@

 

When I was a freshman in college, I wrote an essay for a writing class wherein I described myself as being a “girl.”  I was eighteen years old, a burgeoning writer, naïve in many ways but generally adept at language. The word seemed precise, if not necessarily inspired. My professor, a white man in his late twenties, whom I have slightly more empathy towards now that I am in my late twenties, pulled me aside and told me he was uncomfortable with my usage. “Girl” evoked a kind of innocence and vulnerability he thought it best I distance myself from as a young woman in a university.  The word was x’d out in red pen and “woman” was squiggled definitively on top.

This moment, very early on in my writing career, cemented a kind of truth that, ten years later, I still have not entirely come to terms with as a writer—that the “girl-self,” in all of its messy incantations, is something to be avoided if one wants to be seen as a serious person existing in the world. The experience of the young female character is both lauded and held in considerable contempt in equal parts in our culture. One of the claims leveraged against the “girl” as a kind of icon in 2012 is that the representation lacks a fundamental kind of authenticity, that real women are not vulnerable little creatures and that girls who are to be admired are as edgy and aggressive as their male counterparts. This attitude toward a particular brand of female identity is as closed-minded as saying that a drag queen should resist the tropes of adult womanhood, or that a butch lesbian should resist more masculine dress and behaviors. For some women, myself included, girlhood made a very real and visceral impact on my experience as a person coming into the world.

Earlier this year I read Caitlin Flanagan’s newest book, Girl Land, aware of the feminist controversy surrounding it. In her book, Flanagan argues that the experience of female adolescence is unique in its emotional breadth and scope, that this coming-of-age is biological, rather than cultural in origin, and that we are not serving girls well if we ignore the fact that the experience of female adolescence is marked by increased vulnerability. Certainly, this specific experience of female coming-of-age is not entirely universal. But as someone who has taught girls, who used to be a girl, and who still identifies with my girl-self pretty strongly, I found the emotional core of her book honest and important. Flanagan’s book charts a particular experience of femaleness that is both fetishized within our culture, and also held in serious disdain.

While the experience of girlhood that Flanagan charts may not be universal, it is still an experience of the world that is often devalued and ignored. Women are taught to get through girlhood as quickly and painlessly as possible, and most feminist discussions of female adolescence have been marked by seeing girls as either victims of societal pressures beyond their control, or champions at resisting these pressures. Flanagan’s assessment of girlhood as a very real human experience that is a result of physical and psychological changes, rather than social pressures, is incredibly taboo in feminist circles for reasons I understand, but that I think ultimately hurt women. Even if the experience of girlhood that Flanagan posits is limited in scope, in that her portrayal of girlhood throughout the book is generally cisgendered, able-bodied, white and middle class, she provides ample evidence that while American culture has changed its views on girlhood based on social mores and changing attitudes towards the girl as an icon, the needs of girls of every generation, for a safe introduction to the world of adulthood, has stayed pretty much the same.

At the end of last year and the beginning of this one, two young women interested in exploring identities steeped in girlhood were simultaneously made famous and torn down. The reason Marie Calloway and Lana Del Rey are polarizing figures in our culture has less to do with their perceived lack of talent (lots of young male writers and musicians produce art that is still in its formative stages) and more to do with their embodiment of this particular brand of “girl”—soft, gentle, interested in love and human connection. The fact that this experience of girlhood is habitually de-valued among intellectuals, artists and academics is unfortunate and a sign that we clearly have become a culture where women are empowered to make choices, but only those choices that best mimic the experiences of men.

One only has to look at the language surrounding female characters that we are supposed to hold as role models.  We are allowed to love the heroine of the new Pixar movie, Brave, because she resists these traditional girlhood ideals. Katniss from Hunger Games is praised for being a huntress, while Bella from Twilight is dismissed for having a high school crush. My interest in bringing up these two stories is not to comment on the actual storytelling (hating on Twilight in liberal, feminist circles is about as controversial as dissing George W. Bush or standing up for the rights of baby seals) but to focus on the way that our current culture continues to actively dismiss the feminine as having any experiential value or importance at all. This is very important when considering the results of VIDA and how female writers are being presented and represented today. If we continue to dismiss whole swaths of female experience as inherently lacking value, we will continue to relegate burgeoning girl writers to chick lit; we will, in other words, keep telling women who don’t fit our model of appropriate girl behavior to sit down and shut up.

