To a large degree, our culture has replaced the fear and hatred of women (that is, misogyny), with the fear and hatred of things commonly associated with women. Enter, Femmephobia.
By Noah Brand
Back when your humble author Ozy Frantz was a high-school girl, she wasn’t lame and uncool and uptight like all those other girls, the ones who cared about their hair and giggled about boys. No, she was a cool chick. She liked all the things the guys liked: Family Guy, Star Wars, fart jokes, constant profanity, Michael Bay movies. Being a tiny feminist at the time, she felt that she was helping The Cause by not doing the lame-ass things girls did. Because girl things are stupid, and boy things are awesome, and… somehow this becomes less feminist the more you actually put it into words, doesn’t it?
Femmephobia is the devaluation, fear and hatred of the feminine: of softness, nurturance, dependence, emotions, passivity, sensitivity, grace, innocence and the color pink. To a large degree, our culture has replaced the fear and hatred of women (that is, misogyny), with the fear and hatred of things commonly associated with women.
For women, femmephobia intersects with the old separate-spheres model. So if a woman is too feminine — if she wears miniskirts and talks about boys and watches fashion shows — it will be generally assumed she’s stupid and shallow. If a woman is too masculine, it will be generally assumed she’s a dyke. However, between the bimbo and the dyke, women have a much larger range to play around with gender than men do. They can wear lipstick and blue jeans, play soccer and crochet, and no one will much care.
For men, both in the separate-spheres model and the femmephobia model, being feminine is bad. Once they combine, being feminine is clearly the Worst Thing Ever.
A masculine girl is a “tomboy,” likely to be tolerated by her parents and peers, although often in a condescending and limited way; a feminine boy is a “sissy,” likely to be bullied by other boys and by girls. The American Association of University Women and the Girl Scouts both have programs to encourage girls to join the sciences and mathematics, which are historically male-dominated; the Boy Scouts have a glaring lack of programs to encourage boys to join dance or the humanities, traditionally female-dominated.
As we get older, masculinity continues to be more acceptable for women than femininity for men. A woman who wears ties and boxer shorts has an eccentric fashion sense; a man who wears skirts and panties has Transvestic Fetishism, a clinical mental illness. (The proposed revisions of the DSM-V are more gender-neutral, although it is reasonable to believe that Transvestic Disorder will still primarily be diagnosed in men.)
In fact, femmephobia is one of the most important aspects of hegemonic masculinity. A real man can’t cry, because women cry. A real man can’t like Enya or Tori Amos, because women like Enya and Tori Amos. A real man can’t watch what he eats to make sure that he gets enough vegetables, because women watch what they eat. One of the defining aspects of masculinity in our society is that masculine things are those which are not feminine.
Dieting, caring about your hair, and being concerned about cleanliness are all Girl Things; doing any of them marks you out as not a real man, unless your product is specifically marketed as being for dudes. Thus in the world of marketing, we have diet soda, and we have diet soda FOR MEN; we have loofahs, and we have loofahs FOR MEN; we have conditioner, and we have conditioner FOR MEN. Hell, there’s even a brand of canned soup that advertises itself as being specifically for dudes, because God forbid a guy like icky girly stuff like… well, soup, apparently. The advertisements for the FOR MEN products may incorporate football, action movies, hot women in bikinis, and the inexplicable ability of the product to attract the aforementioned hot women in bikinis; a few go so far as to state that women are not allowed to use or consume the product.
Femmephobia even affects employment. Men in female-dominated professions tend to experience the “glass escalator” effect. Male nurses and teachers tend to be promoted to administrative and management positions out of proportion with their numbers, which sounds like a really awesome privilege, until you realize that most nurses and teachers became nurses and teachers to help patients and kids, not to shuffle papers. Studies suggest that the cause of the glass escalator is rank misandry: both colleagues and clients tend to rank men in female-dominated professions as less effective and less nurturing, and to be more comfortable once they’re in a traditionally masculine leadership role.
