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Women and Femininity in U.S. Popular Culture

Beauty And Class, Viewing And Being Seen, Femininity, Attractiveness, And Science, Bionic Beauty And Distorted Views Of The Self

Before the women's movement and deconstruction, the term femininity was understood as the opposite of the more obvious masculinity. Femininity represented those traits, characteristics, behaviors, or thought patterns not associated with a given society's expectations of men. Until the cultural upheaval of the late 1960s in the United States and elsewhere, the sweetly patient "angel of the house" persisted as the womanly ideal. Women learned to be feminine "in the image that suited the masculine desires" (quoted in Costa, p. 222), an image that included deference, respect, and obedience to males. In compensation, the woman held the passive power of the dispossessed. Submissive, soft-voiced, empathic, and maternal, the feminine woman would be willing to subordinate her own needs in order to better please others.

Femininity as a principle or "exquisite esthetic," as Susan Brownmiller puts it in Femininity (1984), "pleases men because it makes them appear more masculine by contrast … conferring an extra portion of unearned gender distinction on men, an unchallenged space in which to breathe freely and feel stronger, wiser, more competent, is femininity's special gift" (p. 16). This gift, however, costs the giver. Girls and young women learn they must adhere to standards of comportment, physical presentation, and appearance according to the demands and currency of their respective cultures and classes or face disapproval, even social failure, ostracism, rejection.

In a postbinary world, however, definitions of femininity as well as masculinity have blurred. Definitions of femininity are no longer standardized and are therefore seemingly open, writes Maggie Mulqueen in On Our Own Terms. They arise "only from the culture, not from theory.… In reality, though, the cultural prescriptions about femininity (and masculinity) are very narrow and influential" (p. 13). These influential prescriptions consist of social expectations and the pressure to conform, particularly in adolescence. A girl's sexual awakening and turbulent maturation eventually steer her toward pleasing boys and winning admiration, envy, and acceptance from her peers.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Well-being to Jan Ɓukasiewicz Biography