views updated Jun 08 2018



Femininity is commonly understood to refer to a collection of qualities or attributes associated with women in distinction from men, whose own qualities are signified by the antonym masculinity. Yet precisely what qualities qualify as feminine (or masculine) is subject to discussion and contention, as is whether such qualities should be considered innate essences or cultural norms. Passivity, submissiveness, and compassionate, caring, nurturing behavior toward others, especially infants, are widely considered feminine traits in comparison to masculine assertiveness and competitiveness. Their prevalence has lent credence to the belief that they are rooted in female biology and anatomy, whether by divine design or Darwinian natural selection. In the latter case, theory postulates higher rates of reproduction for passive women, who could most easily be sexually subdued, and higher survival rates for babies born to nurturing women. However, even the most widely shared so-called feminine traits are not universal, whether the comparison considers different cultures, different groups or individuals within a given society, or different periods of history. Since Margaret Meads (19011978) groundbreaking anthropological study in 1936 first demonstrated cultural variability in behavior and temperament for both sexes, thus challenging previous presumptions about a universal feminine (or masculine) essential nature, much scholarly attention has been paid to how norms of gender may be socially and culturally constructed (Tarrant 2006).

Women come to participate in upholding standards culturally deemed feminine for behavior and appearance through mechanisms of socialization that are multiple and not always obvious. Enforcement is the most obvious. Over the last few millennia of known human history, broadly influential cultural systems, such as the religions Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism and the Confucian code of conduct, have explicitly directed that womens primary social duty is to be obedient wives and devoted mothers. Legal and paralegal structures derived from such religious and moral traditions have enforced these directives using punishments ranging from mild to extreme in severity depending on specific social and historical circumstances. Under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan at the beginning of the twenty-first century, for example, punishment for noncompliance with brutally extreme restrictions on womens appearance and behavior included public flogging and execution. Compulsion, however, is not the only or even necessarily the most effective means for encouraging women to subscribe to femininity norms. Social rewards and personal satisfaction are also motivators. Piety is its own reward for a woman of any faith who believes she is behaving in accordance with divine will. Depending on how she interprets her faith, a contemporary Muslim woman may thus signal her femininity and her piety by choosing to wear the veil whether she lives under a theocratic or a secular political system. Her choice to veil may be reinforced by additional rewards, such as greater respect and personal autonomy accorded to her by her family and the local Muslim community (Hoodfar 2003).

Marriage, in most cultures, has been the principal reward for successful displays of femininity. Under economic conditions in which family well-being is heavily dependent on womens domestic production, wifely assets tend to reside primarily in a womans skill in the feminine activities of domestic labor. When a wifes domestic productivity is not essential, whether due to class privilege or to postindustrial economic structures that shift production away from the home, her feminine assets come to be measured instead through her appearance and character. Patriarchal cultural conditions prevalent in most, but not all, societies determine ideal feminine appearance and character traits to be those that make a woman sexually attractive to a man, most suitable to represent his social status, and most trustworthy to mother his children. Thus physical beauty, both natural and artificial, balanced by character traits of sexual modesty, nurturing kindness, and a strong sense of duty to family have become widespread hallmarks of ideal femininity. But although women can derive personal satisfaction in meeting such measures, the accompanying price has often been problematic. Ironically, the sufferings of many upper-class women most palpably illustrate the point. Beauty norms that emerged in stratified societies to simultaneously signal high social status sometimes entailed not just delicacy, refinement, and taste in adornment but actual physical fragility, frailty, even incapacity as symbols of the socioeconomic status of the husband, proving his wealth sufficient to support a wife whose physical labor was not necessary. The former practices of Chinese foot binding and European waist cinching illustrate the debilitating operations of such elite-class norms of feminine beauty. Although they were believed to enhance a womans erotic appeal (while simultaneously symbolizing her sexual restraint), they also hobbled or otherwise constrained her physical capacity, not to mention causing her discomfort and pain.

