Not Being Like a Man: Femininity and its Stake in Pureness By Elke Weissmann Being Like a Man Where the proper men meet The pride of mankind assembles Their voices echo sharply into the night Their chests heave with better knowledge And after they have had enough to drink The night ends as it usually does With their firm bodies moving in on each other Too unsteady to exchange blows But one still in control pushes the other Hard into street where his head Cracks open on the wet asphalt. 0. Before I start let me confess: I have a personal stake in this. This is that I do not want to be like a man (see above) which, in this world of binaries, leaves me with femininity. But increasingly what it means to be like a woman is a little too limited for me. So what I aim to do here, by historicising concepts of femininity, is to critique what we have learnt to understand as feminine and to consider alternatives in the hope that eventually I find a somewhat broader conceptualisation of femininity. I. There is something quintessentially feminine about the concept of purity. Not just because we – women – get married in white or because more patriarchal cultures still insist on us being virgins when we meet the ‘right one’, but because the unmarried spinster, the asexual woman is part of a shared belief system. Women, it seems, don’t want to have sex. At least, not really. And in the 18th and 19th century this is exactly what women propagated: they were pure, they had true moral integrity, and they insisted on it. The idea of the pure, asexual woman largely developed in response to misogynist attitudes prevalent in Britain until the late 17th century. As E.J. Clery argues, from the late 1600s onwards, as Britain embraced the French
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coffee house culture, the category of woman was elevated from the depth of misogynist discourse, eventually leading to a distinction between an ‘effeminate’ and a ‘feminised’ man. While ‘effeminacy’ stood for all the bad things associated with femininity – ‘including corruption, weakness, cowardice, luxury, immorality and the unbridled play of passions’ (Clery 2004: 10) – feminization incorporated what was considered good about femininity: ‘sociability, civility, compassion, domesticity and love of family, the dynamic exercise of the passions and, above all, refinement, the mark of modernity’ (ibid.). After a backlash, a new positive ideal was established that revolved around woman’s incorruptibility; and this meant primarily woman’s strength to resist seduction attempts by countless rakes. Clery points to Samuel Richardson’s novels and in particular Clarissa (1748). Comparing this novel with Richardson’s earlier Pamela (1740), Clery argues: As in Pamela, sexual difference takes precedence over class; … Clarissa transcends the trial in a way that neither Lovelace nor many contemporary readers expected. Instead of conceding the point and accepting his offer of marriage, she gradually sheds her alluring mortal frame and becomes pure soul, all mind. Dying from a mysterious wasting disease, the text of her history remains as a legacy to a fallen England, with which her virtues were incompatible. Feminization, the promise of reform through the example of female virtue, is violently detached from worldly expectations, including the promise of sexual pleasure (ibid.: 96). Clarissa, then, personifies the new feminine ideal which transcends the earthly passions in a sacrifice that shames men into better behaviour.
