Lessons from the Other Side of 21: The F Word

In this column, a recent college grad getting her footing in the world gives advice to her teenage self.

Dear JJ:

Today I want to talk about the “F word”. No, not that one. That one. Yes, THAT one. You know what the word is. Oh yes. No, not feminist. Feminist is not a dirty word, you know that. But you know what’s also not a dirty word? Feminine.

Being female anything is pretty fraught these days, despite all the supposed advances we’ve made in society. I’m not going to talk about glass-ceilings and what women make compared to their male counterparts–that’s all stuff which has been drilled into your head since childhood. You can recite all the facts, you can cite all the evidence, but that sort of equalizing feminism has no real meaning for you right now. You’ve grown up in a liberal-ish household in a liberal-ish part of a country in a liberal-ish part of the world; this is all par for the course. Being a feminist is a label that was at first assigned you, then one you’ve chosen to wear proudly on your own.

Except you’re still figuring out what means. Hell, I’m still trying to figure it out myself, and I suspect my definition of the label will be evolving until the day I die.

The real crux of it, I think, is that despite society’s thin, meaningless approval of “assertive, go get ‘em” females (look at her go, that sassy Career Woman!), it doesn’t know how to handle femininity. It doesn’t know whether to be disparaging or encouraging of it, and all your life, you’ve received mixed signals in relation to being a girl.

Let’s review the evolution of a tiny feminist JJ, shall we?

1. It is the early 90s, the era of gender-divided children’s programming, when shows like My Little Pony were designated for girls, while shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was deemed for boys. In school they are teaching you about the inherent equality of boys and girls, which in your single-digit-aged way, you take to mean it’s a constant battle between the sexes. You remember it, don’t you JJ? The Game, that strange playground war in which the third grade boys played kiss-chase with the girls, only to receive a kick and a hiss for their efforts. These were days battle lines between the sexes were heavily drawn, by both society and by us, believing that female solidarity would keep the cooties at bay. And because the teachers were telling us that girls and boys were to be treated equally, this in our young, malleable minds translated to meeting the boys on what we perceived as “their” terms: beating the ever-loving snot out of each other. Girls can be just as tough as boys! Anything a boy can can do, a girl can do better!

2. The late 90s brought with them the Spice Girls and their “girl power!” mantra, as well as a metric fuckton of hormones. Ah, middle school. Suddenly boys weren’t The Enemy, the Purveyor of Ew! Cooties; alarmingly, you were starting to be interested in whatever they were peddling. It wasn’t so easy then to maintain such carefully delineated battle lines. It is somewhere in this juncture that feminism as a movement, an idea, a concept, and a label (with all its attendant connotations) is introduced in a slightly more academic way. Of course! you think. Girls will grow up to be equal to boys! But cognitive dissonance is troubling your subconscious, and it grows louder when you see the “pretty” girls beginning to attract attention from your peers. They seem to be privy to a secret from which you are excluded: occult knowledge about things like “perfume” and “lipgloss” and sparkle body glitter from The Limited Too. Your intelligence, your go get ‘em attitude suddenly don’t seem enough, and because the label “feminist” is applied to you and “feminine” applied to them, you start to assign value to them, believing your feminist intelligence superior to their feminine lipgloss.

3. The early 2000s find you cloistered in an entirely female environment, an all-girls prep school, and for four blissfully naive years, you are judged not as a female, but as a student. No more, no less. There are other girls at school, those who primp and preen and look as polished as teen models on the cover of Cosmo Girl. And not only are they gorgeous, they are whip smart, and again you are troubled by this notion that they somehow know more than you. So you reject feminine trappings and surround yourself with things that won’t pass judgment on your lack of it: comic books, TV shows, fantasy and science-fiction novels, and really attractive actors who aren’t aware of your existence and therefore safe to crush upon.

And now you’re in college. In the intervening years, boys have morphed into actual human beings with whom you can carry a conversation. And now without a uniform to hide behind, you need to wrestle with this notion of “femininity” again. But why? Why do you feel compelled to confront it? What is femininity anyway? Does it mean being polished all the time? Does it mean you must always look attractive? Will you finally be inducted into the secret society of mascara wearers?

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    • Kristan

      First off, LOVE the Spice Girls shoutout. :)

      Second, LOL: “When you come home during summer vacations, your mother will roll her eyes and ask you to “please stop dressing like a cartoon character”…”

      Third, YES: “Somewhere along the line, you’ve come to believe that to be feminine was to be anti-feminist, because to be feminine was somehow solipsistic and limiting, instead of universal and empowering.”

      I don’t know how or why or when, but somewhere along the line, I got that message too. I have to think we’re not the only ones. For years I rejected Fashion, wanting to be a “tomboy” b/c it was (I thought) cooler and tougher. I only wore makeup when I had to (for dance team) b/c I didn’t want to be “fake.” I hated the color pink b/c it was “soft” and “girly” and “weak.”

      None of those quotes are necessary, though. B/c those are all constructs. Misconceptions. Ridiculous ideas that I’ve had to dispel from my brain over the years.

      Feminism is about equality, sure, but mostly (to me) it’s about women getting to embrace themselves, love themselves fully, without restrictions. (And being respected for it.) Whether that means being a housewife or a CEO or anything in between. Whether that means wearing pink tutus or black trenchcoats or anything in between.

      I wonder if there’s a way for younger generations to learn this lesson quicker — or to never get it so mixed up in the first place. Can they be taught that femininity and feminism are not opposites?

      For the record, it’s not just females that need to learn/remember this.