Femininity and Popular Culture

Do you remember the video for Taylor Swift’s bopping hit “You Belong With Me”? In case you do not, here’s a quick recap- there are three characters: shy girl who loves boy, boy who loves popular girl, and popular girl. Shy girl is cool and edgy because she likes t-shirts and sneakers, while popular girl is the high heel, short skirt- adorning evil cheer captain. The villainization of feminine women is a popular trope and not unique to this one particular video. There are several examples in pop culture and media that glorify the cool 'not like other girls' women while demeaning the typical, feminine attributes of their rival character.

The devaluation of femininity starts from a young age. Even before movies and books can influence children, they already have a preconceived notion of what makes one 'girly girl' or a 'tomboy'. Gender norms start being established right from when the child is inside the womb, as parents casually decide on what colour to paint a room. Children will grow up hating pink or refusing to play with dolls because they’ll view it as girly, and then receive the reassurance they require for their ignorance from tropes they’ll encounter in a book. There can never be enough emphasis on the fact that “you’re not like other girls” is not a compliment, yet you can find it in almost any Young-Adult piece of fiction. Being funny, laid-back, smart, or spunky doesn’t make one different from other girls. It only reinforces the idea that the female gender is inferior and incapable of intelligence or having a sense of humour. As young readers, we’re taught to root for the shy girl or the spunky girl, but never the popular girl because she’s always the stupid, shallow character. This undoubtedly leads to many girls growing up viewing femininity as embarrassing and developing superiority complexes over being less feminine.

Teen books and movies devalue femininity by villainizing the cheerleaders, while in adult popular culture, a trend has arisen of undermining the blood, sweat and tears that go into being a stay-at-home mom. The badass woman character with the successful career will always be struggling in her love life, and the doting wife and mother will always long for the dream job she could have had... had she chosen not to get married. We don’t question if working men have time for marriage and families but somehow the women always struggle to balance both. There is some truth to this in the sense that there has always been significantly more pressure on women to be good parents than there has been on their male counterparts. However, as we move towards a more progressive, equal world, it is crucial to stop portraying these tropes as norms in popular culture.

Whether it’s the pink-loving squad of terror that is the Plastics in Mean Girls, or the hard-ass boss that is Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, the mockery of femininity and attribution of non-femininity with success probably came up alongside a move to empower women who didn’t fit into the role of the “angel of the house”. This turned out to be problematic because it shed further light on how misogynistic society is. The pitting of women against each other is so normalized that it was impossible for us to empower one type of woman without putting down the other. Just as toxic masculinity has forced men to feel ashamed of crying or not being athletically gifted, the association of femininity with being a bad feminist is all too common. If you have ever wondered if it is anti-feminist to lean towards the more traditional, albeit socially constructed ideas and values of femininity, then no, it’s not. Feminism and femininity have a weird relationship because there is an underlying assumption that being a feminist requires one to disown the parts of themselves that have been societally ingrained. In reality, feminism is pretty simple- you choose what you want. You choose the person you get to be, and that person could be anyone and it wouldn’t make you any less of a feminist (as long as you’re not racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, casteist or an overall bigot).

Society’s obsession with making women compete with one another has led to the idea that in order for one woman to be good, the other has to be bad. It’s tragic to know that the only way for society to uplift non-feminine women was by disempowering other women, but fortunately you see this trope significantly less in newer media as people have caught on to its toxicity and ridiculousness.