What this means for femininity, however, is that good, proper women are supposed to be ungoverned by earthly desires. We are supposed to be morally better; but perhaps more importantly: we are supposed to be asexual. Similar ideas exist in German plays of a slightly later period, particularly in Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Emilia Galotti (1772). Emilia, irrevocably trapped in the hands of a prince who wants her as his lover, realises that she too has blood in her veins: she is not sure if she can withstand his continuous gallantry and seduction. However, rather than giving in to her sexual desires she demands from her father that he kill her which he duly does. Sexual desire, therefore, is presented as unseemly to the dutiful and essentially good daughter. More so than Clarissa, however, Emilia is simply the battlefield on which the recently empowered bourgeois classes can take their stand against the unscrupulous and despotic aristocratic rulers. Emilia is not really a female-feminine subject who develops and uses her virtue to counter the arbitrary masculine will of a near-equal aristocracy. Emilia is simply the personification of her middleclass father’s principles, a fact that becomes particularly clear when her fiancé swears his love to her by describing in detail his admiration for her father’s way of life. In other words, Emilia Galotti does not present us with a woman but with a class – personified as feminine but essentially run by male leaders – that resists traditional power models. Clarissa, on the other hand, tells us of a woman who even when she is rejected by her own family insists on her virtue and therefore manages to defeat the despotic aristocrat. Thus, Clarissa presents us not just with a more positive ideal of femininity – it also gives us an actively resisting woman. The reason for this might be that Richardson was connected to and actively supported several explicitly feminist women. There were several British women who published pamphlets about woman’s equality to man and several literary women whose work was published in magazines and in books. Around the same time
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as Richardson’s Clarissa, one of these women, only known as Sophia, published a polemic about the superior worth of Woman which included a misogynist reply and her own answer (Beauty’s Triumph: Or, the Superiority of the Fair Sex Invincibly Proved, 1751). Another of these women, Elizabeth Carter, was a prominent contributor to several magazines at the same time. Most of these women particularly demanded to gain access to equal education. Their argument was that if women only had access to the same education, they could prove their own abilities and show that there were at least some women that were as capable as some of the lesser men. Their demands show that women saw themselves as thinking subjects and were also partially celebrated by their male readers for their intelligence. They thus laid the groundwork for later writers including Mary Wollstonecraft whose own insistence on being a thinking, feeling subject scared some less radical women, including Patricia Thomson who wrote in the very un-feminist 1950s. The call for equal education and the insistence on women’s intelligence and subjectivity allowed for the creation of some heroines of longest lasting popular success in world literature, including Lizzie Bennett in Pride and Prejudice (1813). Interestingly, Lizzie is not the most virtuous of the sisters: Jane is continuously shown to be the one with the ‘sweetest temper’ the most ‘goodness’ who is able to silently suffer her rejection and see good in all men (and women). Similarly, in terms of accepted and preached morals of the time, Mary must be considered much more virtuous than Lizzie: she continuously reiterates writings of famous moralists, warns against the effects of ‘the loss of virtue in a female’ and presents herself as bored by the more earthly amusements which women were allowed to frequent and where they often displayed themselves in luxury clothes and fine ornaments (thus proving their inferior status to men): namely balls. Rather than the stereotypically sweet-feminine Jane or the equally stereotypically spinsterlyfeminine Mary, Lizzie is the novel’s perspectivegiving heroine. This is because Lizzie is intelligent
which means she can offer a point of view; she is presented as equal to the deserving man who teaches and is in turn taught by this similarly deserving heroine. Importantly, Lizzie can only teach because she does not hide her intelligence. Her witty and clever retaliations to Mr. Darcy often cause consternation for the apparently more refined women, the Bingley sisters and Lady Catherine who are educated to society’s standards. In contrast, Lizzie was educated by her parents and continues her education by constant reading, suggesting a curious mind, willing to teach itself. Nevertheless, Lizzie remains traditionally feminine in her pureness: but her virtue is based on knowledge and understanding, not on naïve sweetness. Unlike her youngest sister Lydia, Lizzie is not in danger of being seduced sexually, even though she is, at first, emotionally. But Lizzie – because