Image supplied by the author
It’s an argument I hear with astounding frequency: how can a woman-identifying person truly be a feminist if all of her choices conform to the male gaze?
Essentially, they make the argument that women who make choices that conform to the male gaze (shave their legs, wear heels, beat their face) are deluding themselves that they are free. “How convenient,” they say “that your so-called choices, that you’ve apparently made out of thin air, conform entirely to how men prefer women look.” Women who make these traditionally feminine choices, their thesis concludes, are simply taking the easy option, claiming it as a freely-made choice merely so they don’t have to feel bad about it.
What this argument implies, in my reading of it, is that women who do make “Male-Gaze-Conforming” choices should feel bad about it. That women who religiously shave their legs (and the rest) are letting the side down.
I think I understand the point these people are approaching before they jump off the deep end: a lot of the choices that modern women make are encouraged by the male gaze. We might remove our body hair because we personally prefer how it looks and feels, but how much of that preference is planted into our psyche by the beauty standards we were exposed to since childhood? And how much of that choice is influenced by Male-Gaze-Conforming pornography? A lot of it, undoubtedly. But that doesn’t stop it from being a legitimate choice that a woman should be free to make. Plenty of the decisions we make on an average day are influenced by the standards and practices we’ve been exposed to since childhood. Those standards and practices are not without their baggage. But they are still our choices to make.
The other aspect that grates me about this argument is that it paints Male-Gaze-Conforming femininity as a phenomenon constructed in a boardroom by seven white men in suits. It paints femininity as something inferior, something shallow. As the antithesis of empowerment.
The argument vexes me so much because my journey with my femininity has been a long and, I would say, deep one. In one of my favourite photographs of myself [above], I’m two or three. My hair is so fine and blonde I appear practically bald. I’ve climbed into the clothes dryer where I’m hiding from my mum. When she found me, she snapped a photo. It’s one of those classic 90s images: off-kilter, messy. There was a time before Instagram made our memories ‘flawless’. I'm laughing. I’m wearing a white knitted cardigan, and around my neck, my pride and joy: a long string of pearls.
They were fake of course, those cheap plastic beads you could buy from the Kids section of The Warehouse. They were the best thing I owned. I wore them to play in the garden, I wore them to climb trees. At least a decade before Carrie Bradshaw did it, I wore them to bed. And anyone who tries to claim my mother forced them on me should try putting pearls on a toddler (or sunglasses, or a hat). No, I was a girly-girl from day one.
Trying to not be so "girly" has only helped me realise how girly I truly am. It has also helped me understand trans and gender non-conforming folk on a deeper level. Their innate inclination towards femininity or masculinity or something else entirely is as immediate to them as my femininity is to me. As cis people, truly studying our relationship with our own gender (something society does not encourage us to do) can only help us to more profoundly understand ourselves and others.
I don’t think my girlishness was concocted by a group of whisky-drinking madmen. For me, femininity was innate. So too was tenacity. They didn’t cancel each other out. They still don’t. I’m tired of apologizing for one – or the other.Support Villainesse