Toxic femininity

So, I’ve noticed that I wrote a lot about Teh Menz in my feminism category. And while I think that talking about changing male culture and creating healthy ways for men to relate to themselves and to women is important and needs to be talked about, it would be neglectful to do so to the exclusion of talking about female cultures, their toxic aspects, and how to transform it into cultures and systems that allow the most women to feel confident in being themselves, without double standards and discrimination.

So I’m making a post about toxic femininity, as a counterpart to toxic masculinity. So, while toxic masculinity is part continuation of good oldfashioned patriarchy, and part newly created backlash to feminism, so toxic femininity can also be described as part tradition part backlash. And just like toxic masculinity defines itself by what it is not (female), so toxic femininity defines itself as not-male. Both are gender-essentialist and stereotypical, ignoring individual variation and preferences; and both are inherently based on gender inequality. Now, the problem is that the term isn’t really well defined anywhere, and is often simply used by people who don’t like the existence of toxic masculinity pointed out to them. But I think in modern culture, I can identify three developments that can rightly be described as a form of toxic femininity: 1)A backlash against feminism by women, resulting in re-adoption of strict patriarchy; 2)Adaptation to the current culture of toxic masculinity by creating a corresponding femininity to coexist with it; 3)A backlash against toxic masculinity resulting in anti-male femininity.

1)This one is closely related to the mechanism that created modern fundamentalism as a backlash to an increasingly secular society, and it is indeed often closely tied in with religion. It seems at least in part also a reaction to the fact that feminism in no way magically solved all of women’s problems, but rather created an interim period in which women were both housekeepers and wageearners; most women react to this by demanding more help on the homefront from men; some women however were lured in the other direction, into the mythical idyll of getting stable, calm, worry-free homes full of children and people who give a fuck about you personally. instead of having to get yelled at by a boss, having to worry about finances, having to have your marriage fall apart because you can’t be a perfect wife and a career woman etc This desire to escape modern reality is probably best shown in The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality written in 1985 by Mary Pride, who turned from a childless feminist activist into a evangelical christian SAHM who homeschooled and shunned birth-control. This mentality is now best represented by the Prairie Muffins and the Quiverfull movement, in which femininity is defined by motherhood and submissiveness to the males in the family (father/brothers/husband)

2)This is probably the most common variety, as it’s basically the default in Western Culture, which is, to a lesser or greater degree, steeped in and dominated by toxic masculinity. It’s also easily the most confusing, since modern culture sends mixed signals to women as to what they should be to be feminine and valuable as such. At its core is of course the acceptance of the core-issue of toxic masculinity, i.e. that females are worse than males; and while men lose points for being tainted with femaleness, women can gain points by having maleness rub off on them. The confusing and contradicting messages our culture sends out result in different stereotypical strategies that girls and women are presented with to gain access to men and therefore have their attention and proximity validate them and elevate their status. What all of these strategies have in common is that they define femininity as something that exists for the pleasure of men, put women in vicious competition against each other for the attention of men, and that none of them actually leads to men accepting women in their entirety, rather than partially in their particular role, be it “sex-object”, “one of the guys, not really a girl”, “nice girl” or whatever. On an individual level, women in that situation are generally somehow expected to play all these roles at once and are punished when they fail; which they will, because the stereotypes are all mutually exclusive.

3)the third option is radically different from the other two and wouldn’t usually get listed in a lineup of versions of “toxic femininity”, but I feel that it still fits in here. Basically, it can be summed up as the movement by feminists who have come to the conclusion that toxic masculinity has corrupted the left and especially sexual liberation (basically, turned it from the patriarchal model of ownership of female sexuality to the Bill Maher version of liberation: “it’s good because it gets me laid more”), and that men are in fact incorrigible, worthless assholes. This version of toxic femininity is separatist and basically based on misandry. In more moderate versions of separatist feminism (especially heterosexual feminism), this meant simply refusing to deal with men and male-centered issues while focusing on women-specific issues, creating female-centered communities, and strengthening the community and dialogue to improve women’s lives in general. But it has evolved in some instances into the belief that women are humans and men are parasites. This is a sentiment especially strong within the lesbian separatist movement. Especially in the form of Political lesbianism, which claims that sexuality can be a choice, it can be toxic because it denies female heterosexuality as a valid and healthy lifestyle and advocates that women, if they really want to be free of the patriarchy, need to sever ties not just with men, but also with women who refuse to give up on men, sexually, or otherwise. Some of the most toxic examples of misandrist separatist lesbianism can be found at FSTDT here and here.

Anyway, the reason I find that all three of these fit the bill for “toxic femininity” is because they, like toxic masculinity, pretend like womanhood has a very specific look and feel that should be followed. Also, all three seem more like coping strategies which may or may not work fine for some women, but are not a viable, healthy option for all women. And because of that, they’re exclusionist and set women up against each other in a competition to perform the specific version of femininity they advocate. And they’re definitely no solutions to the problem of patriarchy and toxic masculinity, but rather strategies for coping with it. There’s no means at improving the situation for everyone anywhere in there.