While femmephobia has its tendrils throughout society, clothing is one of the easiest and most visible places to see it. Certain articles of clothing are Not For Men, including makeup, dresses, and high heels. While there are some items of clothing that are gendered masculine, such as ties, a woman who wears them is unconventional, but is far less likely to experience the shame and even violence associated with men who sartorially transgress the gender binary.
Basically, any sort of adornment is, in mainstream Western culture, gendered feminine. Adornment has been a human universal through most of our history, but at this moment in our culture, it is considered unmasculine. Men do not wear jewelry, makeup, brightly patterned clothing, or about half the color wheel. Hell, men aren’t even supposed to spend a lot of effort on picking out clothing. Blue jeans and boring T-shirts, that’s the manly thing to do. Rich men can wear nice watches and expensive suits, because even if that’s paying attention to clothing it also shows off how successful and wealthy you are. A few alternative subcultures, such as hipsters and goths, practice male adornment, but they’re always viewed kind of suspiciously. They’re “gay.” They’re “pussies.” They’re “not real men.” Whatever.
The worst part is that there is absolutely no reason for any of this. If there is any more logical reason than “guys don’t do that” to forbid all men to pay attention to their outfits, neither of your authors have heard it. No one has ever been able to point to a dire evil that is only warded off by continuing to shame all men in lipstick. Hundreds of cultures across the world have had men, particularly upper-class men, in adornment as elaborate as the women’s; in fact, cross-culturally, we’re the weird ones.
And yet our culture uses significant amounts of pressure to keep men from adorning themselves. A straight man who crossdresses often experiences snickering, catcalls, and street harassment from men. Even worse can be the reactions from women, who tend to view him as a persona non grata or a threat. Because our cultural depictions of male crossdressers are at best pathetic and at worst predators (think Buffalo Bill, the crossdressing serial killer from Silence of the Lambs), he has had women view him as a pervert and a predator simply for shopping for women’s shoes. That is some pretty heavy-duty social weaponry to reinforce the fairly silly and arbitrary rule that men shouldn’t wear shoes with heels.
Perhaps the best evidence for femmephobia is the tendency of many people to confuse and conflate transness, homosexuality, crossdressing as a sexual fetish, and feminine personality traits.
It is generally assumed that most male crossdressers are gay, even though heterosexuals are far more likely to be crossdressers (to the point that until the DSM-V crossdressing could only be diagnosed in a heterosexual man). Homophobes often refer to gay men as “mincing” or “swishing,” that is, moving like a girl; slurs such as “faggot” are often interpreted as meaning that someone is not masculine, not that someone is gay; ex-gay groups believe that homosexuality can be prevented by affirming your child’s gender role and encouraging them to gender-stereotyped behaviors. Trans women often need to pretend to be hyper-feminine to get proper treatment, even though cis women today can perform different levels of femininity with minimal hostility; Blanchard’s debunked but still popular theory of autogynephilia argues that some trans women are actually crossdressing men whose fetish for themselves as female is so intense they actually identify as female.
Whether a person with a penis is attracted to men, is turned on by wearing feminine clothing, identifies as a woman, or has stereotypically feminine personality traits are four completely different issues that are not (necessarily) related to each other. However, it makes sense for people who are working from the femmephobia model, because all of those fall into the category of Men Doing Feminine Stuff. If you assume that having sex with men is feminine, and having played with dolls as a child is feminine, you’d assume that they’re somehow connected, however unwarranted or unsupported that assumption may be in reality.
Unfortunately, as we’ve previously established, men being feminine is generally considered bad and sick and wrong, which has horrific effects on the lives of men who have any of these feminine traits. Consider gay men. Obviously, homophobia is a separate oppression from femmephobia, and lesbians do not exactly escape oppression-free. However, it’s interesting to note exactly how much revulsion the average homophobe has against gay men. Some even seem to forget that women who have sex with women exist, such as the preacher who theorized that soybeans make your child gay because the estrogen is feminizing (apparently unaware that girl children can also grow up gay).
