‘I shall try to show exactly how the concept of the ‘truly feminine’ has been fashioned – why woman has been defined as the Other …’
In the introduction to her seminal 1949 text, The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir defined what it was to be a woman in society. The definition was declared and with it the call to arms to challenge it. To be a man is to be a person. To be a woman is to be The Other. Mankind and the other one.
To be a woman is to exist in the sphere of femininity assigned to us by mankind. Thus:
‘…the two sexes have never shared the world in equality. And even today woman is heavily handicapped …’
To be placed in that sphere is to be limited by it. To have to fight against it. Daily.
You may be rolling your eyes at this much discussed and tired argument. Here’s a little daily reminder for those who say the limits of this sphere are a ‘myth’, that there is no need for feminism:
When was the last time you heard a guy say, ‘Mate you threw that like a girl’ and meant it as a compliment?
The ‘ultimate’ swear word? The ‘C-bomb’. Otherwise known as a vagina. To be a ‘vagina’ is the ultimate insult. The lowest of the low.
What does that say about enforced attitudes to those who have them? Doesn’t exactly scream respect, admiration or equality. If someone declares someone else as a ‘C**t’, they aren’t saying, ‘Hey, I respect and admire you. Brother, we are equals. Show me some love.’
During my MA degree course, we spent a year studying the Romantic Poets. We spent one week on Female Romantic Poets. Not only were these poets and authors assigned only one week, they were also a subheading. There were the Romantic Poets and The Other ones. This was at a top university. Two years ago. 65 years after The Second Sex was published.
However, femininity is not the only gender sphere assigned to the sexes and daily reinforced by society.
To be a man is to be met with inherited constructs of masculinity.
Men must exist in that sphere and to ever veer into the ‘feminine’ is to be met with much harsher consequences than for the feminine to veer into the masculine. Perhaps women have been fighting the war of the sexes for so long that, without realising it, we have made such long strides in some areas that men are yet to catch-up.
This may seem contradictory to what I said earlier. I maintain that to be a woman is to be misconceived as the derogatory Other to man. I believe this must be fought against and challenged. Daily. Any moment a throw-away remark is made that is so steeped in derogatory patriarchal language, that the speaker is unaware of the spheres he or she is assigning their subject to, I believe must be challenged. Without exception.
My sister has the habit of continually correcting pronunciation and manners. Without fail. Mine is to call anyone up on their sexist terminology. Not aggressively. Just point it out because most of the time the speaker is unaware. Meal times at our house is as much fun as it sounds, yes.
Recently some friends of mine were conducting market research via social media: ‘If a unisex fragrance had the word Jasmine as part of its name, would it put you off? Does it sound too feminine? Or not??’
The vast majority of responses were in agreement that it was ‘too feminine’ and would indeed ‘put them off’. Women too stated that they most likely would not buy it for a man as they would assume it was for a woman.
Jasmine, being a flower, a delicate flower with a heady floral scent reminiscent of dusky summer evenings, it would also transpire is associated and assigned to the feminine sphere. Delicate, floral and the name of a Disney Princess. Girly. Feminine. Too feminine. Not unisex. Not neutral. Not ‘manly’. What’s in a name? A whole lot of prescribed patriarchy.
Response to scent is extremely relative. My favourite perfume gives my sisters a splitting headache. My oldest sister’s perfume made me retch when I wore it but oddly smells very clean and fresh on her.
Responses to scent is not just relative but chemical. Our bodies are part of the equation in both responding to the scent and affecting it. The question, however, was not about the scent but the name of the scent. The label. It was decreed not manly and thus men would not invest in it.
Masculinity is not just fragile but a handicap too. A sphere to be defined within and thus limited by. My previous job involved facilitating many craft workshops with children and their families. Repeatedly, as in throughout each and every day of the workshops and without exception, if a child who was a boy picked up a pink: crayon, bead, pipe-cleaner, tissue-paper, pen, gem stone, object of any kind, his Father would without fail take it out of their hands and say ‘you don’t want that one.’ Every time. To the child it was just a colour. To the adult it was a symbol. It belonged in the feminine sphere. Not the masculine. Their son was a boy and so had to be part of the masculine sphere. Anything prescribed to the feminine sphere was not for them.
What of the other aspects of femininity that is prescribed to that sphere? It is not just the colour which is associated with the feminine. Talking. Emotions. Expressing those emotions. Sensitivity. Weakness. To talk, express feelings, emotions, show sensitivity, to admit to any feelings of weakness is ascribed to the feminine. This does not just handicap women, undermine our voice and marginalise us, it is also handicapping men. It is not equal.
As a woman I am free to cry as well as to laugh. I am free to admit to struggle. I am free to express love. I am free to be sensitive. Heck, I am free to smell great and say it’s a jasmine based cologne. Men, however, are trapped and limited to be The Other. To be a ‘real man’ is to be stoic, strong and silent. To be a ‘real man’ is in fact, to be repressed.
As a woman I can wear a suit, trousers, brogues, any item of clothing that was previously only ever worn by men and not be labelled or considered a hermaphrodite.
No one thinks I’m struggling with my sexuality. No one assumes I am a freak. No one bats an eyelid. I am free to walk down the street without judgment. My roaring 20’s sisters fought that battle for me. Shocked society by daring to bare their knees. Strutted their stuff in slacks. Chopped their hair off in the flapper fashion and danced the night away, kicking up their heels and sticking it to ‘the man’.
Yet, if a man wants to wear high heels he is still considered ‘un-manly’. Most likely be slapped under the label of transgender or even freak. Society judges. If he has a beard and likes high heels, society feels very uncomfortable. Which sphere to put him in? Beard. Manly. High heels. Girly.
The battle for a man to be, feel, smell and wear whatever he happens to like, is still in its very tentative stages. It seems to be more common and acceptable for a man to wear a pink shirt but not trousers. Pink socks and maybe underpants but not shoes.
It’s ok for men to by self-grooming products but they will all be sold in shades of grey, black or blue and called things like: FROST not flower. EXTREME FACE WASH. MASCULINE. My ex-boyfriend was convinced I couldn’t use his facewash because it was for men. Like my face would dissolve if I used it. Nah babe. Just because it’s in a blue packaging, and called MOUNTAIN FROST FACEWASH FOR MANLY MEN, REAL MEN, MAN ABOUT TOWN OR HUNTER-GATHERING IN THE WILDS MAN, doesn’t actually mean it’s true. It’s just a label. We both like to exfoliate and that’s cool.
Masculinity is its own gender sphere and as such, its own prison.
In 2014 Emma Watson made her first speech as the UN Women Goodwill Ambassador. This speech acknowledged that feminism is a matter of inequality, not just for women:
‘I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness unable to ask for help for fear it would make them look less “macho”—in fact in the UK suicide is the biggest killer of men between 20-49 years of age […]; I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefits of equality either.’
It is 67 years now since de Beauvoir noted women’s struggle to liberate themselves from the sphere of The Other and simply be a full member of the human race. Feminism has been making continual and consequential strides forwards towards equality. Yet, whilst either gender is defined by opposing spheres and Otherness, no one person is free. To be human is to feel:
‘Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong… It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum not as two opposing sets of ideals.’
It is time Men should be permitted the liberties of the second sex. The permission to be free to feel.
And to smell like jasmine.
If you enjoyed this post why not check out, ‘On Sisterhood: Why Fortune Favours the Sister-less Child’?