Less self-evident forms of harm, whether through conformity to feminine ideals or through disqualification from femininity by social status, sexual orientation, or race, among other factors, as well as more nuanced sociological interpretations of incentives for feminine performances, are topics that have generated considerable theorizing across scholarly disciplines (Brownmiller 1984; Bartky 1990; Martin 1996; Skeggs 1998; Lee 2000; Burns-Ardolino 2003; Taylor 2003; Bathla 2004). The philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (19081986) is often quoted for her ideas about how the sense of self that conformity to ideals of femininity creates in women is a sense of self as Other, existing only in secondary relation to the primary Self, the fully human self that in patriarchal traditions can only be claimed by men.

Psychologists have explored how the expectation to nurture others has led legions of women to psychologically unhealthy degrees of self-sacrifice, labeled a negative feminine trait in the literature. Many scholars have written about how women effectively create themselves as objects, rather than subjects, in their pursuit of feminine beauty norms yet are bound not only to fail in this pursuit but also to be reminded of their failure incessantly and distracted repeatedly by promises for new ways to succeed. Pervasive modern mass media and capitalist commerce promulgate a beauty regime that harshly judges the femininity of women whose age, skin color, hair texture, physique type, or fashion sense do not match the dominant cultural ideal, then exploits feelings of inadequacy to sell beauty products and services from lipstick to skin lightener to liposuction and breast augmentation in order to turn a profit at their expense. This beauty regime thoroughly ensnares as well. Fashion is ever changing, but whatever the fashion, every detail of the body demands proper attention. Each minutiae of how a womans body looks, feels, and smells, how it is clothed, coiffed, enhanced with makeup and other adornment, even how it speaks and moves or rests combines to express normative femininity successfully or not. Enormous ceaseless efforts of self-surveillance and self-discipline are required from an early age to produce the modern feminine body. A selfpolicing gendered identity also develops through this process. This form of feminine subjectivity is interpreted by some theorists as being more completely subjected to modern versions of patriarchal power than is possible under crude enforcement or injurious restraint which, albeit brutal techniques of control, are less thoroughly invasive of the whole being.

Critics of the physical, psychological, economic, and political harms resulting from socialization processes aimed at patriarchal ideals of femininity draw encouragement from the historic appearance of alternate ideals and socialization opportunities available to girls following the womens movements of the modern era. Competitive assertiveness, physical strength, and even muscularity are developed in the characters and bodies of girls and women who engage in amateur and professional sports, for example (Boyle 2005; Koca and Asci 2005; Kindlon 2006). Furthermore the representation of these athletes in mass media amplifies the scope of qualities that femininity is seen to signify culturally, stretching the meaning to incorporate qualities previously considered exclusively masculine (Carty 2005). Some critics of patriarchal femininity see reason to hope that social developments blurring traditional gender roles, such as women in sports, or politics, or the military, will help move common understanding of femininity beyond the still dominant, but demonstrably deleterious, dualistic framework in which femininity and masculinity are conceived as mutually exclusive opposites.

SEE ALSO Determinism; Determinism, Biological; Essentialism; Feminism; Gender; Gender and Development; Gender, Alternatives to Binary; Marriage; Masculinity; Matriarchy; Motherhood; Natural Selection; Norms; Other, The; Patriarchy; Phenotype; Religion; Role Conflict; Self-Identity; Veil, in African American Culture; Veil, in Middle Eastern and North African Cultures; Women; Work and Women


Bartky, Sandra Lee. 1990. Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power. In Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression, 6382. New York: Routledge.

Bathla, Sonia. 2004. Gender Construction in the Media: A Study of Two Indian Women Politicians. Asian Journal of Womens Studies 10 (3): 734.

Boyle, Lex. 2005. Flexing the Tensions of Female Muscularity: How Female Bodybuilders Negotiate Normative Femininity in Competitive Bodybuilding. Womens Studies Quarterly 33 (12): 134149.