A healthy definition for womanhood would have to be one that both accepts individual preferences, and acknowledges that we’re by a large degree shaped by our cultures, which can be changed as a group but not defied by all women all by themselves. Healthy womanhood would allow women to draw value from within, from themselves and their own definition of themselves, not from their relationship (or lack thereof) with men; and it cannot base their feeling of self-worth on denigrating others, be it non-conforming women or men. Because of that, a healthy femininity would have to be less precise and well-defined than the examples above, while at the same time more rigidly establishing the rule that all women are equally worthy regardless of how (or whether) they choose to express their femininity; it also needs to enshrine “enthusiastic consent” into all actions and interactions, be they with other women or men, and not just in the sexual context. Just like fighting toxic masculinity and establishing a healthy alternative means removing the pressure from men to be and do things others have decided they should to be respected as men and people, so fighting toxic femininity and establishing a healthy alternative means removing the same pressure from women, so that they don’t have to feel the pressure to become the perfect SAHM, the perfect sex-object, or the perfect man-free feminist to feel that they’re Real True Women, and real, valuable people.

In that sense, the main job for feminism, from my perspective, is to uncover and destroy the social, economic, and legal inequalities and barriers that deny women their right to self-expression, and do so without establishing new ones.

21 comments on “Toxic femininity

  1. David Marjanović says:

    Some of the most toxic examples of misandrist separatist lesbianism can be found at FSTDT here and here.

    The second link doesn’t work. (Though I’m not sure I want it to, tragic as the first is.)

    What’s further missing is a link to Männer sind Schweine. :-þ

  2. David Marjanović says:

    BTW, how toxic is weil ich ja sowieso gewinn’, weil ich ein Määädchen bin, weil ich ein Mä-ä-ääää-dchen bin? I don’t know the rest of the lyrics.

  3. Jadehawk says:

    link fixed, lyrics to Mädchen here, and trick questions are mean, especially ones I’m not gonna be unbiased* about.

    I don’t know whether that song fits well into the definition for toxic femininity. I think some would call that empowerful; I might call it cynically beating toxic males at their own game because you can, while you can, while simultaneously setting feminism back a decade or two.
    :-p

    - – - – - – - – - -

    *because I was like that until recently-ish; for years, I’d go out on weekends alone, and end up getting drunk on someone else’s tab and getting laid if the guy was passably cute. Also when you’re too broke to buy food, an entirely viable alternative to stealing is to get guys to buy you dinner.

  4. Rorschach says:

    *because I was like that until recently-ish; for years, I’d go out on weekends alone, and end up getting drunk on someone else’s tab and getting laid if the guy was passably cute.

    That’s par for the course for the chicks over here, average night out lol…I dont remember a culture like that in Germany at all.

    And “Maedchen”…..*shudder*

  5. David Marjanović says:

    Oh for crying out loud. I had no fucking idea about the topic of that song! <facepalm> X-) Didn’t mean to ask a trick question.

  6. Jadehawk says:

    That’s par for the course for the chicks over here, average night out lol…I dont remember a culture like that in Germany at all.

    that was in Germany; American bar-going men are a tad too toxic for my taste (though, easier to convince to buy me a drink)

  7. David Marjanović says:

    Uh… I thought you’ve been living in the US for the last 10 years now? So you inserted a break of several years (after your divorce perhaps???) and were still too broke to buy food, even though you were in reach of your parents?

    Does explain how you got your experience with remarkably stupid German university students, though.

    Layers and layers… :-o

  8. Jadehawk says:

    erm, no, sorry for the confusion.

    the chronology goes like this: the going to clubs/bars, getting drinks and getting laid is what i did in my last few years in germany (and after the divorce, after realizing the toxicity of american men, on vacation trips back home sometimes).

    the having guys buy me food is exclusively in the states, but that didn’t involve any bars, clubs, drinks or sex.

    the experience with the remarkably stupid german university students happened in a completely different context than barhopping.

    I totally shouldn’t have brought this up, since it effectively derailed the thread :-(

  9. Jadehawk says:

    also, I moved to the states in 2002, so that’s 8 years. If I ever said 10 years, I’m blaming it on rounding up :-p

  10. Rorschach says:

    I note we emigrated in the same year…:-)
    And you did this in Germany ? I’m seriously shocked, this completely passed me by, and I experienced it as a novelty over here and thought for a while aussie chicks were just super-awesome…:D

  11. David Marjanović says:

    Thanks for the clarification.

    the experience with the remarkably stupid german university students happened in a completely different context than barhopping.

    Of course; it just required you to be in Germany, and I didn’t know where to put that in your CV.

    also, I moved to the states in 2002, so that’s 8 years.

