This morning I tweeted about lusting after Pottery Barn monogrammed towels and then felt the need to defend the fact that I have a yen for interior decoration. But why? It was a throwaway comment I made after Pottery Barn sent me an email blast about what was on sale. I don’t think any one cared or judged me for being unabashedly “girly”, yet I felt the need to qualify myself. That’s silly, so I am going to out myself, the way I came to terms with being Korean.
I’m a girl and that’s okay.
This train of thought was brought on by Natalie Whipple’s post on “strong female characters”, but more than that, I find myself mulling about “feminism” and “femininity” and “femaleness” more and more these days. I’ve had a weird relationship to being “a girl” almost my entire life and it’s only recently have I been able to articulate my issues and then try and come to terms with them.
These are the facts about me.
- I am female.
- I am feminine. Ish.
- I am a feminist.
I have no troubles with the first and third, but I think I’ve pinpointed the second as being the thorn in my side. Society has a set of ideas, expectations, standards, etc. to describe and attribute to people born female, which for my purposes, I have collectively aggregated into the nebulous notion of “femininity”. Through books, through media, through acculturation, I had somehow internalized the idea that being “feminine” was weaker than being “masculine” by the time I was six years old.
Not that being female was lesser than being male. God, I would never want to be a boy! Ew! Being a girl was awesome!
Possibly because I had difficulty fitting into certain standards of “femininity”, particularly when it came to interests. I liked “boy” things: toy cars, model airplanes and rocketry, comic books, shit that blows up, fighting, etc. When I played make-believe, I never played house, tea party, Barbies or…whatever other stereotypical things little girls play? (I once went over to a girl’s house who liked to play with Barbies and I distinctly remember being utterly at a loss for what to do.) I tended to have girl playmates who were more or less likeminded when it came to these things: we played things like Conquer the Fort and Exploring the Jungle and Blow Shit Up and Subdue the Everloving Snot Out of The Neighborhood Boys–SUBMIT TO MY GIRLY AUTHORITY! (I, uh, liked playing war. A lot.)
The Spectrum of Femininity
So I was female, but not feminine. Others told me that made me a tomboy. Sure, that works.
Because I more or less fell on the “boyish” side of the cultural gender binary spectrum, I was conditioned to cherish my masculine traits and consider them “better” than my feminine ones (of which I had many!). To the point where I began to abjure all things “girly”. For a long period of time, I refused to wear dresses or skirts, refused to go within ten feet of anything pink, and if there was a whiff of unicorns or bubbles or some shit like that, I was running as far as I could in the opposite direction. I had a fierce, independent, and strong-willed mother and a lovingly indulgent father who looked on my antics with affection.
This didn’t last, of course. I began to have an identity crisis around the time I was 12, when hormones began kicking in and I suddenly started noticing, really noticing, that there was a difference between boys and girls. All of a sudden I was expected to act “girly”. Boys went from being brothers I could pal around with to strange creatures whose teasing took on a different tenor in ways I couldn’t fathom.
(I was, uh, slow on the uptake when it came to kissy stuff, okay?)
I hard a hard time fitting into this (seemingly new) spectrum of femininity. Suddenly I was pressured to “look pretty” and “act girly”. I took to “looking pretty” like a duck to water: I liked fashion and art and this was pretty freaking awesome. But “act girly” was no longer about dolls or playing tea party; it was this weird, undefinable thing to me at the time.
And I failed at it.
I was your standard overachiever and I got perfect grades in everything, so you can imagine how I took to failing girlyness. NOT WELL. Being a tomboy was all well and good when I was a child, but being a tomboy at 12 suddenly meant I had to forego my newfound love of clothes. Why? Couldn’t I wear pretty, pretty dresses and go blow shit up at the same time?
Girl Or Boy? Pick One, But Not Both
And so we come back to the beginning. For a lot of my life, I’d been placed into the Boy Category, so when any instance of Girl-ness crops up, I feel the bizarre need to apologize. But I shouldn’t. Masculine vs. Feminine is not necessarily a black and white thing. If I take great joy in interior decorating and making a house look beautiful, does that mean I should also enjoy cooking, cleaning, and being a mother? If I like paint-balling (if I weren’t ethically opposed to it, I would probably really enjoy hunting) and poker, does that mean I should also like watching professional sports? (I hate pro sports; it bores me stiff.)
We all have aspects of the “traditionally” masculine and feminine in us and I would like to see that reflected in characters too. I don’t mean physically; I’m sick of the girl who can kick your ass eight ways from Sunday. I would like to see a girl whose pretty comfortable being a girl, but doesn’t adhere to every notion of femininity down to the last detail. This is my idea of a strong female character.
(On the flip side, I’d like to see a boy whose just a freaking boy, instead of a strange cross between stalker and knight in shining armor.)
“Strong” doesn’t mean “strong in a masculine way”. Strong ought to be gender neutral. A piece of steel is strong. And the last time I checked, steel didn’t have a gender.