Brownmiller, Susan. 1984. Femininity. New York: Fawcett Columbine.

Burns-Ardolino, Wendy A. 2003. Reading Woman: Displacing the Foundations of Femininity. Hypatia 18 (3): 4259.

Carty, Victoria. 2005. Textual Portrayals of Female Athletes: Liberation or Nuanced Forms of Patriarchy? Frontiers 26 (2): 132155.

Hoodfar, Homa. 2003. More Than Clothing: Veiling as an Adaptive Strategy. In The Muslim Veil in North America: Issues and Debates, ed. Sajida Sultana Alvi, Homa Hoodfar, and Sheila McDonough, 340. Toronto: Womens Press.

Kindlon, Dan. 2006. Alpha Girls: Understanding the New American Girl and How She Is Changing the World. Emmaus, PA: Rodale.

Koca, Canan, and F. Hulya Asci. 2005. Gender Role Orientation in Turkish Female Athletes and Non-Athletes. Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal 14 (1): 8694.

Lee, Young-ja. 2000. Consumer Culture and Gender Identity in South Korea. Asian Journal of Womens Studies 6 (4): 1138.

Martin, Biddy. 1996. Sexualities without Genders and Other Queer Utopias. In Femininity Played Straight: The Significance of Being Lesbian, 7194. New York: Routledge.

Skeggs, Beverley. 1998. Formations of Class and Gender: Becoming Respectable. London: Sage.

Tarrant, Shira. 2006. When Sex Became Gender. New York: Routledge.

Taylor, Anthea. 2003. Whats New about the New Femininity? Feminism, Femininity, and the Discourse of the New. Hecate 29 (2): 182197.

Marymay Downing


views updated Jun 11 2018


Freud refused to put forward a definition of femininity: "In conformity with its peculiar nature, psychoanalysis does not try to describe what a woman is . . . but sets about enquiring how she comes into being" (1933a [1932], p. 116). He posits a primary bisexuality as the starting point for this process.

In Freud's view, the genesis of femininity differs from the genesis of masculinity because its linearity is interrupted. In the pre-oedipal phase, the girl's libido, instead of taking the opposite-sex parent as its object, as the boy does, is directed at the mother as object. This period is difficult to investigate because of the "inexorable repression" (1931b, p. 226) that overshadows it.

Therefore, the development of girls' sexuality is studied in an indirect way based on the process that the boy undergoes. In the early stages a similar path is traced: "the little girl is a little man" (1933a, p. 118), with the clitoris being interpreted in the phallic phase as a miniature penis. Then there are two shifts in perspective, shifts in which there is an explicit moral imperative. The girl has the duty of turning from the mother to the father (1939a [1934-1938]): the zone of sensitivity moves from the clitoris to the vagina, and there is a change of object to the father.

Reconversion is made possible by the differential impact of the castration complex on boys and girls. In boys, the castration complex puts an end to the Oedipus complex. But for girls, the castration complex makes the Oedipus complex possible.

The girl sees her mother as castrated, while her love is "directed to her phallic mother" (1939a, p. 126). This gives rise to a penis envy that later radiates beyond the desired object to imbue the woman's psychic life with envy and jealousy. The girl then chooses the father as object because he possesses the envied organ, and this new libidinal orientation is superimposed on the orientation of the mother as object, without replacing it entirely. The woman often transfers her early relationship with her mother onto her male partner. The need to anticipate from someone else what the woman once wanted to possess herself makes her dependent in a way that leads both to masochism (with the castigation she receives relating to her position in coitus) and to narcissism (which is expressed in her greater need to be loved than to love). Presenting another perspective in "On Narcissism: An Introduction" (1914c), Freud stated that following puberty, women, "especially if they grow up with good looks, develop a certain self-contentment" that exercises "a great attraction for those who have renounced part of their own narcissism" (p. 89).