The continuous debate in feminist circles about what choices constitute feminist ones is really about grappling with our history, how to respect it and how to, perhaps, eventually overcome it. This debate is often falsely characterized as a merely generational one between second- and third-wave feminists, but I think the issue is significantly more complicated than that. In seeking to tear down the film industry’s reliance on female stock characters, we often actively remove agency from women who fit the model of archetypal femininity. Nowhere is this phenomenon made more clear than in the lambasting of “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” characters, where any affection for traditionally feminine things is automatically seen as inherently pandering to male desire or illustrative of a character who does not have individual agency or autonomy. We’ve become comfortable as a culture undermining gender norms by playing with traditional stereotypes. Katniss is lauded as being a feminist symbol, by virtue of the ways she undermines femininity, while Peeta is praised for undermining traditional masculinity. I’m unconvinced that this type of play is inherently subversive or effective in dismantling stereotypes.

In the opening line to her song, “Roman’s Revenge”, Nicki Minaj aggressively barks, “I am not Jasmine/I am Aladdin” as a way of signifying that she is no sidekick. In order to inhabit this particular kind of power, Minaj, who generally plays up a highly sexualized and feminized image, has to disavow the female character and take the male’s name. Is this a sign of flexible gender roles or a sign that the female is still commonly regarded as the second sex? If the dialogue regarding Marie Calloway and Lana Del Rey is any indicator, the reality is, whether we like it or not, probably the latter.

True agency will come from allowing women to write their experiences without punishing them for doing so. This doesn’t mean not being critical of writing itself, but it does mean not automatically dismissing writing that doesn’t bluntly or unequivocally empower women to be a certain way, or critique a past that didn’t enable women to get to the point where we are today. This is why I find films and books that underscore the lack of empowerment for women in the past so inherently problematic. In continuously positioning the aggressive, anti-feminine female (who still looks, I might add, pretty, young, and feminine) as being the height of empowerment, we fail to acknowledge the way our culture still holds the female figure in contempt. We enjoy watching Peggy from Mad Men grow up and spread her wings, fluttering away from the sexism rampant in the 1960’s advertising world where she works, in part because it makes us feel safe, sure that our path is one of real progress.

At a get-together recently, several friends and I all played a game where we had to come up with a time in the past we would like to live, or which great historical figure we would like to be. This game is terrifying as a woman. We have to augment the reality of that past to find a place for ourselves within it, or pretend that our female-selves could be male figures, since 99% of the time throughout history it has been men whose stories are considered important enough for us to listen to. Did the girls and women who lived through these generations feel that way during the times they were living? Do we feel that way right now? The fact that women can now behave in more stereotypically aggressive and masculine ways doesn’t change the fact that the “feminine” is still generally dismissed as being weak-willed, stupid, or caving to a particular kind of male gaze.

The truth is, in 2012, we still have no idea how to write about, or even talk about ways that women can act as moral agents because, in our heart of hearts, we as a culture don’t believe they actually are. Female agency, the idea that women are moral actors operating in the world, is only demonstrated, interpreted, or analyzed in response to male agency. This is a problem that impacts other aspects of fiction writing and filmmaking, including the inclusion of minority characters who are consistently tokenized, rather than championed as individuals. We believe that women and minorities are allowed to take center stage only if they represent a particular frame of reference. We say that a particular female character reflects the ways in which any and all female characters would react, as opposed to the way that this particular female character reacts, and in doing so we make female characters stock characters, rather than full flesh and blood human beings.

I am in my late twenties now, the tail end of my girl years. The girl-self has actively informed my identity for as long as I can remember.  Like all identities, mine is strongly informed by how the outside world perceives me. I’ve enjoyed the privileges of girlhood, and also the challenges that come with the territory. As a young professor and writer,  I’ve sometimes received advice about ways to kill the girl-self, to hide her away from view. Don’t use “I feel” statements. Don’t show too much emotion. Don’t wear clothes that are too feminine. Be blunter than you may want to be. Don’t smile too much. As if girlhood is a natural disability that must be overcome if one is to find strength as an adult. But the experience of being a young, feminine female isn’t necessarily disempowering unless we tell ourselves the common story that this experience of femininity is silly, frivolous, and meaningless. We get messages all the time telling us that we have to make a choice between strength and femininity, and this dichotomy seems to have strengthened over the past decade.  Perhaps this is due to the past ten years of war, which has led to the increasing idealization of traditional masculinity. And the Internet age probably has a lot to do with it as well: the compartmentalization of our political beliefs, our pop culture interests, our moral, religious, and philosophical mores, seeing the world in terms of absolutes. Will I visit Hello Giggles or Jezebel? Will I define myself by “liking” cute dresses or samurai swords? The more Google streamlines our searches and markets to us based on algorithms that seek to illustrate who we “really” are, the more we are shaped by how other people seek to define us, and the more young women are positioned to define themselves in pre-crafted models of who they can potentially be.

