Clinging to the Eternal Feminine

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Alexandra O'Sullivan

I’m not cheap, I’m free.

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Femininity is in danger. Apparently, women are ‘losing their way.’ They are becoming less like women and more like, well I don’t know really, but something undesirable, no doubt. I spent some time on the Facebook page ‘Women Against Feminism’ recently, and that was an argument I saw woven through the comments, like a thread tying the anti-feminist ideology together.

For a more specific example, one woman had written ‘Feminists are an embarrassment to us normal women.’ This was then followed by predictable degrading comments about armpit hair and weight. It got me thinking, what is a normal woman? And why is it so important to be one? Like the toxic masculinity attached to the ‘real men’ rhetoric, this specific idea of what femininity should look like is restrictive and damaging. It is toxic femininity.

Simone de Beauvoir wrote about the ‘Eternal Feminine’ in The Second Sex (1949). The ‘Eternal Feminine’ is a gender essentialist theory of an innate femininity prescribed to every woman upon birth. In her seminal work, Simone dissects this idea of what makes a woman.

‘It would appear, then, that every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be considered so she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity’ (pg. 13).

Femininity is a strange thing. It is both revered and ridiculed. Women are placed on a ‘Goddess’ pedestal, and feminine beauty is viewed as the pinnacle of womanhood, with countless literature and media attention dedicated to it. But on that pedestal, women are merely beautiful trophies. This objectification makes it easy to knock them down when they don’t quite live up to the myth created for them.

There is a strong belief in an innate difference attached to simply being a woman. Women are mysterious. They are indecipherable to men, they are otherworldly. Other. “Other” is the operative word here. This ‘othering’ of women allows men to be the default. ‘He’ is a word that stands in for all humankind or ‘mankind!’ as it is often called. While this seems like a subtle distinction, this gender default setting means that women are not seen as subjects in their own right. This may be why many women fight to be seen any way they can.

Reading through the comments on ‘Women Against Feminism,’ I could sense this wanting to be seen, and sympathise with it. The cry for women to be ‘normal’ and not threaten the ‘goddess myth’ might be an attempt to hold on to the one thing we have been granted as women, our precious, fragile ‘femininity.’ Without our Eternal Feminine, there is a fear that we might just disappear completely.

I understand how this fear can inform our behaviour. I cringe to think about it now, but in the past, I found myself ‘othering’ other women. ‘I just get along with men better,’ I’d tell lovers or male friends, ‘I’m just not really like most women.’ I realise now that I wanted to be accepted into the default category. I wanted to be seen as a subject rather than an object, and it was easier to exclude myself from ‘femininity’ and become a kind of pseudo male, than to try to correct society’s gender default setting and have all women included in humanity, like I fight hard to do now.

Broadly, I see anti-feminism as an attempt to keep men as the default gender, and accept women as beautiful ‘others.’ The most common attack on feminists are appearance based insults, showing a belief that beauty is the only value women have that is worth attacking. It also illustrates how we try to exert control by threatening people with exclusion from their prescribed ‘in-group’ – ‘if woman is beauty then you are not a woman.’ Considering some more specific anti-feminist arguments though, I do see kernels of truth regarding some valid criticisms of the feminist movement, such as the toxic atmosphere of comment culture and a limited use of nuance in some ‘choice’ movements. But, what I don’t see acknowledged, is that these are problems faced by every ideology, and are a result of the fact that any kind of movement is made up of many people with different perspectives and human flaws. These problems are not exclusive to feminism, and they have nothing to do with ‘femininity’ being lost.

Nor are feminism’s problems to do with women ‘wanting too much.’ Feminism’s ambition to correct the default gender, by broadening it to include everyone, is seen by the people who think it is already all inclusive, as an ambition to become the default gender. This is a natural defensive reaction to shifting cultural values that make people feel uncomfortable, or threatens their position of privilege, but if I read ‘feminism is about female superiority’ one more time I might just lose it. Feminism began as a movement to put a focus on women and their experiences (though now we see that movement transforming into a greater community of other marginalized populations by doing our best to recognize intersectionality). The intention of feminism is not to make women superior to men, but to correct the ways in which they have not been, and still are not, properly seen or properly heard.

When the city of Yarra and VicRoads announced that they would be changing some of the crossing signals in Richmond to a female figure, people lost their minds ‘Why!’ They shouted on social media, while simultaneously accusing feminists of being hysterical and wanting attention, ‘What the fuck even is unconscious bias? Whatever it is, I don’t have it! Why do this!’ To which I’d just like to calmly counter, ‘Why not? Why can’t women finally become a part of the standard symbol of humankind?’

Why too, can’t women walk around on the ground being at times ugly, smelly, hairy, loud, opinionated or crass, but fully accepted as valid women for it? It irks me no end how it’s socially acceptable to tell the male side of a heterosexual couple that he’s ‘punching above his weight,’ yet to tell a woman she’s the less attractive of the pair would be the height of rudeness, because it would be viewed as an attack on her very being as a woman. Women should have more options than that. The Eternal Feminine should not be our only standard of worth.

Let’s explore this, not by shutting down any options of femininity, but by opening up more. This exploration into infinite variety is unnerving for some, because we don’t know exactly what potential types of womanhood will be unleashed. Femininity is in danger, not of losing its way, but finding it.