    Oh, that explains it.

    If I ever said 10 years

    You never did, I had just thought you had eloped immediately after almost finishing school.

    thought for a while aussie chicks were just super-awesome…:D

    It rather strikes me as an extrovert’s idea of despair.

    (Maybe “extrovert” just means “outside the autism spectrum” here. But whatever.)

    I totally shouldn’t have brought this up, since it effectively derailed the thread :-(

    Well, no, I started the thread drift (to put a positive spin on it) with my second comment at the latest*. Blame it on my complete lack of experience with toxic femininity — and my rather far-reaching lack of experience with femininity in general. (Or people in general, rather.) I knew the attitudes you’ve listed existed, but that’s because I’ve read about them. So I had nothing to add beyond bland agreement. Me being the first to comment seems to have had a remarkably large effect, too; did I scare everyone except Rorschach away? :-þ

    * And unknowingly at that. The part I quoted has become fairly widespread in the context of backlash against the patriarchy; I thought it was about, like, winning at competitions, and apparently so did the rest of my generation when I was in school. I had no idea what the song is really about.

    Reading the post again, it turns out I somehow missed the sentence about “enthusiastic consent”. I like that concept. :-)

  12. Jadehawk says:

    You never did, I had just thought you had eloped immediately after almost finishing school.

    *hysterical giggle*

    I see we’re not going to get this chronology thing straightened out with anything less than a comprehensive autobiography :-p

  13. Jadehawk says:

    mild attempt at getting this conversation back to feminism and toxic femininity:

    And unknowingly at that. The part I quoted has become fairly widespread in the context of backlash against the patriarchy; I thought it was about, like, winning at competitions, and apparently so did the rest of my generation when I was in school. I had no idea what the song is really about.

    well, ok. Taken at face value like that, it’s still essentialist (“I’m winning because I’m a girl”), but it’s better I suppose than “I’m losing because I’m a girl” or “I’m winning despite being a girl”, which would be the versions conforming to the TM view that women are inferior. And certainly some feminism even has these aspects (for example, politically in political lesbianism, religiously in Dianic Wicca), but I don’t find this productive past the first stage of rebelling against the norm. The battle of the sexes is really just the “divide and conquer” of gender relations.

    Reading the post again, it turns out I somehow missed the sentence about “enthusiastic consent”. I like that concept. :-)

    Enthusiastic consent is a concept I picked up from Cerberus, when she talks about rape culture and sexual peer-pressure. I need to find some good literature on it since I’m virtually clueless about it, but from what I picked up in the discussion, it’s an excellent concept, and not just in sexual terms, since it accounts for social pressures as reasons to agree to something, which the oldfashioned “no means no” doesn’t.

  14. johannes says:

    The “Girlie” subculture epitomized by Lucilectric or Heike Makatsch was the result of a transatlantic cultural misunderstanding; the feminist American Riot Grrrl movement was misinterpreted as postfeminist or even antifeminist by Germans.

    Nowadays, Luci van Org is all but forgotten – a comeback attempt that featured supposedly ironic* blood and soil lyrics and Luci wearing SS-style uniforms inspired by Stalag pulp novels was mercifully unsuccsessful.

    *whenever mainstream popular culture toys around with fascist aesthetics, it uses “irony” as an excuse

  15. Jadehawk says:

    The “Girlie” subculture epitomized by Lucilectric or Heike Makatsch was the result of a transatlantic cultural misunderstanding; the feminist American Riot Grrrl movement was misinterpreted as postfeminist or even antifeminist by Germans.

    that would explain a lot, actually. Punk empowerment translates shittily even from the underground into mainstream, nevermind across cultures/borders/language barriers. The connection between empowerful pop and Riot Grrrl never occurred to me though.

  16. Rorschach says:

    This seems appropriate to counteract Lucilectric:

    Dresden Dolls–Eisbaer

    ;)

  17. David Marjanović says:

    it’s an excellent concept, and not just in sexual terms, since it accounts for social pressures as reasons to agree to something, which the oldfashioned “no means no” doesn’t.

    Of course.

    Now I’ll need to read up on the Riot Grrrls. I don’t know anything much about them… Actually, why don’t I start immediately.

    Dresden Dolls-Eisbaer

    Exceedingly boring.

  18. David Marjanović says:

    For crying out loud! Did I kill this blog? ;-D

  19. Rorschach says:

    Maybe the Eisbaer song did…..:-)

  20. Jadehawk says:

    no, work killed it. Since I won’t be doing any work for 6 weeks, I need to get a lot done right now.

    There will be at least one post next week, I promise. I’m almost done writing it :-)

  21. David Marjanović says:

    There will be at least one post next week, I promise. I’m almost done writing it :-)

    That’s great, but I was referring to the comments, too!

    Maybe the Eisbär song really did scare everyone away. X-D

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