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What “The Feminine Urge” Memes Say About Gender in 2021

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

One of the funnier memes I’ve seen floating around the internet recently are text posts using the phrase “the feminine urge to do [X].” There are other variations of this meme, including “the masculine urge” and “the non-binary urge.” And while these jokes made me laugh (or at least exhale loudly through my nose), they also activated my inner Women’s and Gender Studies major. What does it mean to be “feminine,” anyways—especially for a generation that is increasingly willing to recognize gender as a social construct, and a restrictive one at that? E.B. White famously said, “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.” So break out your scalpel and rubber gloves, folks. This might get messy.

To kick off our investigation, I’d like to turn your attention to the most authoritative source of information I could find on our subject: KnowYourMeme.com. According to the page on “the feminine urge,” the phrase was first used online by Twitter user @stompanie, who wrote in 2009, “Fighting the feminine urge to be passive-aggressive to get what I want.” After a dry period of more than 10 years, the meme resurfaced in a Tumblr post that read, “the feminine urge to stab <3” in April of this year. It quickly migrated to Twitter and then, in October, to Instagram in the form of image macros.

Having gone through that history lesson, what does the content of the meme actually say about gender? At times, it seems like the answer to this question is “not much.” Take this tweet for example: “The feminine urge to stop replying to texts and sit in solitude for months at a time.” Or: “The feminine urge to take a 3 hour nap every single day.” These are not exactly gendered actions. Here, the meme is simply being used to call oneself out on toxic behavior: being manipulative, stubborn, vindictive, lazy. It is a way of making light of one’s failings; it is similar to another meme, “I’m literally neurodivergent and a minor.” In both cases, the joke is that you are not taking responsibility for your toxic behavior and instead blaming it on biological forces outside your control. 

Still other examples have more opaque meanings, such as “the feminine urge to bite.” What does this say about gender? Also, what exactly are we biting here? I am full of questions but glad that this person is embracing their true self.

At the same time, the masculine form of this meme (often, I suspect, in the hands of female creators) is frequently used to critique what most of us know as “toxic masculinity.” Most of us are familiar with this term, but for anyone who isn’t I’ll defer to an especially solid definition from the New York Times, which describes toxic masculinity as “what can come of teaching boys that they can’t express emotion openly; that they have to be ‘tough all the time’; that anything other than that makes them ‘feminine’ or weak.” Examples of the meme used in this context include, but are not limited to:

There’s a playful energy behind these posts. But at the same time, many of these statements have a ring of truth to them for women. At one point, we’ve all interacted with a man who talks down to us or a man who fails to consider the needs of others. It is nice to have those experiences validated and brought out into the open.

As the above three examples prove, this meme can be used to criticize harmful gender norms. One of my favorite versions of “the feminine urge” meme offers similar social commentary with an unexpected twist: “the feminine urge to play dumb (strategically).” This speaks to the problem of sexism and gender stereotypes but also shows how a woman might take advantage of those beliefs rather than be limited by them. Other variants of this meme (such as “the feminine urge to cry over every little inconvenience”) embrace traits that some might categorize as “traditionally feminine,” which could be interpreted as a rejection of the sexist idea that those traits are undesirable or wrong. This particular example also seemed noteworthy because of the sexist belief that women are overly emotional and therefore unfit to occupy positions of authority in which they would need to make important decisions. The fact that a woman can publicize her vulnerable emotional state without worrying about validating this argument is worth celebrating, since it speaks to how marginalized these beliefs have become.

Ultimately, it seems that the use of “the feminine urge” meme is all over the map. At times, the actions mentioned in this meme seem to have little to no connection to femininity. In other instances, it is used to criticize toxic masculinity and subvert sexist ideas of what a woman can or should be. There are still other examples of this meme that embrace traditionally feminine behaviors. Having said all this, it appears that we are no closer to an answer to a definition of femininity than we were at the beginning of this article. But maybe that’s the takeaway here—femininity is expansive and complicated. It can mean different things to different people, and it does not yield itself to a simple definition.

Often, I think our job as thoughtful human beings is to recognize the complexity within every person. Prejudice involves flattening people into two dimensional caricatures, assigning them a label and making assumptions. And whether that prejudice is based on gender or something else (race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, you name it), we need to make an effort to stop putting people in boxes and to see them for their whole selves.

Elizabeth is a freshman at Saint Louis University. She enjoys reading, spending time with friends, and iced coffee.
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