Femininity

September 7, 2011

Femininity is defined in various dictionaries in either a circular manner as the quality of being feminine or indirectly as qualities associated with the female sex. This is because femininity is typically conceptualized as a constellation of multiple interacting elements that coalesce to yield an energy, an essence, or a state of being. We recognize femininity when it is encountered, but it is difficult to distill the interacting elements to a single, unifying definition that can be applied uniformly. Femininity also is often confused with gender role, which is a categorized distinction of activities and responsibilities deemed socially appropriate for females and males in a particular society (see Gender role). However, using a linguistic metaphor to illustrate the difference, gender role represents the parts of speech, whereas femininity and masculinity represent the grammatical rules of style under which the parts of speech can be combined to generate prose.

The dominant conceptualization of femininity in most modern societies is best described by sex-role theory, which proposes that humans unconsciously integrate archetypical ways of behaving that are appropriate to their assigned sex from society’s institutions. Sex-role theory organizes women’s behavior as passive, intuitive, submissive, and subjective, whereas men’s behavior is classified as aggressive, rational, dominant, and objective.

Idealized versions of sex-role theory in which these qualities are alleged to complement each other in a balanced way can be found in the folklore of many cultures (e.g., yin/yang, sun/moon, and the like). However, sex-role theory fails to account for the fact that cultures do not value the characteristics of each sex equally. Women are not esteemed for their passivity to the same degree as men are for their aggressiveness.

Feminist scholars exposed the limitation of sex-role theory by emphasizing that different power levels exist in society’s femininity/masculinity archetypes. In response, sociologists scrutinized sex-role theory and deemed it too rigid in several key areas. Primary among these is that it fails to recognize that women and men do not always embody their respective archetypes, other than to label this diversity as deviant. Furthermore, it does not address individual differences in behavior in various situations. Femininity, as it is characterized by sex-role theory, is an archetype that few, if any, women exemplify all of the time. Sex-role theory also fails to articulate how characteristics become assigned to feminine and masculine archetypes. For example, there may be no daily activity that requires more rational thinking than being the primary caretaker of a child, yet rationality is assigned as a characteristic of the masculine archetype. Additionally, the most successful figures in men’s professional sports are those who are described as having an intuitive sense of the game, yet intuition is assigned as a characteristic of the feminine archetype. Sex-role theory also assumes that gender forms the core of a person’s identity and ignores other key contextual factors such as race, ethnicity, class, and religion.

Regardless of how femininity is conceptualized, more often than not, it occupies a position of lesser value relative to masculinity, a reality all but ignored in sex-role theory. This is evidenced by the near universal and exclusive linkage of feminine worth with chastity. In fact, some theorists contend that femininity is portrayed in religious texts as a metaphor for immorality, whereas masculinity is depicted as righteous. For example, the Christian Bible—in particular the Old Testament—portrays femininity as treacherous, undisciplined, lascivious, deceiving, and manipulative—qualities that must be held in constant check by men. Consequently, in addition to archetypical representations of chastity, religious texts depict femininity as a rebellious spirit that can be redeemed only through obedience to men.

Responding to the inadequacy of sex-role theory to provide an accurate representation of how women and men relate to each other, sociologists developed a new theoretical framework that appropriately considers the structure of power, the sexual division of labor, and the social organization of sexuality and attraction. The Theory of Hegemonic Masculinity proposes that an archetypical form of masculinity exists in a given culture within a particular historical period, that masculinity always defines itself as different from and superior to femininity, and that social processes are organized to maintain masculine power by ensuring that subordinate groups view male dominance as fair, reasonable, and in the best interests of the society (see Masculinity). Thus, femininity is constructed around adaptation to male power. Its core component is attractiveness to men, around which revolve physical appearance, chastity, exclusive heterosexuality, sexual availability in the absence of sexual assertiveness, nurturance of children, obedience and deference to male authority, and egomassaging (among others). In this respect, femininity could be construed as a social euphemism for female subordination to male dominance.

SEE ALSO: Body image, Feminism, Gender, Gender role, Latinos, Marianismo, Masculinity, Veils

Suggested Reading

  • Hofstede, G., & Arrindell, W. A. (1998). Masculinity and femininity: The taboo dimension of national cultures (“Cross-Cultural Psychology, Vol. 3). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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