Of course, these trends affect everyone, men and women alike, but I think they are particularly dangerous to young women who already are afforded such a small slice in the collective discourse.  Caitlin Flanagan’s assertion that girls might need the space to write in their diaries, rather than post online, was met with disdain by a number of reviewers who argued that closing girls off from the world is always dangerous.  In reality, I think we could all benefit from taking a step back and giving ourselves the time to define our emotional selves through something other than a public, digital space that seeks to tell us who we are for the explicit purpose of marketing us our own identities.

TAGS: , , , , , , , , ,

Arielle Bernstein ARIELLE BERNSTEIN is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review, South Loop Review, The Ilanot Review and Press Play (Indie Wire). She has been listed three times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contests . She is currently writing her first book. She is Associate Book Reviews Editor at The Nervous Breakdown.

33 Responses to “Girl, Uninterrupted”

  1. I’m years beyond girlhood myself, but I write this age, the age of defining our identities, which couldn’t be more important. Thanks for bringing up these controversies so eloquently.

  2. Arielle Bernstein says:

    Thanks so much for your comment, Sharon! I’m really invested in considering these issues, though I fear I never have any tangible solutions. What things do you feel our culture could do to value the “girl-self” more?

  3. Jane Donuts says:

    So well said. I cringed at your being told to not smile, to be blunt and to not say “I feel”, but in the business world I find I often need to give my junior female colleagues similar direction so they can effectively get their point across to clients and senior execs, because otherwise they run the risk of not being taken seriously. As for tangible solutions, I don’t know what else to do besides setting an example and trying to be as authentic as possible about my personal interests and management style, which is, well, fairly soft and girly when compared with my male colleagues. I think cultivating an atmosphere where it’s ok to like girly stuff and still be effective at your job goes a long way.

    • Arielle Bernstein says:

      Thanks for your feedback, Jane! I end up giving my students similar advice for interviews too. I guess when guiding other young women I err toward being more practical than idealistic as well.

  4. zoe zolbrod says:

    What a well-written and thoughtful piece. It brought up a lot of things for from different periods of my own life, some in accord with your ideas and some in contrast.

    My friends and I referred to ourselves variably as girls and women through our twenties, depending on what or how we were talking about ourselves. It some ways, it seems clear, we still thought of ourselves as girls, and we often referred to guys as boys, mostly when we were talking about relational things, ways in which we were clearly still in development. It would have driven me crazy for some PC cop to me how to refer to myself. (Especially a man.)

    When my friends started having kids, the ones with girls worried and complained a lot about the onslaught of princess, pink, and girly girl stuff. I didn’t totally get it. Why make the daughters feel like their interests were not OK? These were often feminine women who had made a lot of traditional choices themselves. To hate on girly interests seemed unfeminist and almost self-hating in a way.

    Then I had a daughter. As it turns out, she is not inclined toward princess pink stuff. But oh my god the ONSLAUGHT. Everything is branded girl or boy–child sized snow shovels, magic markers, electronic toys. I see where the phrase (and book) Cinderella Ate My Daughter is coming from. In the 2-10 range, girls are anything but discouraged to be girly. I mean, they’re having spa parities and going to get manicures when they’re 7 and 8.

    I have to make an effort to let my daughter find her own aesthetic and not have one foisted on her. I’ve seen the trailer for Brave, and I’ve liked it. It seemed akin to my daughter. It seemed akin to myself as a kid, and I was raised in a community (though not so much my parents) that actively policed what was appropriately “ladylike” for young girls to do. I really chaffed at that and don’t see today’s counter messages as over-the-top. No one has ever told me to quit smiling so much, but when I was younger men on the street routinely told me to smile more. (Perhaps this is partly a function of the age difference between you and me?)

    I guess the thing is there’s natural variety in our inclinations and interests, and we need equal variety in cultural representations. If it exists, we don’t need to feel judged or prescribed to one way or another if our version of femininity is not voiced in a particular movie or song.

    I haven’t read the entire Caitlan Flanagan book, but I’ve read excerpts. Like everything of hers, it spikes my blood pressure because she writes so smugly and universally about experiences I’ve had and felt totally differently about–girlhood, sex, motherhood. To listen to her, you’d think I was forced and manipulated and brainwashed into being the way I am, that I’ve gone against my natural feminine nature. I assure you this is not true. I was sexually hungry as a teenager and young woman–not in a masculine way, in my own way–and, yes, I needed a safe place to explore that, but I didn’t need to be protected from exploring it with boys. I was always adventurous about going out into the world. I wanted to be there.

    I think a lot of the reaction to Marie Calloway, at least, had to do with sex. Her girlishness made it interesting (to me) but the hoopla was the soliciting and writing about and posting images of sex. Girls aren’t supposed to do that, at least not publicly. You can sit quietly in your room and write in your journal, but you aren’t supposed to make art about it. That’s not demur.

