When I was in college, I was determined not to be “that girl.” You know the one — she wore eyeshadow every day, curled her hair, painted her nails, cared about fashion. The shallow, boy-crazy one. The girly one. I liked logic and strategy games, and I preferred studying to shopping.
Now, part of my determination to not be “that girl” came from having been homeschooled in a small town in an era before YouTube makeup tutorials. I secretly envied the mysterious ability to apply eyeliner and achieve shiny ponytails, but it also seemed to me that there were two types of girls: those who cared about such things and the (better) kind of girl who didn’t. I was influenced by Jo March primarily, but also by Harriet Vane — not conventionally attractive, but able to captivate Lord Peter Wimsey through her intelligence and passion.
So I eschewed fashion, resigned myself to hopeless crushes, and spent Sunday afternoons playing Risk with my guy friends. I had a small group of girlfriends, but I was always reluctant to form friendships with girls who I judged as being too girly, not Serious and Smart like me.
At the time, I didn’t examine my preference for guy friends over girlfriends or question my assumption that “girly” was not only inferior but incompatible with smart. I did gain new friends in graduate school, though — girlfriends this time, including amazingly smart women who wore high heels and knew how to use mousse. I started, slowly, rethinking my assumption that traditionally “girly” things indicated a certain weakness.
It took me years to fully understand that my disdain of things pink and frilly was more than a personal preference and instead a reflection of internalized patriarchy. In western patriarchy, reason is superior to emotion and ideas superior to things — and men are associated with reason and ideas, women with emotion and the material world. I never experienced gender dysphoria, but I intuited from a young age that masculinity was superior to femininity and I shaped my interests accordingly.
Feminism has helped me to see the ways in which our ideas about masculinity and femininity affect all of our lives, regardless of whether we face blatant sexism. The denigration of things female, like “girly” interests in fashion or home decor, harms both women and men: men — even little boys — are discouraged from enjoying sparkly clothes and shiny nail polish, and at a deeper and more harmful level, discouraged from understanding and expressing their emotions.
In some ways, girls have it easier; they can enjoy both princesses and dinosaurs. But we still in many ways expect women to be more like men. Just listen to James Cameron’s recent criticism of Wonder Woman. He calls her an “objectified icon,” and compares her to The Terminator’s Sarah Connor: “Sarah Connor was not a beauty icon. She was strong, she was troubled, she was a terrible mother, and she earned the respect of the audience through pure grit.”
Strong. Troubled. Terrible parent. Earned respect through grit. How many male characters could that apply to? And nothing against Sarah Connor — she rocks. But apparently for Cameron, Diana’s beauty and her compassion for humanity (and perhaps her idyllic, if unconventional, childhood) make her a poor role model for women. To be more clear: her feminine characteristics make Wonder Woman a “step backwards” in the representation of women on the silver screen.
I’m still not much of a fashion and makeup girl, and I’m okay with that. But I no longer see a perfect cat eye as a sign of shallow character, and I hope my daughters can value femininity in all its forms.