of her curious nature – learns about Wickham’s rakishness and can therefore resist him. It is this presentation of intelligence as basis for true virtue that is so radical in Pride and Prejudice and that has influenced later literary heroines imagined by female writers. Jane Eyre in Charlotte Brontë’s novel (1847) is presented as a right pain in the butt when we first encounter her: sure of her moral superiority she even claims she can escape hell by remaining healthy. Her education (which includes her complete humiliation), however, make her a true heroine. She becomes equal to man (again) because of her intelligence; but her intelligence also gives her the strength to leave (and eventually find a new permissible role in life) when she finds Rochester was on the verge of making a fallen women of her (as lover, married illegally to an already married man). Interestingly, here true equality is only achieved when the heroine has come into means herself: Jane and Rochester are re-united not after Rochester’s first wife dies but when Jane has inherited a considerable sum of money. Economic equality, which Jane Eyre proposes, had increasingly become an issue for
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feminists of the period (Thomson 1956: 86-119). Victorian law originally saw all of a woman’s possessions become automatically her husband’s as soon as she married. Attitudes gradually changed, however, also due to the campaigns and writings of feminists (including Brontë herself). Jane Eyre is, however, a very unusual heroine in one other respect: she is plain. Lizzie is at one point described, together with her sisters, as beautiful, and at another point as ‘pretty’. Other writers of Brontë’s period similarly stressed the beauty of their heroines. For example Margaret Hale in North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (1855) is at one point described as ‘remarkably handsome’ and other references to her beauty abound in the novel. However, as in Jane Eyre, Margaret only finds happiness when she has become the economic equal (or even superior) to the man she loves. While her mental strength – which is also the basis of her moral integrity which, however, plays much less of a role than in Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre – attracts Thornton to her, it is her good business sense and economic independence that make her a viable partner for Thornton. Gaskell therefore imagines a truly modern heroine: intelligent, educated, morally good but, most importantly of all, also a good business woman. Significantly, she remains feminine because of her concern for other human beings, her attempts to help those less fortunate than her. In the world of masculine business, these considerations have little space, and in Victorian times, charity was a predominantly female domain (Thomson 1956: 13-36). Margaret therefore is clearly gendered feminine through her charitable attitudes and work. Why, then, does she also have to be beautiful? The key to this questions lies in what was considered beautiful at the time. Although, clearly, there existed beauty standards (particularly in regards to the female figure shaped by the Victorian dress in tiny waists and big skirts), beauty remained something hard
to define. Gaskell’s Lady Ludlow (1858) gives an indication of this. Lady Ludlow’s claim to beauty, we learn, must have been her violet eyes. Similarly, we learn about Lizzie that her eyes are the first attraction to Darcy. Of course we can understand the eyes metaphorically as windows to the soul – thus the eyes as metaphor for giving insights to one’s soul. However, what we learn about Lady Ludlow’s eyes is how their surface looks: this is not about traversing boundaries with the body giving expression to the soul but clearly about the ornamental value of the body’s surfaces. However, what is attractive about these surfaces is also what is rare: violet eyes. Thus, beauty is presented as that what stands out, as the unusual. And in the northern world of Milton, Margaret and her southern looks and posture stand out. Nevertheless, beauty was already defined as a feminine trait. Women had the duty to be beautiful, if possibly they could. Their purpose in life was to be ornamental. Other ‘feminine’ traits, however, abounded: in 1869, Lynn Linton described the ‘ideal of womanhood’ as ‘generous, frank, refined, capable, modest, trustworthy, domestic, graceful, brave and brown-haired’ (cited in Thomson 1956: 156). Modesty and domesticity in particular were two traits desirable in women. Women were not supposed to demand – and although they became increasingly educated (Agnes Grey in Anne Brontë’s novel (1847) had access to Latin, something Sophia had still had to forgo), they were also meant to be ignorant of some things and one thing in particular: the dark underbelly of Victorian society. When Gaskell’s Ruth (1853), about one of the many ‘fallen women’ of the period was published, critics – of which there were many – demanded that women in particular shouldn’t read about such things. Josephine Butler reflected on how men discussed the issue. They contended, she wrote, that ‘a pure woman, it was reiterated, should be absolutely ignorant of a certain class of evils in the world, albeit those evils bore with a murderous cruelty on other women’ (cited in Thomson 1956: 134). The demand to keep women ignorant of men who had sex outside of marriage (which they were often able to force on women because of the latter’s economic circumstances) essentially boils down to keeping women ignorant of the true nature of sex. Sex in this situation is only legitimate when it is ‘for the procreation of children’, and is therefore essentially romanticised for women. Men, however, who decide over women’s ignorance and know about men’s sexual urges, are presented as unable to help themselves,
