Thursday, September 04, 2008

The othered woman

What does Twisty the American feminist think of femininity? She explains:

My position is that the construct recognized as “femininity” represents the dominant social order’s successful attempt to otherize an entire class of people for the purpose of oppressing them. Because feminization is among the first steps taken to socialize children, and because it is so readily accepted, deeply internalized, and staunchly defended, it is the primary foundation of patriarchy.

... many Western women have privilege enough to repudiate femininity ... My crazy idea is that they should if they can, because women cannot be liberated from men’s oppression until we are de-otherized.

What's your first reaction on reading this? Mine is surprise, once again, at what patriarchy theory assumes. Twisty is not saying that what women represent is great and equal to what men represent. Instead, she is associating the male with what is human; to be female is to be "othered" and deprived of a fully human status. The male, as Twisty sees it, is the human norm.

It's not exactly an encouraging theory for women to adopt. Imagine being a woman and believing that the male was the human norm and that to be liberated you had to cast off your own distinctly female qualities.

Here is a sample of how Twisty's followers responded to her post:

other orange: ... society will never see women’s rights as human rights until they see women as human ... We barely exist as people. I happen to agree that shedding femininity wherever we safely can is a first step.

Virginia: This debate has helped me understand the difference between feminity the behaviour and feminity the uniform, and that just as wearing combat pants doesn’t make me a soldier wearing a skirt doesn’t make me feminine if I’m still acting like my bad-ass self.

One of the most incredible insights into all of this I had was when at age 19 I decided to have blonde hair for 4 months and shamefully it brought out the worst of my feminine behaviour.

Angry Jules: Identifying subtle feminine behaviors and casting off femininity is much, much easier when women form feminist communities.

Another voice: I’m working on not smiling at men and looking them in the eye when they start the whole I can stare at you and you just have to “drop your eyes deferentially” act. Looking right at them with an impassive face and just a touch of how dare you in the eyes actually makes some of them look away. Of course, it may shove some women back into the likely to get killed category in other places/situations.

chingona: I have a lot of respect for women who publicly repudiate feminity because they are confronting patriarchy head-on

slythwolf: Femininity is something we are herded into, not the way a dog herds sheep, but the way a group of predators herd their prey.

Cassie: I am working more and more on the taking up my own space part, although I find it is difficult: I am a small person. I make up for my size by scowling a lot when necessary, also putting my stuff around me on buses or subways (bags, books, keys, etc).

It seems that these women not only aim to reject feminine qualities for masculine ones, they have a cartoonish view of what is masculine. They seem to be aiming at public aggression, as if this is the male key to becoming fully human.

How did Twisty arrive at such ideas? In some ways, she has taken liberal autonomy theory to a radical, but logical, conclusion. Autonomy theory begins with the idea that our human status is contingent: that we become human to the extent that we are self-determining creatures. However, this aim requires the ability to enact our own will. Therefore, if a class of individuals have more money, power and status there is a crisis in human equality to be overcome.

If men have more money, power and status? Autonomy theorists will not accept that this is an expression of a naturally occurring masculinity, in which men seek to fulfil a protector/provider role in society. This role, and a woman's motherhood role, will be treated as socially constructed and therefore artificial and open to change.

But why would the social construct exist? This is where Twisty and other patriarchy theorists come in. They argue that men as a class have created a patriarchy in order to maintain an unearned privilege over oppressed women. All the institutions of society were created for oppressive purposes: marriage, family, romantic love, femininity - even the very category of "women" as a distinct group in society.

So Twisty is at the more radical end of the feminist spectrum. She is, nonetheless, cheerfully accepted by more mainstream feminists, for the simple reason that she is following the same path of thought but simply taking it further and laying it out in a more uncompromising way.

A liberal modern who accepts autonomy theory has the same political starting point as Twisty the radical patriarchy theorist.

Traditionalists don't follow liberal autonomy theory, so it's more difficult for us to "get" patriarchy theory, but also easier for us to freely criticise it.

One of the easier criticisms to make is that the sex differences between men and women are not just social constructs but are also hardwired into human biology. This is not just the traditionalist view, but also increasingly the scientific consensus.

So femininity can't be explained just as the creation of the evil patriarchy. It is, at least to a considerable degree, a natural expression of womanhood.

There is a considerable literature on this theme, including an article I read recently by psychologist Anita Sethi on the differences in behaviour between baby girls and boys. Anita Sethi is one of those mothers who initially intended to raise their children gender neutrally but who soon recognised a lost cause:

As a good postfeminist-era mom, I certainly didn't push my son toward trucks and my daughter toward tutus.

If anything, I went out of my way to avoid giving them gender-stereotyped toys, offering glittery finger paint to my son and trains to my daughter. But it didn't matter: My son turned his doll's crib into a race car and my daughter was obsessed with shoes.

Even though I'm a psychologist who specializes in early education, it took having kids to make me realize that sex differences aren't just the stuff of Brady Bunch reruns.

In fact, one study found that when 18-month-old boys and girls were shown pictures of a doll and a vehicle, for example, most of the girls opted for the doll, while the majority of the boys chose the vehicle. And while 18 months is old enough to have been influenced by stereotyped gifts, research suggests that many of the differences we see are evident from birth, and may even be hardwired. And that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to gender research.


  1. Twisty? How about Twisted? Methinks she read MacBeth, and thought Lady MacBeth hung the moon.

  2. My first reaction is: No sane person should ever use the word "otherize".

  3. Peter, agreed.

    Jaz, Twisty seems to inspire Lady MacBeth references - there's another one in an excellent commentary on my post by The Elusive Wapiti.