Cult of True Womanhood

Oh, I’m glad Kathy brought this up, because I meant to say the other day that I thought Tami of What Tami Said was so spot-on about this being the direct descendant of the Cult of True Womanhood that, when I read it, it blew my mind. I mean, oh, duh, of course it is.

And, yeah, the amount of women who defend it, well, duh, for women who were allowed to be in it and who could make it work and didn’t find it stifling, the Cult of True Womanhood fucking rocked, too. Conforming is easier than not. Being able to conform the best has rewards.

But this is something I’ve noticed over the years and I just don’t feel smart enough to really get at. There are a lot of moments in U.S. culture–because of our cultural myth of the individual–where a kind of “fuck it, I’ll do what I want” ethos becomes the prevailing ethos. I mean, I spent the 80s in a Billy and the Boingers t-shirt and much of the early 90s in flannel and it was awesome. And I totally felt, in my flannel and my Doc Martens and my short hair and my ears full up with metal, like I was saying something about your fascist beauty standards.

Yeah, me and all the other girls, right? Who wasn’t wearing flannel and clunky shoes? Or Chuck Ts before that?

The ways I could signal “fuck it, I’ll do what I want” were also culturally prescribed. The things I could buy to wear that looked different than the girls I didn’t want to be like? They were available to all the other girls who wanted to look different than the girls they didn’t want to be like. Even when my mom made my prom dress, which was so awesome, we still had a pattern and we picked it out so that it looked good, with “good” having a lot of baggage.

Even now, if you want to be “different” there are only so many ways you can be. You can feel like you are freely choosing and still be choosing from a limited number of options. We are all unique flowers in the limited number of ways we can be.

I don’t think it’s appropriate to sit around and police the choices women make about how we present ourselves. But I sure as hell do think it’s appropriate to sit around and consider why these are our choices at this particular time.

And hell yes, we keep getting sold the same old problematic racist, sexist, classist bullshit stories we always get sold, even in our rebellions.

And the sad trick is that you can’t not succumb to it in some ways.

Eh, I had a lot more to say about that than I thought, I guess. I do miss a constant state of flannel, though. I kind of hope the rumors of a coming mini-ice age are true. I’ll be happy to wear clunky footwear and oversized flannel shirts. I might even get my nose pierced, if it comes to it.

15 thoughts on “Cult of True Womanhood

  1. What I read was someone who thinks that women (or feminist, and really is there a difference?) should always be serious, anything less is childish. And I have to say I really fear for a society where maturity means the end of all whimsy and play. Who is surprised that the reaction to such an expectation is to cling to childish things a little too much?

  2. B, you bring up the flannel and the Docs, which reminds me of the approx five years I spent in 14-eyelet combat boots and either (summer) fluttery minidresses, or (winter) baggy jeans and bodysuits, the Gen X version of the onesie. It was the Courtney Love/kinderwhore/riot grrl/slightly-post-grunge era. Lots of the popular signifiers then read “little girl” (candy necklaces, girly barrettes, smeary makeup), and yet no one (that I remember) was making the point that we were REALLY abandoning our agency. Did the Doc Martins make it all okay?

  3. Oh, and do you remember trying to get the free Billy and the Boingers 45 to play on a turntable? It was this cheap, super bendy plastic that you could’ve rolled into a tube. You kind of had to flatten it with your hand while it played.

  4. I don’t entirely disagree with Klausner’s post, but it could have been far more nuanced. Instead of trying to police femininity by saying “don’t do this, do this,” she could have examined why it’s suddenly become trendy to adopt a childlike (I’m resisting the urge to use the word “girlish”) persona — except that it’s not because that’s always existed in some form or another. (Mary Pickford anyone? And Audrey Helpburn, as well-loved as she is by plenty of feminists, is a pretty good example of a manic pixie dream girl.)

    My biggest issue was that the reaction to was a lot of “Nuh-uh, not me. I’m not not like that, and OMG what’s wrong with kitties and cupcakes!?” I think a lot of us in the feminist blog community want to be free from criticism all the time, even when it’s legitimate (though poorly worded) criticism.

  5. I think that there is a lot of pressure on kids today, male and female, to be childish. It may masquerade as being childlike, but it isn’t, really. Because the male counterpart to the MPDG is the sweet loveable stoner slacker boy, where the emphasis on irresponsibility is allowed to be more open, because guys can get away with that more. And, I dunno, I hate to get all codgery and shaking my fist at the kids, but what is supposed to be so damned attractive about not growing up? Growing up doesn’t mean a person has to be all serious all the time, but I think a person who doesn’t demonstrate at least the capacity for seriousness deserves not to be taken seriously.