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and are exonerated: at the end of the day, it isn’t the men who fail through pre-marital sex. Women’s supposed asexuality, therefore, does not only mean something for femininity, it also has consequences for masculinity. It defines men as sex-focused, as occasionally imbecile and irresponsible for their actions. It makes them brutes in comparison to the morally refined, asexual women who increasingly insist on basing their virtue on knowledge and education. Pureness, then, does not only define me: it has irrevocable – and in my eyes rather unflattering, although rape-legitimising – consequences for you too. II. Something happened after this dream of femininity was established. There is no longer a need for pure women who can only be virtuous because they are intelligent and educated, because they are economically independent and therefore do not have to sell themselves to the next bidder on the street or in marriage, and who are feminine because they are charitable and caring and also beautiful because they look different. Try to define femininity today and what you think of is looks.Virtue in this modern, western world of ours has become obsolete. The obvious place to lay the blame at is the sexual revolution. Women are now allowed to enjoy sex too. As several writers have pointed out, however, this has often meant that women primarily had to become more available. This is reflected in fashion: mini skirts, the increasing visibility of woman’s flesh rather than comfort are the norm. Sheila Jeffreys in this respect speaks of the ‘pornophication’ of women’s clothes (2005: 86). At the same time, when women dress in revealing clothes, there seems to be no problem at labelling her a ‘tart’. Society’s attitudes towards women therefore suggest a deep-rooted schizophrenia that demands women to look like prostitutes but be virgins, or look like virgins and be prostitutes. So deep-seated seem these attitudes that a judge in Australia can quickly claim that a 10-year-old girl very likely wanted to sleep with a whole herd of men who gang-raped her (here racists attitudes exaggerated the existing schizophrenia). But something else happened too: capitalism took over. Completely. More so than any other thought-setting framework, it defines what and how we are today. Everything now seems purchasable, and if you are reasonably well-off, nearly everything is affordable. And this includes our own looks. While make-up and clothing was already important to women in the 18th
century, they have become a major obsession in 21st century Britain. We – and this is we as in ‘women’ again – spend an absolute fortune every year on beauty products. Women spend on average £3,000 a year per person (Stephen Danielles, 2006) which amounts to a total of £6bn a year spend on beauty products in the UK. In other words, there exists a wealthy part of the economy that relies on very gender-specific consumer behaviour. Women have to continue to be obsessed with their looks in order for this part of the economy to remain healthy. And thus, the whole capitalist system works on making women feel inadequate about their looks (too fat, too thin, too pale, too orange, too black, etc.) to keep spending up. Part of how this works is by setting new beauty standards. Whilst women only needed to have a relatively thin waist in comparison to their big skirts in the Victorian period, women are now confronted with apparently scientific (often mathematical) descriptions of what is beautiful. The more symmetric, the more beautiful. The more we look like Kate Moss, the closer we are to the beauty ideal. The problem with this is less that these standards exist but that it has become affordable to attain them: women go under the knife to look more like these beauty standards (currently this still means primarily big boobs and pouty lips). And this will, in the long run, mean that we can all look more alike: women’s bodies can become standardised. Arguably, this is another outcome of our capitalist system as capitalism is not, as is often argued, about selfsustaining variety, but actually about constantly finding the largest common denominator, and this means it constantly standardises everything. One of the problems behind this standardisation is the mutual dependence of femininity and beauty. On the one hand, the beauty industry needs women to continue spending, and this can only be done if femininity is defined (at least partially) as being obsessed with how you look. On the other hand, femininity, because it has lost its dependence on virtue, needs to be defined as something other than masculine, and as the masculine norm by now includes pretty much everything else, what it means to be a woman has become reduced to being obsessed by your looks and looking different from men. This is nowhere more pronounced than in the makeover shows on television. How to Look Good Naked, which supposedly is all about women endorsing their ‘real bodies’, is particularly cruel in telling its women that they have let themselves down by wearing comfortable and practical clothes. Instead, women are trained to