The combined effects of femmephobia and homophobia or transphobia often kill. Trans women are overwhelmingly more likely to be murdered than trans men, although both have an increased chance of being murdered. The majority of homophobic hate crimes are specifically anti-male-homosexual.
The roots of our current societal incarnation of femmephobia are complex, some going back millennia to ancient patriarchal power structures, others of more recent vintage, accidental side effects of seemingly positive social progress. Traditional kyriarchical models tend to rely on a two-sphere model of gender: men were the protectors and providers; women were the nurturers and the caretakers. (Of course, people of color, queers, and poor people are rarely accounted for in these neat models of gender. Kyriarchy is fun!) Second-wave feminism, quite rightly, freed women to go to the boardroom and not just the bedroom.
However, as a consequence, all too often feminism — particularly the versions espoused by people who didn’t really understand it very well — valued traditionally masculine things over traditionally feminine things. Hairy legs were a sign of liberation; lipstick proved you were a tool of the patriarchy. Climbing the corporate or nonprofit ladder or getting involved in politics were worthwhile goals; baking cookies for the PTA meeting was not. For a long time, feminism in general prioritized greater power for women over greater freedom.
One of the big victories of this form of feminism is that it freed up hegemonic masculinity, so that young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual, Protestant, mothers, of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight and height, and a recent record in sports may experience almost all of the same benefits accorded to their male counterparts. In fact, many portions of the feminist movement viewed taking advantage of those benefits as a feminist victory. Therefore, as hegemonic masculinity has spread in a weakened form to women, so too has femmephobia spread in a weakened form to women, which means that some hyper-feminine women also get to experience being denigrated in order to reaffirm other people in the awesomeness of their gender presentations.
This is what is technically referred to, within gender-studies circles, as shooting oneself in the foot.
To be clear, feminism didn’t intend to perpetuate the patriarchy — rather the reverse, in fact. The imitation of hegemonically masculine notions of success and power in some forms of feminism was, in hindsight, inevitable, since in our society hegemonic masculinity is what success and power look like. That unexamined definition is, in fact, the problem, because men have nearly as much difficulty measuring up to it as women do.
Hegemonic masculinity is defined in opposition to subordinated masculinities: that is, hegemonic masculinity is defined as much by what it is not as it is by what it is. Hegemonically masculine men are the Normal People, and everyone else is various degrees of The Other, marked as different. There are lots of people that hegemonic masculinity defines itself against: people of color, poor people, the uneducated, people with disabilities, non-Christians, conventionally unattractive people. Through the shaming and oppression of these groups, hegemonic masculinity cements its position as the superior, “normal” way of life; it’s a fairly common human impulse to make yourself feel good by shitting on someone else.
Most of all, hegemonic masculinity defines itself in opposition to femininity, to women. After all, by the separate spheres model of gender, men and women are held to be antithetical. All traits are split right down the middle: anger goes to men, sadness to women; impulsiveness goes to men, caretaking goes to women; desiring goes to men, being desired goes to women; playing with chemistry sets goes to boys, playing with ponies goes to girls. Not in a specific spoken way, but encoded into all the unspoken assumptions, all the ways things are presented, everything it’s so easy to take for granted.
However, hegemonic masculinity doesn’t precisely define itself against women, because women don’t have masculinity to contend with. (Femininity has its own set of issues.) Instead, it defines itself against feminine men.
Little boys who cry get mocked because it helps reaffirm for the bullies that they, at least, are properly masculine. Gay men are disproportionately hated because, not only do they have sex with men (which is an icky girl thing), not only do they not participate in the objectification of women that is a core element of hegemonic masculinity, but they also have sexual desire for men, which takes away some of the hegemonic masculinity of those around them. (Imagine the prototypical homophobe who responds to a gay man hitting on him with vitriol about someone mistaking him for one of those queers.) And trans women are the worst of all — because what could be more feminine than someone born with a penis identifying as a woman?
So if all these things are what hegemonic masculinity is not, what about the things it is? What’s actually inside the “man box”?
This story was previously published on The Good Men Project.