    On the other hand, I agree with you. Girls do have a small slice of the discourse pie, and our constant connectivity and the related marketing onslaught is daunting. I like the suggestion of the above commenter who thinks presenting our authentic selves can at least play a part in opening things up. I think stuff like that matters.

    This comment got out of hand! Thank you for the thought-provoking piece.

    • Arielle Bernstein says:

      Thanks for such a thoughtful response to my essay, Zoe! I appreciate all the feedback.

      I thought about “girly” culture when writing this and deliberately eschewed the word, “girly” for various reasons. I think our culture fetishizes “girly” stuff in many ways, but holds the actually emotional state of girlhood in considerable contempt, especially when it comes to the art. There is no doubt that the “Toddlers and Tiaras” parents represent a rather strong contingent in our culture. My main purpose in writing this essay was exploring unconscious bias in our culture against the intellectual/academic aptitude of women who identify with exploring the feminine.

      And absolutely, the response to Marie Calloway was about many things. Sex. Sensationalism. Privacy. But I think what was most confounding to people about the Calloway piece was how she both explored and embodied the complicated way we view female desire and confession.

      I like Flanagan, even when I don’t agree with her. I think this is mainly because I like writers who push me to think about ideas in new ways and she always makes me think outside my safe little feminist box. And I felt that Girl Land wasn’t very inflammatory at all. While I didn’t always agree with Flanagan, there was a lot of history, which I wasn’t familiar with and I felt I learned a lot by the end of it.

      These comments did not get out of hand! I appreciate all of them! I knew I was positioning myself as a bit of a naysayer to mainstream feminist thought when writing this and wanted to have these types of discussions. I’m obsessed with considering how female characters gain agency when we write about them, and if that agency has to mimic the agency given to men if it is to be considered truly heroic, interesting and brave. I see nothing wrong with female characters like those found in Brave and Hunger Games, but I think it is sad that girls are consistently told the story that, “Once upon a time you were seen as only a pretty, docile thing and now you can be a warrior” Not all girls want to be warriors. Why should shooting a bow and arrow be intrinsically “better” than sewing a quilt?

      • Jane Donuts says:

        One thing that I didn’t say in my earlier commenter was how much I appreciated your point about the importance of making it OK to be somewhere between a pretty, docile thing and a warrior. I came of age during the riot grrl era and even though intellectually I agreed with everything they were saying, their aesthetic and music style didn’t speak to me at all, so I felt alienated by that movement as well, or maybe that I was just some kind of lightweight who was somehow part of the problem in ways I didn’t understand. I’ve always been drawn to feminism and alternative culture, but being rude and raw and up in your face is not and has never been my style! I think it’s so important for feminism to make it clear to women that it’s OK to be more moderate in your views, styles, choices.

  5. Megan Lent says:

    I enjoyed reading this article. I adore Lana del Rey and, even more so, Marie Calloway. As a 19-year-old female writer and feminist who sleeps under a pile of Beanie Babies and whose extracurricular activities at a top-rated university constitutes of an awful lot of sex (with variously-gendered partners), I’m constantly thinking about what it means to be a girl, what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a man, what it means to be a person at all. I think that I agree with you, but there a few things that I wanted to comment on, to see what you think.

    Noting the number of women who write/have written about “girlish” subjects seems odd to me, not in that they should be discarding their young, classic-feminine side, but because male authors do not have the same pressure to write about boyhood. When male authors DO tackle boyhood — ie David Mitchell in Black Swan Green, or, I suppose, JD Salinger and ol’ Holden Caulfield — it is presented as a depiction of childhood, not as boyhood in general. It’s strange, but the closest I’ve ever felt reading a book by a woman about a girl to this kind of genderless childhood (not because identifying gender/sex is wrong, but because childhood, in reality, doesn’t have that great of a chasm between males and females — at least in my experience) were the books that came with the American Girl dolls.

    Also, the ideology that women must portray traditionally masculine qualities in order to be successful feminists is not an ideology held by the mainstream population. In my house, in public, at parties — I am expected to portray a typical femininity. I am expected to highlight my girlishness. I am expected to have a pubescent body and to deck myself out in a slightly more grown-up version of dress-up. When I go to a store sans makeup, am I welcomed as an aggressive and successful feminist woman? No. I’m welcomed as either harried and unapproachable, or as a butch.

    I think what needs to happen is for people to realize that aggression, fierceness, athleticism, boldness — qualities of Katniss and the girl from Brave and, sometimes, Nicki Minaj — are NOT purely masculine. A female who holds these qualities, or who emphasizes them, is acting as a person, with no gender-specific modifiers involved — someone who seeks success in a capitalistic environment, or who desires a leadership possession.