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look ‘glamorous’ which usually means they learn to wear colourful clothes which display their bodies and they learn to walk in heels. Their reward is that they feel ‘all feminine’ – all woman. Importantly, their training also includes makeup and ‘pampering themselves’ which usually means body-focused beauty treatment. Thus, their apparently pleasurable experience of being a woman is reduced to the way the look and the way they think about consumption in regards to their body: after all they have to buy beauty products and clothes in order to look that way. Significantly, true femininity is presented as being at least concerned about these things, if not obsessed. Other television programmes and magazines partake in this limitation of femininity to how we look. 10 Years Younger, for example, presents us with a woman per week who is told by her friends and relatives that she has become ugly, which often implies she no longer looks feminine. So she undergoes medical surgery, dental surgery, a long and painful session at the hair stylist, some other long and painful sessions at beauty salons, and a proverbial dressing down which includes the whole overhaul of her wardrobe. While presenter Nicky HambletonJones often claims to bring the ‘real you’ out of the women – which apparently implies a complete change of surfaces – the women themselves often react with self-distancing shock. They talk about the woman in the mirror as ‘she’ or simply claim that this woman ‘isn’t me’. The misrecognition suggests a distance to one’s own body that has previously been described by Holland et al. (1998) in regards to young women. As Barbara Book sums up: The young women’s disassociation can be characterised in two different ways. First, there is the woman’s active constitution of her body and construction of her femininity in terms of what is perceived as desirable by men, rather than in terms of what may contribute to her desires. Secondly, there is her denial and repression of her material lived female body where and when its presence conflicts with the imaginary feminine. (1999: 67) The transformed women of make-over shows similarly seem to experience their new bodies as ‘imaginary feminine’ rather than as their own bodies. But this also suggests that this experience – although it brings women closer to the ideal – actually undermines the women’s subjectivity. Their bodies become objects even to themselves
and can therefore in this moment not be experienced as living material body. This disassociation, therefore, takes the woman out of femininity.
Problematically, these programmes visualise the transformation as something that leads to the sexual pleasure of man. Images of the transformed women usually include pans from the bottom up, showing off the female body to the traditional male gaze so aptly described by Laura Mulvey over 30 years ago (1975). In How to Look Good Naked, presenter Gok Wan also whispers to us that the women’s relationship with their men now is back to normal: things look good in the bedroom. Although the insinuation is primarily that the women experience sexual pleasure again, earlier interviews with the women actually indicate that their men had to live without sex for a long time. The women therefore clearly transform themselves in order to conform to the standards that induce visual pleasure for men. However, this would be too polemical a truth.We should recognise that these women do seem to feel better about themselves afterwards and therefore gain in confidence and happiness. And this feeling has nothing to do with being looked at. Rather it is about being able to conform, as Kathy Davis (1995) rightly points out. At the end of the day, we all hate to be different. And particularly we all hate to stand out in a negative way.The problem is because we can now standardise our bodies with all the new technologies of surgery and gym, the pressure to conform grows stronger.What is more, this is all that makes us feminine.Thus, in order to be a pure woman today, we need to look like that. Glamorous, young, trim, and looking after ourselves. But in this capitalist society of ours, in order to look like this, in order to be feminine, we need to have money: after all, all these beauty products and clothes are not for free; on the contrary. Even if you are, like Margaret Hale, ‘remarkably handsome’ you need to have enough money to top up your wardrobe on a regular basis. Particularly because clothes are now so cheap, they look old and worn after you’ve had them on twice. And with fashion being so fickle, you will have to discard the old clothes eventually.
