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is it okay: to use the words feminine and masculine?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that grammar trolls are extremely popular people. Picking on someone’s spelling and punctuation rather than their arguments and ideas is clearly taking the high road, and being nitpicky is definitely something that shouldn’t be associated with pince-nez and monkeys grooming each other for fleas.

Or maybe I’ve got that the wrong way around.

While I’ll confess that I have a long, patchy history on both sides of the grammar Nazi fence, what I’m trying to do here is not to be finicky about language to the degree of missing the point of an argument. Instead, I want to look into the meaning behind words such as “feminine” and “masculine” and see if categorising these in such a specific way is actually hampering attempts towards equality.

The word “feminine”, at least for me, conjures up a host of images. They range from tea parties, dolls, 1950s dresses, the ‘Mad Men’ office, to doilies –  all with a thick veneer of pink smog. It’s probably not the most awesome mental image, but years of conditioning, advertising and I guess a potentially unhealthy dose of cynicism has led me to this montage, which almost seems to be mocking itself. The one that comes affixed to “masculine” looks uncomfortably like an advertisement for ‘Action Man’ that I saw at the age of seven. It’s cliff-laden, muscle-filled, gun-toting and camouflage-bound. Extreme ends of the spectrum.

By no means do I look at men and women and automatically affix these notions and images to my understanding of gender roles. Instead, it’s just strange that terms that really should be there to help define the differences between men and women can become so entrenched in strange associations.

Having these associations is probably not healthy. There are a lot of articles about the impact of advertising based on some version of these ideals; most recently, the pink Lego for girls controversy. While pigeonholing people into certain roles is certainly not exclusive to gender ideals, it doesn’t lessen the potential confusion, emotional distress and indeed general arrogance of trying to mold people based on…what? Why is pink a girly colour? Why should boys have shorter hair? Why do girls wear dresses and boys wear pants, when, if you think about it, maybe it would be more comfortable the other way around? Certainly some of the more elderly wizards in Harry Potter would agree. On and on and on the arguments can go…and all because of these words.

In some arguments, it seems that the ultimate goal for equality is for women to reach the masculine goals, and, potentially as a result of this, forsake the “feminine”. “Feminine” has even in some ways become a “dirty” word, due to its associations with the aforementioned pink-veneered montage, and with weakness.

I think having the words actually makes everything more difficult. Putting a label on “feminine” and “masculine” is automatically trying to put everything into a box, which is what we try to do with pretty much everything. In the case of striving for equality though, it confuses the issue. Should we be trying to meet somewhere in between “feminine” and “masculine”? Do we need to inherently change in order to equilibrate? Should men be chastised for being too “feminine” and vice versa? It’s all because of the words and associations.

This idea is already being explored in one Swedish pre-school, where they have elected to become “gender-neutral”.  The children are not referred to by their gender, instead being referred to as “friends” rather than “he” or she”. Sweden has also come up with a gender-neutral pronoun “hen”, in order to further prevent gender stereotyping and molding from an early age.

Overall I think it distracts from the big picture. What would count as “equality” needs to be decided upon outside of gender, and then steps should be taken to ensure that the goal can be achieved by anyone who wants to irrespective of how “masculine” or “feminine” they are.

Words come with associations. It can’t be helped. Sauron. Joffrey. Masticate. Furby. Enjoy.

(Image credit: 1.)

3 thoughts on “is it okay: to use the words feminine and masculine?

  1. i just had to say, that equality and homogeneity should not be confused. people are equal, but they are not homogenous. there are differences between men and women, and these differences often repeat themselves, hence categorisation and stereotype.

    i don’t think it really matters that much to say ‘girls like x, boys like y’ because in the main, it’s generally true. the only danger is to say that all girls are required to like x, or all boys are required to like y. one could say that this does happen to a certain extent; certain products and attitudes are determined to be gender specific. this isn’t however, something to be concerned about. in the world i inhabit, i think there is room for girls who like y and boys who like x to live and prosper without a great deal of difficulty. it is true that people who do not conform to gender roles will experience some form of barrier in their daily life from other people, who you might call ignorant. but these people do go against the norm. this doesn’t make it wrong, but it’s no less true. i’m not saying going against the norm is bad, but it’s probably too idealistic to expect people not to notice. i think it’s better to prepare for the fact that to some extend, you will stand out and be considered somewhat of an anomaly. i don’t think that this means society sees you as inherently ‘wrong’ but they are going to see you as different. after all, the human brain loves to identify the world in categories and is going to notice when something doesn’t fit.

    i think the fundamental problem with a lot of ‘equality’ arguments is that they expect the same world for men and women. men and women live in fundamentally different worlds, re: the way they experience and interpret their lives. yes, we are the same species, yes we are all equal in our value, but no, we are not the same as each other. and that’s ok.

  2. I’ve thought about this a lot. I have no problem with the terms feminine and masculine or the things they connote, only the presumption of fixed gender that comes with them and the male > female hierarchy. I don’t think it’s wrong to describe anything as feminine or masculine unless you’re using it to suggest something is good or bad, better or worse. When people tell me to act more feminine – which, to be fair, is a rare occurence, they tend to be those who use it as an insult against others. Because of the way that superiority exists in their minds, perhaps subconsciously, I call them on it – what they’re asking me to do is exhibit qualities they think are objectively less good, and therefore more suited to me. They’re asking me to be what in their eyes is a worse person.

    I do like the sound of what the Swedes are going, though. I think there are some really bad things that persist in our culture because of fixed, gendered assumptions. I always thought comedy was a feminine thing. Aside from Fawlty Towers and Blackadder, all of the comedy I saw growing up, in life and culture, was coming from women. It was a rude shock in 2006, when I realised how many people saw it as so explicitly masculine that women were, perhaps with a couple of exclusions, to be omitted from the field.

    Pink and blue clothing/toys almost seem too obvious – I think it’s only the precursor to femininity and masculinity, because it’s also childish. It’s just the start of the clear demarcation that encourages us to define ourselves via our sex. I think the markers are fine, but I don’t think they need to be imposed on children to nail in that ‘femininity’ belongs to girls and ‘masculinity’ belongs to boys.

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