    Yes, there are parts of me that are youthful, maybe even “girlish.” But I am an adult. And a girl is a child. Defending the girl-woman is like defending the man-boy: it feels right because we are a youth-obsessed culture, but it isn’t necessarily positive. If my brother goes to work wearing a Thomas the Tank Engine t-shirt and playing with LEGOs — his two favorite things as a child (I didn’t like the trains, but I did like LEGOs…) — he’s not going to be taken seriously. Why would you want to be treated differently? (I don’t like the way I worded that question but idk how else to…)

    One last thing….Manic Pixie Dream Girls are not despised because of their “affection for traditionally feminine things [that is] automatically seen as inherently pandering to male desire or illustrative of a character who does not have individual agency or autonomy.” MPDGs are despised because their existence is only to further the character growth of the male protagonist. I’m talking Natalie Portman in Garden State, Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer, etc. I don’t like those portrayals, and not because of their affection for the feminine — I don’t like them because the point of those characters IS to pander to male desire. That’s the only reason they exist in those films — to open Zach Braff’s and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s eyes to the world, and to have sex with them. That’s it.

    • Megan Lent says:

      (Should add that I was raised by a girl-woman who still collects Little Golden Books and who holds such a fear/distaste for anything adult that she instated a sense of shame in me about anything resembling womanhood — esp. sexual desire and menstruation.)

    • Arielle Bernstein says:

      Thanks so much for reading and for your feedback, Megan.

      I think the major point of my post is that we view agency as being an inherently masculine thing and that the feminist movement isn’t doing enough to challenge that perspective.

      There certainly are places within our culture where female “posturing” is encouraged, but I think this “posturing” is actually inherently different from appreciating the “feminine”. In other words, outside of feminist circles I think we have a culture where girls and women are encouraged to like pink and wear make-up, but we tend to view artists and intellectuals who are interested in exploring that which is the “female experience” with skepticism and disdain.

      My problem with the term, “Manic Pixie Dream Girls” is that, like the term “hipster”, it is used with such a broad brush, that it barely means anything at all. I think the roots of the word are important and the characters you mention all do seem to exist for the male lead, but people use the term incredibly loosely in current feminist discourse, so that young women like Lana Del Rey and Marie Calloway, are dismissed by the term, even when they are actively creating and defining their own persona.

      I think your point about our youth obsessed culture is very interesting. I completely agree that we tend to dismiss older experiences and wisdom and that this is a problem. But I think the term, “girl” is fundamentally different from the term, “boy”. We use “girl” in a casual way to refer to young women and the word “guy” in a casual way to refer to young men. One could view this usage in all sorts of interesting and problematic ways. In writing this, I wanted to reclaim the word “girl”as not being childlike and unimportant, but being a perspective that is left out of “adult” discourse.

  6. Caitlin says:

    Thanks for this post. It’s very timely for me as I just published a zine in which I wrote about the women in my family and death and caretaking and childbirth, and even though I feel like it’s some of my best writing, I felt very reluctant to put it out there. When I dug deeper, I realized it was because I had this idea that these subjects were not Important, and that underlying that value judgement was a bit of internalized misogyny that I hadn’t quite yet managed to root out of my heart. I have always had an issue with undervaluing the “feminine,” as I’m not a very traditionally feminine woman, and I have worked very hard to avoid falling into that way of thinking.

    That said, I do think our culture still has a very big problem with women who are aggressive, athletic, strong, etc., viewing them as “less than” and male wannabes. So while I appreciate what you are saying about the devaluation of the traditionally feminine, please know that it’s not like people are rolling out the red carpet for the warrior women, either. It’s still very much a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation, which is why I think it’s incumbent on us, as cultural and social critics, to be willing to stand up for all expressions of femininity, whether they match up with ours or not.

    • Arielle Bernstein says:

      Thanks so much for your feedback, Caitlin. I absolutely agree that there are many spaces in our culture where women are penalized for being too masculine. As I mentioned in my response to Megan, I feel that women are encouraged to perform femininity, but that we still see agency as being inherently masculine. So, for example, Nicki Minaj has to kill the “female self” to become an active hero and not just a “Barbie”.

      I agree that women who don’t fit “appropriate” models of femininity are also very often stigmatized within our culture.I’m absolutely floored by the number of articles I’ve read that say that women have to wear make-up to get ahead in the workplace! But I also feel that this performance of femininity isn’t really about valuing the feminine at all. You have to wear make-up and be “empowered” enough to be aggressive and curt with fellow employees. It is frustrating that women can’t really “win”.

