture.
Certain behaviors and objects are gendered as masculine or feminine. In modern American culture the most obvious example of this is the idea that pink is for girls and blue is for boys. Of course, these ideas are constantly in flux. One hundred years ago, pink was the proper color for baby boys whereas blue was the color for girls. Although pink and blue may change in meaning, the gender roles continue to exist in a strict binary.
This mechanism of gender coding obfuscates the reasons behind our actions. Does a little girl truly want to dress like a princess because of her personality, or does she only feel that way because the media she consumes and the people she interacts with tell her to? Would she rather be playing dinosaurs and robots, but can’t because those are “for boys?” If she tries to play with the masculine coded toys, society will push her back into the pink plastic kitchen.
However, a knee-jerk reaction away from gender norms can still cause people to conform to gender coding. Any sort of conformity begins to look like a part of the problem. A girl who plays with dolls may become too feminine while, in media, only masculine women can be heroines. Feminine women remain love interests and window dressing, while subversion of traditional gender roles becomes the expectation.
I’ve certainly been guilty of claiming a “pink allergy.” Different schools of feminism have gone through phases of this in the past, and it still occurs today. Telling a little girl she should not play with dolls is just as harmful as telling her she should not play with action figures. Flipping the gender binary on its head does nothing to destroy the normative mechanisms controlling it. A better solution is to educate children and parents about how gendered phrases and expectations slip into our syntax like poison in the water supply.
Being conscious of how our society perceives gender is necessary for anyone discovering their own gender identity. Maybe a woman does like pink, but she likes it for her own reasons, not because people of her gender are supposed to like it. The goal is to get away from gendered expectations in general.
Really, the true spirit of feminism lies outside of pointing fingers at problems. Feminists can be as feminine as they like, as long as they believe that femininity is an integral part of their identities. We’re so entrenched in gender norms that noticing where they stop and we begin is nigh impossible. However, we must include and encourage all types of people, no matter their gender identities. Not all women are bra burners at heart, but that doesn’t make them better or worse feminists.