The Cult of the Hyper-Feminine

27 Mar

While purusing Twitter this morning, I stumbled across this post by Julia Gazdag: “Being Feminine Doesn’t Make Me Weak” published in HelloGiggles. It details the joy of bows, shiny rings, and cute dresses, meanwhile claiming that such feminine garb is a clever ruse to trip up those imagining her to be a pushover or easy prey.

I can’t say that I’m surprised to see such a post in HelloGiggles, which was co-founded by Zooey Deschanel, the benevolent ruler of all things glitter and sparkle. Deschanel’s character in The New Girl has accrued charges of sexism, and the show’s confrontation of those charges mirrors Gazdeg’s defense of her feminine style.

Similar articles pop up often on HelloGiggles, and Slate’s XX Factor as well (a section of the news site that I love, by the way). I can’t help but agree with Gazdag when she claims that the hyper-feminine woman is a rapidly increasing breed:

I feel like I’m part of this cult of women, and everyone outside it only sees the surface and is content to judge us based on what they see. We bake cupcakes in cute aprons while listening to obscenely perky Swedish twee-pop (Acid House Kings = life). We knit and stitch and craft and DIY like we’re Etsy’s grandmother. We also discuss social theory, deconstruct films until we fall over from the weight of our own pretentiousness, debate Inga Muscio books and run circles around guys with music nerd-dom.

There clearly is a widespread phenomena of  retro feminine, super chick, talented, smart women taking over popular culture and the blogosphere. And I identify with these women. Although I haven’t quite mastered knitting and I prefer to cook rather than bake, I do enjoy fifties-esque style and cute jewelry. My love of lipstick and floral arrangements even led my roomie to tweet me this article on adding romance to every day life, claiming that I must have been the article’s inspiration.

Evidence that I am part of the feminine cult.

Even though I can see myself in this new, hyper-feminine subculture, I’m not entirely sure what it says about where society, women, and feminist arguments are headed. In one sense it worries me, as I can see the phenomena as a longing for the fifties era depicted in Mad Men, which I think perpetuates and idealizes a dangerous conception of women. (I know, I’ve heard (many) arguments that the show simply depicts the realities of the period it’s set in, but I firmly believe that the show does nothing to condemn the sexism of the time, but actually glorifies it.)

On the other hand, this new trend actively embraces more healthy forms of beauty– more realistic weight expectations, for one. Plus, for the hyper-feminine, being beautiful isn’t for sex or outside appreciation. Instead, it seems to be for the purpose of personal joy. Hyper-feminine women dress to express their style; it acts as an outward display of inward happiness and confidence.

I do wonder what cultural influences have led to this influx of perky, crafty ladies. Gazdag and The New Girl invoke the third wave feminist concept of choice— these women just choose to be extra feminine. But as I’ve said before, that idea is outdated. We are influenced by the social factors that surround us– so what makes us choose to be so feminine? And from there, how do these decisions affect or challenge notions of feminism?

I suspect that, though the cult of the hyper-feminine want to believe that they are feminist and are enacting feminism (and I include myself here), there is something inherently anti-feminist in a prolonged practice of the bubbly, crazy sweetness Jess Day displays weekly on The New Girl– and I’m still trying to figure out what that might be.

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6 Responses to “The Cult of the Hyper-Feminine”

  1. esquaredg March 27, 2012 at 8:11 pm #

    I will finally write an opinion here! Yay!

    Something just wasn’t sitting right with me when I read “Being Feminine Doesn’t Make Me Weak.” Granted, it’s a fun post made for a certain audience, so I don’t want to rip it apart, but it got me thinking. My first reaction was, “Since when are bows and skirts the only definition of femininity?” The author probably didn’t mean to come across this way, but based on some of the negative comments readers posted, others felt the same exclusion I did (as someone who would consider myself feminine, but isn’t necessary part of the new “cult”). There are other hints of exclusion (apparently ladies who wear 1990s make up in public aren’t rockin’ an acceptable version of femininity, or style in general, and “dragalicious” must be defended), but those are probably more a reflection of our society’s sense of humor than the author’s hard-and-fast views. While her personal story of tomboy-ism being acceptable in childhood, but becoming more feminine as a natural part of growing up may not be a statement about gender expectations for everyone, it seems to follow societal beliefs. Still, I would love to see less pieces adamantly defending the writer’s one specific life/style/lifestyle, and instead more that present the author’s personal choices as just a few of the many equally valid, diverse choices out there. It would be even better to see blog posts supporting/celebrating (life)styles completely different from the writers’! I realize I sound hypocritical because I’m defending my own brand of femininity in reaction to the article’s claims, but I have nothing against the author’s “feminine” ornaments (except maybe in a consumerist sense, but I’m always hypocritical when it comes to that), rather I dislike her exclusion of others and her reaction to how society treats her.

    Speaking of which, the second thing I was a little confused about was the author’s disbelief at others for judging her by her “feminine” appearance. “How dare you assume I’m meek and mild when I adorn myself with material objects our society has labeled as objects of the meek and mild!” Huh? I get that ideally, we wouldn’t be judged based on things like what we wear, but we’ve all had tons of experiences of people assuming our stories by our covers. It would make more sense to me if the post was a rally about how we need to appropriate the bows and make them badass! Or a manifesto about how we should stop associating anything as “feminine” or “masculine.” If you like bows, then wear them! And while it’s not cool for people to judge you, you can’t be super surprised when the inevitable happens. I guess I like when people show awareness and offer suggestions on how to change things, resist, or deal with society. Yes, the way people act is ridiculous, but treating it as simply ridiculous isn’t going to make it go away. You have to find out why and how and keep asking questions. She does state that we should be past this, after all the waves of feminism, and I guess that’s why she’s surprised. I guess this blog is a testament to her personal experiences proving sexism isn’t dead–not even close. She also states that she “loves it” when people make assumptions about her and she gets to prove them wrong. Is this post really an ode to that excitement we all feel when we get to turn a stereotype on its head?