      That said, my critique is less about our culture as a whole and more about the feminist response to it. I think the feminist movement needs to be more open to art and intellectual ideas that deal with traditional femininity, rather than automatically dismissing these perspectives as being intrinsically problematic.

  7. Karen Knauff says:

    Incredibly written, incredibly thought-provoking, incredible.

  8. Travis says:

    I’ve found myself in a similar predicament. Most of my friends are women and a number of them have asked me to review cover letters or personal statements or grad school application materials at some point or another and I can never really get away from struggling with the reality that most of my prose suggestions are geared towards creating prose we’d describe as more masculine and less feminine. My best personal response of yet is to always be clear about how I perceive such suggestions.

    A couple years ago I was struggling through Gender Trouble and, with another personal-statement-review request sitting in front of me, decided on a whim to email Dr. Butler and see what she said:

    Oh, I don’t think one needs to write like a man. And certainly one does
    not need to write like a woman. In either case, one is carrying around
    some leaden norm and suffering under its weight. Just write so that you
    can reach someone – that usually means crossing over in some way. It is
    very different from “being” something or even “being like” it.

    The reality, more broadly, is that we live our lives in the shadow of the world’s commodifying imperatives. Until we as individual cultural participants are able to inhabit the value-assigning function currently run by capital, many groups will be prone to marginalization due to their perceived lack of fiscal capability.

    • Arielle Bernstein says:

      Such smart insights, Travis. Do you think this preference for the more “masculine” is internalized in our culture? I feel like my writing style has become much more terse and to the point as I’ve gotten older. I feel like we also tend to praise inventive language that is aggressive, more so inventive language that is inquisitive, vulnerable or questioning.

      • Travis says:

        I should probably apologize for the length and warn that my response is colored by a lot of thinking I’ve been doing without any background in relevant fields about the nature of knowledge, knowing and understanding and my current line of thinking is that everything we “know” builds from a simple unit: the connection we make between various sensations. A consequence of this would be that our sensorium plays a big role in what connections we’re able to make.

        It seems (to me at least) our current concept of gender has been regressing from the idea that gender is largely a social construct in light of what appears to be the relative lack of plasticity and a greater emphasis on celebrating our differences. I think we may be throwing the baby out with the bath-water, so to speak (not to reject celebrating differences–but to say that we’re highly adaptable creatures. I think the reality is probably more like, gender is far more plastic than we can really imagine in our moment with the caveat that we’re synthesizing a lot information in our environment to form a model in our head– models like what a woman or man will look like and how they will behave. This means the model we’re comparing all women to in our head is fairly conservative in the way the average of any set of numbers would be. Many of us end up with strong individual experiences that suggest a different model of femininity to us–perhaps this is Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird–but we’re always always always very aware that this person or character we admire deviates from the model we carry around.

        To the extent that our multivariate bodies experience even the exact same world differently, we are doomed to difference. To tie that back to Girl Land, coming-of-age most certainly produces sensorium changes which alter how adolescent girls read the world and the decisions they make. This is a long, winding way to answer–I think our perceived preference for the masculine is largely associative, a product of our highly-social environments. It is metaphorical, in a way. If you’ll permit my dream of the absurd, if we grew up in a world where we talked to and interacted with oxen and cats on the regular and picked up a feline literary journal from time to time I think we would have a very different (but still highly loaded) set of metaphors for describing language that works in different ways. Perhaps we would tell our students to stop writing like an ox, or suggest they not use more than two feline sentences in a row.

        I don’t think it is inherent, but I think the conservative nature of these models makes them slow to change. If we grow up with an all-male canon, our little literary guns are loaded. The key here I think is having a widely varied array of positive male and female role-models, be they fictive or real (while we might cite pragmatism when we give a young woman the advice we think will help her achieve XYZ, I see no reason for us to treat characters the same way). It is important for our brains to be able to make positive associations which push the standard deviations out–and to replace hollow marketed straw-girls with “real” girls. This–as I think your skepticism over undermining stereotypes hints at–really just expands the umbrella of the stereotype; I don’t think we should trivialize the value of a bigger umbrella, though. :)

        Experience is, as you identify, important. I am, like any man, sometimes bewildered a decision a woman has made. When I’ve come to understand the experience that led to that decision, I inevitably understand it. It is not so much our own biology that prevents us from understanding each other, but rather our lack of each other’s sensorium; the dismantling of stereotypes we seek is probably more like the demystification of stereotypes–and I think there’s still a lot of need for deep narrative communication of embodied human experience. I would say tentatively that I have learned a lot about what it means to be a “man” after having lived with 1-3 gay men for the past year–especially coming from a very conservative part of Texas. In part this is due to the ways my roommates expand the umbrella of masculinity I live under (and has, I suspect, helped me express parts of myself more openly,) but I think the more important role is that I speak with them daily. I hear their stories, I get glimpses of their concerns, fears and dreams; I come to understand the hygenic, mechanical, biological and relational nature of their sex lives. I come to understand, in some small sense, their experience (at least as gay white middle-class men in a southern state). Feminine describes things we associate with women, masculine describes a thing associated with men; as our models move and expand, those definitions will inevitably lumber ox-like behind us. Our concept of what it means to be a man or a woman, however–that I think we can put a faster set of legs on.