    So I do think it’s worth asking ourselves what the attraction is of having the default-alternative personality/lifestyle for the young be so babyish.

  6. Jess, that’s an excellent point. A lot about how grunge women presented was supposed to read “little girl.” Or maybe “little girl in decay.”

    And I think it’s good to wonder about why these tropes become popular again and again and why they’re available to some women and not others.

    I think there’s real meat here. I mean, it means something when all these images of women in the 40s were of tough dames and women were building airplanes and making bombs. And it means something again when images of women in the 50s become softer and lighter.

    I think the thing is, too, that there’s not just one way of reading these things. I’m thinking of Brenda Lee (who knows why?) but here’s “Little Miss Dynamite” singing with this huge voice. She could be read as a rockabilly badass. But she was also a little girl. So, is her badassness really that threatening? Sometimes.

    And I think it’s the same with this kind of Katy-Perry-ization going on. Is it childlike? Yes. Is it threatening? Yes.

    And I also think that it’s threatening because it is fun and frivolous. People, and I especially feel it living here, really want to shit on pleasure, to try to make it impossible to have and to make those who seek it suspect.

    And I’m sure, like all cool stuff, the corporate culture would love to figure out how to completely appropriate pleasure, like they’ve done with individuality and being a teenager.

  7. “So many craft fairs.” “Own one piece of jewelry that you did not purchase on Etsy.” I love how handmade things are part of the problem, according to Klausner.

  8. B, I think you could argue that since the 60s (and maybe even since the 20s, although that was undercut following the war) that all forms of youth worship became dominant in “cool” american culture. Being an adult itself wasn’t cool, and it hasn’t been since then. Klausner’s argument just deploys the most recent version of “cool” youth tropes to make a quasi-feminist argument about how women should present themselves to be “taken seriously” by someone, presumably Klausner.

    But what do I know? After all, I knit, so obviously I’m part of the problem.

  9. Yeah, Klausner’s whole essay could have best been summed up as “get off my lawn, you’re ruining feminism for everyone.” But the discussions surrounding her post have been really interesting to me and given me a whole lot to think about.

    Yeah, I mean, I completely agree that there’s a strong thread of “being young is where it’s at.” But I also think there’s a really strong thread of “I am delicate and kooky and need sheltering” that is an old, old trope of white womanhood (especially among well-to-do white women) and pointing that out is also spot on.

    I think a lot of the problem is that there’s this tendency (and hell, I do it myself) to believe that which you analyze is that which you should not do. We study in order to understand in order to not get caught up in sexist or racist or other oppressive bullshit.

    But I’d like to see a strain of feminist discourse that was something like “hell yes, I will tweet that I wish everyone was a kitty AND I will be able to talk about why the feigning of wide-eyed innocence can be problematic.” That would be fun.

  10. That would be awesome. And you know, the parallel between this topic and general condemning of behavior that other people don’t think befits feminists reminds me of the time everybody got mad about whats-her-blog wearing a low cut blouse at the White House, or something. Doe-eyed kooky kitty girl is using a different means to seem attractive, but it’s kind of on the same spectrum as Lipstick Feminists Aren’t Real Feminists. It’s still all about how you look, not what you do. Who’s to say the etsy girls in rompers aren’t writing scathing condemnations of the patriarchy in all the time they save not having to pick out pants?

  11. Now I wish I had a comment of the day award, because I would give it to you for that last sentence, which made me laugh so hard I snorted.

  12. Well, as a woman who wears only jewelry from Etsy or other artisans, who dresses in jeans and t-shirts at 41 and who has a vendetta against pantyhose…

    I wear what is comfortable. I wear what I like. I was a teenager in the 80s, when the message we received was very clearly one of “money matters and you have to look like you have it.” To me the diamonds from Jared and Kay Jewelers, the rings in their platinum settings, all look like debt undertaken to impress the neighbours. Impersonal debt. I don’t own a piece of jewelry that doesn’t have deeper meaning to me, that isn’t symbolic of something important to my life.

    The world of fashion has never been kind to me, with its dictates about my breasts and hips (too large) and belly (waaaay too large). So why should I buy into something that has use for me only as a money source?

    I wear what is comfortable. I wear what I like.

    Some feminists who prefer power suits and flashy jewelry may see my style as childish. I prefer to see it as me exercising the choices a grown woman makes.

    Speaking of choice…I never want to hear another one of these feminists who wrote those pieces talk about a “woman’s right to her own body” or a “woman’s right to choose” again. Because…what? Your right to your own body and your right to choose only matter if we’re talking about babies? If you choose to put clothes we don’t like on your body, we will deny you that right to choose. That right to your body. Because, fuck it. We are just like the patriarchy. We are the matriarchy.

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