This is a story about a lot of things, but to keep it simple, I’m going to focus on two subjects: Britney Spears, and pleather jackets.
The overall theme of this piece will be how women are taught to feel about other women, and to jealously guard femininity like it’s some kind of precious metal instead of just an attribute with no inherent value, positive or negative.
Let’s talk about the jacket first.
It looks a little like this.
I’m sure you’ve seen one like it. They were very popular in the early aughts. And unless you had a button nose and abs like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, they were not for you. Only Pretty Girls With a Bad Streak™ were allowed to wear them. I got the message loud and clear that if I, Lanky Girl with a Bumpy Nose™, were to wear one, that would just be ridiculous. It somehow escaped me that girls I knew who wore them also had flaws. Obviously they weren’t too flawed to pull off this jacket. But I was.
It also escaped me that this thing marketed as a motorcycle jacket had nothing to do with badassery at all.
Because women who ride motorcycles don’t look like this:
That is what a woman posed to look like she rides motorcycles for straight male attention looks like. Can you imagine the road rash you’d get if you ever had to ditch a bike on the highway in that outfit?
A woman who actually rides motorcycles looks more like this.
But I didn’t take any of that into account regarding the jacket. It looked tough and sleek and I wanted it but also somehow knew that I would be looked down on for wearing it, because I just wasn’t sufficiently cute.
Teenage girl logic. It’s twisted.
But that’s not the fault of teenage girls.
Which brings us to Britney Spears.
(And no, it’s not her fault, either, and if you thought that, go sit in the corner and think about what you’ve done.)
My first memory involving Spears, a major pop star of my generation, was of seeing her on MTV wearing a schoolgirl outfit and singing something that seemed trite to me even at eleven. My mom (a woman wise beyond anyone’s earthly years) walked through the room, paused, looked at the tv, and then at me. She asked me, “What is it you like about her?”
I don’t remember what I said. Probably “I dunno.”
But what I meant was: I don’t like her. I don’t even understand her. She looks kind of sad, but everyone else likes her and I’m under the impression that this is supposed to be fun and entertaining. Also, I’m eleven, so I’m enthralled by anything I don’t understand and that still means pretty much everything. Also, this song is awful.
My own teenage years took an early and particularly steep turn for the nonconformist. Somewhere around the time I was passing through punk and into a third-wave ska / proletariat advocacy / baby feminist phase, it was too late for some long-cemented beliefs to be examined: Britney Spears was fake and plastic and awful. She sucked. Even when I took an interest in the life story of Courtney Love, a bottle blond with a nose job, I didn’t reconsider. Even when (briefly and misguidedly) believed that being sexy was what made women powerful and that this was somehow clever of us, I didn’t reconsider. Even when I started studying how society pushes ideas on women about themselves that are complete patriarchal bullshit, I didn’t reconsider. It was just a fact of life. The sky is blue. The earth is round. Britney Spears sucks.
And then I read this.
Britney Spears isn’t some mythological monster. She’s a person who was fed the same awful messages about herself that we all got, and who wanted to be liked. She had some advantages, she tried to use them, and life happened to her anyway. There is no reason to hate her, or the Kardashians, or any other woman trading on being beautiful. They’re all subject to the same pressures we are. If they’ve been more successful at “being beautiful,” it just means that they have to try even harder to conform to the absurd standards than the rest of us, because the reward for digging the deepest hole is always a bigger shovel. We’re all stuck with the cultural obsession of judging women by their looks. Those who “pass” according to the ridiculous standards aren’t blessed. If anything, they’re less likely to be taken seriously when they try to do anything else.
But we all want to “pass.” Maybe we’re not worried about flying colors, but we all judge ourselves by our looks…by attributes that ultimately mean nothing in this universe.
And we do it to everyone else, too.
The lizard brain, if you believe in such a concept, is wired to see other women as sexual competition and size them up as such. So we can’t help it, right? Well, there’s two problems with that concept. One, if we were sizing up competition because of our instinctual preoccupation with reproduction, we would always be jealous of a woman with wider hips, or who demonstrated superior spatial reasoning skills. Things we do intentionally, like having green eyelids or blue nails, would be seen as signs of disease. So that’s obviously not the whole story here. The second problem is that if we have ‘lizard brains,’ they’re not driving. Can you see a stick of butter and not eat it? Can you jump out of a plane because you know you have a parachute? Congratulations. The lizard brain can’t do these things. Maybe it also can’t meet another woman without sizing her up as sexual competition. But you can.
If you accept that basing your sense of self-worth on being feminine or desirable is ridiculous (and it is), it follows that there is no reason to gatekeep femininity. There’s no reason to judge men for being ‘too feminine,’ women for ‘not being feminine enough,’ trans women for not ‘passing,’ trans men for not fleeing far enough from ‘girl stuff,’ or non-binary people for taking or leaving whatever aspects suit them. Making these judgments serves no purpose. Let them go.
And this is a young, thin, cisgender woman with big anime eyes and long legs talking. I’ve got the currency of the realm. If I can call it for what it is and walk away, so can you.
P.S. In my mid twenties, I did finally buy one of those jackets. It did not affect how cute, badass, or confident I am. But it does keep the rain off.
One thought on “Femininity and Gatekeeping”
Excellent post, Rachel. One particular memory sticks vividly in my mind when I think about this topic… Some years ago, when I was in college, my class was instructed to write down 10 things about ourselves, then we shared them aloud. A friend of mine, a stunning, gorgeous, actual-for-real model, said: “1. People are always telling me I’m beautiful. 2. I worry that I am nothing BUT beautiful. 3. I feel like I have to always be beautiful in order to matter.” It hadn’t occurred to me that drop-dead-gorgeous women would feel that way, and I was struck and humbled by this realization.