        • Arielle Bernstein says:

          Thanks for such a thoughtful response, Travis. I agree that gender is a malleable construct, but this becomes particularly tricky when considering how to portray a gender “accurately” in a work of literature. Certainly, real people contain multitudes and characters do as well. I think we tend to be more open to the way real people respond, and less open to the way we think characters should represent a certain type of person or experience.

  9. angela says:

    Your article was most interesting to read, thank you.

    You’ve reminded me of a blog post I wish to write regarding where my girlhood feminist nature has disappeared to over the years. Since I’ve stumbled upon VIDA, I started thinking about how much I’ve caved with the system. When I started searching for how someone in her teens, who was known as a feminist, could become so unaware as she hits forty, is rather perplexing. My knee-jerk conclusion: entering into relationships (and staying) with men who actually never appreciated me beyond the ‘girl’. It took years to break away. I’m on my way back, though…slowly.

    Labels are interesting; and I shall leave you with this puzzle. Even now, I have no issue with saying girl. I tried on woman years ago and never felt comfortable in the curves of that word. Female is probably my go-to label if gender is to be defined in person or creative writing. As I write this, I must laugh for I doubt most boys/guys/men ever give their label a second thought.

    We’ve come a long way____ …even that is up for debate.

    • Arielle Bernstein says:

      Thanks so much for your feedback, Angela. I’d love to read that blog post! It is amazing to me how people think these kinds of labels are inconsequential…

  10. White667 says:

    I have to say, thanks for writing this piece. It’s really made me think, which is pretty much what I’m looking for when online.

    I do wonder why when it’s a man who has overtly feminine atributes in literature, somehow that is considered more acceptable (or at the very least; that it makes for a well-rounded character.)

    I know a few people who seem to try excessively hard to be identified as “fragile” or “innocent” but I personally wouldn’t necessarily also atribute to them “femininity.” I think people generally feel that the terms seemingly should be linked, from our understanding of the stereotype of “a girl” but personally when I think “feminine” I picture someone more like Irene Adler from the recent Sherlock Holmes BBC adaptation, although I guess that could just be me picturing the extreme. I link being a “girl” to being immature or childish, being feminine in my mind comes with an implied empowerment; an understanding of who you are and then a decision to take hold of that and run with it.
    Although that could just be because I grew up without any father figure, both my nan and my mother being single parents.

    • Arielle Bernstein says:

      It is strange that we read the male performance of “vulnerability” as inherently different from the female one. I think I feel profoundly ambivalent with the using the term, “girl” to define myself today. Since so much of my fiction and poetry has centered on the “girl” experience, I wonder what that will transition to in the next few years…

  11. Arielle Bernstein says:

    I am interested in the fact that so many responses mentioned their individual upbringing and how that shaped their concept of what it means to be a girl. It seems like a lot of positive or negative feelings stem directly from having role models that exhibited certain models of behavior. I’d be interested in writing a follow up piece that deals with this.

  12. Thanks for writing this. Definitely captured the complexities of fitting into a certain model of femininity, and to also be categorized as feminist in relation to that (just because one comfortably asserts their girlness does not a feminist make) is problematic. People like categories, I think the only option is to continually act out and against them.

  13. Shoshana Firecage says:

    Missing from this article and all of these comments are any sort of answers (or even straightforward questions). Why are humans so fucked up when it comes to sex and gender? What could possibly change these current dynamics? The radical roots of feminism seem to have been betrayed for a cursory and shallow critique of a particular few existing cultural tropes (i.e. manic pixie dream girl), with calls for “women’s spaces” or “standing up for expressions of femininity”.

    I find this sort of “feminism” vulgar in its acceptance of the selves who have been forced onto us by material realities (i.e. class society) and its lack of challenge to those material realities in the first place. We are forced to do and think many strange things by capitalism, and we are thus shaped into strange and grotesque people. Ignoring this while attempting to combat inequality and violence is superficial folly and leads predictably nowhere.

    P.S. Apologies for probably “not getting” whatever it is y’all are talking about.