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This essentially means that you have to have a minimum income of more than the average Brit in order to be able to feel pretty. And this also implies you have to be part of the moneyed classes in order to be a pure woman. The economic equality that Victorian women, the Suffragettes and the Second Wave feminists have fought so hard for has been converted into a new form of slavery. We have to work harder than men for two reasons: a) because on average we are still paid less and b) because we have to make sure within this apparent world of equality we stay feminine by spending far too much of our income on our looks. Here we get to the root cause of our problem: in our world of apparent social, political and economic equality, we are still defined and define ourselves as different. The tradition of sexual difference was born at Richardson’s time; he himself propagated it in order to claim women’s worth. At this time, it was based on metaphysics, later it would become also scientifically proven. Some feminists and Simone de Beauvoir in particular tried to work against this by denying difference in order to achieve equality. But this is similarly problematic. Comparing earlier times and earlier conceptions of femininity to our hyper-capitalist times in which there are few forces or indeed imaginary alternatives opposed to it (Communism, history seems to have proved, has failed), I notice one thing: an absence, in my discussion of the current period, of female-mediated female experience. This, again, has a lot to do with capitalism. But here, it is the effects of capitalism on the media that need to be discussed. I have here compared two apparently different media. But we have to remember that in many ways the novel used to be what television is today: the popular, often looked-down-upon medium of its time. It was one of the leading mass-media of its time, partially also because it was distributed in magazines and newspapers as well as in book form. In many ways, television has taken over this role. It too is the most-consumed and often looked-down-upon medium of its time. And it has experienced the changes from an early capitalist society to a hyper-capitalist one. When television was set up, it was perceived as cultural good, as something providing a public service. Now it has moved into an era – largely because of the complete undermining of the public service roles of both Channel 4 and the BBC by Thatcher and, later, Blair – in which questions of consumption (how many
people have consumed what programme) are paramount to its everyday functioning. Importantly, in this world of audience figures, what matters is again the question of who has money. As a consequence, the programmes that are now likely to be shown at prime time – the time when most people are available to watch – are programmes aimed at people with disposable income, and these people tend to be the better educated. Thus, the important programmes for prime time are those that apparently are more sophisticated, are betterproduced and are generally of a better ‘quality’ than other television. However, as Jeffrey Miller (2000) has made clear, ideas of ‘quality’ in Britain and America are deeply gendered. Quality is what appeals to a male and female audience; but they only become ‘quality’ if they focus on primarily masculine concerns. Importantly, as research by Barbara Mitra and Jenny Lewin-Jones (2008) indicates, women learn to negotiate a predominantly male-address as neutral when men don’t do the opposite. Thus, what is presented as a gender-neutral programme on prime time television tends to emphasise male experience. At the same time, programmes aimed at women have to revert back to more traditional forms of femininity in order to stress their female address. Mix this with the general anti-feminist backlash and you end up with programmes like 10 Years Younger. What does this leave us with? What do I advocate? What I hope has become clear is that we need to move away from the definition of femininity as focused on looks. This, however, is not easily resolved. It has to start with questions of why should femininity still be defined by our bodies, but has to continue with equally problematic and politically difficult-to-achieve demands. These include more access for women to high-powered jobs in broadcasting, a thorough critique of and debate about our definitions of quality, a restrengthening of public service ideals in broadcasting, a critique of masculinity as normative and a more wide-spread mediation of lived female experience. Most of this will not happen, but
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if you care about broadcasting, you can at least get your voice heard in a review of public service broadcasting currently held at Ofcom. References Brook, Barbara, 1999. Feminist Perspectives on the Body. London and New York: Longman. E.J. Clery, 2004. The Feminization Debate in EighteenthCentury England. Literature, Commerce and Luxury. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave MacMillan. Daniells, Stephen, 2006. ‘UK Women Spend Big to Look Better.’ In: Cosmetics Design Europe, http://www.cosmeticsdesign-europe.com/news/ ng.asp?id=66942-beauty-products-mascara-foundation (accessed 13 January 2008). Davis, Kathy, 1995. Reshaping the Female Body.The Dilemma of Cosmetic Surgery. London, New York: Routledge. Holland, J., Ramazanoglu, C., Sharpe, S. and Thomson, R., 1998. The Male in the Head:Young People, Heterosexuality and Power. London: Tufnell Press. Jeffreys, Sheila, 2005. Beauty and Misogyny. Harmful Cultural Practices in the West. London and New York: Routledge. Miller, Jeffrey S. 2000. Something Completely Different. British Television and American Culture. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press. Mitra, Barbara and Jenny Lewin-Jones, 2008: ‘Children, Television Commercials and Gender.’ Conference paper delivered at MeCCSA and AMPE Annual Conference, Cardiff, 9-11 January. Mulvey, Laura, 1975. ‘Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema.’ In: Screen, 16 (3), pp. 6-18. Thomson, Patricia, 1956. The Victorian Heroine. A Changing Ideal. 1837-1873. London, New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press.
Published on May 1, 2014
Elke Weissmann explores the idea of purity, the feminine and the ramifications for feminism, in The Drouth issue 27, Spring 2008.