    Another small moment of “I don’t know about this…” occurred when the author stated that it’s okay when people judge her incorrectly because there are so many women in positive leading roles on TV! As you point out, I’m not sure I buy it, and I’m also not sure that it’s more important/effective to fight sexism in the media before we do it in our everyday lives. I really appreciated the comment someone made about how “feminine” was being defined purely by material objects we use to decorate ourselves. I know style holds different meaning for everyone, but why is commodity the emphasis on what makes you feel good or womanly? The author admits to using these material objects to keep the vicious reality of the world at bay. Isn’t that the point of consumerism? To distract us from actual problems of the world? Is this a good thing? Oh gosh, that’s an entirely different discussion! I also am not sure I buy it when the author claims that she simply likes these things because she likes them, not because of any influence from society. She says she refuses to fit a personality stereotype, but when her own material preferences “coincidentally” line up with a physical stereotype, it’s no biggy. Maybe I’ve been in the humanities too long, but I can’t believe anyone is that far removed for society’s influence (if they were, I imagine they’d be running around in burlap sacks, grass skirts, or something else not found in society). Not that all influence is bad, of course, but I like it when people can own up to the possibility.

    I’m afraid I got more snarky as that went on, and I’m also afraid I didn’t really respond to your post…but I appreciated it! Sorry my thoughts are jumbled and unorganized, but I just couldn’t not comment!

    • Caitlin Garzi March 27, 2012 at 8:29 pm #

      I really love your question, “why is commodity the emphasis on what makes you feel good or womanly?”

      I totally agree. I wrote that one of the positive’s of the hyper-feminine fad is this idea of dressing good because it makes you happy, but I overlooked the idea that that happiness is at the expense of the environment and third-world laborers. That cute style is often pretty cheap, and we have to wonder about the price our pleasure and self worth is costing the rest of the world.

      I also identified with your comment:

      “I also am not sure I buy it when the author claims that she simply likes these things because she likes them, not because of any influence from society. She says she refuses to fit a personality stereotype, but when her own material preferences “coincidentally” line up with a physical stereotype, it’s no biggy.”

      I feel the same way about myself. When parts of my personality line up so closely with female stereotypes, I start to wonder– is this choice? And, as some might argue, because it’s just my choice does that make it benign? I don’t think so. I think these kinds of intersections need to be closely examined– not because they are wrong, but because they are interesting and complicated.

      • Lipstick Terrorist March 28, 2012 at 6:28 am #

        Hey Caitlin,

        I found your blog through the comments on Julia’s piece and I agree that the fashion of the 50s housewife can be seen as suspect, in that it seems to be asking us to return to the kitchen and bake lots of cute cupcakes.

        However, I think it’s important to remember that there is a difference between the existence of a socially enforced ideal of womanhood that tries to keep us women in our place, and actively identifying as feminine on a personal level.

        As a lesbian and member of the queer community, I see that not all women are ‘naturally’ feminine. I am super intelligent and feminist and I identify very strongly as a feminine woman while outwardly presenting in a feminine manner. I don’t think this means that I am buying into any sexist bullshit. Bows and glitter ARE badass, because they are on me.

        I also agree that consumerism and capitalism sucks, but it’s not the fault of “cute style” that it exists. Every single person, male or female, masculine or feminine, buys clothes and objects in the same system. A man’s sneakers may be just as cheaply and unethically made as a girl’s bow. Capitalism is not womens’ fault!

        Anyway, I have written an article about ‘cupcake feminism’ about the rise of retro femininity in feminist circles. You might be interested in checking it out. Keep up the deconstruction 🙂 http://lipstickterrorist.wordpress.com/2012/02/17/innocentease-and-the-rise-of-the-cupcake/

  2. Stephanie March 28, 2012 at 9:01 am #

    I have actually had a problem with a lot of this writer’s pieces. She often neglects internalize oppression which is dangerous and worrisome.

    I did find the implied definition of femininity disturbing, although I have never really linked my outward appearance as me being feminine or masculine, as my personality has mostly masculine characteristics and I thought that THIS is my definer, and I find it troubling to define myself by what I put on my body.

    I guess I have always thought when we described physical things as feminine it seemed odd, like why are bows and glitter given a characteristic of personality or person? Being feminine is not a bad thing, it should be celebrated, but I don’t think that how we look should be defined such. I have know very “masculine” looking women that are very feminine in personality. Which defines them? And then are we using the dreaded boxes so loathed by post modern philosophers?

    The masculine feminine spectrum is very fluid, but I don’t know it has a place describing our clothes. Clothes are clothes, material, etc. But I suppose it is more comfortable to call it feminine than “girlie”, but that is a whole ‘nother can o’ worms.

    I love to read hellogiggles, but damn it often rubs me the wrong way. I get a weird icky feeling that it is like a wolf in feminist clothes, not always, but often.

    • Caitlin Garzi March 28, 2012 at 4:35 pm #

      This makes me wish there was a “Like” button for comments. I do feel like it’s a wolf in feminist clothing– but that could be because I’m a post-modern baby and mistrustful of most easy seeming solutions.

      I do think the idea of internalized oppression and consumerism play a big part in why I find this “hyper-feminine” (and agree with your note about feminine, by the way. Emi mentioned we ought to call it “stereotypical femininity rather than feminine– because we can’t define true femininity) movement disconcerting.

  3. LR October 30, 2012 at 6:00 pm #

    Truth is, most men want a hyper feminine woman on average. They don’t want the bad woman who is not feminine and takes initiative and has equal or more confidence than they do. It has to be subtle and classy.

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