    • Arielle Bernstein says:

      Thanks for your feedback, Shoshana. The questions I sought to examine in this essay were a bit different than the ones you seek to dismantle, but I am always glad to participate in a greater discussion about these issues. My goal in crafting this essay was to consider how we think about the feminine today and how desires to subvert the binary in pop culture end up reinstating the binary. I think many feminists are actively trying to change these dynamics, but until we get over our cultural aversion toward the “feminine” we have a long road ahead.

      • Cynthia says:

        Arielle, thank you for this post. Very interesting.

        It’s not only feminists that are down on femininity. Religious leaders in conservative Christian communities assure their flocks that God considers men and women equal, but God is masculine, Jesus is masculine, and the Holy Ghost is masculine. Christianity has a masculine feel, and its masculinity is necessary to create a space where women can be feminine. But, whenever a Christian male exhibits feminine qualities, he’s viruntly attacked. Can femininity truly be a good thing if males are attacked for exhibiting it?

        Meself, I’m VERY ambivalent concerning femininity. Actually, I’m not even certain what it is. Modesty? Patience? Devotion? Gentleness? Compassion? A lack of directness? Agency through guile and subtrafuge? Lack of agency? Submissiveness? A product of the Stockholme syndrome? That which is hidden behind screens, walls, fans, veils, burkas, but is fascinating? Girlishness? Frilly dresses, hair bows, and white cotton gloves? High, childish voices? Slinky dresses, visable cleavage, long bare legs? Face paint, lipstick, mascara, a made-up face that always looks surprised? Stiletto shoes? Feet broken, tiny, and bound in ancient China? Fainting-inducing corsets in Victorian England?

        I don’t think you ever defined what femininity or the feminine is. That might be an excellent place to start. :)

  14. Becky Palapala says:

    This deserves more time and a much longer response than I’m about to give it, but there’s a certain amount of handcuffing going on here.

    I would characterize myself as a pretty “masculine” woman. Not in appearance or sexuality/attraction style, but because I display character traits and social behaviors that are traditionally more characteristic of men. Dominance, assertiveness, preferring reason to emotion, “fix” rather than “talk” oriented, etc.

    Perhaps understandably, these traits tend to be most problematic or upsetting, it seems, to men. (And feminists, yes, but generally at a very academic level.)

    But any description of these tendencies accepts there are such things as masculine and feminine behavior. At least part of the reason girls/women are damned if they do or don’t is that we toss modifiers like “traditionally” on to “masculine behavior” or “feminine behavior” to indicate we don’t necessarily think such things exist, but it doesn’t remove the implication that these are our choices. To even have this conversation implies acceptance of the dichotomy we wring our hands saying must be avoided.

    (I happen to think “masculine” and “feminine” are valid descriptors of certain traits and tendencies, at least in a general way, largely as a result of biological imperatives; but of course, evolution has been so successful because it is NOT deterministic. It is inherently, as a matter of its very existence, friendly to variation and exception.)

    Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is that, from a rhetorical perspective, the discourse about whether or not it is a triumph or failure of feminism that women act or are encouraged to act “like men” is totally self-devouring.

    In the sense of a snake eating its tail, both in the self-cannibalizing and symbolic, cyclical/unifying senses. There is no solution, no distinct beginning or end (even one side or another–both apparent sides, if argued long enough, will contradict themselves) to the discussion. The only way it resolves is if we avoid the conversation itself.

    (Though I don’t think modern feminism can be blamed for celebration of the huntress archetype?)

  15. Arielle Bernstein says:

    Thanks for your feedback, Becky. When writing this essay I definitely did feel hampered by the conventions used to expressed “feminine” and “masculine” as well. My point in exploring these issues is to highlight how, in our desire to move away from limited models of “feminine” behaviors we end up reinforcing the idea that “feminine” traits are somehow “less” than “masculine” traits.

    I think we have to ultimately get to a place where we value the breadth experiences that all human beings have, but I don’t really think that ignoring this conversation is an effective means for getting beyond it. I think it’s important to be aware of the fact that we value some roles and behaviors over others because it can help us to think critically about them. Sure, that is uncomfortable. It is always uncomfortable to hold a mirror up to ourselves, but I think it is important too.

  16. Jacqueline says:

    Lana del rey represents passivity. Why is passivity a good thing, for either sex?

    Im learning more and more that smiling too much makes people take you less seriously.

    Acting like a girl when you are an adult is unattractive. Acting like a boy when you are clearly an adult is also unattractive.

  17. [...] – Arielle Bernstein believes that true feminine agency “will come from allowing women to write their experiences without punishing them for doing so” in Girl, Uninterrupted. [...]

Leave a Reply