Although the texts that present a synthetic view of femininity are focused on lack, Freud's incursions into mythology and literature emphasize something beyond the phallic stage in girls. This something is a place in the female body characterized by its internal nature (the "jewel-case") or by disorientation, as in the sense of the uncanny. The woman then appears not as an externally definable form but as a "hollow space" (1916-1917a [1915-1917], p. 156) that can receive what penetrates it. The spatial disorientation is coupled with a temporal disorientation, in which the representation of femininity becomes confused with the notion of birth linked with the fear of death, as if the third of the Fates had come to embody a femininity that governed all of destiny. Freud's study of femininity thus diverges into a theoretical synthesis derived from phallic logic and a representation of femininity that mythologizes woman as a placewhether of birth or deathwhere the processes of life are played out for every human being.

The idea of taking a foreign element into the self appears as the crossroads where the representations of psychoanalysis intersect with those of female sexuality. When Freud noted how the transference configuration enabled a repressed element to be taken in, he usually gave an exampleElisabeth in Studies on Hysteria (1895d) or Irma with her dream about the injectionof a patient struggling against accepting a proposed solution or repressed representation (1900a). Recourse to these terms had a clear impact on the paper "Negation" (1925h), because acceptance into the ego enabled repression to be effectively lifted.

Freud noted the conjunction between such acceptance and the outcome of female sexuality in "On the Sexual Theories of Children" (1908c), where he referred, in connection with the mother representation, to the discovery of the "cavity which receives the penis" (p. 218). In the moment of affirmation associated with the lifting of repression, the psychic apparatus has to receive the repressed element just as the female "hollow space" has to receive the penis. This correlation reappears in "Analysis Terminable and Interminable" (1937c), where Freud describes the man's refusal to accept the cure from the psychoanalyst as his rejection of femininity. Does a refusal of this kind arise from the fear of losing masculinity or the fear of invasion occasioned by opening the self as a "hollow space"? Two different definitions of femininity clash at this juncture.

Post-Freudian psychoanalysis both extended and revised Freud's lines of approach to femininity. The phallic primacy attributed to both sexes became a matter of dispute. Karen Horney asserted that the girl discovers vaginal sensations early on. As a result, recourse to the penis takes on a defensive significance. Ernest Jones did not consider woman as a form of failed man, and he related female anxiety not to castration anxiety but to aphanisis anxiety, the fear of losing her internal sensitivity. Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel challenged the passive concept of the vagina. She saw the vaginal aim of incorporation as conferring a capacity for mastery, as with anality.

Conrad Stein sought to define a specifically feminine outcome by positing "castration as a negation of femininity." He argued that insofar as masculinity carries a "symbolic representation of itself," it is a guardian of identity. In contrast, the female pole, situated close to being, is governed by a tendency toward "destruction of the self's identity," which, when it gives rise to anxiety, "is negated by the act of regarding woman only as a castrated being." The risk of destruction to which the woman is exposed leads to a focus in the analysis on the dimension of invasion (André; Schaeffer).

Is there a fundamental difference between masculine protest and feminine protest organized around a receptive hollow space? In accordance with some of Michèle Montrelay's theories, François Perrier emphasized the girl's relationship with her mother, in which her fantasy involvement does not involve risking a part of herself but diving in head first. To reduce the risk of being sucked in, the girl appeals to the male organ, on which she confers investigative properties. Penis envy is thus governed not by rejection of femininity but by the girl's desire to orient herself in this space.

Wladimir Granoff examined the tendency for theory to construct femininity in negative terms. He regards femininity as a defense that resembles the child's decision to prefer the father to the mother. In this view, thought needs to turn away from femininity to construct an intellectualized universe. This turning away resembles the son-in-law's prohibition against turning toward his mother-in-law in Freud's analysis and is related to Freud's invitation to explore, beyond classical Greek culture, cultures that have been repressed by "turning from the mother to the father" (1939a, p. 114).

