The literature professor strode back and forth across the classroom as she attempted to explain Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.
“Yes, but what does it mean? Why is the female character shown in a tribal manner?”
The class avoided the professor’s eyes as they slowly recapped the novel in their minds, frantically searching for an idea that would sound both impressive and make somewhat sense. One hand gradually raised.
“She’s become more powerful and turned towards masculine characteristics to define herself,” the student said tentatively. “She’s less femini-“
“Wait,” the professor gently interrupted. “Before we use ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine,’ let’s think about what those words mean.”
It was my freshman year of college, in that small “Women and Literature” classroom, that my mind began to slowly process common words and their place in the world today.
Defining “masculinity” and “femininity”
So what exactly do they mean? When I think of the word “masculine,” I primarily think of men, beards, toughness, leather, sharp lines and strong animals. The word “feminine” conjures images of lace, pureness, curved or soft features and politeness.
Here’s what Dictionary.com has to say about the terms:
Fem-i-nine: adjective; 1. Pertaining to a woman or girl 2. Having qualities traditionally ascribed to women, as sensitivity or gentleness.
Mas-cu-line: adjective; 1. Pertaining to or characteristic of a man or men 2. Having qualities traditionally ascribed to men, as strength and boldness.
Just for kicks, here’s what Thesaurus.com generated:
To visualize the difference between these labels, check out these portraits that “(place) men in traditionally feminine spaces and postures, illuminating the human characteristics that have, over time, become decidedly feminine traits.”
Does it matter?
Before you throw your computers out the window at these bullshit definitions, let’s analyze how these terms work in society. Traits that are “weak” are generally considered feminine, yet some like to believe it’s a compliment. Andrew Garfield, star of the new Spider-Man series, was called out by co-star Emma Stone when he explained that his character displays feminine traits when the superhero sews his own “masculine” costume.
He then remarked that all men have “feminine” inside of them. If it’s true that stereotypical feminine and masculine qualities are in both men and women, and range over a multitude of traits… Why do we still divide them strictly into two genders? What’s the point?
The term “masculine” places a heavy weight on males as well. Some popular characteristics associated with the term include aggressiveness, dominance, unemotional availability and competitiveness. If males aren’t able to achieve these traits, they are considered either to be feminine or outsiders of their gender.
Unlike the adjectives “beautiful,” “sexy” or “powerful,” the “F” and “M” labels haven’t changed considerably within society. The terms can still bring us back to the Victorian era when women sat quietly, sewed and took care of children while men were the powerful providers. Oh hey, welcome to 2014 where it’s possible for men to be gentle and emotional, and women to be competitive and badasses.
Are they still cringe-worthy labels?
When I don’t cry at the end of Titanic, am I masculine? How about if I love children and treat them kindly? Am I inevitably feminine? There are biological differences between men and women, the most obvious being that males have a penis and females have a vagina. But the terms “feminine” and “masculine” invade societal behaviors and affect the way we dress, how we use our emotions, what words we chose and the way we look. It affects how the world perceives us but most importantly, how we see ourselves.
These words constrict genders to certain roles and chain us to the past. They uphold a standard for both genders and determine “standard” traits. Although complex, “femininity” and “masculinity” hold weight and power in society.
I’m not asking for readers to ban these words from their vocabulary or rip pages from their books when these terms are mentioned. Just like my professor questioned in front of the class, I’m asking readers to analyze what they mean when they regard someone as feminine or masculine.
What do you think about these labels? Should we reclaim “feminine” and “masculine” or just restrict their use?