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Existential Femininity: A Social Constructionist Perspective Queering Femininity

Femininity is socially constructed and, as such, can be embodied by any individual in any individualized manner. In this argument I present the concept of ‘femininity’ as an ever-changing construct dependent on time and space/place. Informed by social constructionist, intersectional feminist, queer and existential theory, I suggest that if femininity is in a constant state of redefinition, everyone can define femininity in their own terms. I position femininity in a matrix of gender that consists of gender identity, gender expression, assigned gender, gender attribution, gender roles and various forms of gender oppression, including sexism, misogyny, cissexism, non-binary erasure and gender essentialism. The matrix of gender is further situated in a broader matrix of intersectionality, connecting identity markers of gender to race, class, colonialism, imperialism, geographical location and all other social locations. This argument is based on my knowledge and experience as a non-binary Gender Studies, Sociology and Philosophy student; I draw from the education I have attained both in post-secondary institutions and in my own time. 

To lay down the groundwork, it is essential to understand the complexity and multiplicity of gender. Gender is malleable and fluid. Gender is an abstract concept, far more complex than the simplified Western explanations that are rooted in oppressive hierarchies and false binaries. Moreover, while traditional Western conceptions of gender seem simplistic, equating penis = male = boy = man = masculine and vagina = female = girl = woman = feminine, these definitions are easily complexified and confused. Under the premise of the Western conception of gender, the aforementioned equations are mutually exclusive; that is to say that there are two gender categories that exist separately, never to coincide. The mere existence of gender diversity, however, shows how inaccurate these categories are. For example, there are men who are feminine and women who are masculine; there are people who are both feminine and masculine and people who are neither feminine nor masculine. There are people who are neither men nor women. There are women with penises, men with vaginas, people with neither of those organs or a mixture of the two. And there is an infinite amount of further diversity in gender that disrupts the gender binary. In addition to seeing how the Western gender system is flawed in itself, it is essential to see how this system is niche to the rest of the world. While the Western world operates under a binary gender system, there are other countries and cultures that acknowledge third genders. For example, in India there is a third gender category called ‘hijra’; in Indigenous cultures the modern umbrella term for someone of a third-gender is “two-spirit”. In reality, constructions of gender differ from place to place and throughout time, but through the lens of the Western world, the gender system should operate on their binary terms. The Western gender system is rooted in oppression, colonialism and imperialism.  

By exemplifying how complex and diverse the concept of gender is, this lays the foundation for combatting gender essentialism. Gender essentialism is the assumption that gender is fixed and innate, that gender is something that everyone is born with and that remains a static characteristic. The premise of gender essentialism and of the gender binary go hand in hand on the common ground of equating penis = male = boy = man = masculine and vagina = female = girl = woman = feminine. Gender essentialism dictates that if you are born with a penis (or the resemblance of one) you are assigned a male sex and gender, and as such you are inherently masculine; if you are born with a vagina (or the resemblance of one) you are assigned a female sex and gender, and as such you are inherently feminine. The previous evidence of how changeable the definition and embodiment of gender is, though, renders gender essentialism unreliable. The conflations of gender essentialism leads to the construction of gender roles, but again, these roles are unreliable and ever-changing. For example, a present-day gender role is that pink is for girls; however, pink was actually coded as a masculine until the mid 1900’s. Other gender roles that currently exist are that men are dominant, assertive, active, bread-winners, strong and rational. Women take the role of the ‘other’, meaning that they are everything that men are not; moreover, gender roles dictate that women are submissive, docile, passive, emotional and sensitive. These roles can be problematized from various angles. First, by simply comparing the masculine roles to the feminine roles, it is clear that these roles are steeped in sexism. This gender-based oppression is evident in the way that male roles are primarily positive and powerful, while female roles are weak and devalued. Not only are these roles rooted in sexism, but they are clearly overgeneralizations. Again, by simply contemplating the gender diversity that exists within society, one can see how these gendered traits are not innate characteristics dependent on sex assignment, but rather are developed behaviors that people of any gender can embody at varying degrees. Further, these traits are gendered according to the contexts of time and space/place. 

So, if gender and its associates can be so easily disrupted, conflated, complicated and confused, and since gender is in a constant state of flux, dependent on the contexts of time and space/place, I present a conception of femininity that reflects the changeability of gender. First, femininity can be embodied by anyone, regardless of gender. Second, femininity can be defined by any individual to mean any number of things. Gender is socially constructed, and social constructions are ever-changing; femininity, being a branch of the construction of gender, then, follows suit. The characteristics of ‘femininity’ are constantly negotiated by the values of the society and culture it is contextualized in; further, these values change over time. Most basic to this conception, yet most theoretically complex and existential, femininity can be anything. Femininity is an unexclusive attribution; femininity can be attributed infinitely in this space-time continuum.  

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