Because the female genital opening is feared as a place of absence, pubic hair has been ascribed the function of a veil, though it can equally well belong to fantasies surrounding fertility and growth, reminiscent of Demeter (Schneider). Marcel Detienne's observation concerning the dual character of the founding sites of Greek culture"Eleusis is the counterpart of Athens"can be used to inform the study of femininity. Freud's Moses and Monotheism (1939a [1934-1938]), drawing on Aeschylus's Eumenides, belongs in the mythical tradition that began with the founding of Athens. Accordingly, it pays tribute to Athena, a virgin born without a mother. It might well be appropriate to unearth those underworld entities that Athena proposes at the end of the tragedy, to lead "Into the earth/The cavern timeless as the tomb."

Monique Schneider

See also: Activity/passivity; Castration complex; Dark continent; Female sexuality; Feminine masochism; Femininity, rejection of; Feminism and psychoanalysis; Gender identity; Masculinity/femininity; New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis ; Object, change of/choice of; Penis envy; Psychology of Women. A Psychoanalytic Interpretation, The ; Sexual differences; "Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes."


André, Jacques. (1995). Sur la sexualité féminine. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Chasseguet-Smirgel, Janine. (1970). Feminine guilt and the Oedipus complex. In her Female sexuality (pp. 94-134).Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. (Originally published 1964)

Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4: 1-338; 5: 339-625.

. (1908c). On the sexual theories of children. SE, 9: 205-226.

. (1914c). On narcissism: an introduction. SE, 14: 67-102.

. (1916-1917a [1915-1917]). Introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 15-16.

. (1925h). Negation. SE, 19: 233-239.

. (1931b). Female sexuality. SE, 21: 221-243.

. (1933a [1932]). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 22: 1-182.

. (1937c). Analysis terminable and interminable. SE, 23: 209-253.

. (1939a [1934-1938]). Moses and monotheism: Three essays. SE, 23: 1-137.

Freud Sigmund, and Breuer, Josef. (1895d). Studies on hysteria. SE, 2: 48-106.

Granoff, Wladimir. (1976). La pensée et le féminin. Paris: Minuit.

Horney, Karen. (1967). Feminine psychology. New York: W. W. Norton.

Jones, Ernest. (1950). Early development of female sexuality. In his Papers on psycho-analysis. London: Bailliere, Tindall and Cox.

Montrelay, Michèle. (1978). Inquiry into femininity. M/F, 1, 83-102.

Schaeffer, Jacqueline. (1997). Le refus du féminin. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Schneider, Monique. (1992). La part de l'ombre: Approche d'un trauma féminin. Paris: Aubier.

Stein, Conrad. (1977). La castration comme négation de la féminité. In his La mort d'Œdipe (pp. 155-183). Paris: Denoël.

Further Reading

Dahl, Kirsten. (2002). In her mother's voice: reflections on femininity and the superego. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 57, 3-26.

Kulish, Nancy. (2000). Primary femininity: Clinical advances and theoretical ambiguities. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 48,1355-1380.

Richards, Arlene K. (1996). Primary femininity and female genital anxiety. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 44(S), 261-282.

Stoller, Robert J. (1976). Primary femininity. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 24, 59-78.


views updated May 29 2018

femininity A summary term, contrasted with masculinity, for the distinctive ways of acting and feeling on the part of women. Precisely what characteristics are listed varies, though passivity, dependence, and weakness are usually mentioned. Sociologists point to the social origins of femininity and female subjectivity, and stress their ideological role, but discussions of femininity often lapse into essentialism.


views updated May 23 2018

259. Femininity

  1. Belphoebe perfect maidenhood; epithet of Elizabeth I. [Br. Lit.: Faerie Queene ]
  2. Darnel, Aurelia personification of femininity. [Br. Lit.: Sir Launcelot Greaves ]
  3. Miss America winner of beauty contest; femininity high among virtues desired. [Am. Hist.: Payton, 445]

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